Wednesday 01 December 2021

Taxi Mary, quite contrary

Pictured above: White taxis have recently upped their game by introducing their own app

This column first appeared in Malta Today

Remember that time when the then Transport Minister Austin Gatt took the bull by the horns and announced that, in adherence to EU rules, Malta’s public transport needed a major overhaul and set about putting into place some much-needed reforms?   

He started with the liberalisation of the hearse service which led to a four day strike by the Transport Federation in the middle of summer – July 2008 to be exact. Drivers of not just hearses but buses, mini-buses, and taxis joined in the strike in solidarity, which caused havoc as they blocked roads, left tourists stranded and which meant that grieving relatives could not hold funerals for their deceased loved ones. 

The Malta Hearses Association called off the strike on reaching agreement with the Government, but the Association of White Taxis (numbering 200 taxis at the time) knew theirs was the next sector in line to be liberalised because it had enjoyed a monopoly for far too long. In fact a few months later in October of that year,  there were rumblings that another strike was in the works. It took another two years for the reforms to actually be hammered out and agreed upon, while the granting of more licenses also took a while; another 50 registered white taxi licences were only granted in 2012.  

With liberalisation came competition. I believe one of the first new taxi companies was eCabs, and eventually over the next decade, more and more cab companies were launched.  The use of apps made it easy to book them, and the possibility of sharing a ride with someone, initiated by the company Cool rides meant that using a cab was relatively cheap (by which I mean €4 – €5). Then Covid hit and Covid has now subsided and I am still trying to figure out what happened. Despite the proliferation of different cab companies, it has now once again become too prohibitively expensive to use a taxi on a regular basis.  

When I speak to drivers they say it is due to the lack of drivers because so many who were doing this job have left the island.  I have also. heard that drivers are badly paid. Some also point out that when Malta reached the height of its population boom in 2019 the demand for taxis was high, only for it be crippled, like so many industries, in 2020 (but why should the consumer always have to foot the bill for a company’s losses?) Others blame the hike in price during rush hour on the heavy traffic; in fact the price now changes according to the time of day. I took a taxi into Valletta from Mosta recently for €15 (which I was willing to pay since it was pouring with rain, I had an appointment and needed to be on time), but by the time I needed to get home the price had gone up to a ridiculous €24.  (Ironically, I saw a sign for a white taxi which said €20).  Forget this, I muttered to myself, and took the bus home instead.

What is even more bizarre is that even though Austin Gatt broke the monopoly, liberalised the taxi sector, and paved the way for healthy competition – rather than competing to give us the best prices, all the current taxi companies are now equally expensive. And that includes the ones where you share a ride.  No wonder that, after all these years, for most people taxis are once again considered a one-off luxury, a means of transport you book just to take you to the airport, or when you are desperate to get somewhere without the hassles of finding a parking spot.  So why do they keep insisting on such high prices which are only making them lose clients, when keeping rates reasonable would attract more business?  It’s a bit like the real estate sector: even though the island is teeming with empty apartments, prices refuse to budge.

In fact, it’s a good thing the guy who wrote the old Maltese ditty Taxi Mary does not have to revamp the lyrics for today’s times.  Rather than going around the island in his taxi as he describes the girls in every town or village, he would probably just send them a WhatsApp message instead.

How one painting served to prove a point 

The parish priest of the St George Basilica in Gozo, Fr. Joseph Curmi did a very commendable thing when he commissioned paintings to illustrate Acts of Mercy inside the basilica.  Each painting shows a victim of society and one of them portrays Lassana Cisse, the 42-year-old father of three who was killed in cold blood in April 2019 in Ħal Far. Each victim is flanked by two other figures, that of Christ and that of society, which in this painting is represented by someone looking at their mobile.  The symbolism is clear – let us not turn away from those in need of help (which is, after all, the basis of Christ’s teachings).

Ah, but those who took one look at the painting and freaked out were not really that bothered with reading the story, let alone trying to understand any symbolism. They just saw a black man being immortalised in a portrait in “their’ Church.  Should any sociology student wish to take the comments underneath the story (posted by those who, I am 100% sure, only read the headline) they would have a complete profile of what motivates the mentality of these types of people.  It is a mindset impoverished through a lack of cultural empathy, but even more significantly, a complete disconnect from the religion which they claim to guard so jealously.  Fr Curmi probably never imagined that his well-meaning gesture would create such a stir or…who knows? Maybe he knew precisely what he was doing. For if there ever was a painting which hit a nerve and served to prove his point in one fell swoop, then it was this one.  I tend to lean towards the latter possibility, because it is clear he knows precisely how uncaring some parts of Maltese society have become.

Interviewed by TVM, Fr Curmi said: “…what is society going to do? It will either keep scrolling as we do on our mobile or it can decide to pay attention to him. The Church is the same. The Church is represented by a priest outside the door. Why? Because the foreigner cannot become part of us by telling him to come inside. First, we have to go outside.”

I have often heard people spew hateful words like, “I’m sick of seeing all these blacks in my country”.  And I always wonder how they manage to handle the sight of children of immigrants who were born here, consider themselves Maltese and speak Maltese as fluently as them.  And what about children of mixed marriages where one of the parents is Maltese or those children who have been adopted from African or Asian countries?   It must be very exhausting to go around hating so many people all the time and they must live in a constant state of tension as they direct their ire at anyone who looks different or is outside their concept of the ‘norm’.   

In a Maltese demographic landscape which has now changed beyond recognition because of the many nationalities which have set up home and are raising their families here, the xenophobic ones are in for a rough ride.  Listen around you to the many languages, to non-Maltese parents talking about teaching children their mother tongue along with Maltese,  to the grocery shops and restaurants offering cuisine from many lands….and it is clear that we have become a melting pot, more than ever before. Now, we can either embrace this change for its enriching, positive aspects (of which I believe there are many) or dig our heels in and scream and shout loudly in protest like big babies. 

One thing is for sure, lashing out at a harmless painting is not going to change anything.

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