Bird Hunting
OPINION | Sunday, 02 September 2007

Sant’s latest thriller: the MCESD conundrum


Alfred Sants’ recent sudden revelation that he is considering elevating the MCESD chairman to the rank of Cabinet Minister if he assumes power, took many by surprise. The idea was foisted upon a number of representatives of MCESD members and civil society organisations who were called for a meeting with the MLP leadership on August 22, purportedly to discuss the MLP’s recently published “plan for a new beginning”.
The surprise was in the fact that this important suggestion had not been included in the policy document that was being discussed or in any other document published by the MLP. It also transpired that the idea had never been discussed internally at any level within the Labour Party. This strategy is typical of Alfred Sant and recalls the way Alfred Sant in 1996 committed the MLP to promise the abolition of VAT, as recounted so many times by his then Shadow Minister for Finance, Lino Spiteri.
In spite of the “sudden” nature of the idea, depicted almost as if it were some unexpected spark of inspiration that hit Alfred Sant during the meeting, the truth is that the idea had been brewing for some time. During a business breakfast organised by the MLP on February 9, Dr. Sant called for a more effective MCESD while the GRTU’s Vincent Farrugia insisted that the MCESD lacks leadership, vision and initiative. I do not think that this was just a coincidence and it fits perfectly with the launch of the “sudden” Alfred Sant idea six months later.
After all, the VAT abolition promise in 1996 was instigated by the GRTU. Is history repeating itself with Vince Farrugia building bridges to Alfred Sant? Via intermediaries, of course!
Incredibly, Alfred Sant seemed unaware that the MCESD chairman sits on two of the Cabinet committees – one on competitiveness and one on social policy – set up by Cabinet during its first meeting under the premiership of Lawrence Gonzi.
During the meeting of August 22, Dr. Sant not only floated the idea of a Cabinet minister status for the MCESD chairman but also promised that, once in government, he will provide resources for the MCESD to be able to work effectively. This smacks of a ministerial secretariat set-up. Whose agenda would this set-up push? The chairman’s or the agenda agreed between the social partners?
Other questions crop up. Will the MCESD’s research be directed by the chairman to fit government’s strategy, considering that the chairman will probably be a close confidante of Alfred Sant? According to the law as it now stands, responsibility for research lies with the MCESD CEO as the chairmanship is a part-time, non-executive post. Will the new way of doing things imply a change in the MCESD act?
How will the persons in the MCESD executive posts be chosen? Will the present powers of the administrative committee that includes representatives from the social partners, be diluted? Alfred Sant keeps everybody guessing.
Incidentally, how will the MCESD chairman handle his or her obligation to respect Cabinet confidentiality? In other words, to whom does his first loyalty belong – to his Cabinet “colleagues”, or to all the social partners equally? Will the independence of the MCESD be compromised in any way?
A cursory look at the composition of national and economic social councils in other European countries shows that the Alfred Sant model does not exist anywhere in the EU. There are some countries where the chairman is not nominated by Government after consultation with the social partners, as is the case in Malta. Instead the chairman is appointed from employers, unions, or civil society in rotation every three years or so. Such is the case of Greece, Luxembourg and Slovenia. In these countries government is not an active part of the council – a set-up that is much akin to the proposal made by the GWU last March. That idea was not to be discarded lightly and, in fact, I understand that the other bodies represented on the MCESD were seriously studying the proposal – something that they can hardly continue to do once the GWU suddenly discarded its own proposal to say “yes” to Dr Sant. That the GWU made a complete U-turn to accommodate Dr Sant’s whim, of course, comes as no surprise.
After all, the whole conundrum might be nothing but an Alfred Sant ploy to strengthen his hand in Cabinet. I know that this is just a hunch of mine, but I cannot ignore the fact that the number of people of ministerial stuff in both parliamentary groups is limited and that, moreover, if elected Prime Minister, in his Cabinet Sant will have to appoint persons who do not really see him in a good light. Sant’s Cabinet meetings do not promise to be holiday cruises without choppy waters.
Adding a hand-picked “confidante” to support and abet him during Cabinet meetings might just have crossed Alfred Sant’s mind. The person that is being touted in the grapevine as Alfred Sant’s anointed person for the post of MCESD Chairman fits this role exactly. Just in case someone misunderstands me, I am not referring to the three persons – Tony Zarb, Patrick Spiteri or Marlene Mizzi – that a PN media reporter mentioned to Alfred Sant in a very silly and naïve way.
So there it is. Is Alfred Sant trying to give the social partners and civil society a greater input in government decisions? Or is he just trying to give himself a stronger hand when he will be the “first among equals”? Your guess is good as mine.

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