Raphael Vassallo | Sunday, 31 May 2009
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Other People’s Money*

*For the purposes of this article, “money” may be defined as “that commodity of which there is never enough to invest seriously in education, health, infrastructure and the environment, but which we always seem to have in abundance when it comes to indirect propaganda to boost the Nationalist Party’s electoral chances.”

Aha! And there you all were, thinking that the acronym “OPM” stood for something nice and harmless like “Office of the Prime Minister”... Well, think again. (Or if you prefer, just re-read the above headline.)
“Office of the Prime Minister? My ass. It’s more like a philosophy in its own right: an entirely “new way of doing politics”, whereby the people’s tax money is routinely spent on an assortment of little (and sometimes very large) initiatives, which on closer inspection turn out to be nothing more than thinly-disguised campaign gimmicks, to give the ruling Nationalist Party that little, electoral push when it just so happens to need one.

From this perspective, can anyone really be surprised that the “Office of the Prime Minister” is such a coveted position in this country of ours? It’s like being given a limitless, blank cheque to spend exclusively on yourself: you know, the odd €85 million here and there, to build yourself a brand new House of Parliament, instead of something we can all enjoy for a change. Or how about a nice, state-of-the-art €600 million State hospital... to be officially opened in time for your birthday, and only a few months before the first national election you’ve ever contested as party leader?

Yes indeed. It’s good to be the PM. And besides, what point would there be in paying our taxes at all, if the resulting mountain of cash couldn’t be somehow diverted into a not-so-secret PN re-election fund, all in the name of democracy?
And, my oh my: this very week, “OPM” dug its paws a little deeper into the national exchequer, this time to finance an advertising campaign which just so happens to spell out the exact same message currently being pumped out by the Nationalist Party’s media trumpets, day after day after day. (Note: at the risk of oversimplification, the message is: “OI! YOU! YES, YOU! GET OFF YOUR BACKSIDE AND GO OUT TO VOTE!”)

Never mind that Malta currently boasts the highest levels of voter participation in the entire known universe. Never mind also that if this election turns out to be any different, it will only be because the Nationalist Party – having occupied government for, oh, a measly 22 years – is now finding it harder than usual to convince its own supporters to do its bidding.
After all, we can always rely on the good old fashioned Department of Information to generously help itself to a little bit of OUR money, in order to run an advertising campaign to convince all those ungrateful, disgruntled Nationalists of the importance of “doing their duty to the Party” come June 6.
And what better way to achieve that noble goal, than by instilling in each and every potential abstainer a subliminal sensation of... guilt?

Quick digression regarding the ads themselves – I believe you will find a specimen somewhere in the pages of this fine newspaper.
According to the DOI, “if you are thinking of not going out to vote, THINK AGAIN.”
Ooooh: sounds a little threatening. And why, pray tell, had we better “think again”? Could the reason perchance be that otherwise... Labour might win an absolute majority? AD might snap up the sixth seat? Norman Lowell might get more votes than Rudolf Cini and Alex Perici Calascione put together? No, wait, I’ve got it: maybe it’s because Lawrence Gonzi’s legitimacy could conceivably be challenged, if the PN gets its ass well and truly kicked next Saturday...

In any case: according to the ads themselves, the real reason we should “think again” before choosing not to vote is because... “thousands of people” once gave up their lives so that we can all enjoy the right to vote.
Really? When? Must have been at some point when no one was actually looking. For as far as I can tell, the right to vote was first obtained by (male) Maltese citizens on 21 February 1921... and if anyone died in the build-up to that particular vicissitude, it was not “thousands of people”, but only four individual rioters/looters/pillagers/unfortunate victims, shot dead by British soldiers while bravely ransacking a private Valletta residence, and throwing its furniture out of windows onto the street.
So what is the DOI trying to tell us, exactly? That if we’re living in a democracy at all, it’s only because a handful of louts somehow succeeded in getting themselves spectacularly killed almost exactly 90 years ago to the day?

