The Times, Monday 23 February 2015
In the 2013 general election, Labour swept to victory for various reasons. In my reading, this had little to do with Malta’s economic situation.I believe that Labour’s immense victory had more to do with its successful articulation of the ‘common enemy’, namely the Nationalist government.
To do this, Labour carefully made promises to specific groups on various issues. These ranged from environmental and civil rights issues, erstwhile championed by the Green Party and NGOs, to specific promises to rent-seeking groups ready to switch political support as long as their specific demands were met.
It also had to do with Labour’s successful articulation of Lawrence Gonzi’s Nationalist government as being arrogant, non-meritocratic, out of touch with the aspirations of many people and so forth.
An important turning point towards Labour’s victory was the divorce referendum. The Nationalist Party seemed detached from the individualisation and reflexivity of family life. Gonzi also seemed unable to manage defections and prima-donna antics of certain backbenchers and seemed powerless next to the arrogance of certain ministers.
To make matters worse, the Gonzi government extended its life to its absolute limit when it was clear that it lost legitimacy.
On the other hand, the Gonzi government had a good number of merits. Apart from the adoption of the euro and the successful steering of the Maltese economy away from the global economic crisis and the southern European storm, there were also other successes. These included Malta’s international profile in the Libya crisis and the beautification of Valletta.
Joseph Muscat’s Labour government is now firmly in place and seems to enjoy considerable support.
The new Labour government introduced much-needed reforms such as increasing universal access to childcare services, specific educational targets, various LGBT rights and moving away from oil dependence.
It has managed to maintain the relative economic stability it inherited from the PN government, including low unemployment rates, though economic performance does not necessarily mean victory at the polls, as the 1996 and 2013 elections proved.
Labour has also partly fulfilled certain electoral pledges, such as reducing utility bills, though, I suspect, this comes at certain costs, presumably including Malta’s relatively high petrol and diesel prices.
Indeed, Labour’s governing strategy does have its negatives. For example, economic growth seems to focus very much on unbridled construction, mega projects, energy dependence on new oligarchs and the selling of citizenship for cash, apart from more legitimate areas such as tourism.
What happens when we have sold all we had to sell?
On meritocracy, it seems that Labour has run out of committees. New roles were invented to ensure that loyal soldiers are paid their electoral dividends.
Though I see nothing wrong with having strategic policymakers having ideological proximity with the party in government, when appointments are not deemed meritocratic they come at a cost. They cause disappointment among more qualified and deserving contenders, they give a sense of disenchantment among voters who give value to meritocracy and they cause resentment among excluded loyalists who are likewise expecting electoral dividends.
The meritocratic mess has been made worse when certain Labour members of Parliament have been given two, three and sometimes more roles while making big money in the process. In the meantime, precarious employment and low wages are widespread.
On the energy issue, it seems that lack of transparency is the order of the day. Legitimate questions on Enemalta, energy provision, petrol, diesel, utility bills, Enemed, you name it, are being asked but answers and documentation is lacking.
It seems that energy oligarchs and cartels are running the show while regulatory authorities are conspicuous by their absence.
As regards the environment, Labour is doing the unthinkable, namely having a worse performance than preceding governments in areas such as land development. The construction lobby is clearly in command, with policies seemingly tailor-made to suit its needs.
Malta seems destined to further uglification, urban sprawl, endless construction, shading, increased traffic and so forth. Landscape and space have been rendered to mere commodities for maximum exploitation, with scant consideration to open spaces, residents’ rights and quality of life.
Malta is already reaching a situation where new development is taking place in front of other new development.
Valletta is not spared from such policies. Our capital city has been subject to progressive beautification in recent years, with Renzo Piano’s project being a masterpiece which created so much space.
Now it seems that cultural vandalism will take place right at the doorstep of Piano’s project. From a monument in celebration of the capital’s beauty, we will have a monti monument that represents an apparent mishmash of electoral deals.
When criticised, the Labour government is using the previous Nationalist administration as a crutch. The fallback answer to any question: traffic, environmental damage, energy, finance, the weather is “PN did worse, PN left the mess”.
In the 2013 electoral campaign I saw no billboards stating “Vote PL, we will blame PN for every problem”.
The Maltese electorate did not elect Labour to remind us of its predecessors.
Significant sections of the electorate may be reaping the fruits of their electoral investment. But others are not and this includes reflexive civil society organisations and many voters who do not vote on the basis of what they can obtain from the State apparatus. Such voters possess a niche potential to shift the balance of power.