A year ago today, Joseph Muscat swept to one of the biggest electoral victories in Malta’s history. Herman Grech analyses the highs and lows of the first Labour government in the European Union era so far.
As he walked out of the polling booth on March 9, 2013, Dr Muscat told reporters: “Credibility will ultimately dictate the outcome of this election.”
Whether the 55 per cent of those who voted for a change in government still believe Dr Muscat is credible will be confirmed or otherwise in May’s European Parliament elections. The young Labour leader promised a new way of doing politics, and more importantly, pledged his party had learnt from its mistakes.
After spending all but 22 months of the last 25 years in opposition, the PL engineered a slick electoral campaign before winning office.
What is sure is that Labour’s Malta Tagħna Lkoll (Malta belongs to all) slogan – central to its election manifesto and which many bought into – is its Achilles’ Heel.
A quick straw poll among Times of Malta’s newsroom elicited a unanimous response that Labour’s meritocracy pledge was its biggest electoral deceit.
On the other hand, for better or worse, there is broad consensus that Muscat’s government is shaking systems and reforming sectors, albeit sometimes too fast.
Expectations among the 167,533 who voted for Labour a year ago were high. But is Labour delivering?
On the evidence, the government appears to have a good grip on the economy and deficit. After wisely adopting the PN’s budget, thus providing continuity, the government provided a relatively positive second Budget creating a feel-good factor.
Recent statistics about unemployment are, however, starting to get worrying. It also kept its word about being pro-business, though critics are right to complain there isn’t much socialism in the Muscat government.
By pointing out that the first step to reform education is by admitting there is a problem, Education Minister Evarist Bartolo dropped down all barriers and made it clear he is willing to challenge our rigid systems from the core.
The education reform, complete with the introduction of mixed schools, the obligations of parents and Mr Bartolo’s appeal to heads of schools to be leaders rather than managers show initiative, energy and a commitment to achieve in a sector where results are slow to show.
Driven by Owen Bonnici, one of the most dynamic performers in Cabinet, the government has started addressing some of the judicial system’s most endemic problems, from informing the public on deferred cases to a concerted effort to whittle down the list of backlogs.
It was all moving relatively well until a decision that Parliament should wait for a judge to go to court before proceeding with removal motion set a very dangerous precedent and made the judiciary even more untouchable.
Free child care centres will be available from April 1, delivering on a major electoral promise, thus boosting the chances for women to join the labour market and at the same time give families who already use childcare financial reprieve. This has potential to encourage economic growth in the long term.
The location of the LNG storage ship is certainly a hot, delicate potato but Labour is forging ahead on its pledge to generate electricity through cleaner gas. Energy prices will be brought down by the end of this month and Chinese investment has enabled credit rating agencies to improve Enemalta’s rating, reversing a downward trend over the past few years.
Whether the government could really deliver the new power station by its self-imposed 2015 deadline, remains to be seen.
Labour got off the ground running, showing keenness to make a difference both in intensity of work and generation of new ideas. But with speed sometimes comes lack of preparation and lack of consultation. And we have seen several of those instances, ranging from ministerial gaffes (prisoners chanting ‘Tagħna Lkoll’ as the minister announced an amnesty) to public relations disasters (cash-for-citizenship scheme).
But the Prime Minister appears to be responding well to the criticism and the non-performers amid strong rumours of a reshuffle on the cards so early into his term, which should leave the Cabinet on its toes.
The Civil Unions Bill will recognise same-sex partnerships and give them the same rights and duties as married couples while amendments to the Civil Code gave transgender people the right to marry.
But beyond the laws, Labour’s pandering to the gay movement, for its own political ends, has helped foster acceptance and tolerance by the public in general. This was long overdue.
Barely had the sparklers from Labour’s huge electoral victory been spent that the meritocracy pledge Dr Muscat successfully trumped up during the election campaign went out of the window.
Twelve months on, most of the individuals who openly campaigned for Labour have been given jobs on government entities in the most obscene manners – and there seems to be no end in sight.
Civil servants with years of experience and whose credentials were never questioned were unceremoniously replaced with others who were merely given a job based on their political allegiance.
Even backbenchers were shamelessly appointed as advisers or board members to line up their pockets in what has been an even more shameful exercise than the PN’s honoraria debacle.
