Saturday 30 May 2020

Smells like an election

This article first appeared in the Sunday edition of Malta Today 

Yes, I know I am stating the obvious, because the rumours have been rife for a while. But if you had any lingering doubts, just take a good whiff of that smell … that’s the smell of an election in the air, maybe sooner rather than later. At the time of writing, things are developing at such a fast rate that the only ones who knows for sure when the election will be is the person who has the actual authority to call it.

But the signs are there, the most prominent of which has been the sudden surge in collective agreements here, there and everywhere, particularly in the civil service. Pay rises, promotions and better working conditions have been announced across the board and more are probably in the pipeline. That’s great, of course, what’s not to like? The public sector is not exactly the best paid career choice for those who make up the rank and file of the various departments and entities (I’m not speaking about the cushy consultancies and political appointments of course), so any time a civil servant or anyone employed by what we colloquially call ’il-gvern’ (the government) gets a raise, that’s good news. Let’s face it, apart from guaranteed job security and half days in summer, there really isn’t that much to lure anyone to work with the public sector. The fact that, if you are so inclined, you can slide by with doing the bare minimum amount of work is also an additional perk (and please don’t tell me it doesn’t happen because I spent a mercifully brief period working in a government department and I saw it with my own eyes.)

So, yes, three cheers for those whose salaries have been topped up. In fact, it would be great if more money could also be poured into the educational and medical professions as well, because teachers and those who work in health care deserve to be paid handsomely in my view for the important work they do.

But, when it comes to improving salaries and wages, as they like to say in comedy, timing is everything. And I’ve used that analogy deliberately because, come on, it is comical (in a tragic sort of way) that there is this flurry of activity to butter voters up with improved financial packages precisely NOW.

Of course, the trend of those in power doling out ‘something’ to the public as a kind of juicy morsel (or crumbs from the table, depending on which way you look at it) did not start yesterday, but has probably been part and parcel of this small island ever since self-government was granted. Small communities are like that; it’s every man for himself, and kowtowing to those who hold all the cards is an inherited practice which was documented so well by Jeremy Boissevian’s classic anthropological study of political patronage.

Probably one of the catchiest election slogans I can remember was the one created by then PN candidate Michael Frendo which (if my memory serves me right) was written on T-shirts, “Mhux pjaċiri, imma drittijiet” (not favours, but rights). This was during the 1987 election campaign when political patronage and distribution of favours to voters had reached almost ridiculous lengths, and was so blatant and in your face that it was almost laughable (yet again, equally tragic).

And yet, despite the very uplifting and ambitious promise on that T-shirt which painted a picture of a new dawn for Malta, subsequent administrations did nothing to curb this ingrained habit (for want of a better word). The PN Governments between 1987 – 2013 were much more subtle and low-key about it, but everyone knows it happened. Once in power, every political party quickly realizes just what having that kind of considerable clout and leverage actually means, and on their part, voters too use their own leverage to hold politicians “to ransom”.

When, during his brief stint between ’96 and ’98, Alfred Sant tried to actually govern without handing out any tantalizing goodies (jobs, promotions, cushy consultancies, social housing, tenders, you get the drift), the backlash from Labour supporters who had been eagerly awaiting their turn for a slice of the pie was fierce to say the least. Many called him mad and delusional, but he made it clear that no one would be getting any preferential treatment just because they had voted Labour. It was unheard of in Malta, and it made me sit up and take notice, but many inside the party turned against him. In any case, the shortest administration in living memory was soon booted out after Dom Mintoff rebelled against him, and Sant called a snap election. And everything went back to the way it had always been.

The problem with trying to eradicate this mentality lies in the fact that it suits voters just as much as it suits politicians. Many have no qualms in openly stated that with an election around the corner ”now is the time” to ask for something from your local MP, or friendly neighbourhood Minister. They don’t even realise how they sound, and the implications of what that means. Sure, you will probably get what you ask for as politicians start to gauge their chances of getting re-elected and begin testing the waters of the public mood as they embark on their constituency rounds which are given the deceptively folksy name of ‘door to door’. Suddenly the power is shifted and it is now in the voters’ hands, and boy do they know it. They positively relish the fact that they hold the fate of the politician, who has comes sheepishly crawling behind their door, in their hands. You know, the same politician, who has probably not come round in the last four years. So they know they have the upper hand and they use it to squeeze what they can out of him/her. Promises are made, deals are struck, votes are promised (I’ll give you my No. 1 vote, Dott, for sure!) and once the election comes round, well then it’s payback time.

So really, as long as we, the electorate keep playing the game, it will always be like this. We shouldn’t have to wait around, with begging bowl in hand, until the Government of the day starts distributing pay rises and suddenly signing collective agreements with a fancy flourish of the pen, complete with a smiling photo opportunity. We should get what we deserve as voters by right, not as a well-timed, indulgently dispensed “favour” so that we can feel immense gratitude like good little children who have been given a lollipop by Papa.

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