Bird Hunting
OPINION | Sunday, 02 September 2007


raphael vassallo

You’ve got to love Maltese politics. I mean, look at it. So cuddly and sweet. So intensely huggable. So desperately in need of immediate psychiatric help.

This week, I picked up a newspaper and read the following headline. “Labour will act like the Nationalists”. Had it been an opinion column, I would have probably flipped the page (as some of you are no doubt doing now) in search of something more interesting. But it wasn’t an opinion column. It was a direct quote by the Labour party leader in person: Dr Alfred Sant.
That’s right. The Labour Party’s latest electoral strategy seems to be: we will be exactly like the present government, to which we are supposed to be a viable alternative. In case the enormity of the implications have not yet sunk in, let’s try and project the same scenario onto some other European democracy: for argument’s sake, the United Kingdom.
Lights, camera, and… action:

Journalist: So, Mr Cameron – what would a new Tory government be like if elected?
David Cameron: Why, just like the Labour government, of course.
Journalist: I see. So… erm… why the hell would anyone in his right mind vote for the Tories, when we already have a Labour government, which (no offence, or anything) is actually better at being a Labour government than you, for the simple reason that, hey! It IS a Labour government – something the Tories can never, ever be?
(Longer pause)
David Cameron: Gee, I never thought of it like that. I just meant… you know… um…

But of course, it will never happen. For if David Cameron were to actually say that, he would be booted out of the party leadership faster than Michael Mifsud can score two priceless goals against Carlisle. (And believe me, that’s pretty fast).
Alfred Sant, on the other hand, can get away with it with perfect equanimity. He can be cool and relaxed, as he utters something which would be the equivalent of committing instant political hara kiri in practically any other democracy.
Why, I hear you ask? Presumably for the same reason that Lawrence Gonzi can talk of the Maltese population as though it were an extension of his own private Christian values fixation, multiplied by 405,000… without even bothering to ask any of us whether we actually share his religious beliefs or not.
In other words, because we have potty-trained our politicians to think they are actually omnipotent ubermenschen, and then cheered them on as they toddle their way through election after election after election… without ever pausing to consider that they should be there representing our interests, not the other way round.

Anyhow. I imagine that by the time you read this, the “I am a Nationalist” statement (for make no mistake: that is exactly the significance of Sant’s comment) will have been digested by the PN media, and somehow excreted in the form of an umpteenth electoral propaganda device. This will in turn be countered by the Labour media, and then bounced back and forth in an interminable game of political ping-pong, until dozens of conflicting interpretations suddenly ricochet around us like bullets at a Baghdad market. But at the end of the day, we all know exactly what Alfred Sant meant.
If elected to government, the Labour Party will behave precisely as the Nationalist Party has behaved for the past 20 years. They will basically expropriate the entire country, carve it up into little fiefdoms and petty principalities, and then divide the spoils among the chosen few. They will act for all the world as though the once-sovereign nation of Malta is in reality the private property of the party in government. They will conveniently forget any notion of the State somehow having responsibilities towards all citizens, regardless of race, religion, gender and political creed; and like Freddie Mercury before them, they will take it all, all, all.
If this were the plot for a Mel Brooks movie, the tag-line would probably be: “It’s good to be the PM.” But unlike History Of The World Part One, I somehow doubt it would be a very funny film.

And whose fault is the above scenario, I hear you ask? Well, I could be bitter about it, and say that the fault is squarely Lawrence Gonzi’s, for failing to live up to his early promise of a “new way of doing politics”... if anyone still remembers that particularly tasteless joke.
But that would impute altogether too much responsibility to a man who, at the end of the day, had power thrust upon him from above; and even then, in a package which came complete with all sorts of unfortunate strings attached.
Truth of the matter is that the fault is not Gonzi’s, nor Sant’s, nor Mintoff’s, nor Borg Olivier’s. It is ours. Maybe not the entire country’s… certainly not the net beneficiaries of all this state-sanctioned nepotism, who tend overwhelmingly to be the pathetic sort who would sink like a stone without some form of Masonic tentacle to prop them… but at least those of us who have eyes to see, ears to hear, and digestive systems with which to violently throw up.
When I sat down to write this article (I have long given up trying to write articles while suspended upside down in the bedroom cupboard. It gives me a headache) I thought I’d come up with a number of examples with which to illustrate how the above system works in practice. But I quickly realised that I would end up writing an entire book on the subject – something which I am beginning to seriously think about doing, by the way – so in the end I decided to settle on one simple example: broadcasting.

