Serving the people

Throwing the baby out with the bathwater would be a huge mistake.

Each time an election looms, the two mass political parties go all out to appeal to voters, using catchwords and slogans underpinned by the notion of national unity, hailing the values of meritocracy and pledging equal opportunities for all.

The list of key words and phrases in our electoral political discourse is topped by ‘Malta’ and ‘Maltin u Għawdxin’, ergo ‘all of us, no one excluded’, as well as ‘Flimkien’ (together), connoting fraternity among all citizens.

Eddie Fenech Adami’s hallmark “Nerġgħu nsiru lkoll aħwa Maltin” (We shall once again become Maltese brothers and sisters) reverbarated week after week in the run up to the 1987 general election, that returned the PN to power after 16 years in Opposition. Huge banners with ‘Gvern għall-Maltin u l-Għawdxin Kollha’ took centre stage as Alfred Sant decried the PN government’s “ħbieb tal-ħbieb” (friends of friends) way of doing politics while addressing the masses in the 1996 campaign, which led to a remarkable Labour victory. In 2008, GonziPN resorted to ‘Flimkien Kollox Possibbli’ (Working together makes everything possible) in a campaign that ended with the PN holding on to power by the skin of its teeth in an election that many had taken for ganted would be won by Labour. More recently, Joseph Muscat’s notable ‘Malta Tagħna Lkoll’ (Malta Belongs to Us All) in 2013 still resounds in everyone’s ears, as does Robert Abela’s ‘Malta Flimkien’ (Malta Together) slogan from last year – they are both synonymous with landslide victories.

Once the dust settles following a change in Government, there is a tendency to set up mechanisms or take initiatives to address and redress injustices perpetrated by the previous executive – instances where the previous administration would allegedly not have treated all citizens fairly. In turn, then, the new administration is accused by the new Opposition of favouring its own voters or potential voters at the expense of others; of running the country as if it were their own private fiefdom.

In the light of the current war of words on the role of Government’s customer care units, let’s tell it like it is: it is not now that contituents have started making use of their direct link with their elected representatives to ask for support – this has for a very long time been part and parcel of our political system. It happens not only in Malta, where we’re practically all related and where everybody knows everybody, but is also common practice in other democratic, European countries.

This is common knowledge, and anybody pretending to act surprised when news emanates of MPs giving a “push” to their contituents is not being honest. Everybody knows that this modus operandi has been there for decades, irrespective of which party was in office. Have we forgotten the 2008 email from the PN general secretary, requesting that Cabinet members forward the personal data of people who had submitted complaints to ministry customer service units?

A prominent former Nationalist Minister once declared that, following the 1987 electoral victory, a multitude of people started asking for favours from Government politicians, claming they deserved it because they had attended the infamous Tal-Barrani mass meeting in November 1986. Likewise, in 2013 Labour politicians reported being inundated by people asking for a helping hand, claiming they were part of the “ħamsa u tletin elf” (the almost 35,000 majority secured by the PL in the general election held that year) as their trump card.

Regular contact with constituents is vital for politicians to maintain a strong relationship with the people. The issue lies in being decisive, as a country, as to where to draw the red line where being of service to the people turns into an abuse of the system to grant someone an unfair or illegal advantage.

When someone is allowed access to something one doesn’t deserve or have a right to, someone else’s rights, interests, or well-being are being trampled upon. Abuse and violation of law must be dealt with severely and offenders must pay the price. Having said that, throwing the baby out with the bathwater would be a huge mistake.

A professionally-run service that allows all people, without distinction, to get directly in touch with the Executive serves as a useful tool in a democracy, making sure that the elected do not end up living in an ivory tower. It is true that the power of incumbency has always played an important role in Maltese politics, but most people actually do not make use of such ministerial customer care services. Besides, history shows that, at the end of the day, whenever the electorate felt that a particular party’s time in office was up, the incumbency advantage did not manage to stop that party from being given the boot.

Of course, no stone should remain unturned to ensure that the functioning of our entities and systems are efficient enough for people not to feel they have to resort to politicians for basic needs that should easily be taken care of by the civil service or the entities concerned.

At the same time, however, conscientious politicians should not allow themselves to be intimidated for remaining close to the people and lending them an ear. Only that way, can they ensure that policy is being translated into practice and that the wrongs that people bring to their attention are righted.

The beauty of politics is in serving the people.

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