A Different League

a Joseph-centred analysis of the news in the past week
(three pills from the punditry diary)

Joseph Muscat marches on with his “Different Strokes” politics as the critics’ superficial warnings fall quickly on the wayside. It is not “Happy Days” yet though the cautious observer now has more material to analyse and more tangible facts to examine than the cornucopia of enthusiastic people-talk and corny imagery that had announced the new era of Labour politics.

the difference between Sant and Joseph on JPO

“What could have been” is called Sant Mark II. Joseph has chosen to take a wide berth from the negative vibes that made Alfred Sant’s style so irritatingly ineffective. Just take a quick look at the Sunday Times and notice how two of the three cartoons focused on JPO and his refusal to call it a day. It was not a raging Labour leader making the call but the “biased media” that supposedly favours all that is tinted in blue. They (the media) had waited for reports, declarations and the divulging of as much of the facts as possible in a political world. They seem to have reached a conclusion and with one voice called for the dentist cum journalist to do the decent thing.

Of course the calls for resignation are not couched in the same condescending terms as when addressing, for instance, the Labour delegates’ democratic choices but a call for resignation it was all the same. Interesting that Joseph has not taken up this baton (of urging JPO to resign). Interesting because one would not be wrong to assume that popular opinion has swung rather heavily towards the “JPO should resign” camp and there would have been some good political mileage to be had. Interesting because the principle behind the calls for resignation is a sound one too – the injecting of a culture of responsible politics is surely meant to be part of the Labour “revolution” and therefore Joseph’s moderate approach to this issue begs more than one question.

Joseph is unlucky of course. Had he chosen to form part of the baying hounds and called for the resignation, the circus could predictably have used this against him and pulled the “poodle” cliché  back to the forefront. For the non-MLPN observer this is a sad consequence of the “interest based” partisan politics. The value of the debate is watered down by  imputations of hidden interest and motive. That too is part of the current game – the question is will it also be challenged by the New Politics wind?

the difference between dialogue and alternative government

Then there is the drydocks issue. It’s not an easy one for any of the parties involved. The government has to face the problem – there can be no beating about the bush. The general opinion is that privatisation is a government business and therefore what better than government to handle it. In a political world of half-truths there could not be a stronger premiss. Joseph’s interpretation of “flimkien kollox possibli” is not easily dismissed. He clamoured for more dialogue and for a role for Labour at the planning table – a proposition that cannot be seen as completely unreasonable ab initio.

It’s when you get down to the nitty gritty of how this issue is interpreted that multiple questions arise. First, the government. Should it have spelt the privatisation issue in black and white in its manifesto? Did it cheat the people of their decision making role? The inevitability of the process seems to indicate otherwise. Between EU obligations and reasonable managing of the economy, the question of taking action on the state of affairs at the drydocks is inevitable – electoral promises or not. That the government should be the prime actor is also an unquestionable truth. One requires a leap of blind faith however in order to state that government is the only actor in a process of privatisation.

The wafer thin relative majority should rightly be quoted. Not to afford Labour a part of virtual chummy-chummy government but to remind government that it is there to serve the will of all the people and that its duty of consultation and dialogue is heightened at this particular juncture. As an elected government it will have to bear the consequence of any agreement – consequence on workers, consequence on the economy and consequences related to the prime area of land on which the drydocks lie. Joseph on the other hand needs to concentrate less on insisting on consulting and more on what he would put on the table, more concrete proposals.  The public forum is already a consultation table of itself and had we had an MLP consultation document on the future of the drydocks – inclusive of concrete proposals – it would have been more difficult for government mouthpieces to dismiss it as an upstart’s insistence of a piece of the government pie.

It’s well and good to talk about working together for the common good. More of the tools and less of the conversation would be an ideal way to start. There’s nothing ridiculous in Labour claiming a role in the negotiations – particularly coming from a worker’s party (if anything of the worker spirit is left). Look at Alitalia and that particular privatisation/sale. I do not think the Prodi/Berlusconi government were alone at the planning table. Having said that most discussion on solutions was held publicly and not behind the closed doors – we surely do not want MLPN suddenly cosily cohabiting and selling off the public treasure (or liability with potential) without Joe Public getting a whiff of what is going on or a by your leave.

that elusive barrel of oil

And now the surcharge. Austin Gatt has been busy warning all and sundry of the imminent fuel supersurcharge increase. Labour critics have been wondering why none of the talk about the perilous international situation was mentioned before the election. Correct me if I am wrong but wasn’t Labour the party insisting that the utilities bill would be halved or something? The PN machine could afford to hush the problem because an inefficient, vote-hungry Labour promised to be a bigger one. It’s not like none of us were warning that the feel good factor is a big dope. Thing is that both MLPN wanted to get to power and both based their manifestos on this “We Can Do It” idea without warning their electorate that the price of oil was destined ro rise regardless who got to sit in government.

