Upon his election as Labour leader in 2008, Joseph Muscat promised an “earthquake of change”, making a strong appeal to the thousands who had deserted the party, as he pledged to transform the country.
Within five years, he scored one of the most dramatic victories, managing to not only bring back the lost sheep but also enticing thousands of traditional PN voters to the Labour camp.
He trumpeted a pro-business agenda and drove a number of positive progressive changes, including LGBTIQ and women’s rights and free child care. The economy thrived, tourism boomed, unemployment reached record lows. Many got rich overnight.
Soon, it became clear that the “pro-business” approach came with a caveat – the government effectively morphed into a business. Three of our hospitals were sold to investors with no name; Maltese passports were prostituted to the uber-rich; a new power station was fuelled with corrupt practices (and possibly linked with murder); countless other capital projects and contracts were mired in suspicion...
It became clear that the “pro-business” approach came with a caveat – the government effectively morphed into a business
The fact that senior officials were caught with secret offshore accounts is only partial proof of the heist taking place under our noses. ‘Yes men’ and henchmen were appointed to strategic positions, facilitating multi-million permits and projects. Good governance was not only lacking but the government viewed it as an obstacle to business.
The extent of Muscat’s victory and the utter humiliation of the Nationalist Party meant the Labour prime minister could have been emboldened enough to carry out a revolution in many sectors, even in possibly changing mindsets. But instead of clamping down on nepotism, clientelism and tribalism, the Labour government encouraged it. The institutions were practically captured by the state.
The clock was turned back – the minister again became the all-too-powerful official, the civil service became a recruitment agency, and a generation of young, skilled professionals were elbowed out to make way for the party boys.
Labour promised a “new middle class” but also created a new class of poverty: mostly exploited, imported, ‘cheap’ workers who hardly make ends meet.
Muscat mobilised the party behind him and skilfully steered the government through dangerous waters, winning another landslide in 2017.
Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder, and the subsequent shocking revelations that indicated a cover-up, brought down Muscat and some of those close to him. The shock across the country was palpable but not enough to sway an electorate comfortable with a booming economy and uninspired by the Nationalist opposition.
Assuming power three years ago, Robert Abela has tried to be a different leader, and he has made attempts at tackling rule-of-law issues, probably not out of conviction but because Malta’s name was now internationally tarnished, even landing the country on a notorious financial grey list.
In the last three years, Labour has somewhat rediscovered its socialist soul: it handled COVID support exceptionally well, giving a lifeline to the economy, and finally gave pensioners a long-overdue increase. Abela went on to secure a third Labour walkover last year.
Finally acknowledging mounting public anger, the government has pledged tens of millions to prevent what little is left of the natural environment from being further gobbled up by greed, but a cynical electorate knows this will probably remain pie in the tower-crane-littered sky.
With the help of an inept Planning Authority, the government has plundered public land for money, eclipsing (or cementing) kilometres of history under blocks of apartments, uglifying the country in the process.
Ten years after that remarkable victory, Labour has indeed carried out an earthquake of change. The economic stability achieved was indeed remarkable, but the “earthquake” has left collateral damage that will outlast us all.