Editorial | Sunday, 08 February 2009

A debilitating shock to consumers

The water and electricity tariffs increase is turning into one long drawn-out farce that really exposes the amateurish way this country is still run in 2009, as we enter our fifth year as EU members.
While on the face of it we have all the structures in place, all the laws on paper and all the authorities required by Brussels to be part of this exclusive club, when it came to the crunch, the ordinary and largely voiceless people have been let down miserably by the authority that should have stood up and spoken on their behalf. We are referring to the Malta Resources Authority (MRA).
This is not the first time that the authority has remained dead silent in the face of important measures imposed directly from the government. In fact, the majority of the people out there do not even know it exists thanks to its shocking inaction at a time when government has been raising tariffs (or the surcharge) without any form of checks and balances in the name of the powerless citizens.
Yet this latest astronomical increase, arbitrarily backdated to last October, is really hammering the last nail on the coffin. While trade unions, SMEs and employers were clamouring for a serious interlocutor to mitigate an utterly stubborn and insensitive government and an unaccountable and shockingly inefficient monopoly called Enemalta, MRA has rubber-stamped the new tariffs without even bothering to have the audited facts in front of it.
It did this even against the very law establishing it as an authority, which gives it the responsibility to conduct impact assessments studying the consequences on every sector that any major change to the energy billing system is bound to bring with it.
Far from carrying out these assessments, the MRA has actually approved a legal notice when the audit reports into Enemalta’s squandering of public funds were incomplete, full of conditional statements based on assumptions, claims and allegations.
In the meantime, government forged ahead and Enemalta started sending the new bills which, as if there was not enough confusion reigning out there, confuse the consumers even more with the convoluted wording, tables and prices that the poor individual is expected to understand.
The unions rallying against the MRA are right in demanding the chairman’s resignation. He has shown he is useless and redundant precisely when he is needed most. He is also incapable of putting a straight message across, to the point that the 11 unions that met him came out believing MRA would impose a tariff revision backdated to October, only for MRA to “clarify” later that it never said so.
Today’s opinion column by GRTU’s Vince Farrugia serves at least to clarify this question.
“MRA can refuse tariffs, not on future prospects but backwards,” he says. “They see what went right or wrong in the previous six months and produce a new tariff structure based on actual facts as they transpired during the current six-month period. In practice the new tariffs will correct any previous exaggeration. But the impact will be forward, not backwards.”
In other words, it will probably be in March that MRA will seek to redress the government’s obstinate, baseless and insensitive measures, but by then the people would have already paid their bills and will only benefit in future tariffs. It will be of little consolation in the face of the thousands of euros that will have been robbed from families and small businesses. It will also reinforce the perception that government can arbitrarily impose anything backdated to whenever it feels like, but there is no refund for the ordinary citizen who has to pay for Enemalta’s appalling unaccountability.
And in the latest development, Austin Gatt is merrily announcing a €70 million investment in new water and electricity meters that will “clamp down on fraud and electricity theft” – ludicrously announced as a “world-first” when the civilised world has for long made pesky meter readers redundant – Malta’s energy consumers know that they will not only be paying through their noses for Enemalta’s inefficiencies, but also to upgrade its obsolete systems.
No wonder, then, that the reigning attitude of ‘Maltese cunning’, so to speak, is to rob the government of what the government wants to rob from you.

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