Joseph’s party asks PN not to consider surcharges as some form of financial accounting and to bear in mind the poor people who will suffer increases in prices. Sure. Bear in mind, dialogue. Meanwhile the price of oil barrels is projected to be $200 by the end of the year. That’s from the $142 it is at now when we are expecting a horrible raise in surcharge any moment. Once again the battle of false promises engendered by the traditional baseless MLPN exchanges is exposed.

PN is in government thanks to an error-free electoral manifesto. Pity that the error-free does not include full truth manifesto. It was error free and practically unassailable because it did not tell the elector about PfP, about privatisation, about the real dangers of the rising price of oil. Computer subsidies are no more because our “stable economy” cannot afford free gifts – and this in an age when a heavy investment in IT is necessary for the country’s future.

Joseph is head of the party in opposition. He is still tiptoeing around the big challenges and still selling the charismatic and “different strokes” message. The message from the intelligent snobbish voter quarter is – you ain’t even a quarter there yet Joseph. PN is doing what it can best do – reasonable, obvious governance. It may slip on issues like JPO and risks a howler by approaching drydocks privatisation the wrong way round. But until the real challenging dialogue is forcing it back onto its toes expect more of the knee-jerk MLPN style. Change or no change.

Evviva Espana! 

 

10 responses to “A Different League

  1. Jacques, you say – “The PN machine could afford to hush the problem because an inefficient, vote-hungry Labour promised to be a bigger one.” It would have to be a very irresponsible government which can afford to hush up the problem that we are almost 100% dependent on oil from other countries for our energy needs (which include the reverse osmosis plants), just because they presume that every other party is as clueless as they are about renewable energy sources. As it is both the PN and MLP wasted our time by waffling on about how they would halve/retain the surcharge at the present rate, and neither acknowledged the bleeding obvious – that they should have started doing something about alternative fuel sources yonks ago

  2. danny attard

    Quote: Joseph …needs to concentrate less on insisting on consulting and more on what he would put on the table, more concrete proposals.

    Knowledge/information is power. It is Government that has all the required information. It is to Government that potential investors go, ‘explaining’ their interest and what may drive it forward. This, and a multitude of morsels of info is vital market knowledge that shapes future strategy re: privatization. Government alone has this market knowledge.

    For opposition to put ideas on the table that go beyond the ‘in principle’ equate to me telling Ferguson whom to play on the Saturday without actually knowing opposition, the level of fitness of the squad, the moral quotient of each player etc etc.

    What the Government needs to do is to put forward its plans and sell them to the opposition to enable opposition to do its duty; observe, monitor, encourage, improve, oppose, approve. It will be horrible if the process would translate into an MLPN bottom-kissing exercise and two fingers at the national interest kind of thing.

    There will be aspects that need examining behind closed doors, example: superpower influence, political, commercial issues, etc. Yet the final deal will be eventually spelled out, government’s objectives made known, opposition’s stand also made known and, as in a functioning democracy, enter 4th estate.

    Re: 1.The message from the intelligent snobbish voter quarter is – you ain’t even a quarter there yet Joseph. 2. PN is doing what it can best do – reasonable, obvious governance.

    I agree on the first statement.

    Re Government doing its best, I do not share that view. I am with Claire on that plus the impression that while we are quasi 100% oil dependant, Government is doing nothing to reduce consumption – e.g. public transport. Government is adopting too much of a macro approach when Malta’s situation includes amazing inefficiency levels at the consumption rate of oil. That this 17 mile island has no less than Euro3.5 billion worth of transport hardware (cars etc) is ample testimony that our creative capabilities are as functional as a graveyard. We should have by now entered a frantic stage whereby our transport system is totally overhauled to reduce dependency on private transport that guzzles up amazing quantities from the black stuff.

