Why We’re Not All Ears

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This article appears in The Malta Independent on Sunday (06.07.08)

I Hear it’s Hot

Sizzling … on the island. Which suits me well from this particular standpoint. You see the Grand Duchy offers a quirky weather menu over the months of summer. I hate to harp on about it but it all boils (ah the heat words again) down to an irritating cocktail of stifling humid heat alternating with tropical rainstorms (peppered with grand lightning shows). It would all be ok if I had the chance to rush off to a beach for a quick dip after hours but given that the option involves a six hour drive to Oostende I guess I’ll have to give it a miss.

Let’s call a spade a spade – without a beach on the Med, a hot sun and humid weather will only tend to be frustrating. Very frustrating. Thank the administrative gods that time has come for the judicial institution of which I am a humble servant to break up for the summer which gives me an opportunity to book two weeks of sunbathing doux faineantisme (dolce farniente) on the rock. Hence the reason for my gleeful handrubbing whenever I hear news of the oppressive heat in Malta. Not to mention my extreme satisfaction at hearing the news that the ecclectic band Xtruppaw will be returning to the musical scene with a gig at Poxx Bar on the 12th July. Xtruppaw in Paceville, Shakespeare at the Argotti and a nice deckchair at Riviera beach… life is beautiful when you are on holiday. Or at least I hope it will be.

Lend Me Your Ears

There’s nothing better for grabbing the people’s attention than a good oratorial style. Just look at Shakespeare’s Antony in the brilliant soliloquy that gave us the expression still in use today. There is a word for that kind of style – demagogy – and the root is in the Greek for “leading the people” (demos and agein). In post-revolutionary society where power rests with the people (We, the people), getting the attention of the people and consulting them on issues is an important means of validating decisions. The representatives of the people submit their projects to the electorate and whenever possible consult the people in order to take major decisions.

Of course the concept of “consultation” can be stretched beyond the domain of general politics but the news this week seemed to constantly return to a running theme of consultation – and the right to be consulted. Take Joseph for example. In one of his meetings with a particular sector he told anyone prepared to take note that he was there to “listen” and not just “hear”. It’s not groundbreaking, but an honest admission that politicians must begin to walk that extra mile in order to be taken seriously again. We are led to believe that “I’m all ears” in this supposed age of dialogue can finally be taken literally.

Minister Gatt faced a conundrum of his own with regards to consultation. After announcing possible reforms in the transport sector he was presented with a radical reaction (or to be politically factual – a threat) that his proposed exercise could be met with strikes and general opposition. Here was a case where the interlocutors refused the seat at the table before it was even set. Thank heavens that Minister Gatt is made of sterner stuff and quickly told the Federation of Transport that he will not bow down to such threats. The general transporters should bear in mind that Gatt does not only have to listen to their requests for a maintenance of the status quo in the market but also to the loud voices clamouring for an improvement in the transport system. It’s a service industry and without a good set of ears to hear what the clients want the system can only continue to implode.

You’re Not Listening to Me

Then there are those who unlike the transporters in the previous paragraph clamour for more consultation rather than less. We’ve all heard of the dockyard privatisation project by now. The general opinion is that privatisation is a government business and therefore who 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 as easily dismissed as some would seem to argue. 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 is rightly being quoted. Not in order 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 the best consultation table available and had we had an MLP 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).

We’ve already heard this one

Then there was the 95% surcharge rise. Joseph’s party got into a huff and clamoured that PN was too much of an accountant without a heart. This gave the PN spinmeisters the opportunity to showcase pleasures yet to come when they opened the big file marked – “Joseph Pre-Leadership” and pulled out Joseph’s approval of the rise in charges during Sant’s 22 month reign – when the price per barrel of oil was much, much cheaper. It’s hard Joseph but I guess you too will have to learn to listen out for the news from the international markets and resist the urge to just shoot from the hip at every PN move.

Which is just what I think Joseph did with regard to JPO. Practically every columnist, cartoonist and editorial has reached the same conclusion: JPO should do the right thing and resign. JPO has shown his weakness in the listening department by staying on. And Joseph? Joseph has shied away from the general clamour and is letting the “independents” do the talking. 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?

Say What?

Of course one other person who could have been listening to the answers blowing in the wind was PM Gonzi and his government/party. I found the statement by spanking new Secretary General Paul Borg Olivier (who I salute from here as an old time colleague on the MZPN national executive – buon lavoro) on Bondiplus rather intriguing. I think we heard it before but the general line seems to be – it’s a decision that JPO has to take. It’s his responsibility. So there you are. It falls just short of saying “I think he should go but I’m not going to be the one to sully my hands with the business”. Pontius Pilate? Not really. I don’t think the ethics of local political culture can be satisfactorily compared to the disquisitions of a Roman governor in Jerusalem.

Our PM might have another “consultation” problem on his plate. As I write, Maltastar leads with an article about a MEPA meeting regarding Fort Cambridge. It turns out that a press release explaining MEPA’s approval was handed out prior to the meeting. Not exactly a listening exercise I guess. On the face of the facts brought to light until now it will be difficult to defend this one. NGO’s have been quick to claim that this is a MEPA betrayal of the “citizen” – especially in the light of the fact that administrative auscultation exercises like Impact Assessments have been dismissed without proper justification. We’ll be holding an ear to the ground for more developments.

Earplugs

Or those who’d rather claim that they didn’t quite hear what you have to say. Internationally there’s an abundance of mishearing at the moment – the most clamorous of all being the EU states still insisting that the Irish No is more of a Hesitant Yes. Then there was the African Union which failed to listen to international pressure and deliver a sound lesson to the “democratically elected” President of Zimbabwe. Both issues might have uncovered a new question as to the suitability of international institutions inherited from the post-WWII system (less of a question with the EU) but that is another essay in the making (for indepth analysis, check out this week’s leader on the Economist).

One institution that needs to shed the earplugs and start listening to what’s happening within is the Police Force. It’s definitely not happy times right now and careful attention is what is needed. Quis custodiet ipsos custodies? Transparency, responsibility and accountability without working anyone into a frenzy is what is needed in order to ensure that we have a police force that merits the respect it deserves. What’s more we need cool heads… something that will be difficult under this summer sun.

It’s Oh So Quiet

That’s it this week. I’m off for a good listening experience – KT Tunstall in concert – but I can’t wait for Xtruppaw. Most of all I cannot bear to wait any longer to be able to hear the sound of the waves of the sea hitting the beach. Let’s hope that my prayers are heard and that there will be no jellyfish to ruin the party!

Jacques blogs daily at https://jaccuse.wordpress.com. Comment is free.

3 responses to “Why We’re Not All Ears

  1. everhopeful

    Once it seems that everyone, including the new PN general secretarys, is saying the JPO should go, I think that the only logical course of action would be for the PM and the PN or to use the collective term GonziPN to fire the guy from the party and the parliamentary group if he will not resign and to hell with the consequences.

    That is principle over expediency. I marvel that nobody seems to be willing to point out that it is the PM’s responsibility not to have his government humiliated by the revelations in court of the wheeling and dealing of JPO. The longer this farce goes on the more humiliation is heaped on the PM and a Government that depends on the vote of JPO.

  2. C Camilleri

    Hi there Jacques. Interesting Comments. As for your lust for the sea, I suggest you going to the open air pools in Vianden. Trust me the views are breathtaking. Its opposite Vianden castle, just follow the signs up from Victor Hugo Museum. I surely found my corner of paradise here in zu Lëtzebuerg ;-)…. and by the way its only 45 min away. Shorter than the time it takes you to go from Ghadira to Sliema, especially on any swealtering hot sticky Sunday afternoon. Trust me, I know what I am saying.

  3. Thanks C. I know about Vianden and it is my favourite swimming place in the Duchy. It’s not the sea though… and driving 45 minutes only to find that in the meantime the clouds are back is not exactly the same as a sweltering hot drive in Malta … nice… but not enough.

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