MaltaToday | 16 July 2008 | Austin’s Powers: Gatt’s quick fix for Gonzi’s paralysis

Front page.
NEWS | Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Austin’s Powers: Gatt’s quick fix for Gonzi’s paralysis

By liberalising licences for motor hearses and waging war on monopolies, Transport Minister Austin Gatt is giving a sulking government a welcome shot of adrenaline. By JAMES DEBONO

Paralysed by its inability to show Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando that the only way is out, and with its ability to slash taxes curtailed by the hike in international oil and food prices, the newly elected PN government has already started to look like a lame duck.
Revelations on how it used the power of incumbency to grant favours to unashamed lobbyists like the Armier squatters further diluted GonziPN’s reformist credentials.
The perception of weariness was further reinforced by the election of a charismatic Labour leader whose youth and acumen shield him from most of the PN’s spent ammunition.
Yet when all seemed so bleak for the PN, Gonzi’s two “enfants terribles” have come to the government’s rescue.
John Dalli, who has just returned to the Cabinet after a five-year exile, has created ripples by embarking on the long-promised (but never delivered) rent reform, criticising the “part time” work practices at Mater Dei, and calling for a national debate on divorce.
Austin Gatt, the minister whose proverbial drive shames the rest of the Cabinet, has also played a number of cards aimed at galvanising the party’s middle class core.
The first card was the proposed privatisation of the dockyard. This lacked novelty, and seemed lifted directly from the PN’s textbook instructions on how to rally middle class support in times of difficulty, by resuscitating the fear of the dreaded “Aristocracy of the Workers”.
The opposition’s sober and non-dogmatic reaction has already taken much of the steam out of the government’s charge. With 1,700 jobs on the line, Muscat’s call for social dialogue on the issue appeared reasonable.
The second boost for the government came from John Dalli’s well tailored rent reform package: a leaf taken from a decade-old Green Party campaign to liberalise rents, but diluted of any negative effects on existing tenants. Labour’s reaction was once again prudent: receptive, but perhaps a bit lacking in substance.
Dalli’s latest card was that of proposing a national debate on divorce is bound to upset the confessional PN establishment, but could be a blessing for the party in its bid to keep the minority liberal wing on board. Still, Dalli’s proposal could well backfire on the party, as it could raise expectations which cannot be delivered by a social conservative like Lawrence Gonzi – who has however, in the meantime, put his weight behind his minister by promising a discussion in Cabinet.
So it is Gatt’s commitment to liberalise the motor hearse section, and his declared intention to shake up the other monopolies in the transport sector, which could well win the government the most brownie points.
By waving the consumer rights banner in the face of 11 motor hearse owners who don’t want others to join their market, Gatt has touched upon an issue which could garner majority support.
It is also an issue that defies ideological distinctions. In Italy, it was the short-lived centre-left government led by Romano Prodi that took the bold step of liberalising taxis. Rather than taking his brief from his own party’s 353-point manifesto, which is completely silent on transport liberalisation, Gatt seems to have taken a leaf from Alternattiva Demokratika’s manifesto which was the only party to propose the liberalisation of taxis and other transport monopolies.
The MLP’s initial reaction – consisting of an “appeal for social dialogue” on an issue pitting the consumer against 12 monopolists – was downright evasive. Joseph Muscat seems to have realised that this was a mistake, as it gave the impression that his party was playing neutral on an issue which benefits the consumer.
“The MLP policy on the sector is clear. There should be liberalisation wherever the consumer is not well served. The consumer has to be the focus of everything,” he declared on Sunday. On Monday the MLP went one step forward by clearly declaring that liberalisation of motor hearses will benefit the consumer. Joseph Muscat also called upon the federation of transport associations to lift its threat of strike action, but to no avail.
Gatt would therefore do well to refrain from taking digs at Labour, and instead concentrate on building popular support for his anti monopoly crusade.
Muscat is right in saying that the government showed no intention of liberalising taxis or motor hearses before the election. But this only underlies Gatt’s ability to subvert his own party’s establishment.
