Editorial | Wednesday, 04 March 2009

Plastic bags and meteors

An awesome future is hurtling towards us from the outer space of the global financial crisis. What, when and how bad the impact will be on tiny Malta is anybody’s guess. We can all agree that it is about to hit us.
Meanwhile we are kept busy about whether or not a tax should be charged on biodegradable plastic bags and kept guessing about what electricity charges will be or even what they have been since October. It seems such an extravagance.
Granted that the global crisis changes shape and size day by day, disorienting economic operators and policymakers alike, it is reasonable to demand that we face up to the impact by changing our modus operandi.
Sticking to the customary roles of government and governed each having distinct interests and survival strategies is an added danger in itself. We will inevitably think with our own heads. We will cut our losses and run if and when that becomes necessary. We will shut down and take cover if and when we can. However the prospect of being left to our own devices when every other operator is facing the same crisis or different effects of the same threat, can only add to our dismay.
This is not a private misfortune, a bad bet, a venture that has gone sour, a risk we took for which we alone will have to take the rap. It is economic climate change. Its universality itself tells us that we have to act together as far as we are able to counter its effects as far as that may be possible.
In the face of this scenario the clearly unreasonable obstinacy of government on the issue of recyclable shopping bags has a symbolic significance far beyond the practical consequences. Yes it can affect all retailers, all consumers and many producers. Yes it places at a disadvantage those who moved with the times and shifted to eco-friendly practices in response to government encouragement. It is a betrayal of sorts, a disincentive to innovation on other matters. Far beyond all this it is a measure of the apparent detachment of government from the reality we all face.
The plastic bags issue is a gnat bite when set against the wider picture but it is also evidence of the government’s delay in shifting to out-of-the-ordinary, if not emergency, mode. Clearly the government fails to appreciate that it is the final and conclusive corroboration to the electricity tariff saga, which brought not only all trade unions together but trade unions and business associations in unison at one point.
Beyond the costs issue, beyond the uncertainty and disruption of financial planning for every enterprise is the heart-stopping realisation that the government can proceed in this way regardless.
That local crisis has coincided with the global financial crisis, looming since 2007 but bursting upon us in September 2008. While distant landmarks disappear or seem to lose their anchorage, we look to our own government for guidance, for a modicum of predictability and instead we have plastic bag fiats and electricity tariff chaos. It would have been shocking at the best of times. At the worst of times it is beyond epithets.
The government/governed relationship established in our political culture has developed in such a way that the input of civil society to the extent that it has been allowed at all, has been a foreign import: a result of EU membership. Transparency, accountability and the mechanisms for sharing common challenges are in their infancy at best and their ownership by all stakeholders still at the level of good ideas.
At this point, we have news of an economic meteor strike somewhere soon in our future. We will be mauled but we will survive. Among the survivors will be those who adapt best to the new landscape and thrive. So far small has been beautiful and it may serve us well again by allowing us greater flexibility.
On the other side of the crisis we will look back in sorrow at the casualties but also in pride at our doggedness and bloody-mindedness. There is certainly another side to this crisis and we will live to see it.
What we will certainly gain by it is the ability to demand the utmost transparency in public affairs, public funds should not be state secrets. We will demand and obtain not only better regulation of the financial sector to make it safer for all operators but also the setting out of ground rules for government on financial matters: seriously independent regulators, utterly reliable and up to the minute statistics, economic impact assessments and serious consultation with all social partners including consumers on proposed changes in economic policy or taxation. The time for governments which deliberately surprise us will be over for good.


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Mark Lamb - In God we trust





04 March 2009

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