Prime Minister Robert Abela insisted on Wednesday that the majority of the electorate was not after favours, while conceding that clientelism will remain for as long as Malta retained its present electoral system.
"This is why we want to discuss electoral reform," Abela said at a debate with Nationalist Party leader Bernard Grech. "We want to discuss issues like whether Malta should retain its 13 districts or become a single district, as happens for European Parliament elections."
The Labour leader and Prime Minister also said he expected his elected MPs to uphold the principle of integrity.
“There were episodes, throughout the years, that disappointed people. I understand them and they are right. Mistakes happen, but integrity and correctness are cardinal principles," he said.
Grech took him to task on this, reiterating his stance that dishing out tax refund cheques on the eve of an election amounts to vote-buying.
This, he said, was clientelism at its best.
The two party leaders were debating one another at an event organised by the Malta Chamber and moderated by Rachel Attard.
It was the third time in a week that the leaders of Malta’s two major parties appear on a stage together, following a rather tame debate at the University of Malta and a Q&A session hosted by the Chamber of SMEs.
Grech assured Chamber members that a PN government would not compete with the private sector by employing more people in the public sector and would ensure a "level playing field".
Planning and the environment
Both leaders appeared to agree with one another that the government should steer clear from the planning process.
When asked about a controversial permit to build a huge block of apartments in a sensitive part of Sannat, Abela insisted that the permit was still subject to two separate appeals - one before the EPRT and one before the law courts.
He admitted that Labour and the PA had made "mistakes" in past years, saying the party's focus on the environment in this election's manifesto was intended to address that.
The PA, he said, was an autonomous authority but it also has a duty to "adhere to the government’s priorities with a strategic vision,” he said.
Grech, on the other hand, insisted on the need to “beautify” Malta, adding that there was an unlevel playing field in the way planning permits were being granted.
He said the PA needed to be transformed to really focus on planning, rather than permits.
The two leaders also took each other to task on the trackless tram proposed by the PN and the metro being proposed by the Labour Party.
Grech acknowledged that the party's tram proposal would require some roads to be widened but insisted that no cycling lanes or footpaths would be given up to make way for an eventual tram.
Abela, on the other hand, implied that the PN proposal was an amateurish one and compared it to the metro study drafted for the government by international consultants Arup.
The metro plan would cost a lot of money if implemented, he acknowledged, but Arup had also proposed splitting the project into sections.
Mandatory union membership
On the PL’s proposal to push for mandatory trade union membership, Abela conceded that this was a matter that had to be discussed with social partners before being implemented.
He said the matter will be discussed among employers and worker representatives at the Malta Council for Economic and Social Development but insisted that the most vulnerable workers needed to be protected.
Grech, on the other hand, acknowledged that the PN had initially proposed it in a pre-budget document but had changed its mind following consultation and now believed union membership should be purely a matter of choice.
Aid for businesses
Turning to assistance to businesses, Abela said he was proud that his government had helped businesses during the pandemic “when they needed it most” and assured them that it will continue being there to cushion the impact of external forces, including the situation in Ukraine.
The COVID-19 wage supplement, he said, was a grant and would not have to be repaid.
Grech rebutted that while a PN-led government would continue sustaining recovery, it would also focus on creating wealth. This was why it was proposing the investment of €1 billion in the creation of 10 new economic sectors “because the government created none in 10 years”.
Both leaders disagreed with an assertion that their parties were promising everything as if they were “Father Christmas”.
Abela said the government had clear projections that would see national GDP rise from just over €14 billion to €20 billion by the end of the legislature. That economic growth would boost job creation and pay for the PL measures, which he said were all costed.
Grech said the PN considered its pledges to be “investment” rather than “promises” and said that economic growth generated by the creation of new economic sectors would pay for them.
Track records and ESG
When Abela was asked why business people should trust him, his reply was curt.
“Because of our track record,” he said.
“Had we chosen austerity over stimulus packages, then we would not have the fastest growing economy in the EU and neither would we have record employment. Our proposals, including tax reductions, have no terms of reference attached to them like PN’s,” he said – a reference to the PN requiring businesses to satisfy ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) criteria to qualify for benefits.
Grech rebutted that the PN was determined to focus on pushing ESG compliance but that the specific criteria would be determined following consultation.
“We want firms to be guided by the ESG principles because we believe it is good for corporate governance but also for the country,” he said.
Grech would not be drawn into commenting on whether the PN still stood a chance of winning the general election, as the surveys were showing. He said his job was to show people that the party had a vision for the country and that people would be better off with the PN in government.