Wednesday 28 February 2024

A flat, unenthusiastic debate 

This article first appeared in Malta Today

When it came down to it, neither of the two leaders who faced each other for the first time during the debate on Xtra on Thursday night exactly sparked any joy.   For the most part, it was a rather flat, unenthusiastic debate.

Whereas in the past Joseph Muscat used to be positively beaming because he was soaring high on a crest of unprecedented popularity, now (despite still being high in the polls) every time he appears on TV he looks jaded and mechanical – as if he is merely going through the motions.   The air of genial bonhomie and the affable smile have all but disappeared; there is a cold, calculating look to him which wasn’t there before and the occasional smile never quite reaches his eyes.  Like a weary rock star who has been on the road and touring too long, it seems as if the buzz he used to get out of it is all gone – even as the adoration for him is now approaching the same veneration which used to be reserved for Mintoff. Maybe it is because the PL is unassailable and there is no real challenge or maybe it is because so much power has made him cocky so he doesn’t need to turn on the charm any more.  

Or maybe he really is fed up of all this and can’t wait for a successor to take over. 

On his part, Adrian Delia looked deflated and defeated, which is understandable considering the way the PN has plunged in the polls.  If nothing else, the man has to be admired for his sheer stamina in hanging on so long in the face of so much opposition – most of it from within his own party.

One of the few times they both became animated was when the talk turned to ‘the foreigner’.   Prior to this debate, Muscat seemed to be walking a tightrope and not quite sure whether he should pander to the anti-foreigner sentiment in the country or to those who are appalled by xenophobia, racism and prejudice.  What those leading this country (or who aspire to) need to decide is, how far to the right do they want to take this discourse?  In Muscat’s case it almost felt like I was listening to Trump talking about Mexicans:  “I want young Maltese people to take the skilled choice is for them to be the managers, doctors, teachers..and then I want those who come to help the workers out all day in the scorching sun, to be the foreigners. I don’t want the Maltese to be out there picking up the rubbish.  I don’t want a situation where the foreigner is comfortable and the Maltese person is breaking their back.”

If I hadn’t heard this with my own ears I would have thought that the media reports were making it up or exaggerating.  But that is exactly what he said. What an appalling thing for a Prime Minister to think, let alone say.  Is this the disdainful way he looks at other human beings? Is this the extent to which he values those people who are coming here out of desperation and taking any job, no matter how miserable the salary, and who accept to live in any accommodation, now matter how dire?  The same people who just a short while ago he was praising because they were making it possible to provide enough social security contributions to sustain our pensions?   

Unfortunately, I am sure that there are those who probably agree with this sentiment, which makes it even more cringeworthy that it came out of the mouth of the country’s leader – who should aspire to uplift public discourse and not perpetuate the worst aspects of it.   

Adrian Delia was quick to accuse the PM of wanting to create a classist society – and he was right.  After all, if the PM thinks foreigners should only be tolerated on sufferance because they are only good for the menial labour jobs, what message is that sending to all those thousands who have found employment here and are well-educated and skilled? “Sorry folks, but we only want you here if you are willing to collect our rubbish.”  As for those who are actually breaking their backs, rain or shine, collecting our rubbish and building our new apartments, well, it’s nice to know what the PM really thinks of them, huh?

There is also another aspect to all this. As much as Muscat might yearn for a Utopia where every young Maltese person is a manager, well, life does not work like that. Some people are simply not cut out to be managers, nor are they cut out for academic subjects of any kind. For all our good intentions, there will always be a percentage of Maltese who leave school with no qualifications and no skills and will only be employable in blue collar jobs.  Once upon a time they would have been shepherded into trade schools, where they could have at least found out if they were good at doing things with their hands.  The decision to choose a trade used to be taken just after they finished Form Two, which was just young enough for the students not to have given up hope of attending school altogether.   But if someone could not even make the cut at a trade school or a Dockyard apprenticeship then yes, unfortunately, they would have had no choice but to accept doing some other form of manual labour or low skill job.  

Muscat said, “I want everyone to be “sinjur żgħir” (comfortable) – well that too is a pipe dream because life is not fair and society is not equal. The only ones becoming not only comfortable but obscenely wealthy are those who are exploiting those at the very bottom, or those who are making money through illicit means.  The average person is still just about getting by, and where you have a family with two incomes in order to be able to afford a certain lifestyle, you can be sure that other aspects of their life are suffering.  I would have preferred him to say that his wish is for everyone to have a decent wage, making enough money to live on without having to work two jobs, never seeing their kids, and working themselves to death in the process. 

On the other hand, Delia also kept referring to an exploding population due to “too many foreigners”, another sentiment which is widely shared by the electorate, but the PN is not giving any real solutions on how this growing influx can be halted.  The only real way is to issue a moratorium on any new construction projects but no one wants to touch that hot potato, do they?  Especially when top construction magnates tend to be the biggest donors to both main political parties.  The fact is that a lot of people are making money (either directly or indirectly) from the construction industry and all this development. Think of all the bathroom and kitchen suppliers, turnkey companies, home furnishing shops as well as those who work in real estate.  Much like the sale for passports scheme, the PN is caught between a rock and hard place because so much of its demographic is benefitting: notaries, lawyers, landlords, you name it.   When I look at all the new apartment buildings being built within a one mile radius around where I live, I keep wondering who they are for, if not for the ubiquitous ‘foreigner’?  It’s not like there has been a Maltese baby boom in the last 20 years – in fact, the opposite is the case.  

This debate left me wondering what exactly the PM and the Opposition Leader want when it comes to foreign workers in the country.  It seems that the former just looks at them as mere expendable fodder to do our dirty work so that the economy keeps on rolling (without taking any management jobs away from the Maltese) while the latter just wants them to magically go away without explaining how. 

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