While the saga of the Malta Philharmonic orchestra played out, the minister responsible was busy promoting himself and trying to save his skin.
Owen Bonnici tried to curry favour with his boss, Robert Abela, with painfully cringeworthy flattery of the prime minister’s sister-in-law.
“The biggest thank you goes to Alison Zerafa Civelli,” he wrote in his weekly article in The Independent, “the hard-working parliamentary secretary in charge of local government, who commands enormous respect and is very focused and professional in her approach.”
Sadly the same cannot be said of him.
Bonnici must be one of those ministers Robert Abela labelled as “underperforming” — and that’s putting it kindly.
He stumbles from one catastrophe to another. If he’s not being found guilty of breaching fundamental human rights by repeatedly sweeping clean Daphne’s memorial, he’s appointing one of his girlfriends to the Manoel Theatre Orchestra Board.
If he’s not protecting his fellow Labour candidate from accusations of attempting to cover up sexual harassment at the national orchestra, he’s hiding the concession that allowed Vilhena Palace to be used as a public restaurant.
In an article entitled “+150%”, the Minister for Arts and Culture didn’t mention the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra once. He was pretending the shocking events at the national orchestra hadn’t happened.
Bonnici thinks that if he completely ignores the catastrophe that engulfed the orchestra, that if he avoids mentioning it in his article, nobody will notice.
He was hoping it would simply blow over. He doggedly refused to answer questions as the Shift exposed what had been going on. He published no statement, he did not utter a single word in public about the claims made, and he failed to reply to The Shift’s questions despite being sent several reminders.
He was probably too busy writing his inanities in “+150%”.
Bonnici desperately tried to deflect attention from the national orchestra debacle by bragging about how much money he had obtained for his ministry from the finance minister in the recent budget.
“The total increase of the financial allocation for arts and culture in 2023 compared to the last budget of a PN administration (the budget for the year 2013) is a whopping 150%,” Bonnici bragged.
But his comparison holds little water. Since 2012, when the last PN budget was drawn up, Malta’s cumulative inflation has been 19.3%.
While Bonnici boasts that the funding allocated for 2023 is one and a half times more than it was in 2012, in real terms, the money allocated to his ministry is worth far less. As anyone shopping today will have realised, €100 in 2012 would buy you far more than €150 in 2022.
The inflation rate is rising steadily and rapidly. It was 4.1% in January. In April it hit 5.4%, in July 6.8% and by September it had reached, to quote Bonnici, a ‘whopping’ 7.4%. It will have risen further by 2023 when Bonnici spends his money.
To put this into context, the PN government’s deficit was a meagre €261 million in 2012, and the national debt was €4.8 billion.
This year, Bonnici’s government ran a deficit of €954 million, and our national debt reached a staggering €9.2 billion.
Bonnici’s government borrowed €693 million more in one year than the PN’s 2012 government. To use the minister’s own metric, his government has run up a deficit 365% that of the PN’s last year in office.
Shouldn’t we therefore be expecting his ministry to be allocated 365% more than the PN did in 2012?
Bonnici’s government has borrowed three times more than the last PN administration and has run up a debt that is almost double, but Bonnici’s ministry budget is only increasing by half.
The nation is burdened with hugely increased debts but gets a minimal increase in funding for arts and culture.
“The allocation for next year,” Bonnici boasted, “represents a 7.5% increase over the last year”, but his much-vaunted increase doesn’t even cover inflation.
In real terms, Bonnici’s ministry will be able to fund less activities next year than it funded this year because everything will be far more expensive. For funding to match the previous year’s, it must be pegged to inflation.
The increase that Bonnici is happily trumpeting doesn’t match inflation. Therefore, in real terms, his ministry has fewer funds this year.
“This is what taking arts and culture seriously looks like,” he said in his article. No, it doesn’t. Taking arts and culture seriously means that robust measures are put in place at the national orchestra to protect its musicians.
It means putting someone competent at its helm — someone whose integrity and leadership are not in doubt. It means appointing its CEO based on merit and not on his sycophancy for the former leader Joseph Muscat.
It means that the minister reacts decisively when faced with reports of sexual abuse rather than resorting to silence, secrecy or worse. It means that the minister asks serious questions when the CEO squabbles with not one but two consecutive artistic directors.
It means the minister should have demanded straight answers from the CEO about why the orchestra lost two artistic directors in three years. It means that when members of the orchestra are compelled to resign from the orchestra because of a ‘toxic’ and dysfunctional environment, the minister should have reacted long ago.
Instead, we have a lead-footed minister who failed to respond despite all the warning signs, who failed to take action, and who continued to defend and protect his fellow Labour candidate.
Only now, after his CEO was denied bail and languishes in Corradino, is the CEO suspended on half-pay. Until you are a convicted criminal, you’re absolutely fine to continue running the national orchestra for Owen Bonnici.
And as for Bonnici’s resignation, remember that he clung to his cabinet seat even when convicted of breaching human rights.