Saturday 18 January 2020

We don’t need another hero, we just need good governance

This column first appeared in Malta Today (written prior to election of new Labour leader)

Sometimes Netflix seems to be uncannily in tune with current events. Just like Facebook algorithms show you adverts for items which you have just searched for online, so too do TV series seem to eerily pop up which mimic real life.

At the moment, the TV series Messiah is trending; a story about a man who springs out of nowhere and cultivates a large following among those who are convinced he can perform miracles and who see in him the answer to all their prayers.

I do not need to spell out the analogy to the situation in Malta which is emerging from an almost-cult like veneration of Muscat. By the time you read this on Sunday, we will know who the new Labour Party leader and, by default, the new Prime Minister will be. Whoever it is, I just hope that the adoration levels will not go off the charts again.

We don’t need another hero. He doesn’t have to be a superman who is idolised. We just need someone to steer this country towards a more sensible, feet-on-the-ground path. We do not need an economy which reaches dizzying, stratospheric heights based on dubious methods; we just need an economic model which is good enough to keep the wheels turning but which is sustainable.

We do not need an economy which reaches dizzying, stratospheric heights based on dubious methods; we just need an economic model which is good enough to keep the wheels turning but which is sustainable.

But it’s not just economic polices which the new PM will be inheriting. He will also be inheriting the unenviable position of being in the relentless glare of the media. Since his arrival on the scene as newly-elected leader following the Labour party’s defeat in 2008, and throughout his tenure at the helm of the country, Muscat’s looks have been dissected and picked apart like a specimen in a science lab. From his ridiculously young age, to his goatee, to his lack of hair follicles, to his ill-advised scruffy stubble look; from the time he put on a lot of weight to the time he started working out at a gym, culminating in his drastic loss of weight due to the events of the last few months. Should the stature of a Prime Minister be measured by such superficial things? They shouldn’t, but they sometimes are. The scrutiny on the new Prime Minister’s wife will also be turned up to an even higher notch because to this day, and all over the world, women in the public eye are unfortunately still treated much more harshly than men.

A lot of people have been pointing out that it will be difficult to match Joseph Muscat’s brand of charisma and speaking style. As I watched the One TV documentary tribute, which was obviously a shameless propaganda exercise, one cannot deny that the man did have a certain something which pulled the crowds. Whether Fearne or Abela have that certain something remains to be seen – although to be honest, at this point, I would prefer less charisma and a gift of the gab, and much more good governance. Because what is the point of a dazzling personality if it leads to where we ended up in November?

To give the man his due, Muscat’s last speech as leader of the Labour Party on Friday was a throwback to other times, where he showed a touch of his old amiable self, in front of his supporters who remain unswerving in their loyalty. Since he announced his resignation, in fact, there has been a considerable improvement in his appearance. Whatever the burden was (and he has to live with his conscience about that), it was definitely and visibly lifted from his shoulders, as can be seen by comparing photos of that fateful day in November when he announced the resignation of Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi, to how he looks now.

There are those who maintain that there will never be anyone else like him (although they forget that has been said about other charismatic leaders as well). What has become clear over the last few months is that despite the deeply shocking revelations, Muscat’s Labour administration still enjoys widespread support, much to the bewilderment of those who oppose him. It is easy to belittle this support by calling everyone “sheep”, but mockery and ridicule alone will not generate enough support for the still splintered Opposition to present a credible challenge to the PL and whoever is going to be leading it from now. Name-calling might make his adversaries feel better but while they are trivialising the significance of this support, they are glossing over what is really behind it…aside from the fact that Muscat gave Labour supporters a renewed belief in themselves after so many decades in the political wilderness, there is also the salient fact that, to date at least, the economy is still relatively sound.

Should the economy take a hit, should investors start leaving, should tourism shrivel up, jobs start to dwindle and people stop spending, throwing us into a recession (something that can happen, as it has before) the situation and mood of the country would be immensely different. But as long as people are in full employment and have money in their pockets, their tolerance threshold for bad governance and allegations of corruption will remain because for many, it is an acceptable trade-off. As unpalatable and crass as that may sound, that is how I am reading the zeitgeist.

It has become the Maltese equivalent of the American dream where consumerism and materialism are the ultimate goals, and where driving expensive cars and widening roads is preferable to leaving unspoilt fields in their natural state. Where permits are granted to tear down historic old houses to be replaced by soulless apartment blocks with no character, because real estate is a gold mine and a substantial number of people have discovered a new source of revenue as landlords.

What Muscat’s successor faces on the economic front is the choice of either retaining the frenzied status quo with all the detrimental effects it has had on our quality of life, or taking the bull by the horns in an attempt to curb excess in favour of moderation. If that means having less of everything (less construction, less shopping malls, less eateries, less rental apartments at obscene prices), then that’s fine.

We will survive; we always have.

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