If, last week, Union Ħaddiema Magħqudin general secretary Gejtu Vella felt the need to speak out against “exaggerated” pay rises for government ministers, arguing this showed lack of sensitivity to the difficulties employees, pensioners and their families were going through right now, then you can rest assured this government’s more intelligent supporters have realised Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi needs to be saved from himself.
The Prime Minister himself must have realised this when, as reported by this newspaper on December 13, he conceded that “people deserved ‘an explanation’ regarding the generous pay rise granted to politicians two and a half years ago”. Having acknowledged this, he went on to give anything but an explanation. Instead, he chose to go on about whether the opposition knew about the decision or otherwise. About what the majority of citizens who are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet may think of the generous pay rise he and his colleagues have awarded themselves, Dr Gonzi decided to be silent.
In my previous contribution in this column, I seized the opportunity presented by a Maltese judge’s eloquent pleas for compassion towards men and animals to highlight the absence of compassion we are often confronted with in this country. Well, if the Prime Minister’s incredible lack of sensitivity towards the considerable hardship that many of his fellow citizens are facing today is not the opposite of compassion, then I don’t know what is.
Those who will have to make do with a weekly €1.16 cost of living allowance are finding it very difficult to swallow this one, irrespective of the political colour. Those who have to humiliate themselves by pleading with ARMS Ltd to spread water and electricity bills by making monthly payments they can anyway hardly afford (and I am not speaking about the down-and-outs but about many who recognise themselves in what we euphemistically refer to as the middle class) will not forgive the Prime Minister this one. This one won’t go away.
Unless we are jumping to conclusions. Unless we underestimated the Cabinet’s compassion. Unless, in his New Year’s speech, the Prime Minister will finally confess it was all a joke and the second pay he and his ministers decided to award to themselves (backdated) will go to pay for what the Child Development Advisory Unit (CDAU) needs to give a better service to a bigger number of children that badly need it and need it yesterday.
Evarist Bartolo, during the Budget debate, revealed that the Minister of Health had a report spelling out how badly the CDAU is functioning. The Labour member informed the House that, at that point in time, 1,163 children were waiting to be assessed by the CDAU. He went on to explain the CDAU needs 12 additional employees and more psychologists and that, with an investment of only €300,000, this service could improve radically.
This and other figures he shared with the House were “as embarrassing as they were scandalous”. In an article in another English language paper, Mr Bartolo quoted Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral: “We are guilty of many errors and many faults but our worst crime is abandoning the children, neglecting the fountain of life. Many of the things we need, can wait. The child cannot.”
If the Health Minister knew all this, then he will have no doubt informed his Cabinet colleagues and, of course, the Prime Minister. Perhaps then Dr Gonzi will prove us wrong about this two-salaries-for-one-job story and surprise us all by endorsing the priority spelt out by Mistral. Perhaps Dr Gonzi will tell us, before wishing us a serene and prosperous New Year, the second salary for ministers can wait but children with special needs cannot. He will explain it was all just a clever provocation to make us reflect, in this festive season, about this country’s Christian values. About compassion.
Not that this impossible coup de théâtre would save the Prime Minister from himself. There is so much that now separates this government from the people it is meant to serve. Mr Vella knows this only too well. Therefore, in the speech I quoted above he also said the UĦM was also “worried” about the awarding of the power station extension contract. He called for more transparency “for the people to be assured the contract was given in the proper way and have the assurance that taxpayers’ money was spent properly”. But will Dr Gonzi – but can Dr Gonzi – give such assurances?
And what about the report by the Pensions Working Group commissioned by the Employment Ministry (I quote this newspaper) “which sought a strategic review of the adequacy, sustainability and social solidarity of the pension system five years since the pension reform in 2005”? The two-salaries-for-one-job story could not have emerged at a worse time for a Prime Minister who will now ask for a reopening of the debate on the retirement age, thereby admitting his own failure. Perhaps Mr Vella will consider showing some more vicarious compassion for the electorate by expressing his union’s concern on this issue too.
Meanwhile enjoy the festive season.
The original of this article appeared in Dr Vella’s regular column on The Times of Malta on December 20, 2010 and may be accessed at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20101220/opinion/compassion-of-the-vicarious-kind