But hang on: there is another reason. For you see, while we in democratic Malta sit comfortably on our backsides and take all our civil rights for granted (except for divorce, because that’s... um... well... different), other people in other countries are routinely imprisoned, tortured and killed for demanding the exact same rights.
And THAT, folks, is why we should all flock together to the polls like obedient little sheep in six days’ time.

Hmm. I don’t about you, but arguments like this always remind me of when I was a child (and a notoriously difficult eater), and being told that I should always “finish what’s on my plate”, not out of hunger, but rather out of solidarity with some poor, starving kid somewhere in the Horn of Africa.
Well, even at the age of six I found this an astonishingly unconvincing line of reasoning. Think about for it a second: what benefit could a starving, skeletal little child in Ethiopia possibly derive from the knowledge that – in another part of the world, far, far away – some spoilt (but terribly cute) little brat was being forced to consume more Maltova than he actually needed to keep himself alive?
Sorry, but it just doesn’t make any sense. And my reaction is no different today. Why should an underprivileged, disenfranchised citizen of a brutal dictatorship like Burma – or for that matter, Libya – even remotely give a toss if a handful of spoilt little Maltese citizens decided to go to the beach, instead of exercise their right to vote?
No reason that I can see... and the same goes for the DOI itself. Why the heck should they even care whether I go out and vote or not? It is, after all, a “Department of Information”. In other words, it exists exclusively to inform us of stuff... not to spend our own money to bully some of us into doing what they would clearly much rather not do.
So I thought I’d ask the Director of Information, and... what do you know? He’s got an answer for everything, he does...

It was Europe, folks. They made us do it. Honest: it was those pesky Europeans, forcing us against our will to organise unnecessary campaigns.
Ah yes: the same old excuse we now hide behind every time we are accused of taking unpopular decisions. The good old European Union, which we joined in 2004 to cover up for our local government’s inability to govern, has now become the scapegoat for all our faults.
But in case you were wondering how it happens to work in particular instance, well, here goes:

The Union, you see, is currently bracing itself for the lowest ever turnout in the history its European Parliamentary elections.
Why? Nothing to do with the Nationalist Party, I can assure you. No, it’s more a combination of numerous factors, including: the global economic recession (rightly blamed on global economic policy of the kind invented by the World Bank and aggressively supported by the G20); the current MPs’ expenses scandal in the UK (which has shattered any faith the British might have once had in their politicians, and now threatens to cross borders and undermine EU politics as a whole); as well as a general EU-wide sense of disenchantment with politics for any of a dozen other reasons... very few of which are even remotely applicable to Malta.

But Malta is nonetheless an EU member state, and as such its Department of Information was unexpectedly invited – along with those of all other 27 member states – to a meeting with EU institutions six months ago, in order to help avert a catastrophic drop in EU-wide voter turnout.
This, by the way, is the same EU that very recently initiated infringement procedures against our country, for the grave crime of failing to rein in public expenditure and allowing the deficit to spiral out of control.
Yes, folks: the selfsame EU which drags us kicking and screaming to court for spending too much public money, now expects us to spend MORE public money, on an advertising campaign which we clearly don’t need, and of which we will not be the net beneficiaries.

So who, exactly, stands to benefit the most from this little exercise in public extravagance? The taxpayer, whose money is being spent to bully him into voting? The political parties currently in government in each EU member state... which, for pretty obvious reasons, are likelier to be affected by voter apathy than the parties currently in Opposition? Or the European institutions themselves, which would be forced to interpret a low turnout as a vote of no confidence in the Union itself?

So much for the European side of things. As for the local perspective... well, I ask you: who stands to gain by pumping public money into a campaign urging higher voter participation, when we already enjoy the highest electoral turnout in the world? And who...?
Oh, never mind. You’re all grown-ups now, so I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions. But I will give you one, tiny, weenie hint: it sure as hell ain’t the taxpayer...


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