Keith Micallef takes stock of some of Labour’s main pledges with a year or less to go before the election.
The overall performance has been positive. Initiatives have begun to increase vocational subjects on offer, fight illiteracy and give more attention to students leaving compulsory schooling with no qualifications through the Youth Guarantee. Stipends have been extended to repeater students and increased to include the cost of living allowance.
However, works on new schools have fallen behind and a corruption scandal has rocked the Foundation for Tomorrow’s Schools. The government is facing mounting criticism on teachers’ working conditions amid ever-growing complaints on the lack of discipline in schools.
Probably Labour’s biggest achievement in government. While economic growth has reached record highs, unemployment has gone down to unprecedented levels. This success is even more significant given the fact that income tax has been reduced and the public deficit is on the way down.
Definitely not a case of “Labour won’t work” as the Nationalist Party billboard predicted before the last election.
Though tourist arrivals have gone from strength to strength, reaching the two million mark in 2016, the government’s handling of Air Malta’s financial situation has been far from impressive. Four years on, no strategic partner has yet been found, and the future of Malta’s national carrier is ever more in doubt.
The ‘free childcare for all’ measure is arguably the government’s best social decision and possibly a game changer, as it has contributed to an increase in female participation. Tapering benefits for persons on the jobless register who start work has also contributed to cutting unemployment to record lows. However, there was limited success in the fight against precarious employment. Though there was progress for subcontractors in the public sector through new legislation and tighter controls, the private sector still has a long way to go, especially in tourism and construction.
Labour’s flagship proposal of reducing utility tariffs for domestic and commercial users was implemented on time. However, the commissioning of the new gas-fired plant has been delayed by more than two years and has been awash in a sea of controversies amid allegations that the deal was not in the taxpayers’ best interests.
Labour’s most wide-ranging reform in the healthcare sector – the privatisation of St Luke’s, Karin Grech and the Gozo Hospital – was not in its manifesto. So any evaluation of the first four years in government going strictly on the proposals of the electoral programme does not give the full picture.
Progress was registered in the reduction of waiting lists for operations and out-of-stock medicines. Nevertheless, overcrowding in public hospitals during certain times of the year exposed a situation which is far from rosy.
As for the proposal to deliver free medicines to patients’ homes, the implementation is still at the pilot-project phase.
A fair society
For a left-wing party rooted in socialist values, the fight against poverty was meant to be on top of its agenda. Yet the number of persons at risk of poverty has actually increased, according to official figures. Moreover, very little or nothing was done to address the housing problem amid a spike in rent rates, ironically fuelled by foreign demand and the robust economic growth which has not trickled down to all strata of society. Though the government has set the ball rolling to increase the minimum wage, its performance on this front has been below par.
The introduction of civil unions – and possibly gay marriage by the end of his legislature – adoption by same-sex couples and a gender identity law have put Malta at the forefront of civil liberties within the EU. Considering that before 2011, Malta was the only EU nation where divorce was illegal, Labour’s push in favour of greater recognition in such a short period may be regarded as a feather in its cap.
For only the second time in its history and the first time since 1955, the PL won the majority of seats on the sister island in the 2013 general election. This victory was secured after reigning discontent in this former PN stronghold, as well as Labour’s ambitious proposals for the construction of a cruise liner terminal, yacht marina, new law courts and a home for the elderly. Works on the home have started, but the other projects only exist on paper.
Labour’s environmental track record is probably one of its weak points. The controversial American University of Malta campus at Żonqor, Marsascala, the spate of high-rise building permits in Sliema, Paceville and Mrieħel and the demolition of historic townhouses to make way for apartment blocks are cases in point. The split of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (Mepa) into two separate entities seems to have undermined the environment even further. This was clear in a June 2015 demonstration in Valletta, described as the largest citizen protest in decades.
Despite the scepticism of the Nationalist Party, which branded Labour’s pledge to refund the VAT on car registration for consumers who had bought a vehicle between 2004 and 2008 a stunt, the promise is being implemented, albeit over a seven-year period.
