MaltaToday | 20 July 2008 | Money, not common sense, has prevailed

OPINION | Sunday, 20 July 2008

Money, not common sense, has prevailed


Here’s a bit of ‘breaking news’: VIOLENCE PAYS. Literally. And quite well, too... in fact, I am sure there are many out there, slogging at their underpaid jobs all day long, who would be surprised to learn that you can make a tidy €20,000 in just three days: by destabilising the entire country, making a mockery of law and order, obstructing traffic, assaulting passers-by... until the government is left with no option but to cough up almost a quarter of a million €’s, just to get you to go back to work.
OK, let’s recap a little. Late on Tuesday, this newspaper got to know that the Transport Ministry had offered the motor hearse association the sum of €60,000 to call off its strike.... which offer the hearse operators turned down.
When we reported this on Wednesday, the minister (reportedly) hit the roof. He wrote an aggrieved letter to federation president Victor Spiteri, publicly accusing him divulging details of their top-secret negotiations to the media. Privately, he accused us of “letting the side down”... by failing to limit our coverage only to those details which glorify Austin Gatt himself, and instead trying to reveal what was actually going on behind everybody’s backs. (Shocking dereliction of duty, I know). And while he never quite denied that an offer had been made, Gatt insisted all along that we got the actual figure wrong.

Well, that last part turns out to be absolutely spot-on. Boy, did we get it wrong. In actual fact it was almost four times the amount we reported on Wednesday: €230,000. And bearing in mind that there are only 11 operators in this sector, that works out at a tidy €20K... each.
To put that into perspective: it is arguably more than the annual salary of a AFM lance bombadier – you know, the type who gets beaten up for trying to provide an emergency transport service, while bus drivers are busy storming Castille. It exceeds the annual salary of all but the highest paid press photographers, of the kind who had their cameras and equipment smashed by a bunch of thugs. And it simply pales to insignificance compared to the estimated hundreds of thousands of €’s (some are saying millions) in losses suffered by various industries – the language schools, to name but one – affected by the week’s mayhem.
Anyhow: that’s how much it cost the State to get a bunch of bums back into the drivers’ seat. And in case we’ve all forgotten, these were the very bums who instigated all this chaos in the first place. But... oh, look! The same motor hearse drivers who led the cavalry charge on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, suddenly turn around on Thursday and condemn the violence that they themselves had encouraged from the start. All of a sudden, they tearfully deplore all the damage to Malta’s international image and reputation... conveniently forgetting that most of it was done in solidarity with their own, unreasonable cause.
Amazing, what an instant difference €230,000 can make.

But the real question is: was it worth it? Well, that depends on how you look at things.
From the government’s point of view, I would say... definitely. In fact, it’s a bargain. Not only did the measly sum bring an end to an unsightly and expensive descent into wholesale anarchy... but it also castrated the Transport Federation in the process, forcing its president Victor Spiteri to sheepishly tell his 1,000-odd bus, taxi, minibus and brontosaurus drivers to go back to work with their tails between their legs.
Taxpayers, on the other hand, might see things somewhat differently. After all, it’s their money that’s being flung about by the bucketful. And it’s their deceased family-members who were slowly accumulating in the hospital morgue, while all this horse-trading (hearse-trading?) was going on.
But before taxpayers can make informed judgments about such matters, they have to know that their tax money is actually being spent. Which is probably why the government went to such lengths to try and hide this fact from view.

As for myself, I am curious to know why the government settled precisely on that figure. Considering that the deal was struck on the same day the motor hearse drivers lost (allow me to repeat that: LOST) their court battle for a prohibitory injunction – and that therefore the market was already liberalised, without or without any financial compensation – one wonders how a defeated lobby still had enough bargaining power to first refuse an offer of €60,000, and then settle for four times that amount.
By what logic was this at all possible? The answer is simple: by the convoluted logic of politics.

When all is said and done, what we saw this week was a classic example of what the Nationalist government has always done best: divide and rule. Had any new hearse licences been issued on Wednesday – as indeed they could have been, even if the new operators would have needed protection by the North Korean riot police – the “hearsemen of the Apocalypse” would almost certainly have stuck to their tenebrous claims, giving the Federation every opportunity to carry on with its national blackmail exercise for days, if not weeks.
If, on the other hand, the hearse drivers could be persuaded to betray their Federation and go back to work (not terribly difficult, with €20,000 generously slipped into their pocket), then the rest of the Neanderthal bunch suddenly have a problem on their paws: there is no tangible reason to carry on striking. And that, as far as Austin Gatt is concerned, is worth every centime of €230,000.

As for the precise amount, the official explanation claims it was calculated on: a) an estimate of the losses accumulated through loss of work, and; b) the amount the hearse drivers would have to invest in marketing, in order to cope with new competition.
Yes, folks, you read right. In these enlightened times, people who refuse to work have their self-inflicted losses compensated by the taxpayer... who also foots the bill for their purely commercial marketing initiatives.
But what I haven’t understood is this. The moment the hearse drivers called off their strike, they immediately proceeded to bury the 35-odd corpses in the hospital morgue. So why compensate the hearse drivers for their “losses”... when they haven’t actually suffered any?
Personally, I suspect the reason was another. While the Department of Information was busy trying to hide the pay-off from public view – by skilfully omitting any mention of it in the official press release, and strategically positioning the document itself a mouse-click away – the boys in the finance ministry were likewise busy on their calculators, trying to work out exactly how much money they had saved in terms of bus drivers’ subsidies.
Let’s see now: on Monday it was announced that the subsidy would be cut by €60,000 per day, for as long as the strike lasted. By my count, that’s four days... and even an innumerate moron like myself can work this one out off the top of my head:

60,000 X 4 = 240,000

What a coincidence. Only €10,000 short of the hearse drivers’ pay-off. And how remarkable, too, that the deal itself was struck late on Wednesday and announced early on Thursday... the fourth day, after which the bus drivers returned to work at 5.30am...

So back to my original question: was it all worth it in the end? Well, if the overall price of liberalisation is limited to €230,000, then the answer is most certainly yes. But then again, there were only 11 motor hearse operators to deal with. The entire public transport service may prove a little more expensive to bribe.
The 200+ white taxi owners each hold a licence worth (or so the rumours go) hundreds of thousands of €’s. There are over 500 licensed bus drivers, and all them own their own buses. I don’t know the precise situation regarding minibus drivers, but I do know one thing: any settlement with any or all of the above will cost a heck of a lot than a quarter mill.

But who cares? If hidden well enough, a secret sell-out will make Austin Gatt a very popular minister indeed... and that, of course, is why we all pay our taxes in the first place.

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20 July 2008

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