Joseph Muscat’s last few weeks as prime minister have turned out to be a pretty dismal goodbye despite the razzmatazz with the party faithful last Friday.
History will reach its own judgment on Muscat in the fullness of time away from the hysteria and political turmoil of the last few weeks. The vitriol and hatred spewed out against him in the columns of this newspaper have been both unedifying and unworthy.
As a columnist who attempted in the last seven years to give an objective assessment of the highs and lows of his premiership, I shall not shrink from giving my verdict on his political career: balanced, evidence-based, warts and all, unimpressed by the lurid and frankly far-fetched conspiracy theories surrounding his departure.
Almost 12 years ago, Joseph Muscat took over a party that had lost three elections in a row. He set about ditching all the policies that had made Labour unelectable.
He adopted market economy, social democratic policies. He embraced the EU. He displayed the tactical opportunism, judgment, organisational, communication and inter-personal skills needed to persuade a large part of the electorate, and his own colleagues in parliament, that he held the keys to Malta’s future.
Seven years ago, he went on to win a landslide victory on the back of public disgust at PN’s oil-gate scandal and a visceral feeling that after 25 years of one-party rule the country needed a change.
Muscat’s promise to do things differently rang a resounding bell with the electorate.
He was swept into office on a wave of expectation that his new Labour administration would perform better than the jaded and divided PN it replaced. The policies on which he fought were fresh, exciting and forward-looking.
Above all, the poor governance and fractious in-fighting which marked the last years of Lawrence Gonzi’s administration were to be things of the past. That PN compounded this by electing two weak and callow leaders in succession to oppose him helped to galvanise his exercise of unimpeded power for the next seven years.
Under his leadership the Labour government registered a number of landmark achievements. Since 2012, Malta’s GDP has increased by €5.6 billion in six years to over €12 billion. Economic growth rose from 2.6 per cent to 6.8 per cent in 2018. GDP per head (roughly, the money in people’s pocket) has grown by over €8,000 since 2012, standing today at over €27,000 per person. The unemployment rate is the lowest on record and the best in Europe.
His legacy to his successor is two-fold: great advances on social issues and one of the most vibrant economies in Europe, a prosperity from which thousands of ordinary Maltese have benefitted hugely. Malta’s economic well-being has never been greater. Tourism has continued its steady upward growth. Business is thriving and confidence remains buoyant.
He betrayed those promises and the huge trust which the country had placed in him
Although uncertainties lie ahead due to the political turbulence and reputational damage Malta has suffered in the last two years, the financial services industry has grown exponentially. Despite genuine concerns about the ethics of the Individual Passport scheme and a number of major investment projects, the economic success of the last seven years is unarguably down to his stewardship as leader of this Labour government.
To cap it all, his government has won a succession of electoral tests by landslide majorities: in general elections by more than 35,000 votes over PN in 2013 and 2017; in the 2019 European elections by 42,600 votes; and in the local council elections in the same year by 47,000 votes over PN. He leaves office as the most electorally successful prime minister in Malta’s political history.
As we look back on Muscat’s six years as prime minister, the tragedy is that he had a golden opportunity to change the political face of Malta, to deliver on his commitments about meritocracy, accountability, transparency and good governance. Instead, he betrayed those promises and the huge trust which the country had placed in him.
It has been a roller-coaster period of progressive civil rights achievements and undoubted economic growth and prosperity for the majority of citizens. But it has also been littered with broken promises and some of the worst governance and administration witnessed in the last three decades.
Muscat promised an end to partisan appointments. Instead, the cronyism and politicisation of the public service and the abuse of “positions of trust” have left the public reeling and dismayed.
The levels of maladministration and misgovernment – and some proven incidents of corruption - have led to a succession of scandals which have undermined Malta’s international reputation, tarnished Muscat’s administration and tainted his premiership.
The appointment of a succession of failed Police Commissioners, the scandalous coup d’etat against top posts in the Armed Forces of Malta, doubts about the quality of institutional oversight of financial services and other institutions have eroded confidence in the quality of governance.
The ill-judged separation of planning from environment has led to a broken-backed Planning Authority in hock to the developers and big businesses. A weakened Environmental Resources Authority has exacerbated the plunder of the environment.
Accountability and due process have been notable by their absence. The mandate for change, which had attracted so many ‘switchers’ to support Labour with landslide victories, has been betrayed.
The apparent hegemony of any political party is always largely illusory. Stuff happens. Governments cock up. Seven years after his stunning victory, the shine has gone off Dr Muscat’s premiership, ineluctably tarnished by the revelations of the possible implication of his own chief of staff with the alleged mastermind in the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia.
This issue, above everything, has dominated politics for the last three years and had its genesis in her exposure of the Panama Papers scandal. Muscat’s lack of decisive action led inexorably to the end of his premiership.
A prime minister who failed to sack his closest (but tainted) confidantes four years ago proved himself culpable of gross misjudgement by conniving in their deceit through his inaction.
After more than 132 months of dedicated and successful public service to his party and country, Dr Muscat’s premiership has been undone by our knowledge of what has emerged in just the last month.
But we should not let his failures obscure his successes. They are simply testimony to the worn adage that “all political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure because this is the nature of politics and human affairs”.