Unfinished business | Helena Dalli

As Helena Dalli looks forward to implement the policies she never got time to do under the 1996 Labour administration, she todays speak about why Malta needs a more efficient public service and increased participation of women in the workforce

Labour MP Helena Dalli.
Labour MP Helena Dalli.

The University of Malta is bustling with activity, with students rushing from one lecture to another. For once I manage to find parking after only three rounds of the parking area and go on to meet Helena Dalli, who is still recovering from a leg injury.

We make our way towards the library of the Arts Faculty, and thence into a small room. In the background, students are working on their assignments or quietly reading a book.

Sitting in a plush red sofa, Dalli smiles as she waits for me to start the interview with the most obvious topic: her statement that a Labour government would carry out an audit in all government entities and departments to rectify the mismanagement of the public service.

Following days of reports in the media claiming that this meant that a Labour government would "fire people", Dalli insists otherwise:

"We will never solve an injustice by creating another one. All we're saying is making the full use of the tools and structures already in place - such as the Employment and Training Services Act and in-service training."

She lambasts NET News for the way it reported her press conference, accusing the PN media of putting words into her mouth.

"If I had truly said 'we'll be firing people' they would have broadcast myself saying that and not air the voice of the reporter. They wanted to purposely mislead the public because they have little left on which to attack us. So the PN is now resorting to scaremongering tactics."

She goes on to add that the same persons who were today trying to scare off the electorate were the same individuals who in 1987 said that "the civil sector should be politicised".

Dalli says this comment was made by then PN secretary general Austin Gatt, at a PN general council.

"Then there was Paul Borg Olivier who sent an email to the heads of departments requesting personal data on individuals who had made complaints to ministries and parliamentary secretariats," she notes.

Dalli points out that the PN's tactic was part of the "third phase of power", whereby a government uses the media to brainwash its audience: "They use propaganda and demonise whoever dares to challenge them. Because that is what they are doing to us, being in Opposition. They misquote us and repeat it over and over again."

Dalli - shadow minister for public service - says that the necessity of an audit was informed through instances where the person responsible for a job would be in reality qualified to do something different. "Take the public transport reform. The person who had been entrusted with the planning of the routes was trained in telephony... and now everyone's complaining about the routes.

"These are the shortcomings we want to address: we want to see that the person doing the job deserves to be doing it. If that person isn't right for the job, his or her abilities will be used for a different service. And it is technical people trained in human resources who will decide that."

Has Labour leader Joseph Muscat endorsed her comments?

"Joseph Muscat wants to see the country moving forward and this can be achieved through a public sector functioning at its utmost. Take the World Bank report that says that Malta's not attractive enough for investment because of red tape.

"As soon as you have an efficient civil sector it automatically creates a ripple effect where it, for example, improves a business's operation because the owner doesn't have to go running from one place to another, seeking different application forms to expand."

Isn't this what government's one-stop shop 'Business First' is all about?

"Yes, but this has only been set up lately. We have been calling for the eradication of unnecessary bureaucracy for years. Even worse is the Public Service Commission saying that government was using the positions of trust - supposedly only allowed in secretariats - at all levels within the public sector."

Dalli adds that there was still a pending letter in which the commission had urged government to "at least inform it" about the appointments.

The Labour MP insists that the audit would be aimed at individuals at decision-making levels.

When Finance Minister Tonio Fenech announced the budgetary revision earlier this year, he said cuts to the public sector would include no replacement of retired individuals from certain posts.

By how much does Dalli believe the current public sector staff should be downsized?

"I don't think it's a question of downsizing, especially when I hear people complain about lack of staff in certain departments while other departments are overcrowded."

So would you redeploy them?

"Well, you have the Employment Act which is precisely about this. Isn't it logical that things have to change when you have people doing nothing at work because they are overstaffed, while others cannot keep up with the work demand because they are understaffed?"

Referring once again to how NET News had reported her statement, Dalli insists that it was a Nationalist government that had ushered in a culture of transfers.

"Data shows that thousands of transfers took place under the Nationalist government. I simply cannot understand why they keep on attacking us for wanting to improve the public sector when they themselves have carried all these transfers."

She points out that the Nationalist government was carrying out "political transfers", which she says is different from what Labour wants to do.

"We simply want to make better use of our resources."

Going by history and need, certain strategic positions were always subject to political appointment stemming from the necessity of political trust. Posts such as the editorial board of the Public Broadcasting Services, the Police Commissioner and the chairman of MEPA have also been subject to political appointments.

But according to Dalli having a person appointed because it was qualified for the job would be enough to see that that person is trustworthy.

"When you have someone who is qualified and capable, whom you can trust to do their job well, he or she will do their job well."

She continues: "If the person is one of integrity and you know that he or she would carry out the task at the best of their ability, you have the person you need. But you have to first look at their qualifications and experience, and not their political affiliation."

Labour has been harping on the word "meritocracy" for years now. In reaction, the PN accuses it of making use of the "buzz word because it sounds attractive". When push comes to shove, can we expect a really politically independent civil service?

According to Dalli, as things stand today it's the entities and authorities that have been politicised.

"But [under a Labour government] you can expect an efficient and a professional public sector that works... one that is basically much better than that we have today."

She goes on to argue that the country was brimming with qualified persons - especially women - who were being discarded.

Nearly 60% of university graduates are women, a heartening figure that is dampened by the fact that Malta has the lowest rate of female participation in the labour market of all the EU Member States.

