Monday, September 24, 2012

Latium Follies – i nuovissimi mostri

As a film genre, commedia all’italiana, is now close to dead. One of the best was Dino Risi’s “I mostri” (literally “the monsters” but called “15 from Rome” in the English version) (1963) which spawned the sequel “I nuovi mostri” (called “Viva l’Italia” in English) (1977). But the ongoing political reality shows amply make up for its demise and should be called “The newest monsters”.

In this version, there are still the regional stereotypes along with caricatures of physical and character types which vary between the mean and cynical bad guy and the way over the top bad guy with, occasionally, the flawed bad guy who tries to reform. There are men and women in lead parts The locations are far more varied than the “house” or “island” of other reality shows and most of the players are not acting (at least not all of the time).

A year ago, I wrote that politicians didn’t get it, a point that could have been made any time over the last decade and I fear for some time to come. This week we have had the drama of the Latium regional government which make it very clear that the political class as a whole is a long way from understanding the contempt that most Italians feel for them. But Latium was not the only show on offer.

There were other sideshows. The Chamber of Deputies turned down a proposal from the Speaker that parliamentary party groups should have their accounts independently audited. They said this would infringe parliamentary sovereignty… for once they were persuaded to rethink and the following day a revised motion was passed.

But their meals are still subsidised. Half is paid by the Chamber to the tune of €3.5m p.a.… but this will stop… in 2014. This comes after similar revelations last year that the Senate meals were heavily subsidised. The prices went up but the Senate is still hardly a model for hardworking, efficient politics.

On Thursday, their discussions on a motion on violence on women were stopped because the deputy speaker due to preside was in Sicily and his plane was delayed. He blamed the Ministry of Transport. The other deputy speaker who was actually presiding, got up and left saying that she had pressing business. The Speaker himself was at a meeting promoted by another senator to save abandoned beagles but he did at least come back to the Senate when he was told. This is apparently the first time that a Senate sitting has been suspended because of no one to chair it. But even normally, they only sit for three days a week.

But it was the regional government here in Latium that stole all the headlines and most of the judicial proceedings. Italy has 20 regions which make up its middle level of government between the cities (comuni) and the national government. Most importantly, they manage the public health service but have many other responsibilities (but have much less power than a US state or a German Land) and since they began in 1970, their budgets have grown exponentially with many of them spending millions to support political parties and electoral expenses, even now with cutbacks on public services.

We learnt this week that the erstwhile leader of the majority party, Berlusconi’s PdL in the Regional Assembly, had been one of the biggest beneficiaries. His name is Franco Fiorito (picture above). He’s a big lad so has the nickname, Francone (big Franco) but is also known as er Batman, no one quite know why; perhaps because of his taste in eclectic cars; he bought a Smart but could not fit into it so gave it away and bought a BMW. He has properties in his native Anagni and abroad along with various bank accounts. At the moment he is accused of embezzlement to the tune of €800,000 though the figure is expected to rise. He has already said that he will give back €400,000.

A toga party thrown by another regional councillor masqueraded as an electoral meeting. Some of the invitees wore pig masks (picture top of page) drawing the easy jibe “they didn’t need masks”. There was much reference in comments to Trimalchio’s feast in Petronius’ Satyricon – nouveaux riches showing off – crass enough in the first century but not very original today.

To make matters worse, there is a fair chance that a good deal of these expense are probably actually legal. If the prosecutors cannot prove that the invoices were false, or that funds were siphoned off to private foreign accounts, then many of the parties were probably not theft or embezzlement… so no conviction and no political sanction either. In Britain, when MPs were caught restoring their duck pond or an MP’s husband charged £30 for a porn video, the [innocent] Speaker resigned and most of the MPs’ careers ended with the last elections. Here, President Polverini refuses to resign saying that only she can clean up the mess though she is wobbling at the moment.

Her party secretary, Angelino Alfano, even has the nerve to say that the PdL is a victim of the scandal because a rotten apple has damaged the party’s reputation. I have always argued that chutzpah is actually and Italian word which yiddish only borrowed.

It is not only Latium that is bubbling – for months now, we have had the chronicles of how the president of Lombardy, Roberto Formigoni, enjoyed luxury holidays paid for by fixers working in the public health service. The Sicilian government had to resign in the summer because of their out-of-control debt and now investigators have started on Campania.

The laughs are all very well but they leave a very bitter taste. The scandals undermine what remains of public confidence in the lower levels of government and present a real risk that devolved powers will be curtailed or withdrawn completely, another reduction in Italian democracy. The more sensible alternative would be for all levels of government to have to generate their own income from taxes as the Americans do.

This particular scandal has a personal sting for me – two years ago the Region granted us €25,000 to support two development projets we are working on with partners in Ghana. Part is for a market garden for the Cape Coast School for the Deaf, an enterprise which supplies food for the kids, a little income and training in animal husbandry and vegetable cultivation; the other part is to support the Ghana School Bag project of our Ghana partners, the Kokrobitey Institute which recycles plastic advertising posters into satchels for school kids as well as making fashion items from recycled material. The work was which was given the grant was completed more than six months ago but we are still waiting for the second tranche of the grant, €9,000, a sum which hardly covers some of the er batman’s aperitifs but which goes a long way in Ghana. Ironically, the product that we are due to present president Polverini with at project completion is… a purse made from recycled publicity material.

Hundreds of companies who have done work for the Region (Latium and the others) are in a much worse state than us; many small businesses have been forced to close because public institutions have not paid the €10, 20, 30,000 owed. All this while the elected councillors were spending hundreds of thousands of euro on toga parties or actually stashing it away in private accounts. Twelve hospitals have been closed in Latium over the last couple of years as ways of reducing the budget. Those are the real follies.

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