Claudine Cassar | Sunday, 07 June 2009
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The spring of discontent

By the time you read this article, we will know the results of the MEP elections in Malta. According to the poll published by MaltaToday last weekend, the signs are that the Labour Party is heading for a major electoral victory, with an absolute majority of the people who cast their vote writing the number 1 next to a Labour candidate’s name.
One of the most telling statistics that came out of the poll was the fact that a large percentage of people indicated their plans to abstain. This is indicative of the rather disgruntled state of mind of the electorate. People are unhappy, and they are making it a point to make their resentment felt by the political class.
It seems that every day we read the papers, we are greeted with some bad news. Everyone is unhappy about something or another.
Doctors are unhappy because of the situation in the primary health centres, where 40 doctors are doing the work that should be done by 110. They are also miffed because a 2007 agreement on promotions for resident specialists has still not been honoured. Things are on hold till the 15th June, but it is clear that if the main issues are not resolved by then, the medical profession might resort to industrial action.
Teachers are unhappy because their allowance increases have been on hold since 2007, and discussions have been stalled for another six months while a comparative study of allowances across the public service is carried out. The MUT have announced a work-to-rule directive in government and Church schools, which could end up disrupting school examinations, which are due to start in a couple of weeks’ time.
Engineers and architects in the civil service are unhappy because talks regarding salary revisions, which also commenced in 2007, have been stalled indefinitely. Their Union has now joined the queue of unions threatening industrial action.
Tourism operators are unhappy because less tourists are coming to Malta – arrivals for the first four months of this year were estimated at 275,636, 12.9% less than last year, so their concerns are justified. Under the circumstances it appears that the decision to raise entrance fees to several museums on the island, and also to levy a per capita tax on tourists staying in hotels, is rather foolhardy.
Hunters and trappers are unhappy because they cannot pursue their hobby in spring at the moment, and possibly for all future springs to come.
The environmentalists, and all the people in the South of the island, are unhappy about the planned power station extension, which uses heavy fuel oil, which is more environmentally damaging than gas.
The fashion-conscious are unhappy because the price of clothing and footwear has gone up, while holidaymakers are unhappy because foreign travel is now more expensive. And the rest of us shoppers are unhappy because in general things cost around 4% more than they did last year.
Some are unhappy about the irregular immigration problem, others are unhappy because of the dust and filth, while the rest are unhappy about the state of the roads.
The public mood is, in general, morose.
The only beings I can think of who are happy, and believe me, I am really scraping the bottom of the barrel here… are the five MEPs who will be elected today, and the birds, who are currently flying over the island relatively unmolested.
The main recurring theme in the litany of complaints is money. It is clear that the time has come for the Prime Minister and Minister of Finance to be frank about the economy. We can all feel that things are not going well, however a touch of honesty would work wonders to reduce the general feeling of anxiety and pull everyone together, increasing the chances of unions being more flexible until things turn around.
That said, honesty is not sufficient at this stage of the game. Nobody can seriously expect the unions to play ball and accept to delay raises for their members unless concrete action is taken across the board to cut expenses.
Here’s a thought – as a gesture of solidarity with all those who have been waiting for pay rises for over two years, our worthy ministers and parliamentary secretaries could offer to reverse the hefty 40% raise they awarded themselves last year. That would send a strong message that we’re all in this together.

Money, and lots of it
In recent weeks we have all read about the expenses scandal that has hit British MPs like a hurricane. It is clear from what has been coming out in the media that politicians from all sides of the House had got accustomed to increasing their income by claiming several costs related to running a second home in their constituency.
The unspoken understanding was that MPs’ salaries in the UK are not high enough, and therefore everyone took to feathering their nest by claiming as many expenses as possible, including moat repairs, duck islands, dog food and porn movies.
Basically everyone was doing it, so British MPs were lulled into a false sense of entitlement. A feeling that quickly evaporated when the whole situation blew up in their faces when they were exposed by The Daily Telegraph.
This saga reminds me of the situation in Malta vis-à-vis campaign expenses. Our politicians know that the spending limits imposed on candidates are unrealistic, and therefore the great majority have taken to ignoring them.
None of us are stupid. We all see the full-page adverts, the online banners, the brochures, the receptions… these cost money, and lots of it. The great majority of candidates must have spent much more than the limit allowed, and yet none of them seem worried about it.
I disagree with our politicians on this one. If it’s broken, fix it – don’t just ignore it. If the limit is unreasonable, they should lobby for it to be changed prior to the next election. Simply cruising along pretending the limit does not exist, and then presumably presenting incorrect accounts and making a false oath, should never be an option.
What are the parties waiting for? An exposé showing estimates of campaign spending candidate by candidate, based on the number of adverts shown in the papers, the number of receptions organised, and so forth?
Would it not be better to lay this matter to rest once and for all?


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