Tuesday 14 July 2020

You have to mean what you say, and say what you mean

This column first appeared in Malta Today

In the behind the scenes documentary of her book tour to promote her autobiography Becoming, former First Lady Michelle Obama made the following pointed observation: “When you’re President of the United States, words matter. You can start wars, you can crash economies, there’s too much power to be that careless.”

This, obviously, is true of any world leader, even that of a tiny micro state such as Malta’s.  When you are leading a country through an unprecedented situation, being carefully precise is even more crucial. Words matter, and how.  

Over the last few months I have tried to give Robert Abela the benefit of the doubt, but there have been too many instances when he has just blabbed things out, only for him to furiously backpedal when the proverbial excrement hits the fan.  He has a habit of coming out with statements on a Sunday morning with a beaming smile which must leave everyone in his office scrambling to pick up the pieces. From where I am standing, because of these hurried attempts to spread a feel good factor, there seems to be a lack of co-ordination between the various departments which are involved and little, if no, consultation.  The nitty gritty details of how things are going to work in practice are being brushed aside and vaguely dismissed like a bothersome fly.  But that is no way to lead.

When he announced that vouchers will be given to “all residents” there was general approval, but then someone decided to call the helpline to double-check and they were told, no “it is only for Maltese citizens.”  This about-face was confirmed by a Government spokesman as quoted in a story which appeared in The Times who said that only those whose names appear in the electoral register will get them. 

Did you say, “uproar”?  Well, you better believe it.  After all, how much longer can those who have come to settle here continue to be treated in this way? Frankly, I am surprised they haven’t all up and left by now as a result of these constant blows below the belt.  

Alerted to the words of disgust which erupted on social media and faster than you can say, “ex-pats”, the Government issued a hastily worded statement as a “clarification”, which is a backhanded way of saying U-turn.  So now, all those with residency documents who are on the Identity Malta data base will also receive the vouchers. Personally, I don’t have a problem with a genuine U-turn, although I would prefer it if it were accompanied by something on the lines of “we were wrong, we apologise and we won’t do it again.” 

But when U-turns become a habit it means that someone is not thinking things through. It also means that the PM does not have the correct advisors or PR people who can pull him to one side and tell him “look, Prime Minister, this is going to blow up in our faces for the following reasons…” and then proceed to spell them out clearly to him in no uncertain terms. What he doesn’t need are fawning yes men or women who don’t dare contradict him; if that is what he has surrounded himself with, it does not bode well.   

Did this voucher business have to reach this point and create such ill-will? We have a considerable foreign community which lives and works here, and this constant lack of consideration from official channels has soured the relationship more than they can ever realise. I hope someone from the Government is on the expats Facebook group to monitor what is being said. It is not pretty.  These constant discriminatory decisions which create a wall between those who were born here and those who chose it as their home, are simply playing on the unsavoury nationalistic fervour which gives fuel to people who already have a grudge against anyone who is not Maltese. 

Oh and by the way, it is not even legal to discriminate like this under EU laws.

When it comes to the pandemic, which for a while was being handled with a calm, professional approach, it has now unraveled into confusion galore. Robert Abela has made several speeches in which he has completely contradicted public health advice.  He has the habit of flinging words carelessly out into the air like “amnesty” which caused havoc  (and rightly so) with reference to the fines imposed on those who breached the various legal notices.  In a country which probably invented the concept of loopholes, using such a loaded word is highly irresponsible and insulting to those who have always followed the rules. He tried to salvage the situation afterwards by saying that he was referring to the option to contest the fines in certain cases, but the word was out there and is still being quoted to this day.   

If the last few months have not been anxiety-ridden enough, he then threw the whole country into a tailspin last Sunday by telling us that the state of emergency is over, masks and social distancing are no longer mandatory and the restrictions of public gatherings of more than 75 people would be removed.  As a result, every single person I have met since then has had a different interpretation of what they think that means.  Facebook was replete with questions about weddings, festas and other major events. Trying to explain that one wears a mask and adheres to the painstakingly written public health guidelines for shops, offices and other outlets, simply because it is the right thing to do to prevent further outbreaks, does not work. Someone questioned whether people really need to be spoon-fed, and my conclusion is that the answer is yes.  

You cannot be ambiguous, you cannot leave things to interpretation because even after all this time and the constant explanations, there are those who (apparently) simply cannot grasp how the virus is transmitted.  Or they just don’t care any more.  Abela had the responsibility to explain what lifting the state of emergency actually meant, which basically is that Charmaine Gauci no longer has the wide-ranging powers she had to implement any measures she deems necessary to protect public health.  It also meant that the last three legal notices will be lifted which cover such things as the travel ban, the closure of schools,  suspension of organised events, and the number of people in public spaces. These are the restrictions which will be lifted on 30 June.  

So, no, it is not the case that all the guidelines should be thrown out the window or that restaurants can now cram as many tables as they want indoors.  It is because people hear only what suits them that Abela’s words, which carry so much weight because of his position, need to be very exact. I have lost count of the many times I have heard people quoting his words, “the virus is behind us”, “the pandemic is over”, whether sarcastically or because they actually believe it.

Personally I do not need a PM to tell me whether something is risky or not because I think I am mature enough to assess my own risk factors, based on the science, but there are a lot of people who seem to rely on what those in power say, in order to know what to think.  Critical thinking, logic and reading accurate information from reliable sources are not our strong points (and by “our” I don’t mean just here in Malta).  I find that too many are easily swayed and persuaded by narratives which are not even traceable to a source but simply reduced to “what someone said”. 

I do not even think Abela is spreading good vibes or distributing vouchers just because of votes, as some claim (those who would not be caught dead voting PL would hardly do so for a voucher). I think this is all about his need for approval, but if he is that concerned about being popular and liked then he should stop undermining the health authorities and get on board with what they are saying.  On the whole, the public needs and wants one clear message rather than conflicting ones, especially if we want to avoid a situation where we will have to go through this all over again.  If he thought controlling the populace with lockdown measures was difficult once, try doing it twice. 

Finally, he must also remember that the medium is the message. He has made it a habit of making important announcements every Sunday during an interview programme on One TV.  If he cannot see what is wrong with preferring to be on his own party station, and if everyone around him cannot see the problem either, that means there is no one capable of understanding how powerful and important it is to choose the way one communicates.  

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