    This morning as I made my way to the capital, a guy on his bike breezed passed me at B’Kara in as I listened to the bbc news in the usual morning jam. I realized that he must have made it to his destination some 10 minutes ahead of yours truly, him on his bike, me in my car.

  3. Tghidlix xi ferhan li mohhu fil-conspiracy theories imma li l-PN u l-gazzetti “indipendenti” (taparsi nemmnu li tassew huma hekk) ilhom jeqirdu biex JPO iwarrab ma ddoqliex. Jaqblilhom kieku li jaghtuh xi xoghol Brusel jew jitfghuh fuq xi bord u jirrizenja “ghar-ragunijiet personali” halli Gonzi u l-ohrajn ma jkomplux jidhru daqshekk koroh. Xejn ma tinzilli li kumbinazzjoni wara l-elezjoni kulhadd fil-PN stenbah fuq il-kwalitajiet inqas tajbin ta JPO. Issa naraw jekk tirbah il-magna tal-partit tal-PN jew JPO u l-konsulenti tal-image tieghu. Joseph Muscat ma tantx ghandu jintefa jitghajjar f’dan ir-rigward ghax titampanlu l-messagg ta imhabba universali.
    – Fuq is-surcharge – mhux ovvja li misshom hasbu f’xi haga dawn il-kocc ministri fil-parlament – issa gejjin jistghagbu?

  4. Danny said, “For opposition to put ideas on the table that go beyond the ‘in principle’ equate to me telling Ferguson whom to play on the Saturday without actually knowing opposition.”

    Nobody is saying the MLP should come up with half-assed proposals, Danny. What we’re saying is the MLP should have made those consultations on privatisation of the shipyards and on the fuel surcharge ages ago. It should already have the required knowledge/information by now.

    But no. The MLP dedicated the last 2 years solely to winning an election. All thanks to Fredu and Jason of course. So now they didn’t win the elections and Joseph Muscat is at the helm of a party which hasn’t done any proper research, any proper opposition work in aeons. So every time they ask him to take a position on anything he has to say “We’re working on our position” – implying that it should have been done already by the previous MLP administration, if you ask me.

  5. danny attard

    Hi Keith

    Quote: What we’re saying is the MLP should have made those consultations on privatisation of the shipyards…

    We have just come out of an election campaign when the electors voted on the perceived party vision.

    The LP’s vision was given the thumbs down. The NP won the election, meaning that:
    1. The NP in Government will govern within the context of its ‘victorious’ vision
    2. The Labour Party is the party in opposition with a responsibility to monitor, motivate, encourage, oppose, and endorse as it develops its own updated vision for Maltese society.

    I have no doubt that the MLP had its own vision that would have guided its efforts, had it won the popular vote.

    Its plans for the regeneration of the harbor region, for example, were detailed and ambitious. It was obvious (to me at least) that the Shipyard under public ownership, had an important role to play.

    But is this not water under the bridge?

    This vision has now no place in Malta’s present day reality. It is the NP’s vision that won the day.

    Please note that the NP is so aware that its vision won the day that it has not embarked on a discussion on the future of the yards but it has actually decided (here I have resisted to have ‘decided’ in caps knowing how it irks our host) to privatise.

    And I do not see any dithering on Labour’s side. I see a very clear position:

    We note that Government has decided to privatise

    We are ready to monitor, motivate, encourage, oppose, and endorse as the case may be.

    Please give us the nuts and bolts of your privatisation plans of the shipyards so that we can do our duty.

    Me thinks can not be simpler.

    Regards

  6. Okay, in the last 2 years the MLP worked on winning the March 08 elections and also worked on how to implement their electoral proposals (like the “harbor region regeneration”) once the elections (they were so sure of winning ) were won. I agree with that, Danny.

    Fact remains that the loss of the elections left the MLP standing with its dick in the wind. They have nothing else prepared, thanks to Dr Sant.

    Besides, good research should encompass all viable possibilities. They researched their proposals, I am sure. Before deciding that “regenerating the harbor region” was the best viable option, they should have considered the privatisation of the dockyard as a possibility, and researched it. Had they done that, they’d have a firm position on privatisation. But they don’t.

    They agree “in principle”? Sounds like a laywer’s way of saying “maybe” or “I don’t know”.

    The opposition’s duty is not to say “erm… is that what you want to do, privatise? uhm… we don’t really know if that’s such a good idea. uhm… can you give us some time? …and hey one more thing… can you fax us a copy of your privatisation plan so we can start our research and, you know, consultations, do our thing… we’ll get back to you in a couple of months when we’ll have a position.

