Tuesday 23 April 2019

Are you ready for the 10 year challenge?

This article first appeared in Malta Today

Facebook is awash with before and after profile photos of those who took up the latest social media hashtag challenge, posting examples of what a difference a decade makes.

While there are those who have cautioned that this might just be another way in which the powerful Facebook can enrich and refine its database of facial recognition with photos which you are helpfully providing yourself, others have simply poked fun at it.

However, there was also a more serious side to it as environmental groups started using it to raise public awareness about how Malta has changed for the worse. The one which struck me the most was posted by Alternattiva’s Green Youth branch which posted a photo of trees and unspoiled agricultural land for 2009, and then for 2019 – a sprawling petrol station complex.  That image hit home and it got me thinking about other ways in which the country has changed in ten years.

Politics

In 2009 we were under a Nationalist administration led by Lawrence Gonzi and we also had an MEP election as we are going to have this year. The five winning candidates were:

  • Simon Busuttil (Nationalist)
  • David Casa (Nationalist)
  • Louis Grech (Labour)
  • Edward Scicluna (Labour)
  • John Attard Montalto (Labour) 

Of these five politicians, only David Casa is still an MEP while Edward Scicluna is now Finance Minister. Simon Busuttil eventually resigned this seat to become the Opposition leader, only to resign as leader in 2017 after a heavy electoral defeat, and is now a backbencher.  This election also marked a turning point for the Labour party which (in hindsight, as pointed out recently by Franco Debono during the programme Dissett) represented the beginning of the end of the PN’s majority rule.  The fact that the Labour party in Opposition had clinched 54% of the votes while the PN only obtained 40% was a clear signal that the Nationalist party had lost favour with the electorate.     

In 2019 we have a Labour Government which has been in office for 6 years, led by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat who himself was a former MEP. The upcoming MEP elections are going to see a long list of new faces as candidates but will be another test for the PN which is now an openly divided party torn apart by infighting. Not only has it never really recovered from its two electoral defeats, but many of its supporters have never accepted the leader Adrian Delia who faces an uphill struggle to get out the vote in time for the May election.  Meanwhile, the PL Government is still riding high in the polls, mostly because there is no viable Government-in-waiting to offer any serious challenge.  

Economy

In 2009, impacted by international events and the worst global recession since the 1930s Great Depression, Malta was also hit by the economic crisis.  Tourism was badly affected as was the manufacturing industry, with the Government having to step in to save jobs.  However, unemployment still increased and this was made worse by the hike in the price of utility bills.  This was the year the controversial BWSC contract was awarded and when the Malta Shipyards were privatized – these included the ship repair ‘yard in Cospicua, the former Marsa shipbuilding ‘yard, the super yachts facility in Cospicua and Manoel Island yacht ‘yard.

The recession also meant that property prices fell and many homeowners were experiencing negative equity: the market value of their homes was less than the balance on their mortgage. In 2011, a report by the Global Property guide stated that: “The situation looks somewhat troubling from a residential investor’s perspective – there’s been overbuilding, there are a lot of empty dwellings, and gross rental yields are low.”  

I had to smile wryly at the next phrase: “Confidence among construction firms has deteriorated…”

Fast forward to 2019 and the economy is definitely booming but it has (literally) come at a high price.  Property prices, we have been told, have seen the second-highest increase across the EU which is good news for owners, but bad news for young couples wanting to start out in life.  I have been reliably informed that whereas a 2-3 bedroomed apartment in 2009 would cost in the region of 100K – 150K and very much depended on location, a similar property today can set you back 200K and more, in areas previously considered as undesirable.

Similarly, anyone who rents will tell you that it takes a big chunk out of their salary and has reduced people to living in garages, sub-standard accommodation and in some cases, even sharing an apartment with a number of other people.  

Construction firms have not only regained their ‘confidence’ but they are positively rubbing their hands with glee, as permits are doled out with abandon to build anywhere and everywhere,  while height restrictions have been removed and no ODZ land is sacred.

It is true that in the last decade, the economy has not only bounced back from the doldrums but is positively buzzing. However, to do so, the Government came up with creative, and not always desirable ways to draw investment and revenue. The sale of passports, which is euphemistically known as the Citizenship Investment Scheme, is still not palatable to a lot of people but it has undeniably generated income for the Government’s coffers, as well as for lawyers, brokers, agents, and property owners who have all benefitted.  The iGaming industry which started here as soon as we joined the EU in 2004 is today one of the biggest employers on the island.   Other foreign investors, attracted by a favourable tax rate and fiscal incentives, have also set up shop here.  The recent forays into Blockchain and Artificial Intelligence indicate that Muscat has no intention of slowing down in implementing his ambitious plans for the country, even in areas which still represent questionable new ground.

Unfortunately, apart from the legitimate investment, the island has also inevitably become a magnet for underground criminal networks, money laundering and drug trafficking.  Another, very high price to pay to have a good economy. 

Quality of life

According to a report in Malta Today, in 2009 Malta’s population was recorded at 414,027. By the end of 2016, the population estimates show there were 460,297 people living on the islands, with the greatest surge registered after 2013. 

As each industry has grown it has had a ripple effect on the country’s demographics as people mostly from other EU countries where unemployment is high, flocked here looking for work.  Because it happened so quickly and within such a small timeframe, the reality of a multi-ethnic Malta has resulted in a culture shock, as locals have had to grapple with the reality of being served at supermarkets, restaurants, and even having their post delivered, by people who are not Maltese.  There was no time for a gradual adjustment or assimilation, and the repercussions continue to be felt, especially in our infrastructure and the function of everyday services. 

The sudden influx of so many nationalities within three years is resented by a lot of people who speak scathingly of ‘foreigners’, even if this very same influx makes it possible for many local businesses to flourish because their market has grown.  As the population grows and the traffic increases, the open spaces in the country continue to disappear as an out of control construction sector as well as hotel owners have been given a free hand to grab public land.  No wonder so many escape as often as they can, if only for a weekend, to get away from this crowded island of cranes and cars, where it has become difficult to breathe unpolluted air.  

To sum up, the country may be flush with money, but it has flushed the environment down the drain.

Civil Rights and equality 

In 2009, Malta had no divorce, no gay marriage and no morning after pill.

In 2019 we have all of these. However, women’s rights are often just on paper as official bureaucracy and certain laws still lag behind, treating the woman as an appendage of her husband (or worse,  her ex-husband).  How come?

And to end on a lighter note…the Eurovision

It seems hard to believe but in 2009, we sent Chiara for the second time to represent Malta at the Eurovision.  This is not to criticize this great singer, but it seems surprising now that no new voice emerged that year. Chiara did, however, manage to get through to the final, something which several subsequent Eurovision singers have failed to do.

In 2019,  the format has been completed changed – there is no Song for Europe, but an X factor search for the next great voice. As things stand, the chances are that whoever wins will definitely be a new face and voice, because apart from Petra who has competed in festivals before, all the other front-runners are complete newcomers.  Whether this gamble will work remains to be seen, but at least it has revitalized the tired old formula and has renewed public interest in local talent. 

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