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frank_psaila
Frank Psaila

Labour’s laissez-faire hits home with law-abiding citizens

The idea that anything goes, and that this country should spiral into a free for all, is not something that the PN should embrace

frank_psaila
Frank Psaila
10 September 2014, 8:30am
The Muscat administration, which promised to cut excessive bureaucracy, has very often gone to the extremes.
The Muscat administration, which promised to cut excessive bureaucracy, has very often gone to the extremes.
The PN must be aware that people will resist impositions or rules that do not make sense to them, while the reckless way of doing things so as to keep everybody happy, that the Muscat administration has been resorting to, is unacceptable.

Only two years down the line and Labour’s couldn’t-care-less attitude is already reaping mediocrity, and lawlessness.

The Muscat administration, which promised to cut excessive bureaucracy, has very often gone to the extremes:

•             Illegal encroachments on public land by bars, kiosks, restaurants and beach concessions have mushroomed in all parts of Malta and Gozo with legal enforcement getting progressively weaker;

•             Umbrellas and deckchairs, and every other imaginable eyesore occupying public land;

•             An illegal road is built on Comino – and nobody has, as yet, been apprehended;

•             €4.2 million [taxpayers’ money] to take back the property used as Cafe Premier in Valletta, which it actually owned;

•             A car is parked illegally on the St. Luke’s Hospital helipad – which stopped it being used in an emergency – and nobody is held accountable;

•             The new Labour government drops a court case against the Labour party over 10,000 square metres of prime property in St Andrews – Australia Hall – so that the party can make money out of state property. [Imagine if this were to happen in Cameron’s UK or Merkel’s Germany; but it’s free for all [read Labour and its cronies] in Muscat’s Malta]

An inflexible mind-set: The PN way

On the other hand, the Nationalist Party lost thousands of votes because of what was perceived to be the heavy handedness, and inflexibility with which, at times, it governed.

In fairness sake, successive Nationalist governments tried to introduce order in this country after decades of a couldn’t-care-less attitude under successive Labour administrations. The Nationalist Party restored good order and discipline, but in time, and due to several factors, it, at times, went overboard, which resulted in heavy handedness with law abiding citizens. The Labour party, in opposition, capitalised brilliantly on these shortcomings and promised a flexible way of doing business when in government. Two years later, and it’s a mess, already.

Which begs the question – what is the way forward for the PN: Labour’s laissez-faire attitude or a continuation of what it used to do, especially in its last legislature? Definitely not the Labour way – that is a given, but many law-abiding citizens would tell you that neither should it be the old [PN] way. A new PN government needs to find the right balance which is, probably, the common-sense approach: regulations are essential for business to flourish, but they need to be well-thought out regulations.

‘No, we can’t’

The problems with the ‘heavy handed’ approach under a PN government were innumerable:

•             Businesses were burdened with excessive bureaucracy;

•             Lack of flexibility from MEPA, despite huge efforts to improve things and cut unnecessary red tape;

•             Endless studies before a project was given the green light;

•             Letting resources, not least human resources, go to waste;

•             Encouraging start-ups on paper, making it a nightmare for them to kick-off due to excessive bureaucracy and inflexibility;

•             The application of policies in a narrow manner;

•             Excessive discipline and enforcement which, at times, resulted in government interfering in other people’s business;

•             Enforcement notices by the planning authority slapped on small and medium enterprises being the order of the day;

•             Leadership crisis within the public sector, with heads of government departments and senior civil servants who made it a point to procrastinate and complicate matters unnecessarily, at the expense of the hard working citizen;

‘No, we can’t’ was the most fashionable reply common mortals could expect from government ministries and departments. In other words, with the PN administration one could no longer come to some sort of agreement – one could not ‘settle matters’.

This approach, coupled with the unavoidable disadvantage of being in government for a very long time; its myopic decisions on civil rights issues; infighting; the inability to understand the electors’ psyche; the water and electricity bills endless saga; and a Labour party with a well-oiled electoral machine, a completely new image, and a new opposition leader promising heaven on earth, led the PN to suffer a humiliating defeat at the polls. A pity, considering the sterling work done by Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi, whose responsible leadership restricted Malta from falling into the same economic situation experienced by countries such as Greece and Spain.

Withdraw the inflexible mind-set

The idea that anything goes, and that this country should spiral into a free for all, is not something that the PN should embrace. However, the PN needs to prove that it has learnt from its mistakes and when in government it will be more flexible with law-abiding citizens and more prepared to help people with simple things and show that it cares.

On Iswed fuq l-Abjad last week, PN executive committee president Ann Fenech told me that the Nationalist Party is ‘back in business’. In many ways she’s right. Since his election as PN leader, Simon Busuttil initiated various initiatives aimed, specifically, to put the party back in business. He addressed, successfully, the precarious financial situation of the party and its media. That was a mammoth task. He appointed a commission, headed by former EU Commissioner Joe Borg, to identify and vet general and local election candidates. The setting up of 10 policy fora to discuss new political proposals for the party was also a step in the right direction, as was the decision to set up an Oversight Board to monitor its financial and operational performance. The rebranding of the party’s media, and its plans to appoint a CEO, are also a feather in Busuttil’s cap.

But it isn’t just about structures and policy fora; it is about a change of mind-set too. The PN must withdraw the inflexible mind-set that characterised much of the last legislature: an inflexible approach that led to excessive bureaucracy and a deadly ‘No, we can’t’ attitude. Voter appeasement is not an option – it often leads to the lawlessness which we are now witnessing, but neither is an inflexible attitude an option.

An overhaul of the public sector

The PN, from the opposition benches, needs to put forward proposals for a complete overhaul of the public sector. There are, of course, some great people in government but it is widely acknowledged that the current public sector system, the result of complacency and appeasement by successive administrations, is failing us. Efforts to have an efficient and less bureaucratic public sector are not giving the desired results. Accountability is often lacking, and in various departments there is an evident lack of proper leadership.

The government needs innovative and professional managers at the helm of the public sector. A reform is needed and all government employees need to own the reform. Public sector employees who invest in themselves need to be rewarded and encouraged by their seniors. An efficient public sector would translate into a better service to the public, cut useless bureaucracy and avoid direct interventions from politicians – which, at times, lead to voters’ appeasement at the expense of the law-abiding citizen.

Finding a judicious balance

For the PN finding a judicious balance between what people want and the rules that are meant to avoid injustices – and not to abet harassment – is paramount. It would need to instil a new culture: that of realising why the rules are there in the first place and acting accordingly rather than insisting rigidly on the rules as if they were an end in themselves. It is not easy to transmit this idea, either to the voters or to the civil servants who apply the rules.

But the PN must be aware that people will resist impositions or rules that do not make sense to them while the reckless way of doing things so as to keep everybody happy, that the Muscat administration has been resorting to, is unacceptable.

The next few months may well determine the long term future of the Nationalist Party.

frank_psaila
Frank Psaila, a lawyer by profession, anchors Iswed fuq l-Abjad on Net TV. He was formerly...
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