MaltaToday | 22 June 2008 | At last: a bold move!

OPINION | Sunday, 22 June 2008

At last: a bold move!

Michael Falzon

The Government’s decision to start the process leading to the privatisation of Malta Shipyards Ltd, announced on Wednesday, is a sign that the second Gonzi administration is moving in the right direction. At last!
The shipyards have been hanging like an albatross round the country’s neck for far too many decades. The amount of taxpayers’ money that has been pumped uselessly to subsidise the shipyards would have sufficed to build at least another three Mater Dei hospitals! Is there any doubt that the same money would have produced a greater return for the country had it been given away as tax cuts or channelled into education and culture, for example? Who is responsible for so many losses over so many years is, by now, irrelevant. Taking pains to investigate how this responsibility is to be divided between workers and management is just a useless academic exercise.
It is no business of the state to try and avoid losing money repairing or building ships, and the sooner the state gets rid of the enterprise the better for us all – including shipyards employees, even though they might shortsightedly think otherwise.
The reaction of the Labour opposition was hardly a surprise. The Prime Minister has been accused of ignoring Labour’s offer to collaborate on measures for the future of the enterprise and that he wants to work alone. I wonder what the newly elected MLP leader was expecting. The way he has spoken in this case seems to indicate that he expected to participate in the Cabinet decision, as if the MLP are party to some power-sharing exercise!
The decision in principle to privatise the shipyards was the responsibility of the Cabinet and of Cabinet alone. If it is the wrong decision, then the MLP should say so. Did they say so? No! They just avoided saying whether they agreed with this decision or not. Avoiding facing the issue and prevaricating by glibly accusing government that it does not want to share its responsibilities with the Opposition is, at best, naïve.
What the people want to know from Joseph Muscat is whether he agrees that the process leading to the privatisation of the shipyards should be launched. If he agrees, then so be it. If he does not agree, he is expected to explain what his alternative is and why it is better than the direction that government has opted for. Refusing to commit himself and staying on the fence accusing government of “going it alone” is hardly expected from the most promising member of a winning generation looking for a new season in politics. Instead of rising to the occasion at his first serious opportunity, Joseph Muscat has simply shown that his way of doing politics is simply old hat.
The GWU’s moans were also out of place. Unsurprisingly, it echoed Muscat’s argument that government has decided it will be laying off workers without even knowing the plans of those who may be interested in buying the shipyards and therefore it will be discharging employees when it does not yet know what human resources the new owners may require.
Consulting with the workers’ representatives is important, but that comes after a policy decision is taken by the government that owes some serious explanations to the taxpayers who have been forking out all those millions spent in barren subsidies. The argument that one should not start looking into the drawing up an early retirement scheme before knowing how many workers will be needed by the new owners is, of course, myopic. It is as useless as arguing whether the chicken or the egg came first.
The sensible thing is for the GWU to discuss with government on how the workers surplus to requirements will be laid off and then work with government to keep their number to a minimum. But then, everybody would have been really surprised if the GWU reacted in a sensible manner.
The biggest problem with the subsidies dished out to the shipyards over the years is that, to a very large extent, they just served to make up for the business losses incurred by the enterprise. After I don’t know how many reforms – most of which remained on paper – the profit motive is nowhere to be seen in the shipyards. Indeed some weeks ago the GWU Sunday paper, it-Torċa, reported that Government intended to privatise the only profitable sector in the shipyards set-up: the servicing and maintenance of yachts. The GWU newspaper rightly pointed out that such partial privatisation would not make sense. There is no logic behind the idea that the state should privatise the profitable part of the shipyards and keep the rest; unless “keeping the rest” is a euphemism for winding it up.
There are also those who will be hollering that this problem is the result of our EU membership, as if Brussels is some bête noir because it does not let us throw money down the drain! The real shame is that Malta would never had taken this sort of bold decision had it not become a EU member, even though it was glaringly obvious that there was no other option except to keep on permanently subsidising the enterprise.
This reminds me that some time ago, Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici (KMB) suggested that Malta should adopt the ploy of using the shipyards as a base for technical education and therefore qualify for subsidies! This weird way of doing things assumes that the European Commission is as gullible as KMB’s supporters and moreover means that the profligacy at the shipyards would be supported by money that on paper would have been spent on education!
This is all hogwash, of course; more so in the light of the sensible and courageous decision taken by the Government. Undoubtedly there are other issues on which such difficult but vital decisions need to be taken. If the government keeps on taking them, as it has done in this case, then one can truly say that Dr Gonzi means business. At last!

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