Labour’s playbook catches coronavirus

When they tell you it’s not about the money, it’s obviously all about the money. Steward Healthcare, which bought three of our hospitals for a song, while milking the public purse to the tune of €188,000 per day, fooled no one when it told The Shift that it was “insulting” to be asked about what it’s giving Malta during this pandemic. How dare you talk about money, this website was told, in the middle of a national crisis?

Perhaps it’s because what Steward rakes in over five days would more than cover 100% of a certain leading hotel’s monthly wages. Over seven days, Steward earns what this hotel’s owners are asking the government to cover for two months – so that they don’t need to lay off workers.

What’s really insulting is not to be told whether, with jobs on the line, our money is being spent well. It’s because it is a crisis, with the medical school’s library given over to make space for extra beds, that everyone has a right to know about Steward’s beds. Not least since, when the hospitals were first sold, one of the justifications was that it would add beds to our healthcare system.

There is nothing surprising about the waffle and gaslighting offered by Steward’s spokeswoman, Alessandra Pace. Opacity about deals that appear to undermine the public interest, and attacks on anyone who dares ask questions, are straight out of the ‘Tagħna Lkoll’ playbook.

What’s striking is this kind of response is facing mortal danger if the coronavirus pandemic lasts for much longer. Who would find it acceptable? Families of patients? Businesses and traders? Workers?

Take another example. Silvio Schembri, the economy minister, breathed fire in Parliament about deporting any foreign workers who lose their jobs. Within less than 24 hours, he was eating his words. But while public opinion was furious about his hard-heartedness, employers were furious at his soft-headedness.

No economic reasoning backed the idea. Driven underground, sacked foreign workers would avoid doctors if sick – putting public health at risk. Financial, policing and human resources would be wasted tracking down sacked workers, wrangling with foreign governments to take them back, and arranging for expensive routes home.

In the longer run, the idea risked raising the administrative and retraining costs of firms that, once all this is over, would need to rehire the foreign workers on which their business depends.

The government has made it clear that Schembri misspoke. But the result is that the economy minister is now seen as out of his depth.

Yet what Schembri said used to be part of the playbook. With your back against the wall, play the Malta First card and find a scapegoat. Except now it’s not working, like the rest of the business model.

The classic ‘Tagħna Lkoll’ business model was based on three pillars. First, authority was based on economic growth, not accountability. “We’re all ‘eating’, so no questions.”

Government didn’t even ask for public trust. It expected collusion and no fuss about transparency.

Second, if people complained, more carrots were thrown their way, using the powers of patronage. Third, there was the stick: the systemic breaking of morale by intimidation in a variety of ways.

Social cohesion, like public trust, didn’t matter so much. The trick was to mobilise your partisans and demoralise the rest.

Now we have a problem that makes the playbook useless. The coronavirus eats what it wants to, not what patronage promises. And it can’t be intimidated.

Who now will silence questions by saying, “We’re all eating,” when so many fear that they won’t be able to put food on the table?

Who will accept to make any sacrifices if there’s no transparency about whether everyone is pulling their weight?

Social cohesion is essential in a crisis that demands solidarity. The government is now appealing for cohesion from people that it used to gaslight.

Robert Abela keeps asking us to trust his judgment. Without such trust, he cannot inspire business confidence and social morale. Trust is political capital he badly needs. The business community and the unions are united in doubting the economic sense of his current financial aid package.

In less than a month, the Labour government has seen its reputation for economic competence radically downsized. Its playbook has been rendered useless. In the middle of a crisis, it needs to learn how to take dialogue seriously and earn public trust.

No government has ever managed all that without taking transparency and accountability seriously as well. Let’s see if Labour does.


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