According to the Labour Force Survey, in 2011 women composed just 34% of the national workforce.

"We are investing a lot in education, but are we making maximum use of the outcome? In the case of women, this is a resource we are not making full use of. Women are receiving different messages: bear children and work. But how can they do it if they don't find the necessary support?"

She says that with the public sector lacking the necessary structures to help working parents, the private sector was lacking a model in this regard.

Former Labour prime minister Alfred Sant had retained everyone inherited from the Nationalist government in sensitive civil service positions.  Would a Labour government follow the same system, or would it employ trusted people to ensure governability?

Dalli departs from the fact that in 1996, there were persons who weren't prepared to work with the Sant administration.

"So if we'd find that there are persons who don't want to cooperate with government, in the sense they wouldn't want to implement the policies, this would obviously create problems. How can a government work with someone who's working against its policies?"

I ask what happens in cases where, for example, the Environment Authority refuses to approve a Labour government application for land reclamation.

Dalli replies that this would be a different case, and a Labour government would have to follow MEPA's orders.

"What I mean is when there is no agreement on policies. For argument's sake, a Labour government would want to open more child care facilities, while someone else would be working against increasing female participation," she says.

Over the past four years, the Labour Party has taken pains to portray itself as being the progressive and moderate movement "that can really bring the country the change it needed".

Joseph Muscat has basically overhauled the party, changing the internal structures, welcoming back Labourites who had been sidelined by Alfred Sant, and making his party seemingly more attractive to the younger people.

But despite the efforts to look 'fresh and energetic', criticism hits hard when PN propaganda continues to harp on the "old faces from Mintoff and Sant governments" surrounding him.

How credible is Muscat in portraying the new image?

"A government needs to be representative of society and this can only be achieved by having different people. You cannot have only young people or only old people. We have a healthy mix of ages and experiences that then balance each other."

She points out how former Prime Minister Dom Mintoff had played a major role in igniting her own interest in politics. Dalli has in return spoken at length about Mintoff's legacy.

According to Joseph Muscat, Mintoff built the middle class we have today. At the same time, there are many people who disagree with that. Many who come from the lower-to-middle middle class of the 1980s feel that Mintoff had scorned the middle class and turned the working class into a partisan extension of Labour.

Mintoff had indeed limited the people's freedom to use their money; another reality that cannot be denied was his hindering of the freedom of choice in buying simple products such as what chocolate or branded products.

Dalli departs from the premise that the middle class in question - as she says there are different forms - was the working class that became able to afford to send their children to private schools, who could afford to go on holiday once a year.

"Mintoff created the welfare state. Families who used to live in one room found themselves living in houses. What Muscat is saying today is that people were elevated and their standard of living improved."

Last month, the European Commission put off its proposal for a law requiring publicly listed firms to have at least 40% women on their boards. According to EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding, voluntary schemes to put more women at the top of major companies had failed.

When the Maltese government revealed it would be opposing it, the PL declared itself in favour of the mandatory quotas.

Malta's 19 largest quoted companies trading on the Malta Stock Exchange are all chaired by men with the company boards having just three women, while the remaining 97 members are men.

This figure shows Malta's need to attract more women in top posts positions. Dalli has always described "quotas as a necessary evil".

"I hate quotas," she says plainly. "But when I look at the countries that introduced them I accept that they are useful and could help us improve the situation. So I have to agree to them as a temporary measure.... but only temporarily."

Quoting from the Global Gender Report, which measured the gap between men and women in 135 countries, the PL's spokesperson for gender equality said that in one year Malta dropped to position 88.

"And this shows that something isn't working. Because there are so many women studying, but then they fail to make it out there. On the other hand, more females as board members would also help companies be more aware of the needs of working parents," she says.

Dalli adds that a men-only board would lack the female perspective: "This is where we are going wrong. If you have more women at decision-making level, the decision taken will be from both the male and female perspective and thus more inclusive."

Does she think that the quotas will force the hands of publicly listed private companies for the sake of "a few token women" on their boards of directors?

Dalli categorically refutes this suggestion: "By 'token' it's as though we were talking about finding a random person of the street and asking her to come join you. What we want to see is more doors of opportunity opening for women."

One root of the problem could be the small numbers of childcare centres. According to Dalli, there are many women who find it too expensive to send their children to these centres. She says that the number of childcare facilities around the island should increase.

"These would be subsidised for low-income parents," she adds.

Dalli also urges more women to join enter the world of politics. She argues that the low number of female politicians is simply down to the low number of female candidates.

"Women have the same chance as men to become elected. It's not a question of women failing to attract votes. It's more of women failing to make the first step."

Dalli adds that a stronger presence of women in parliament would help push forward and bring about the changes needed to see that women and men are truly treated equally.

With the time allocated for the interview running out, I manage to squeeze in one last question: If you end up sitting on the government bench, is there anything differently that you would do?

She laughs: "In reality I have a lot of unfinished business! I had wanted to do so much work but obviously there wasn't enough time to do it all. I look back and think about our work on domestic violence, equality, regulations for childcare centres and child minding; plans for breast screening programmes... There is so much more that I want to do."

Go on Dr Dalli, stick to your guns. Do not let them derail you from your stated objectives. BusinessMalta, as well as common sense, unbiased, loyal Maltese citizens needs the new Movement to shift the Public service away from laziness, graft and corruption into a new way of doing business. The efficient, effective private sector way, or at least as close to that as possible.