By NBC News’ Claudio Lavanga
The start of the debate in the Italian Senate over Berlusconi’s new austerity budget on Wednesday was always meant to be a predictable affair. In fact, it barely made the news – even in Italy.
The $65 billion plan, scrapped together by a struggling Italian government in a desperate bid to balance the budget by 2013, is pivotal to the very future and stability not only of Italy but of Europe as a whole. The mix of tax increases and spending cuts was announced last week to satisfy the European Central Bank’s demands that Italy do something to correct it’s strained public finances.
So Italians are asking, why did only 11 out of 315 senators show up to discuss the measure on Wednesday evening? And why do just 0.016 percent of the proposed budget cuts apply to the political class itself?
Attendance was not mandatory, but the en-masse absenteeism is viewed as a direct insult to the Italians who will bear the brunt of the new austerity measures forced upon them by the very politicians who dared not to show up to discuss the measures.
(You don't have to understand Italian to get this fun tour of the empty Senate the day before the debate from Corriere della Sera. "Tutto chiuso" says it all).
The empty senate chamber could be seen as a symbol of what’s wrong with the country, and cast some serious doubts over its chances of finding a political solution to an economic crisis that is threatening the existence of the euro and the stability of stock markets worldwide.
Summer time truancy
So what happened to the remaining 300-odd senators missing in action?
It is reasonable to suspect that most of them are still on vacation. It is the middle of August, a time when most of the country hits the beach; parliament, among other institutions, closes down for the summer.
There are surely plenty of excuses that might be offered up when the absent politicians roll back to town. Some might claim to have been on holiday at the Seychelles, and were so terrified by the shark that killed the honeymooner they could barely move. Others could claim to have taken an academic break in London, and to have fallen victim of the rioters who stole their plane ticket. A few could get away with one of the summer truancy classics: a bad sunburn, a nasty stingray sting, a water skiing accident.
Even though Wednesday was just the start of the debate over the plan and the vote will come later, very few, if any, will admit that they simply couldn’t be bothered to leave the beach even for a day to perform their duty in one of the most difficult economic times the country is facing since the Second World War.
(Here is more video of the empty chamber "un Senato deserto").
Highest paid politicians in Europe
This attitude is symbolic of a privileged political class that has lost touch with its electorate and spends most of its time enjoying the benefit of being an Italian politician, without acting like one.
The numbers speak for themselves: At $20,000 per month, Italian members of parliament are the highest paid in Europe.
They earn twice as much as German politicians, to choose just one nearby country. In addition, they enjoy a long list of benefits from free, unlimited flights in business class within Italy to the use of state cars to a fine restaurant in the house of parliament that serves succulent beef steak for a mere 2 euros.
The overall Italian political system, including parliamentarians salaries, benefits and expenses, costs $33 billion a year, according to the country’s main financial paper Il Sole 24 Ore.
The cost to the country, if politicians continue to act as spoilt and pampered upper-class with no sense of responsibility, could be much, much higher.