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Blaming the interconnector is not good enough

It is Labour’s failure to deliver that is now the issue

9 February 2017, 7:20am
Minister Konrad Mizzi is technically correct in his assessment that it was the Ragusa side of the interconnector that malfunctioned, but he failed to mention that the interconnector is currently supplying 70% of our national demand because his own government failed to keep that crucial promise
Minister Konrad Mizzi is technically correct in his assessment that it was the Ragusa side of the interconnector that malfunctioned, but he failed to mention that the interconnector is currently supplying 70% of our national demand because his own government failed to keep that crucial promise
Yesterday’s nationwide blackouts has once again – for the second time in eight weeks – illustrated that Malta is no closer to solving its energy crisis after three years of a Labour administration. 

Minister Without Portfolio Konrad Mizzi may have struck the right tone by apologising for this failure... but it cannot escape notice that even his apology served as an indirect reminder that the ‘cause’ of the blackout was, in fact, the Malta-Sicily interconnector on both occasions. And the interconnector was the preferred solution of the preceding government, defended in the manifesto authored by (then deputy leader) Simon Busuttil.

Such subtleties may prove useful with a year to go for an election campaign, but in truth the strategy of blaming all Labour’s failures on the Nationalists is becoming stale and unconvincing. Even if we accept the core argument that the PN’s strategy would have had the same effect, it does not excuse the present government for failing to deliver on what was after all its core electoral promise.

The years preceding 2013 had been characterised by much unrest and discontent regarding the energy sector: from soaring utility bills to corruption in the procurement of oil, Labour was gifted an ideal platform to present itself as a possible solution. It was even evident from the PN’s reaction during the campaign – with Tonio Fenech’s famous ‘Alice in Wonderland’ remark – that expectations for Labour’s proposed solution were very high. Indeed the PL fanned those expectations itself: at one point, Opposition leader Joseph Muscat even said he would resign if the new power station was not up and running within two years.

As with the meritocracy and accountability pledges, however, national hopes were to be once again dashed. Mizzi is technically correct in his assessment that it was the Ragusa side of the interconnector that malfunctioned – for this we have the word of Enemalta’s chief technician. What he omits to mention, however, is that the interconnector is currently supplying 70% of our national demand because his own government failed to keep that crucial promise.

Passing the buck onto the Nationalist Party might sound good to the Labour electorate, but it does nothing to answer the question so many people in this country are currently asking. Why has Muscat’s government failed to guarantee uninterrupted power supply, as it had promised to do when in Opposition?  

Part of the answer resides in the fact that the government very clearly did not have a Plan B in mind for the transition period between the decommissioning of the Marsa power station, and the commencement of operations of the new gas-fired plant: which is in any case over a year late already. 

The experience of two major blackouts confirms that Enemalta’s strategy is to import three-quarters of its needs through the interconnector: when the government itself had criticised the PN government for over-dependence on this clearly unreliable source.

Given its own opposition to the interconnector, coupled with the BWSC plant, as a solution to Malta’s energy issues... it is surprising, to say the least, to see Muscat’s government effectively enacting the same strategy itself. Evidently, the PL did not foresee the possible need to tap into alternative fuel sources, at least to cover the transition period until the new power station is operational. Just as it had criticised the PN for proposing, it put three quarters of its own eggs in the same basket.

This does not bode well, especially considering that there are no guarantees the already-postponed power station will not encounter further delays. Rather than obliquely pointing fingers of blame at the opposition, Dr Mizzi would do well to explain why his government’s energy strategy has likewise failed. One party’s failure does not translate into the other party’s success; if the electorate voted for Labour in record numbers, it was in part because they trusted Labour more to solve this particular problem.

It is Labour’s failure to deliver that is now the issue: not who caused the problem to begin with, or whose alternative solution would actually be worse.

Separately, there is something deeply incongruous about the fact that Dr Mizzi even addressed a press conference over an issue for which he had previously been stripped of his portfolio. Almost a year after the Panama scandal broke, the country is perhaps no longer surprised to see Mizzi forming any part at all of Muscat’s Cabinet. But that he would go on to be appointed chair of the EU’s Energy Committee, and still front his government on local issues, is somewhat harder to digest.

It also exposes a gaping hole in Muscat’s line-up of ministers. It seems no one else can claim to represent the government on this issue. This in itself exposes the inherent danger – previously experienced under the Nationalists, too – of allowing a single minister to become too deeply involved in national negotiations on large-scale projects such as a power station.

All things considered, this should be considered problematic on a political as well as an administrative level. It would be a serious issue even if the present government did succeed in solving Malta’s energy crisis: how much more problematic, then, when it very clearly hasn’t.

***

The renewal of Konrad Mizzi’s wife - Sai Mizzi Liang - as Malta Enterprise envoy in China has opened a can of worms. Not only does it show that the Labour government has not learnt from past mistakes but sheds doubt on the minister’s credibility after having committed himself publicly that the contract will not be renewed. 

Last year, during his short-lived election as Labour deputy leader, Mizzi had said his wife’s contract would not be renewed. However, we have now learnt that the contract has been renewed although the reasons why remain shrouded in mystery. Once again, there are two fundamental pillars of democracy at stake in this issue: transparency, which decrees that all such appointments must be open to public scrutiny and meritocracy, according to which all public appointments are made available on the basis of one’s qualifications and suitability for the role.

DealToday
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