Pay puzzles, morbid curiosity
Politicians old and new are and will remain obsessed with public sector pay. They pile on dozens of questions regarding remuneration packages paid to political appointees in what is known as the rest of the public sector – all government owned or controlled entities outside the Civil Service.
There is nothing wrong with that. It is the duty of MPs, both those in opposition and government backbenchers, to watchdog what the executive is doing.
What I do not like is, on one hand, the evident random way whereby remuneration is established by the government, and on the other the implicit suggestion that the pay and working conditions packages revealed are actually based on some form of chicanery.
Much of this approach could be rendered unnecessary if a policy is established whereby each unit externalises the rate and conditions of the jobs to be filled by (temporary) political appointment. That would not apply to the civil service, whose pay rates are largely public, though a degree of performance-related pay for some categories has been introduced.
Civil service pay used to have an implicit premium over private sector pay. A partially valid justification would be put forward that a civil service job is for life, with good working conditions and a handsome retirement pension attached.
That is no longer the case. Those employed after 1979 get the same national pension as there private sector peers, who also enjoy very reasonable working conditions, thanks to the unions, to legal provisions, and to the interplay of market forces.
The latest peg for the burning curiosity of the opposition (and others too) to have remuneration package details concerns the man in the spotlight, Richard Cachia Caruana. This is another botched public relations exercise by the government.
The request by opposition members to Cachia Caruana in a committee hearing to give details of his earnings was irrelevant to the issue at hand. Not so the parliamentary questions made to the Prime Minister. The information requested should have been given in the House, without any quibbling. Instead a song and dance was made of it until the Prime Minister, against all past practice, released the requested information in a media statement.
In accordance with embedded public curiosity loud oohs and aahs were expelled from many a chest of people who saw the package of around €143,000 annually as something out of this world.
It appears to be a good package, no doubt about it. But the relevant point is how it compares to other Brussels packages applicable to Maltese personnel and to the allowances that go with the job of being in the heart of things.
The Prime Minister did make this point, but then proceeded to confuse it by saying that Cachia Caruana had two jobs, but was only paid for one. That is a bit of an unfunny joke.
The first job, valid enough and worth every cent the gentleman earned for it, was Cachia Caruana’s role as Malta’s Permanent Representative to the EU. That carried with it the task and political role of attending Cabinet meetings, though not as a minister since, as far as is known, he did not have a formal vote.
The second job cited by the Prime Minister was that of personal adviser on EU matters. Come off it, please, there is no need to strain so much. Ambassadors are automatically advisers to the government. It is not a dual job.
Another bit of twisted knickers was the assertion that Cachia Caruana was a civil servant. Not quite. He carried out an ambassador’s Civil Service role, but he was contemporaneously an openly declared active political guru for the Nationalist Party. Ambassadors, I believe, are above the maximum grade where government employees are permitted to participate in local and national politics.
Another unnecessary twist in the knickers, if the report of it is correct, is that Cachia Caruana will be given severance and resettlement money, as in the case of ministers and, parliamentary secretaries and, I think, the Leader of the Opposition.
That belies the claim that the man was just another civil servant. In fact, to suggest that he was that is an insult to his skills and the way he deployed them, at the national level, as Malta’s man in the EU and at a micro political level as mastermind of the Nationalist Party.
I remain of the opinion that the opposition’s motion regarding Cachia Caruana was wrong in substance – it targeted his national representative role, and in impact it deprived Malta of the services of a very good representative who ably negotiated in Malta’s interest. That does not mean he cannot be replaced, but the way of his departure, aside from humiliating him unnecessarily, was not in Malta’s interests.
At the same time I find it strange that the Prime Minister led the government into such a muddle over the issue – hiding back salary details then releasing them to the public as if in contempt of the House and parliamentary questions; not appointing a replacement with alacrity once the bad deed was done; talking of two jobs; giving terminal benefits that are not normally accorded to other ambassadors; and such like.
That final act was surely not penned by Cachia Caruana. He is much too clever for that. Good thing for Lawrence Gonzi that he will still remain at his political side.