Fee Fight, A Gift That Will Keep On Giving

While the rest of the EU is musing over the antics of the Slovenian CrimPolice who are flashing search warrants left and right investigating the brouhaha regarding former PM Alenka Bratušek’s bid for the EU Commissioner post, her succerssor Miro Cerar is suddenly faced with a problem of a different and potentially much more disastrous kind. Namely, he may be facing calls for his resignation over the extra pay he earned as a consultant and/or researcher in addition to his tenure at the Faculty of Law.

Both PM Cerar and FinMin Mramor made The List (source)

The whole thing exploded late last week when the ill-fated anti-graft commission released a report stating that over the past decade or so, about a billion and a half euros in additional earnings were paid mostly (but not exclusively) to high-profile university professors including minister for higher education and science Stanka Setnikar Cankar who apparently earned 600k euros on research projects. Now, 600k over eleven or so ain’t exactly peanuts. 50k per annum in Slovenian terms means doubling an already very hefty paycheck. On the other hand, research projects are where scientists and lecturers put their expertise to (good?) use and make money.

The report was a bombshell, both because the name that appeared on it and included Prime Minister Miro Cerar and financial minister Dušan Mramor and because the amounts in question were within the scope of imagination of the average Slovenian. You see, 600k euros is indeed a lot of money, but it is not an amount of galactic proportions where one would not now what to do with all that cash. Difference between 10 and 20 million? In the mind of the ordinary taxpayer almost negligible because they a) will never see that kind o money and b) would never know how to use it if they did. But 600 big ones? That could buy the house they always wanted, plus the unnecessarily oversized car and a vacation in South-East Asia. It’s the same thing that got Janša. Do millions of euros-worth of arms deals and no one cares. Fail to explain an apartment’s-worht amount of money, people will take to the streets.

So when Setnikar Cankar emerged as one of the top earners, a short but intensive barrage commenced at the end of which she offered to resign. Apparently the accepted wisdom was that due to her hefty additional income in the last decade she has no moral or political clout to negotiate changes to education system. Which poses an interesting question: are the only people acceptable to hold public office those who are unable or do not want to use resources at their disposal. Because save an apparent conflict of interests, Setnikar Cankar broke no law. Sure, it looks unhealthy (and it probably is) but odds are that the whole thing isn’t illegal. So that was mistake numero uno.

Mistake numero due was committed by Cerar who accepted the resignation. This was plainly wrong for a couple of reasons: first and foremost, he just let go a minister from his party’s quota. This suggests that a) he believes there many people who would be willing to take up the job (tehre aren’t) and b) that SMC’s vetting process still sucks donkey balls. This alone would be embarrassment enough by the PM but he exabberated it further when he indeed let Setnikar Cankar go, because he opened a direct route for attacks on himself as he is on that infamous list, too.

And sure enough, the political body of Setnikar Cankar had not even cooled off when Cerar, too, was faced with calls to resign and to take finance minister Mramor with him, forcing him to hold a press conference to respond to the allegations. He said that everything was a-ok, that he earned the extra 350 grand fair and square, ditto finance minister Mramor and that we should all just chill.

Which is a fair point. These high earners, despite their admittedly high cumulative incomes, were in fact applying years if not decades of experience. As Boštjan Narat succinctly put it in his blogpost on the issue (Slovenian only), one should be able to charge for that. Whether or not they were making research projects their private little gardens to cultivate and grow euros is, of course another matter. But this particular angle was hardly addressed. As was the question just how tangible (if at all) were results of their research. Because the issue here is – how very Slovenian – the fact these people earned money beyond their salary. Because Bob forbid you should be doing stuff on the side, let alone pay taxes from it.

But the political take-away here is entirely different. What we have here is a Prime Minister’s blunder of epic proportions which will turn a non-issue into a gift that will keep on giving.

You see, Cerar axed Setnikar Cankar within 48 hours of the story breaking. Probably in the name of political expediency, hoping the issue will go away. But they never do, do they? Thus in effect what PM Cerar had done was

a) accept the issue as a legitimate one (which it needn’t be), thus
b) admitting there was a sense of urgency to is and
c) letting the situation to spiral out of control.

As a result, the issue is no longer a semi-important minister with a semi-important portfolio (gone are the days of then minister Gregor Golobič threatening coalition rift to get additional budget funding for technology and research), but the fate of the prime minister himself.

Sure, Cerar tried to impress on the media that his case was different, but in the end, no one really cared. Why should they? If a portfolio minister is axed because of excess earnings while she was not holding public office, why should the PM be treated any softer? Indeed, going on past experience, the PM is held to an even closer scrutiny, justified or not, than his ministers.

This will not blow over easily. Slovenian public and indeed the media are much more comfortable thinking in the price range of a couple of thousands of euros. To stave off the now inevitable scenario of Cerar himself being in the crosshairs, the PM should have kept Setnikar Cankar in her position, at gunpoint if need be for as long as necessary, letting her go only after the issue had blown over completely.

But as things stand, the prime minister once again fell hostage to his pre-election rhetoric of “higher ethical standards“. The platform which got him elected is now being used against him, not entirely unsuccessfully, regardless of whether accusations are based on fact or fiction.

Days ago the PM finally took stand to defend finance minister Mramor and by extension himself. But if this drags on and if he fails to follow-up with more drastic measures which could very well include an across-the-board reshuffle of the coalition, Cerar’s countermeasures might prove too little too late.