    Researching and consultation should begin as soon as a white paper is published, not a year later after something is proposed in parliament.

    Did you hear Gonzi on Bondiplus yesterday? He’s already using this indecisiveness (inherited from the Sant administration) against Joseph Muscat. Young, inexperienced, and now also indecisive? PN is having a field day.

  7. danny attard

    Hi Keith. You insist on the research issue… quote ‘they (MLP) should have considered the privatisation of the dockyard as a possibility, and researched it. Had they done that, they’d have a firm position on privatisation. But they don’t.

    Now this gets a little boring but please allow me to go slightly technical.

    I can think of at least 50 ways how one can privatise, ranging from management buy out (what management I hear you, rightly, say) to floatation (utterly carzy) to outright sale to a bidder etc etc or a mixture of all 50.

    To investigate 4 or 5 potential options from the vast array of options, one would need at least two detailed studies (not of the pseudo kind may I add):

    1. A detailed inventory of assets especially of individual and team skills
    2. A detailed market study to identify demand in its dynamic form and supply that may include potential investors.

    These cost real money, I mean real money way way beyond the reach of any opposition. There will be many who would claim to be able to deliver at a ‘reasonable’ price, but I can assure you that such reports will not be worth the paper they would be written upon.

    Conclusion. As I stated in my previous post, Labour’s position is very very clear, coherent and sensible. Within this context, it is Government that risks looking indecisive if it continues looking at opposition for solutions. Opposition can only agree ‘in principle’ on privatisation. The Chamber Of Commerce (I think it was) clearly implied as much too. In Principle means subject to the right terms and conditions. Now you may agree that that is reasonable, no?

    One may think that Government is applying this ploy of asking opposition for solutions to make the opposition look indecisive (being akin to an airline pilot making his chief steward look indecisive for not plotting out a route).

    Can it be, however, that Government fatigue has drained Government’s resolve. The only player who seems to be picking enough dust is Dr Gatt, for even Mr Dalli seems to have been overpowered by the sheer intensity of the task in hand. Is this possibility worth considering? In which case, opposition will need, for the national interest whatever that may mean, go beyond the monitoring, encouraging, opposing, endorsing.

    History, however, shows, that a Governor prefers to rot rather then relinquishing some of his power.

  8. Danny,

    What has changed now? If the MLP couldn’t afford the consultations then, they surely cannot afford them now, after an electoral campaign.

    If they agree “in principle” with PN’s proposal but don’t have the money to research better alternatives, why are they dragging their feet?

    Also, what do you mean by the “Government is asking opposition for solutions” ?

  9. danny attard

    Hi Keith,

    Our exchange risks being disconnected🙂

    The administration and organisational structure of a Political Party (MLP) is a grain of sand when compared to Government. Not only does Government enjoy financial muscle to research (which any opposition does not have), but also it has all the market tit-bit because it is mostly to Government that interested investors go.

    Opposition is certainly not dragging its feet.

    It has gone to the expected limits, namely to accept Privatisation as an option within a few hours from it being made public by Government.

    Government is now to bring to the table its plan. We are all waiting.

  10. danny attard

    Government has outlined its game-plan.

    It places employment of the highest number of workers as its No.1 criterion in choosing best bid.

    Major Grade 1 mistake me thinks.

    1. New shareholders will want to have the bulk of costs ‘current’ (i.e. only pay if it has orders).

    2. Full-time employees mean ‘fixed’ costs i.e. pay salaries irrespective of volume of work

    3. Any ‘commercial’ bidder will only carry a small full-time compliment and will source labour through international agents

    4. Government’s challenge is to ensure (it can surely do this with the help of the Union) that its ‘redundancy’ package will not fragment workforce but will keep them as a unit capable to take on contact work. This can easily (I repeat easily) be done at no (I repeat no) extra cost to the tax payer.

    5. The ‘Malta’ group will have a significant advantage over non-Maltese contract workers: they live on the doorstep of the yard and they do not have to go through learning curve meaning being more ‘efficient’.

    6. If Government will insist on highest number of retained employees, any bidder will know how to window dress its business plan and Government will waste so much time and energy trying to counteract.

    If Government fails to preserve Malta’s labour capacity (at no cost other than redundancy cost that it will, in any case, incur), the added value through this transaction will be navel to spine.

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