In an earlier entry (Badly Politicising Poverty) I asked "What happens then when the local politician attempts to manipulate a concept such as poverty in order to satisfy his or her immediate needs?" That was mid-April. I would not have to hold my breath in order to get my answer. Let's rewind to that moment in April. I had begun to really take note of the exchanges on poverty that were featuring in the news. There was a discussion in Malta - I had just failed to notice it. What was happening at that point was that the various NGOs were attempting in their different ways to highlight the instances of poverty in Malta by pointing out the possible causes. It was controversial in its own way - the story of the woman who bore many kids with many husbands springs to mind instantly four months later - but it still had not struck where it was meant to make the most impact: the political establishment.
My question was a genuine query as to how the political establishment would tackle the issue of poverty when it came to the fore. We have to bear in mind that by April Malta had a typical economic situation as in most other EU countries that had been impacted by the recession. This was coupled with the fiery debate on utilities bill that was a political time-bomb (utilities bills had inflated thanks to a shock removal of decades of subsidies) and a constant insistence by the progressive opposition to create some kind of image of the oppressed class who can barely afford to make ends meet. The oppositions' assertions neglected the more scientific of approaches and were based mainly on the necessity to create a base of the disgruntled - a standard tactic in politics anywhere. The EU played a part in the build up when a survey resulted in the statistic that "60 per cent of Maltese were struggling to make ends meet". This eurobarometer survey found its way into the Maltese papers on the 23rd June - "Many are struggling to pay the bills". Ivan Camilleri, the Times' man in Brussels highlighted the increase in "perceived poverty" throughout the article and also pointed out that in countries like France, Bulgaria, Romania and Italy shared the high level of perception of increase in destitution as Malta.
The political establishment - the two main parties (Labour and Nationalist) - were quick to react. The Labourite opposition took the bait and launched the usual tirades of the rhetoric that we have by now gotten used to - the blame was of course to lie completely on the laps of the government that was ignoring the need of the poor and needy specifically by introducing these exhorbitant unsubsidised bills. The examination of perception vs reality was shallow. The cause and effect analysis completely absent and the opportunism rampant. The statistic had destroyed any hope for an informed debate by an open society. Instead Labour had the club its needed to hammer its argument to kingdom come.
And what of the government? Well PM Minister Lawrence Gonzi was quick to find a solution. On the 25th June 2010 the newspapers regaled us with the kind of title George Orwell would have been proud of. "Government trying to change the perception of poverty - PM". You had to laugh (or did you?). To be fair PM Gonzi did distinguish between factual poverty and perceptions thereof:
"The government was doing its utmost to change the perception of poverty among the Maltese, which could have been exacerbated by the new water and electricity rates, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi said yesterday. He was referring to a recent EU survey which found that 61 per cent of Maltese struggled to make ends meet, especially when it came to paying the utility bills. Nearly 65 per cent felt poverty in Malta had increased over the previous year, with almost 28 per cent saying it had risen "strongly".
Dr Gonzi said more than 30,000 families received social benefits to cushion the impact of the increased water and electricity rates while the government allocated €10 million this year to further absorb the hike. He referred to another EU report published last January - "a factual one, not based on perception" - which indicated that 15 per cent of the Maltese population was at risk of poverty. That report also revealed that Malta had a very strong social network and the number of those at risk of poverty was halved through Malta's social benefits and support, Dr Gonzi said. He admitted that most Maltese had been impacted by the increases in water and electricity bills and this also affected their perception.
"The issue here is certainly the perception and I can understand it as the utility tariffs hit everybody," Dr Gonzi said. This meant the government would have to continue working to make sure all the benefits generated from economic growth would eventually filter down, especially to the vulnerable groups, he said.
- (Times of Malta)
There was no going back from the titles and the early declarations though. This was a government that was prepared to engage the flimsy opposition on its own terms. If the perception of poverty was the problem then what better measure than changing the perception itself?
Next on the agenda... subsidised hallucinogens.
* Image copyright Kelly Leslie 2007