Robert Abela and Bernard Grech traded blows at a question-and-answer session with businesses on Monday.
The event was billed as a pre-election meet-up, and for more than an hour it was a rather tame gathering.
However, after lengthy opening statements, the two leaders started taking questions from the floor. And that is when the gloves came off.
Abela landed one of the first right hooks of the campaign when he yielded his own speaking time to his opponent, challenging Grech to say how much the PN’s election proposals would cost.
Grech said the party was preparing to publish a detailed document about that, to which Abela interjected that this was a confirmation that the PN did not yet even know how much its proposals would cost the country.
Abela went on to say Labour’s manifesto pledges would cost €3.3 billion over five years.
The Labour leader went on to warn those gathered that to qualify for the PN’s main pledges, their businesses would have to be certified as complaint with the EU’s Environment Social Governance (ESG) standards.
Abela cited a recent European Commission report that concluded that this would cost local businesses up to €158,000 annually and introduce new requirements like having to employ an outside director in the case of family-owned businesses.
At present only four local businesses are ESG compliant in Malta, Abela said - the island's two largest banks and two publicly listed businesses.
As Abela spoke about this, Grech shook his head in disapproval. But he did not address the specific points raised.
Grech threw a few punches of his own, saying that for businesses to succeed and qualify for measures they had to ingratiate themselves with the ruling faction.
Abela did not respond directly and instead said only that he would reply “at the appropriate time in the right forum”.
Abela pushes individuals as Grech admits past mistakes
In lengthy opening remarks, both leaders gave an overview of their respective electoral pledges.
Abela asked businesses to take a look at the Opposition and ask themselves whether they saw the same calibre of people as in the Labour team.
“Look at economy, business, finance, security, all relevant topics being discussed internationally right now, and tell me if you see the same calibre of people [among the Opposition],” he said.
“Our team on this is united, focused, and with us the country knows where they stand. We deliver on what we propose. Our pledges are costed, responsible, and realistic.”
He said the choice in the election was between a political party of dilettantes and a Labour group that had successfully weathered the pandemic and had the credentials to steer the ship ahead through future challenges.
Meanwhile, Grech repeatedly referred to what he described as past mistakes by the PN.
“The Nationalist Party has learnt from its past mistakes and will continue to learn. Because we aren’t perfect, just like no one is perfect in this room,” he said.
Grech later again referred to “mistakes”, saying that some had even occurred since he became leader and he understood that these errors of judgement had hurt people.
However, the PN leader said the time has come to forgive these and for the business community to put these past incidents behind them.
He said that businesspeople had come to his with complaints without and fear of reprisals from the Labour administration.
This oppression, he said, must be stopped.
"The choice is between someone who knows what he wants and where to go, and another person who announced an election without even having a manifesto," he said.
“We are giving our trust in you, we hope that you return this to us,” he said.
Banking problems and third-country nationals
Both leaders referred extensively to their electoral pledges targeting SMEs, from tax breaks to facilitating business banking.
Among the questions from the floor was one from chamber member Fleur Camilleri who asked how the two leaders were planning to address difficulties in bringing non-EU workers to Malta.
Abela said that international forecasts predict Malta will have strong economic growth. To accomplish this, there is no doubt Malta needs more workers.
Abela said there were misconceptions that so-called third-country nationals, or TCNs, are only people who work in low-paying jobs.
“People who say this do not know the realities of the market - we have scientists, software developers and so on who are TCNs,” he said.
He said the government will be widening the bracket of TCNs who qualify for a fast-track work permit approval. Employers will also be able to physically meet these prospective employees before the process begins.
For non-EU workers already in Malta seeking to change jobs, a Labour government will also enact mechanisms to facilitate this.
Grech said employers need a level playing field - a theme he repeatedly drew on during Monday’s event. He said a government led by him would be hands-on when it came to addressing these issues.
“When you have your finger on the pulse you address these issues faster. Every day that passes without action is another day of less efficiency for businesses,” he said.
“We do not wait for the election to make promises to fix things,” he added.
The two party leaders previously held a debate at the University of Malta last week. That was a rather tame event, despite a rowdy crowd of university students who booed and jeered both leaders.
Monday’s event, before business leaders and social partners, made for a far less hostile environment.