Editorial | Sunday, 30 November 2008

Their pay, our business

Today’s revelation about the ministers’ effective pay rise and last week’s revelation on sister newspaper Illum that former ministers and the former Opposition leader received together a staggering €157,000 “to find a job” are the stuff that make the ordinary citizens fume with anger.
The timing for these two decisions – both kept under wraps by the government – couldn’t have been worse, as the world is grappling with the credit crunch and Maltese consumers will soon be scraping the barrel to keep up with the new water and electricity tariffs.
While Lawrence Gonzi pontificates on reducing consumption, his government decides to give itself a hefty pay rise, together with a fat compensation package to former ministers whom he decided, single-handedly, to fire from his Cabinet for the sake of newness.
Seen in the context of the austerity measures imposed on government employees and on the citizens in general, these increases in the politicians’ pay packets continues to enforce the public perception that they are governed by a privileged class that has no qualms preaching one way and acting the opposite.
We barely need to remind of the hurtful decision to scrap Christmas parties in government departments, the removal of public holidays falling on weekends, and the glaring, in-your-face inequality in pensions, whereby the normal citizen’s pension is capped to the point of almost throwing them on the poverty line, while MPs’ pensions remain uncapped – yet again another case enforcing the privileged class perception.
It is an undeniable fact that for the overwhelming majority of Maltese workers, the only adjustment to their salary – for it is too risible to even be called an increase – is through the mandatory annual cost of living adjustment. Remove that, and you have a veritable wage freeze across the board, hitting everyone from the middle class downwards. Despite the political rhetoric lashed out by the PN at Labour’s suggestion a few years back in favour of a wage freeze, this is already in place albeit unofficially, except for the handful of lucky sectors whom Gonzi thought of rewarding with new collective agreements prior to the last election, and which are now being used by Gonzi and Tonio Fenech to chastise the rest of the country.
Seen in this context, the ministers’ pay rise and former ministers’ compensation is not only untimely and uncalled for, but downright offensive. Add to that the ministers’ unfettered spending sprees on new cars which are a far cry from the green policies Gonzi wants to project, the usual appointments of the chosen ones from the Nationalist networks, and you have all the ingredients of legitimate mass discontent.
When prior to last March’s election, Alfred Sant made the surprise announcement that under his government, all ministers and parliamentary secretaries would have had to sever all their personal commercial and professional links to private entities, we had cautiously welcomed the proposal as one measure towards eradicating corruption and the glaring conflicts of interest, although we were also aware that on its own, this could also lead to a dearth of potentially good candidates.
One MP, who is now parliamentary secretary who had endorsed the proposal back then was Clyde Puli, who had added that membership of the House also had to be converted to a full-time occupation, and salaries increased to the tune of €30,000.
Of course, being underpaid does not justify corruption or living in perpetual conflicts of interest, and it is not just MPs and ministers who feel they are underpaid. Their modest remuneration might make it difficult for them not to hold down that additional job or position against a salary or honorarium, so an open and transparent debate in that regard, with a view to making a quality leap in politics, would be welcomed. What Gonzi did was precisely the opposite: he gave a hefty pay rise to himself and his chosen ministers, he compensated the people he sacked, and he kept it all secret, even though we are paying for all this from our taxes. Moral is: if you feel embarrassed to announce it, it is not fit to implement in the first place.

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