Arrogance makes you blind
Political arrogance is blinding. It prevents you from seeing what is happening around you. But let’s go step by step. On October 5, a student gave Minister Austin Gatt a piece of her mind because she could no longer suppress the frustration and the anger (in her words) “which had been boiling up for four months while waiting for many long hours on many bus stops”. She told him that “he should be ashamed of himself because of the Arriva service”.
The day after, on October 6, the minister issued a statement. Skilfully identifying himself with the aggrieved party, the minister expressed empathy with the student and, by implication, with all those that are angry and frustrated at the public bus service. He said: “I fully understand the frustration of (student’s name) with Arriva”.
Note the adverb “fully”. It is meant to disarm the sceptical. Condescending and patronising it may well be but politically effective it is. If you understand a problem “fully” there is nothing else that you need be told about it. If you understand the causes of someone’s anger and frustration fully, then she need not protest to bring the causes of her anger and frustration to your attention. Meaning: don’t bother me kid, there is nothing you can tell me that I don’t know.
The minister, an astute communicator, went further. Not only did he underscore his understanding for the aggrieved party in this situation, namely the users of the public transport system, but he also identified himself as their champion against Arriva. Quote: “I will continue hounding Arriva until they deliver the service contracted for and which the travelling public expects.”
Note the use of “hounding” to suggest that he will be a fierce and tireless champion of “the travelling public” against Arriva. Note the future progressive: “I will continue hounding.” Hitting two birds with one stone, it declares a commitment that goes further than momentary political expediency while telling us that he is not a Johnny-come-lately among critics of Arriva.
He will “continue” the fight, ergo he was already fighting and needed nobody’s prompting to challenge the dragon.
More. Having established himself as the tribune of the plebeians, he now presents himself as a student rebel at heart. He said: “I was a student once and I expect nothing less from a student but to speak her mind and publicly express her protests without fear.” How can a rebellious student identify Dr Gatt as an antagonist if the latter is himself one who unapologetically speaks his mind and protests without fear?
But what kills me is that not only does he completely ignore the student’s request that he should “apologise to the Maltese bus commuters for his disastrous attempt to reform the bus system” but that, from the dizzy Olympian heights, he practically forgives her for having spoken out. Quote: “I can assure her that there is absolutely no animosity and I consider the case as closed.”
The accused becomes the kind-hearted prosecutor who holds “absolutely no animosity” towards the student who accused him of having bungled what could have been the badly-needed public transport reform. Magnanimously he declares that “he consider(s) the case closed”. Intelligent rhetorical sleight of hand it is but a communications strategy that yields decreasing political returns.
For (to quote from the minister’s October 16 interview with The Sunday Times) “the 10,000 who are crucial to an election” the case is not at all closed. Moreover, for these, the case is not at all that of a protesting student. The case that interests them, a case that precipitates their sense of indignation, is that of a political class that is increasingly disconnected from the real country. It is the minister’s case, not the student.
This case is not, whatever the minister may say, closed. On October 15, Dr Gatt spoke to the media about the public transport system. With the same apparent straightforwardness with which he spoke about the incident at the University 10 days before, he bluntly stated that he is responsible for changes to the routes as these were designed by his ministry. But that is where the straightforwardness ends and the crookedness begins.
The real problem with the new system, he suggests, is not the new design of the routes (an interchange system as opposed to the previous hub-and-spoke one) but Maltese commuters. He is reported to have said that “maybe we were too avant-garde and too innovative and (…) we underestimated the reaction by commuters”. Oh, now I understand, if people are upset, it is their own fault because they are too backward and dumb to appreciate an avant-garde and innovative government.
It is all a matter of perception, the minister says. When, in The Sunday Times interview, he was asked about the massive traffic that we are seeing since the introduction of the new bus service, he coolly replied: “I think it’s more a perception than anything else.” When asked if he thought he should watch his words because “it’s making your (his) party sound very arrogant”, came the ice-cold, lapidary reply: “Perceptions”. If only we were to get our perceptions straight; then we would see how right the minister is.
The original of this post appeared on October 14, in Dr Vella’s regular column in The Times. You can access at it at