On the other hand, the government has been very slow to react to a court judgment delivered in May last year which left the competition watchdog toothless. Though it tried to compensate through constitutional amendments, they were shot down by the Opposition and legal experts. It later opted to change the competition law, but to date this has not been enacted, to the detriment of consumers and private operators.
Traffic congestion has arguably been the number one complaint the last four years, with rush hour delays becoming the norm, not the exception. Though the crisis has long been brewing, this government seems to have no clue how to address it, despite long-term strategies whose results are yet unseen. Meanwhile, the acute shortage of parking spaces has made the problem even worse in areas like Sliema, Valletta and Buġibba.
As for the bus service, there has been a marked improvement since Spanish company Autobus de Leon took over, with patronage levels increasing. Yet this result came at a hefty price for taxpayers, as annual government subsidies to the operator have trebled.
The appointment of Konrad Mizzi’s wife as special envoy in China was arguably the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of meritocracy
More efficient government
Elected after 25 years of PN administration, bar a 22-month blip in the late 1990s, the PL had raised expectations in terms of good governance, transparency and meritocracy. However, the reality has turned out to be quite different since its first days, when all but a few of the permanent secretaries were asked to resign. An unprecedented number of appointments on a position-of-trust basis followed, through which Labour activists, switchers, former officials and One television employees were put on the government payroll. A law banning MPs from heading State entities was changed, paving the way for a number of backbenchers to take up highly paid posts.
The appointment of minister Konrad Mizzi’s wife as special envoy in China on a monthly package worth €13,000 was arguably the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of the meritocracy pledge. As for transparency, there is no glory in which to bask, with several projects, such as the new power station and the hospital privatisation, shrouded under a veil of secrecy. The publication of the relevant contracts did little to quell this criticism, as what appeared to be the most important parts were redacted.
The Labour government delivered on its promises to introduce the Whistleblower Act, remove time-barring on corruption charges and regulate party financing. However, when put to the test, things turned out differently.
The Panama Papers scandal involving Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri and the lack of follow-up investigation, the controversial Café Premier bailout agreement, the expropriation deal with Mark Gaffarena for a Valletta palazzo and allegations about the Foundation for Tomorrow’s Schools have seriously undermined the government’s credibility on corruption. This feeling is also reflected in 2016’s Corruption Perception Index, in which Malta dropped 10 places to its lowest ever ranking.
The Bill for the establishment of a Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, unveiled in 2014, has been gathering dust at the final hurdle (the third reading). Ministers may not have awarded themselves a €500 weekly increase like their predecessors, but the overall wage bill soared due to the existence of the largest Cabinet ever and the raft of secretariat recruitments.
In the justice sector, efforts to address the backlog of cases bore fruit, with the number of civil cases now at record lows. Meanwhile, Parliament unanimously approved new legislation regulating the appointment of members of the judiciary, which also gave new powers to the Commission for the Administration of Justice.
However, controversy raged with the appointment of magistrates and judges, most of whom hailed from the Labour ranks, including former deputy leader Toni Abela.
Members of the disciplined forces were granted the right to join a trade union, in accordance with Labour’s manifesto. For the police force, the last four years have probably been the most turbulent in the last 30. The force has had five different police commissioners amid resignations and accusations of political interference from the Opposition. Meanwhile, the overtime compensation dispute is still pending.
In the case of the army, a series of promotions in the aftermath of Labour’s victory at the polls saw a number of officers leapfrogging several ranks in a matter of weeks, including the Commander himself. Aggrieved officers were denied the opportunity to seek redress through the Ombudsman, forcing them to court.
For the first time, in March 2015, 16-year-olds were granted the right to vote in local council elections. This stoked a debate over whether the right should be extended to general elections.
On the contrary, the government controversially abolished the local elections scheduled for this year, part of a reform whereby they will be held once every five years to coincide with the European Parliament elections.
CommentsComments powered by Disqus
Do not have an account?Sign Up