‘Gonzi’s lack of good judgment’
Opposition Leader Joseph Muscat yesterday accused Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi for what he called his lack of good judgment, transparency and accountability over the hushed-up increase of €500 a week to all Cabinet members, which had only come to light in 2010 after a parliamentary question.
He put pressure on Nationalist MPs by announcing that the opposition would amend its own motion on the raise given to ministers, by removing any references to the Leader of the Opposition.
Speaking in Parliament when the debate on the motion opened, Dr Muscat noted that some Nationalist MPs had argued that they would vote against the opposition motion because, they said, the focus was that the Leader of the Opposition had also not received the raise. Therefore, he said, the opposition would move an amendment to remove all references to him in the motion.
This vote, he said, was not just about the hidden raise given to ministers but a matter of credibility – that of Parliament itself. This, therefore, was a vote according to the conscience of MPs like no other, Dr Muscat said.
Earlier, Dr Muscat said these three main themes were crucial to any democracy and the issue was about more than money. The Prime Minister and ministers had unilaterally decided on the €500 weekly increase, originally €600, that had effectively doubled their salaries. Most Maltese workers did not even earn that sum in a month.
The Prime Minister had taken a bad decision at a bad time, kept it under wraps and refused to be held accountable. He should have read the signs of the times, knowing that with such a decision he would be undermining public trust in the country’s most important institution by smearing the country’s whole political class.
It had been bad timing because the decision had been taken in a Cabinet meeting shortly after general elections in which he had said he could see storm clouds gathering. It had been taken at the same time as the Prime Minister was reneging on his promise of job tenure security to Drydocks workers and other promises to public transport workers and health workers.
The decision had been taken concurrently with the commissioning of a report on the introduction of payment for health services, which had been leaked out a few months later and remained on the shelf. The Prime Minister had decided to postpone and break his electoral promise that the first Budget would see a reduction in income tax rates.
Those had been the same Cabinet meetings which had decided to remove the surcharge system and raised the utility tariffs, just as minister Austin Gatt had falsely said a Labour government would do.
Dr Muscat said Dr Gonzi had become the highest-paid Prime Minister in Maltese history and burdened the people with ever-higher costs. The family was not about divorce and posing with children for photos, but about not burdening families with unjustifiable burdens. What made Maltese sorry were the utility bills and the frequent raises in energy products while conditions of work were being eroded.
Dr Gonzi’s lack of transparency had been shown when he had kept the raise under wraps. Dr Muscat swore he had never had the smallest indication that Dr Gonzi had taken such an obscenity and roped him in as an accomplice with a raise that had never arrived. On getting to know of it he had immediately said he would place the proceeds of the raise in a charity fund.
Lack of transparency was also evident in that the raise was not being taken from the usual parliamentary vote but from another fund for individual ministries. Budget after Budget had been presented with incorrect information on what Cabinet ministers were earning.
The enormous gravity of the exposed situation was raising huge questions on the legitimate use of public funds. It weakened the moral strength to take steps on other cases of lack of transparency.
Dr Muscat said that if ever there was a mark to remind Malta of Dr Gonzi’s time as Prime Minister, it would be this irresponsible decision.
Economic development, however important, should not come at the expense of social justice. But the government had given the lie to this statement as it announced the sacking of Air Malta and Selmun Palace Hotel employees.
Only last November Finance Minister Tonio Fenech had solemnly declared that whoever bought Selmun Palace Hotel would also have to take the employees. This was further proof of whether the government really respected the family.
Dr Muscat said Mr Fenech had repeatedly shown lack of judgment and transparency in his private travels, on works in his residence, the bribery case of his former private secretary and the lack of accountability at the VAT department. In any other decent country such a minister would have felt the moral duty to resign.
Other proofs of incompetence on Mr Fenech’s part were the situation at Air Malta and the stopping of the Permanent Residents Scheme which had been working well.
The General Workers’ Union had immediately given the lie to Mr Fenech’s declaration that the MCESD felt there was no need for compensation for the rising cost of living. The union had said there was no such consensus. Instead of saying that if the COLA was to be amended the MCESD would have to say where to get the funds from, Mr Fenech should get them from the same sources as the salaries of Air Malta’s top brass, the funds for the building of the new Parliament, and the increase to Cabinet members.
Dr Muscat said Mr Fenech showed no similar concerns for families when prices rose, when out-of-stock medicines had to be paid for, or when no supervision was in place against abuse in the cost of living.
This was yet more proof of how detached the government was from families’ plight. And any MP voting with the government on the motion would show they were just as detached.
Pay rise timeline
May 5, 2008: Cabinet decides the Prime Minister, ministers, parliamentary secretaries, the Speaker and the Opposition Leader will no longer lose their honoraria as MPs, which will be raised for all MPs to €26,700 from €19,000. The changes are not announced immediately but media reports emerge speculating about a ministerial pay rise.
December 8, 2010: Replying to a parliamentary question about ministers’ pay packets, Finance Minister Tonio Fenech gives details, surprising MPs who were not aware their honoraria had increased.
December 9, 2010: Labour leader Joseph Muscat refuses his honorarium, saying no one should be paid twice for the same job. The rise is later also criticised as insensitive by Nationalist MPs Jean-Pierre Farrugia and Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, who pledge their honoraria increase to charity.
January 13, 2011: Dr Farrugia ups the ante when it turns out ministers were already getting their upwardly revised honoraria since May 2008 while other MPs were getting the old rate. He also says “heads must roll” over the mishandling of this “unprecedented mess”.
January 19, 2011: After a meeting with Dr Farrugia, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi makes a statement in Parliament postponing any changes to the honoraria until they are agreed upon by consensus at the House Business Committee. Meanwhile, ministers and parliamentary secretaries will refund the difference they have been receiving but retain their double pay.
February 1, 2011: House Business Committee meets. Labour suggests the setting up of an external body to propose changes to the salaries of all politicians, which could then come into force in the next legislature. The government eventually says it rejected this proposal and discussions are closed.
April 26, 2011: It emerges Dr Muscat never got paid his honorarium and the government refused to explain why.
April 27, 2011: The government says Dr Muscat will not receive the pay because the opposition and the government reached no compromise in the House Business Committee meetings, so the whole “package” is now closed.
April 28, 2011: The Prime Minister says Dr Muscat’s honorarium is included in his pay. Unlike ministers and parliamentary secretaries, he says, Dr Muscat is “not a government employee” and so is not entitled to an additional honorarium.
May 6, 2011: The Times reports that the Prime Minister, ministers and parliamentary secretaries had their €2,329 expense allowance changed to a duty allowance of 20 per cent of their salary (an additional €6,000 increase). It also reports that Dr Muscat and Speaker Michael Frendo were denied their honoraria, duty allowance and an increase in their basic salary, which they were due according to the Cabinet proposals. Former Speaker Louis Galea had received the new pay packet.
May 11, 2011: Labour presents a motion for Parliament to disapprove of the Cabinet’s “insensitive, arbitrary and non-transparent” behaviour. Dr Farrugia says he disagrees with the motion’s wording because it focuses too much on the Opposition Leader’s salary. Dr Pullicino Orlando and Jesmond Mugliett do not commit themselves to voting with the government.
May 15, 2011: It becomes known the Auditor General is investigating the way the rises were awarded.
June 5, 2011: During a PN parliamentary group meeting, Dr Gonzi says there was an “administrative error” and that the government would propose a counter motion. Dr Pullicino Orlando says he will support the government.