17 March 2004

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Experts advise, government decides

There is many a lesson to be learnt following the Government’s decision to postpone the effective date when the new smoking legislation is to be implemented. It is clear that no consultation took place between the authorities and the entertainment industry, that there was a lack of appreciation of the difficulty to enforce the law and that the penalties involved are far too draconian. These shortcomings were the crux of the controversy. The legislation was simply interpreted by the entertainment industry to be anti-business.
This Government gives much verbal support to the need to enter into consultation but defines consultation very narrowly. It is useless discussing after the law is published. Ideally, a consultation process should be entered into while the law is being drafted. Accordingly all areas of potential conflict will be discussed. This in no way implies that Government as the elected authority should compromise its principles on the issue involved but it will give the industry an opportunity to have its say and to voice its legitimate concerns. This particular legislation is of concern to the industry. Having said that, by no means is this to be interpreted that the business community would not welcome a law that introduced following consultation and over a period of time that would protect non-smokers and those that work in places of entertainment and restaurants.
For the law to be acceptable, though, Government should remove the onus to control and penalty for not controlling smoking from the licensee and transfer this to the customer infringing the law. Legislation should be amended by no longer fining the licensee, removing all references to a prison sentence and most especially deleting all references to suspension of a trading license. These are far too draconian and are counter productive as the licensee especially in places frequented by large numbers will never be in a position to guarantee compliance with the law.
A further lesson for Government is the loss of face it has suffered as a result of its U-turn. The understandable backlash from non-smokers is immense, equally damaging is the feeling it leaves in the market place of a weak Government ever ready to accommodate narrow vested interests. This harm could have well been avoided if the necessary consultation took place in earnest. Its timing coincides with the presentation of a social pact drafted by Unions leaving the clear impression that this Government does indeed have a reverse gear. This is very damaging to Governments image, especially when public opinion is ready for the taking of hard decisions. Not to have compromised would have been equally damaging. Government unwisely simply put itself in a Catch 22 situation, an absurd situation in which it simply could never win. To add insult to injury we heard the Health Minister stating sheepishly that there was no chance of enforcing this law in view of the threat from the industry not to comply. So why on earth did he present such legislation in the first place?
This indeed is the danger of deciding according to the view of experts. Lawrence Gonzi on a number of occasions has publicly stated that expert’s advice will motivate the decisions he takes. This is incorrect, experts simply advise while Government decides. This was a perfect example how not to do politics. A high profile health official, in no way elected or accountable, says the law is final and not up for discussion, puts Government in a mess. The industry was right to make a dog’s breakfast out of all this, no consultation, inclusion of prison sentences, suspension of licenses, and finally a postponement. A complete recipe for disaster! What was or is the policy of the ruling Nationalist Party on all this? Does the party have a policy on smoking legislation or are they too willing to just go along with the advice of experts too? Was there not one party official capable of opening Government’s eyes that this draconian legislation affects such a large number of licensees and needed to be drafted more carefully and only after a process of dialogue?
It is to be hoped that a lesson will be learnt from this controversy. First and foremost Government must understand that experts simply advise while it is Government’s role to decide.

Copyright © Newsworks Ltd. Malta.
Editor: Saviour Balzan
The Malta Financial & Business Times, Newsworks Ltd, Vjal ir-Rihan, San Gwann
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