Land is dwindling, the coastline is being cemented and concrete blocks are still being built in haste, despite a glut of vacant properties – and all this to pander to a selfish electorate.
With the revision of the local plans under way, environmentalists are right to be deeply concerned that this might turn out as an exercise to appease the development lobby.
As Din l-Art Ħelwa’s president Simone Mizzi aptly put it: “Planning is in the hands of people in an ‘ask and you shall receive’ street-by-street revision of local plans – a voter’s paradise.”
Contractors and hunters evidently feel more comfortable with the Labour Administration.
By replacing valid artists with Labour acolytes for the top culture posts, the government clearly showed it does not have the faintest idea about the way this important sector has flourished in recent years. The mission is to opt for mass market ‘culture’, dismissing the way culture should work hand in hand with the education sector.
Despite the promises, health remains one of the most tangible problems. Expectations were high a year ago, but patients remain in corridors in our state hospital and out-of-stock medicines prevail. We have seen too many studies and plans outlining the same inherent problems for too many years.
Despite the posturing at EU level, the government has little tangible results on irregular immigration. Instead of drumming up support from other EU leaders, Dr Muscat threatened to push back a group of asylum seekers and urged Europe to wake up and “smell the coffee”.
The government is merely tackling the immigration issue from a security matter, forgetting this is also a major humanitarian matter. No wonder many are accusing it of resorting to populist tactics and inadvertently fanning the flames of racism. The issue of immigration also shows that the government has not learnt that teamwork in the EU is essential.
Cash for passports scheme
The so-called Individual Investor Programme was mishandled from day one, with no consultation and prompting embarrassing revisions before the European Commission had to step in to impose a residency requirement. Months on, its handling continues to raise suspicions of backroom deals.
The scheme elicited worldwide media embarrassment for Malta, showing that the Muscat government does have a tendency to misjudge.
Police and the army
Let’s just forget the ridiculously speedy manner in which the new army commander was promoted while other experienced officers were discarded. The government’s relationship with the police and the army is clearly too close for comfort, despite claims to the contrary.
A police inspector’s admission in court last week that the police had not yet spoken to consumers who made use of tampered meters because of a political decision smacks of political interference.
Despite the Police Commissioner’s statements that he is no political lackey, perception is unfortunately reality, and when an important sector like the police is involved, that is a very dangerous matter.
Labour’s first year will be the main topic of discussion in Times Talk, presented by Times of Malta on TVM this Tuesday at 6.55pm.
What do they think?
“With regard to social justice and civil rights, Labour is attempting to increase equality through measures such as universal childcare centres and recognition of plural family forms, even in education.
This is a big step forward in Malta. On the other hand, Labour’s fiscal policy is regressive. Shortfalls will possibly be aided through the cash-for-citizenship scheme, which, in turn, can generate new antagonisms through the demands it creates. The latter is also in line with the discriminatory concept of Fortress Europe.
On energy, Labour is in line with its electoral pledge, but it may be rushing too much in its risk analysis of gas storage. Besides, overdependence on energy oligarchs has its dangers.
The same can be said with respect to over-reliance on big business land developers.
Where public appointments are concerned, not all can be deemed as meritocratic, as is the case with southern European patronage.
Challenges such as the battle against precarious employment and the need to increase the minimum wage will give a clearer definition of Labour’s direction. This is a ‘third way’ pragmatic government which is attempting to reconcile social justice with neo-liberalism.
This is a government that can implode due to its internal contradictions, or that can be building a hegemonic government, as was the case with Labour in the 1970s and the Nationalists for almost 25 years.”
Michael Briguglio is a sociologist and former chairman of Alternattiva Demokratika.
Mark Anthony Falzon
“My main concern is not with whether or not Joseph Muscat’s government is on the road to success.
Rather, I would question the criteria for measuring that success in the first place.
Dr Muscat’s government hasn’t departed an inch from the standard plot – which is that the more we consume, the happier we will be that it is government’s main job to encourage consumption (more money in families’ pockets), and that the measure of success is the outcome of that encouragement.
That approach is doomed to failure by its very premise.
I am not saying that government should go Zen or ascetic.
But I would like to see a more balanced and holistic understanding of what it means to have a good standard of living.
The quality of the environ-ment is one aspect of that understanding.
So far, I see next to no good will in that direction.”
Prof. Mark Anthony Falzon is an anthropologist and a columnist for The Sunday Times of Malta.