Sunday 29 March 2020

Is Muscat the Teflon King?

This article first appeared in the Sunday edition of Malta Today 

Saviour Balzan this week interviewed the Prime Minister Joseph Muscat about the performance of his Government over the last three years and eight months since Labour swept into power.

I suppose that after all the dire predictions that a Labour government would spell doom for Malta’s economy, and still riding high in the opinion polls, Muscat can be forgiven for striding into the studio with a wide smile and exuding a certain self-assurance. Despite his administration being rocked by a series of scandals, despite one dubious deal and questionable government contract after the other, and despite reneging on his promise of appointing people to public posts based on merit and qualifications rather than party allegiance, he is to date, the Teflon King. Nothing sticks to him, it seems.

Yes, there are areas where the Labour administration has delivered, such as the promise of free childcare and low unemployment. In the education sector, especially I think there have been a lot of improvements with a Minister who is attuned to public sentiment and who takes action immediately. On the whole, the health sector is also often at the receiving end of praise by people who require the free services at Mater Dei and the health centres.

When I remember the campaign slogan chosen by the PN claiming that “Labour won’t work” it is clear that when it comes to the economy, not only has it not been a complete disaster, but the naysayers could not possibly have foreseen how wrong they were. I think they completely under-estimated just how “pro-business” this new pro-business version of Labour was actually going to be. There has been a boom in the construction industry, coupled with even more investment in iGaming and the Citizenship scheme (which has had a ripple effect on the property and rental market and people “with money” coming to live here). And as we have seen time and time again, a lot of people across the political spectrum are making a lot of money from these industries particularly the Citizenship Scheme and construction, so any attempts to stir up outrage against them is bound to fall rather flat.

But these sectors cannot be taken in isolation because the development spree with everyone building everywhere they like, has come at the expense of the environment, the iGaming industry can be pulled out from under our feet any minute by the EU, while the Citizenship scheme and the very idea of selling passports, has had a very unsavoury air about it from Day One. These are areas of life which matter to a lot of people but my question is whether they matter to ENOUGH people to make a difference. This is, perhaps, one explanation for Muscat continuing to lead in the trust ratings, against all odds. Speaking on a personal level, I know many people who care deeply about things being done properly and above board, and it pains them to see (for example) huge development projects being given the green light without any consideration towards how residents will be affected. Others, unfortunately, don’t really care that much (especially if it is not in their neighbourhood).

It’s a “me, me, me” world, and that, unfortunately, works in Muscat’s favour.

On the whole, Muscat struck the right note for most of the interview with Saviour, keeping his tone on a relatively even keel. There were however, the occasional moments when glimmers of irritation and arrogance crept through. Referring to his slimmed down physique, Muscat quipped that it was due to the “Panama diet”…a facetious comment which jars with the seriousness of the issue. Considering that it enraged a lot of people to learn that offshore banking accounts were being set up by a top cabinet minister and the PM’s own Chief of Staff, this flippant reference was out of place.

The “demotion” he spoke of, when he removed Konrad Mizzi from Energy Minister and made him a a Minister without Portfolio instead was, let’s face it, a demotion in name only because Mizzi is still a member of the Cabinet. When anything related to the energy sector is involved, Konrad is there, ever present. While Muscat acknowledged that people were “disappointed” by the Panama Papers scandal and other lack of accountability issues, he then said that when one balances the scales, people are on the whole happy with the performance of this Government. He was, of course, referring to his approval ratings, and technically he is right. For, if people cared enough about the corruption allegations which continue to plague his government, surely we should see some sign of it reflected in the polls?

And yet, while on the one hand he is obviously content with the numbers which show him still ahead of Busuttil, it is what he said next about the surveys that belied that hint of smugness. Basically, he said that he does not let surveys affect or guide him because he is the one who leads the way and then the numbers follow. He gave as an example the civil unions issue which initially was not popular with the Maltese but which, after it became law, saw a change in the percentage of people who were in favour of it. While he might be right about this change of heart in Maltese society, there are two things which are grating about this comment: first that it sounds too much like self-praise which is never a good idea, and secondly, why cannot he be a leader on issues which this country desperately need, namely transparency and good governance?

Speaking about the Cafe Premier scandal, he admitted, “we could have done things better” while denying there was any political patronage because the recipient was not at all a Labour supporter, but a PN one (as if that makes any difference about the principle of the thing). The problem is that there are too many instances where “we could have done things better” and it is becoming a worn-out excuse. Why aren’t things done above board with full transparency in the first place? Why is there always this lingering black cloud over projects and agreements where things are inevitably done not quite according to procedure? You can hardly blame many people for that nagging feeling that something shady is going on, when tidbits of information are revealed which indicate that something is not quite right.

It is a sad state of affairs that so many people feel that as long as they have money in their pockets, they are willing to close an eye to governmental wrongdoings. For if we do not hold this (or any) government to account, we will have no one to blame but ourselves when the wrongdoings simply continue to multiply.

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