It went something like this. In 1992, Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami “liberalised” the airwaves. Please note that, for all his claims to economic liberalism, he had real no intention of ever doing this.
You see, Eddie Fenech Adami had a problem, and for a change it was bigger than just the Malta Labour Party. He instinctively knew that his ultimate aim of EU membership – which incidentally remains a great achievement and the highlight of his career, even if people like me tend to forget this sometimes – would bring advantages, but it would also come at a cost. He knew the State would have to eventually relinquish its iron stranglehold over public broadcasting.
So what did he do? He announced a “partial liberalisation” of the airwaves, which in practice meant that the Nationalist and Labour Parties (oh yes, and also the Church) got licences to own and operate radio stations… one year ahead of everyone else.

I need hardly add that with a year’s head start, three radio stations can between them corner the entire advertising market. When the radio stations also belong to two political parties – which between them also occupy all 65 parliamentary seats, and can therefore liberally dish out the goodies to whomsoever they please – you suddenly begin to realise why radio stations like 101 still manage to command the lion’s share of our tiny advertising market, despite registering consistently small ratings.
There are a number of words to describe this state of affairs: discrimination; unfair competition; monopoly; theft… And yet, incredibly, everybody in Malta’s normally belligerent business community just accepted it without question.

Things get even better when you throw TV into the mix. For years we endured a situation whereby station licences were limited to three: one for the PN, one for MLP, and one for Smash TV, which somehow got a foot in the door. With digital television this is no longer possible – hence U-TV, etc. – but it remains a fact that the Broadcasting Authority (BA) once published a “study” into the broadcasting landscape, which concluded that the market could not sustain more than these three existing stations.
Of course, the BA is entitled to its opinion on the capacity of the local market to sustain multiple television stations. But two considerations must be borne in mind. One is that the supposedly autonomous BA also has representatives of the two political parties (and therefore, by extension, owners of two private television stations) on its board. So effectively we are dealing with a situation where the key players in the market also get to determine the market’s rules; which – surprise, surprise – end up preventing any other private stations from entering into competition against them.
The other point is that, in any free market, no authority can decide to limit licences purely on the basis of the market’s ability to sustain multiple stations. That is up to the market to decide. Viewers decide which stations they want to watch, advertisers decide which station they want to advertise with, and the rest is economics. This basic fact has been distorted beyond recognition for the benefit (again) of the two political parties, and (again) nobody seems capable of even recognising this as a blatant injustice.

The time has come to call a spade a gardening implement with a wide, flat surface with which to dig holes. All of the above is illegal, or at least it was at the time. It runs counter to every rule in the European Union’s competition book. And yet, we have all acquiesced to it without putting up a fight.
Why? I’ll leave you to answer this question for yourselves. Just remember that it is only one of the many, many examples of political parties securing privileges for themselves which are denied to all other players in the same field. And for some utterly obscure reason, we just keep letting them get away with it… every single time.

Two final observations:
1. The other day I was at a party, and I decided out of sheer curiosity to try out the new beer named after a leading construction magnate’s nickname: “Caqnu”. As I sampled this fine example of bog-standard German pilsener, I couldn’t help but think. Thank God it was Charles Polidano, and not fellow building contractor George Muscat, who decided to go into the beer industry. Otherwise, we’d all be drinking a lager called “Bewla”.

2. I see that the Ministry of Health has changed the name of its website from “” to “”. Is this their way of saying goodbye to the ministry before the election?
Just a thought…


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