Supermarket politics

The bonus to the Police Corps is not an isolated example of targeted vote-buying initiatives but the latest in a long and depressing history of such measures.

Cartoon for MaltaToday on Sunday by Mark Scicluna.
Cartoon for MaltaToday on Sunday by Mark Scicluna.

Reacting to the news that the police are to receive a one-off payment of up to €1,900 each - in two instalments, significantly scheduled for October and March respectively - a cynic might remark that these are busy times at Elcom, the electoral offices of the Nationalist Party.

And indeed it is difficult not to interpret this unexpected windfall for the police as anything but a rather transparent attempt to (literally) buy their vote, ahead of a difficult election for the PN.

The first and most telling indication is precisely that this offer consists only in a one-off payment, and not a fixed increase in the police's regular salary. Effectively, this makes it more of a 'bonus' than an actual settlement of dues - and this is all the more surprising, considering that the government owes the same Police Corps millions more in unpaid overtime than it is actually paying out.

The overall impression is similar to that of a man who is heavily in debt, but can't afford to pay his dues in one go. Instead, he may offer a small token payment to keep his creditors from pursuing the matter at law... and while this sort of measure is generally regarded as an acceptable way to buy time in such circumstances, the actual token offer itself will certainly not be interpreted as a substitute for the real amount owed.

The same applies to this one-time payment - which will not even begin to settle the debt owed by government to the Police, though it might alleviate part of the cause for complaint among individual police officers.

Even the timing of the instalments is suggestive of an ulterior motive. Traditionally, general elections are held in either autumn or early spring: October and March being frequent choices (the last election was in fact in March).

So Gonzi's choice of precisely those months may have been dictated precisely by his options for the next election... bearing in mind that, for obvious reasons, an offer of this nature will have more impact the closer it is to the date of the election it is intended to influence.

Alternatively, it could just as easily be part of an electoral 'red herring' to keep the entire country (and, of course, the Opposition) guessing. Either way, it is clear that what is uppermost on Dr Gonzi's mind is in fact the election, and not the remuneration of the Police Corps at all.

All this is likely to further undermine public confidence in a political system which encourages governments to only remember its obligations to the public in the last few months before an election campaign.

Nor is the offer to the Police Corps an isolated example of targeted vote-buying initiatives. In fact it would be altogether more accurate to describe it as but the latest in a long and depressing history of such measures. 

Of these, perhaps the most iconic remains the 'secret deal' with Armier squatters. Just 19 days before the 2008 election - and only five days after announcing he was taking over responsibility for the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (MEPA) to redress the country's "environmental deficit" - Dr Gonzi had written to the Armier squatters promising to legalise their seaside shanty-town six months after being re-elected.

Other specific groups have likewise been sporadically targeted by such 'supermarket politics'. In the 1990s, Labour and PN competed almost shamelessly in a no-holds barred contest to woo the hunting community: offering to add more birds to the list of 'huntable' species, or to extend hunting seasons, etc.

Past Labour administrations have been particularly guilty of buying votes in the most irresponsible of ways: arguably none more so that that led by Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, who liberally dished out 9,000 government jobs on the eve of the 1987 election.

Paradoxically, the Nationalist Party had cried foul at the time: accusing Dr Mifsud Bonnici of sowing the seeds of the financial deficit which subsequent generations would christen 'Il-Hofra' ('the hole').

From this perspective it is doubly exasperating to witness a similar misuse of public funds on the part of a PN government all these years later... more so in times of international austerity, when European governments are urged to be more responsible in managing public finances.

Unfortunately, it seems the opposite is currently happening. Just a few Sundays ago, our newspaper revealed how spending by government ministries had shot up astronomically between January and June this year - paradoxically, at a time when Europe was (and still is) tightening its belt to counter the economic crisis.

The sudden spike in local government spending over the first six months of 2012 appeared at a glance to directly reflect an almost identical sudden increase in expenditure in the months prior to the March 2008 election... leaving little doubt as to the existence of a clear correlation between elections and public money being surreptitiously spent on 'subliminal' vote-buying exercises.

This is hardly what one was led to expect, when Prime Minister Gonzi vaunted his 'safe pair of hands' to steer the country through a brewing global financial storm.

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