23 February 2005

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When sorry is not enough
Parliamentary Secretary Edwin Vassallo must be commended for having the audacity to apologise on government’s behalf for the gas shortage consumers have had to endure over the past few weeks.
His behaviour on Smash TV yesterday contrasted with the unrepentant attitude shown by Investments Minister Austin Gatt on Radio 101 last Sunday, who blamed everyone except government for the gas crisis.
Apologies in politics are hard to come by and Vassallo’s comment is more than welcome.
But saying sorry is not enough. Never in recent history have these Islands suffered such a serious gas shortage, not even in the hard-pressed Mintoff years. It was a pathetic scene seeing hundreds of people queuing outside the gas plant in Birzebbuga hoping to exchange their empty cylinders. In the coldest winter for years, pensioners were left waiting in vain in their home hoping that the gas distributor would do the usual rounds.
The gas shortage has, however, exposed a deeper malaise in the genetic make-up of this country. People in authority simply refuse to shoulder responsibility for situations that arise.
After weeks of complete silence, during which consumers were left fuming not knowing what the situation was, Austin Gatt had to be prompted by the media to give a statement. In typical style he chose to blame Enemalta’s management, antiquated work practices and union rigidity for the shortage, completely forgetting that he himself shouldered ultimate political responsibility for the crisis.
Ever since sister newspaper MaltaToday way back in August discovered that Enemalta had accepted a batch of faulty gas cylinders, a shortage had been in the offing. Mysteriously, no one was held accountable for the purchase of faulty gas cylinders and the controversy was quietly swept under the carpet. The situation was further compounded by the purchase of a batch of faulty seals over the ensuing months. Things just rolled on as if nothing was happening until the situation boiled over last week.
Again, no one shouldered responsibility. Countless times we have heard that public corporations lack proper management and are hounded by antiquated work practices. And yet, what has government done about them?
After the frugal years of the Fenech Adami administrations when money bought industrial peace, reality now bites harder than ever. The public service, government corporations and the relatively new authorities are not functioning well. They do not offer value for money. Solutions need to be found. Restructuring is necessary but it would be a very grave mistake for any politician, after having allowed the situation to come to what it is, to blame the sickness on employees. That would be a very superficial reading of the situation.
Responsibility and accountability are two virtues that need to be inculcated in the mentality of any person occupying a post of authority. Politicians have to lead by example before asking managers and employees in the public service to shoulder responsibility. Austin Gatt’s and indeed government’s apparent lack of interest in the suffering people have had to endure because of the gas shortage sent out the message that people in authority are not prepared to shoulder responsibility.
When such an attitude prevails, saying sorry is simply not enough.

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