One year later: the travails of democratic change

Labour must learn how to better resist the pressure for handouts that is typical of its ‘old Labour’ supporters and be fairer to deserving citizens, whatever their political allegiance

One year is a short time and we will still need to wait at least another two years to see the full force of the changes brought about by this new administration.
One year is a short time and we will still need to wait at least another two years to see the full force of the changes brought about by this new administration.

The current Labour administration is no longer ‘new’: it celebrates its first year in office this weekend. This is perhaps an opportune moment to assess if the Maltese voters got it right when they cried out loudly for a change and gave Joseph Muscat an unprecedented landslide victory.

Needless to say there have been some who are bitterly disappointed. I have the feeling that these mainly belong to the extreme right of the spectrum that the PN embraces, those who feared the violence that never materialised. The same goes for the extreme left of Old Labour who expected the same style of administration as practised way back in the Mintoff and KMB days, with violence used as a political tool and the state acting as guardian and custodian of those who permanently plead for its bounty – or ‘ċejċa’ as Mintoff used to put it – rather than taking the initiative and do their own thing. Thankfully for all of us, Joseph disappointed them both.

Not that this administration can make any radical and unorthodox changes in our economic and political set-up. This is the first Labour administration that assumed power after Malta voluntarily decided to share a part of its sovereignty with other states in the process of becoming a fully-fledged EU member. Many basic considerations of administration such as human rights, state aid, environmental standards, financial matters, the euro currency, the obligations of the Schengen agreement and much more have become outside the sole remit of our national government, sometimes thankfully. Labour laboured uneasily under some of these constraints but retreated – gracefully and not so gracefully – when called to task by the EU as in the case of the threats to push back refugees and the ill-conceived passports for sale scheme.

So, it is quite legitimate to ask what the real changes, positive or negative, were following Muscat’s ‘New Labour’ assuming power.

What was definitely a major change was the wholesale dismantling of the overgrown and twenty-five year old restricted PN network that enjoyed the benefits of power and that even excluded many PN voters that were not close to the party core, not to mention Labour sympathisers. After almost 25 years with the same party in government without any real alternation of power, it was only natural that the PN became progressively more self-serving and needed a reality check. This is the real explanation behind the unheard of scale of the PN debacle.

Only a different administration could clean the Augean stables and Labour did quite a job of it. Perhaps too good of a job, as the new members of the deceivingly named ‘Malta Taghna Ilkoll’ club now can vouch. Yet there is no doubt that during the next four years, Labour must learn how to better resist the pressure for handouts that is typical of its ‘old Labour’ supporters and be fairer to deserving citizens, whatever their political allegiance.

A corollary of this network overhaul was the uncovering of a raft of corruption cases of which we will probably hear more and more. Here, