It looked like a scene from a backstage recording of the Malta song festival where singers applaud one another and dish out platitudes faster than the delivery time for a Big Mac only to pass snide remarks on each other once the camera lights are off.
The occasion was not a singing contest, but a business breakfast organised by the Labour Party to mark the 25 anniversary of Freedom Day. Present for the occasion at the Hilton, were most of the constituted bodies, the unions, some youth organisations and media people.
A brief address by MLP deputy leader Charles Mangion set the stage for a lacklustre discussion that was ‘rudely’ ignited by two gentlemen towards the end of the meeting.
Mangion eloquently outlined the country’s economic and social problems, but struggled to come forward with his party’s concrete proposals on how to address the situation. Proposals to lower taxes, pairing up university with the needs of industry and cutting government expenses by rationalising the various authorities did little to provide solutions to the more biting problems.
The Times’ Vanessa Macdonald opened the discussion expressing her pent up frustration at Labour’s seemingly inability to act as an alternative government with concrete proposals. “Cutting taxes is a text book solution not a real one,” she told Mangion.
Blame the other
GRTU’s Vince Farrugia asked his colleagues to start identifying the problems in their respective sectors. He cautioned that if every union simply defended its own patch the national interest would not be served well. Tony Zarb invited CMTU president Alfred Buhagiar to call on all unions and bring together their proposals for the social pact. UHM’s Gejtu Vella said his union’s document outlining proposals for a social pact was an exercise that could be built upon.
Speakers spewed rhetoric on how bad the economic-financial situation is and how important it was for the ‘others’ to do something about it. Similar sentiments were expressed by other union representatives.
The difficult part was to get people present to talk about the nitty gritty. Vince Farrugia said nothing about liberalising the white taxi service, it wasn’t expected of him because his union represents taxi drivers. Gejtu Vella said nothing about reducing summer half days for civil service employees. Could we have expected something of the sort from someone whose union has a membership base rooted in the civil service?
Tony Zarb did not say whether his union was ready to accept changes in work practices at Air Malta to put the airline on a sound financial footing.
And the show continued, with fingers covertly pointing to one another and overtly pointing towards government for the lack of energy to deal with problems that have gradually eroded Malta’s economy.
A polite attack
A tit for tat ensued with Manwel Micallef of the GWU ‘politely’ accusing the UHM of not formally presenting the union a copy of the social pact document. UHM’s Gejtu Vella, red in the face, objected. The UHM had submitted a number of copies to the chairman of the Malta Council for Economic and Social Development to be distributed to the other members, the GWU included. Relations between Micallef and Vella soured and at the end of the meeting Vella was heard telling Micallef, “don’t talk to me before you start to act gentlemanly.”
William Portelli from the Malta Union of Bank Employees put his finger on a very sore point. “We unions have to be more flexible when negotiating,” he said.
Red tape and media blues
Ian Zammit from Globe Financial Management adopted an outsider’s role and asked those present to get down to business and find solutions to the problems. He also hit out at bureaucracy, particularly the Malta Environment and Planning Authority, and asked for red tape to be drastically trimmed down.
Malta Union of Teachers’ president John Bencini criticised the party media for painting two opposing pictures of the same country. He then expressed his concern that the students who graduate as teachers this year will not find employment and probably end up registering for work.
Bursting the bubble
It was left to two young gentlemen to burst the bubble of rhetoric that was growing. Chris Bonett, secretary general of pro-Labour university student group Pulse, pricked the bubble first. “Cut this rhetoric,” he told the rest of the floor. “You are all posing as friends, but in reality you are all foes,” Bonett charged. His comments were followed by equally biting observations made by Victor Fiorini from youth organisation Move!, who cautioned against giving businessmen a free for all when it came to building permits, with the excuse of cutting down on bureaucracy.
Fiorini asked each union and organisation to come up with their own proposals for the social pact rather than bickering on who achieved what.
Charles Mangion was trying to chair the discussion, probably even Parliament would have been easier to chair, as one speaker after the other extended his two minutes to a full 10.
It was an interesting exercise in ‘Maltese’ dialogue that got no closer to the solutions. In the end, all were wiser of the problems at hand and the difficulty to find broad consensus on solutions that would bite the hand of those proposing them.
As for Labour, it has not yet fully recovered from the post-election doldrums. Mangion’s moderation is good news but the party still lacks true leadership that inspires middle of the road voters as much it does hard core supporters.