One thing is for sure; Austin Gatt’s predecessor, Jesmond Mugliett, never showed any enthusiasm for the liberalisation of taxis and motor hearses.
Under his term of office the Transport Authority stubbornly refused to issue a license plate to private operator Carmel Mifsud, despite a decision by the Commission of Fair Trade precluding the Malta Transport Authority (ADT) from stopping new entrants to the funeral market.
Motor hearses owners also claim that a few months ago, when Jesmond Mugliett was still transport minister, “a written agreement was being discussed whereby, amongst many other things, the Malta Transport Authority would not issue further licenses in this sector.”
Neither was Transport Minister Jesmond Mugliett supportive of the liberalisation of white taxis.
“There are two reasons to consider liberalisation: either because the existing service is unacceptable, or because business has increased. So far, there are no indications that business volumes have improved. I think a certain degree of improvement has been registered with the introduction of a good code of conduct,” Mugliett told MaltaToday on February 2005.
The same Minister simply shelved the Hawtree report, which called for the liberalisation of public transport. By overturning Mugliett’s veto on liberalisation, Gatt simply gains more points for himself as a doer, in contrast to Mugliett’s reputation as a procrastinator.
Yet Gatt’s worst enemy in his crusade against monopolists could be his own warmongering. The beat of Gatt’s drums of war has already resulted in an unholy alliance of motor hearse owners, taxi drivers and bus drivers.
Unlike motor hearses and white taxis, public transport is first and foremost a social service, and an environmentally friendly alternative to cars. Many of the routes – such as the 8:00pm bus from villages like Mgarr – can never register a profit in the absence of some form of state subsidy.
Yet even in this sector, “off the road” liberalisation could well give the state more power to dictate its own terms, than the present monopoly enjoyed by the Public Transport Association.
Rather than automatically assigning this service to the PTA, it could make more sense for the government to issue a tender and to assign it to the best service provider for a fixed number of years.
In this way, the government would have a free hand to revoke the tender if the conditions envisioned are not met.
On their part, the bus owners certainly have some legitimate grievances. The government has never invested in any improvement of this sector. Despite repeated promises to re-develop the Valletta terminus, bus drivers do not even have a place to take shelter from the elements, to wash or to take a snack.
But they also have themselves to blame for defending anachronistic practices like working on a day-on, day-off basis, which means working inhumane hours to dedicate the off-day to private business.
While it makes sense for the government to proceed with the liberalisation of white taxis and motor hearses, public transport deserves a wider national debate in which all sides, consumers included, should be heard.
Yet this should be done with the understanding that a definitive decision will be taken in a year’s time.
Still, by taking the side of the motor hearse owners, bus drivers may well be driving the last nail in their own coffin. By joining a disruptive strike, which pits a cartel of private owners against the public at large, they are acknowledging that their sole aim is that of defending an ill-gotten monopoly on a public service.

Any comments?
If you wish your comments to be published in our Letters pages please click button below.
Please write a contact number and a postal address where you may be contacted.




MaltaToday News
16 July 2008

Austin’s Powers: Gatt’s quick fix for Gonzi’s paralysis

Ombudsman hits out at European Parliament

Searches resumes for missing boat, US aircraft joins search

President calls for Palestinian state

Hearses’ liberalisation 50 years late

‘It was not a decision I took on my own’ – former minister tells MaltaToday

Chamber says strike violence damaging tourism

Feltom predicts ‘absolute disaster’ if strike proceeds

Police arrest four over strike incidents

French nuclear accident raises questions about Libya accord

MLP offers cooperation in cutting down waiting lists

De Marco and statesmen protest end to Commonwealth scholarships

AD welcomes PM’s ‘overdue yes’ to divorce discussion

Attacks on journalists condemned

Copyright © MediaToday Co. Ltd, Vjal ir-Rihan, San Gwann SGN 9016, Malta, Europe
Managing editor Saviour Balzan | Tel. ++356 21382741 | Fax: ++356 21385075 | Email