Tuesday 07 February 2023

What will Muscat’s legacy be?

This article first appeared on Malta Today 

I don’t know why people were surprised by Joseph Muscat’s announcement that he would not be contesting the next general elections. He has always said this from the start, and it is one of the things I agree with. Frankly, I think it should be written in our Constitution that the same party leader can only hold office for two terms, as it would do away with a lot of god complexes.

I also cannot understand why, when he said “Miniex se nieqaf nofs triq” (translated literally into “I will not be stopping halfway”) some took that to mean that he had changed his mind and would not be stepping down. To me this meant he would not be stepping down midway through the legislature, probably because rumours had already started swirling that he would not be completing the full term but would hand over the baton to his successor before the five years are up. I know politicians are notorious for the way they change their minds, backpedal and try to wriggle out of statements they have made, but in this case I really think he said what he meant, and meant what he said. I could be wrong of course, but we will have to wait and see.

After five years at the helm Muscat has already left his imprint on Maltese political history, but as with all Prime Ministers it will take the passage of time to truly weigh the negatives against the positives. Of course, his harshest critics will tell you that his legacy has already been marred behind redemption and no matter what he does he can never gain their respect.

But the evaluation of any leader, in any country, is a sum of many parts, and assessing whether the person has been a good statesman or not can probably only really be properly reviewed further down the line, in the annals of history. However, enough time has passed since Muscat first came on the national political scene, to measure at least part of his legacy.

If we take his role as a party leader, he will definitely always be credited for doing what many thought was impossible, which was completely revamping, rebranding and transforming the image of the Labour party and making it not only electable, but overwhelmingly so. I still recall him stepping out on that stage at the PL headquarters after he had just won the party leadership, and the old Mintoffian stalwarts gazing up at him with a mixture of bemusement and fascination: who was this young upstart kid claiming that he would become Prime Minister by the time he was 39?

There are diehard supporters within the Labour party who claim that Muscat’s leadership abilities and oratory skills not only rival that of Mintoff, but by far exceed them. They speak about him in glowing terms, full of awe and reverence, which is never a good idea, for politicians are mere mortals and should never be placed on high pedestals.

But winning the election by a landslide from a tired PN administration was just the beginning. From the very start of his first legislature in 2013, Muscat immediately showed what type of leader he would be: the type who would suddenly announce new projects and initiatives using the element of surprise. The first surprise was the Citizenship by Investment scheme, which threw the new Labour Government headlong into its first (but by no means last) of the many controversies it has brought upon itself over the years. Subsequent agreements on major infrastructural projects from the gas power station to the American University to the latest dubious Vitals concession to run state hospitals have all been mired in more questions than answers. There have been allegations of abuse of power, corruption, money-laundering, you name it.

And yet, one characteristic of Muscat’s leadership is that, no matter how battered and bruised he may be, he keeps steamrolling ahead, a trait which he shares with his predecessor Mintoff, in his belief that he is on the right track. In fact, it is this ability to get things done which has “allowed” him to overcome one political scandal after another. For example, even though many will privately agree that the Konrad Mizzi-Keith Schembri-Brian Tonna Panama Papers revelations (and, of course, the still mysterious Egrant ownership) should really have been Muscat’s undoing, the feel good factor of economic progress still tipped the scales in his favour. If Malta had been experiencing widespread unemployment and a major recession, the reaction of voters would probably have been very different.

However, money in our pockets and a booming economy are worthless without a good quality of life, which everyone will agree is deteriorating. And while it is true that certain much-needed projects are being delivered on time, such as the Kappara flyover and the promise to turn Valletta into a thriving capital city, we are now teetering on the brink of what can only be described as a mad frenzy which threatens to swallow us up.

If we take just the obscene over-development alone, it is difficult to keep up what is happening; it is as if someone has unleashed all the Planning Authority applications at once and is throwing them at us in one simultaneous, deliberate fell swoop so that we cannot handle it and will be too overwhelmed too object. This party of Muscat’s legacy is already dark and shameful, and can never be forgiven. Once we eradicate and destroy what we have, it will be impossible to turn the clock back. Meanwhile. the rental market is absolutely out-of-control and we are in danger of creating blocks of slums as tenants resort to renting dingy, mouldy rooms from unscrupulous landlords.

The downside of Muscat’s “let’s do it” attitude is that he has forgotten (or chosen to forget) that the Labour party’s roots are entrenched deep in the culture of the ordinary blue collar worker. Those on the bottom rungs of the ladder are not only doomed to stay there, but are being joined by a new strata of those who are just about holding their heads above water. He does not need to remind us that his government is pro-business, because from what I can tell, it is “all business” and everything is being sacrificed at the altar of greed. In a recent speech to Scottish students he said that at the beginning of his administration he had immediately discarded the idea of austerity. Good thing too, because no one wants to go back to the economic model favoured by Mintoff, when he banned certain foreign imports, in his attempt to get Maltese industries on their feet. But does it really have to be from one extreme to the other?

Someone recently told me about a Swedish term “Lagom”, which means “just the right amount”. It is used to counter the extremes of consumerism. I think this is really a perfect word to describe what we need to aim for – not excess, not unbridled frenzy, but just enough. Perhaps finding this balance of having what is sufficient for the country without going overboard with wild money-making schemes at the expense of the fabric of society is what Muscat should be striving for in this, his last legislature.

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