Déjà vu: When all else fails, blame civil servants

The last thing this country needs is a political witch hunt within the public service

Robert Abela’s stern warning about public service employees and cushy jobs was unwarranted and may have caught many by surprise.

But for those with political insight it is the age-old excuse politicians in government sometimes use to shift blame for their own failings.

Back in May 2003, just after winning the general election that heralded Malta’s entry into the EU, then Nationalist Party secretary general Joe Saliba had made similar comments at his party’s general council.

Despite a victory at the polls, Saliba urged his own government to “disband a web of Labour supporters working in government departments” who he claimed were putting “spokes in the wheels in an attempt to put the government in a bad light”.

The statement was heavily criticised by Saliba’s Labour counterpart at the time, Jimmy Magro, who accused the PN of wanting to see a purge of Labour sympathisers from the public service.

Roll forward 21 years and the roles have been reversed. It is now the Labour government that is suspecting a web of saboteurs – probably forming part of the concocted bogeyman called ‘the establishment’ – and the PN that is crying foul. Abela just lived up to the adage by blaming civil servants for the electoral setbacks the Labour Party suffered.

The country’s two major unions – UHM and GWU – did right to criticise the Prime Minister’s comments. If there are individuals within the public service who are not fulfilling their duties, are skiving on the job or performing their duties poorly they should be disciplined in line with the rules that govern the public service. No distinction should be made on the basis of the individual’s political allegiance or sympathies.

But it is rich for Abela to point a finger at civil servants when it was his government that conveniently amended a long-standing practice that saw people accused of serious crimes being suspended on half pay. This change in policy only came into force a couple of months ago and this leader has no doubt it was part of an electoral ploy to placate discontent.

A beneficiary of this policy tweak was a former Transport Malta official – who also happens to be a Labour Party functionary – who is facing criminal charges of sexual abuse on the workplace. This person ended up being re-employed in a different authority within the same ministry.

What message did this send to the victims? Indeed, what message did this send to other civil servants? Abela’s own parliamentary secretary for equality, Rebecca Buttigieg, when pressed on the matter admitted she would not have re-employed such an individual.

Abela has no moral authority to pontificate about civil servants and cushy jobs when his administration has been accommodating abusers such as the case above.

The public service employs more than 50,000 people of varied competences and skills. The absolute majority are hardworking individuals who go beyond their call of duty to serve the public. There are also the bad apples and a few of these can also be politically motivated to prop up ‘their’ government whatever the circumstances are or ‘sabotage’ the administration because ‘their’ party is not in power.

The public service’s ethos must be one of pursuing the public good within the policy framework dictated by the government that people elected. The latter however, does not imply that public sector workers should close an eye to wrongdoing if they come across it. Public servants should not suffer political discrimination and yet every worker on the government payroll must realise that they cannot allow their personal political beliefs to determine how they discharge their duty.

Citizens benefitting from public services must not be discriminated against or feel they are being short changed because fellow citizens with connections get fast-tracked.

There should be no qualms about these principles. It benefits everyone that the public service operates efficiently. Within this context, it is government’s duty to ensure the civil service has the tools and human resources to deliver.

The last thing this country needs is a political witch hunt within the public service.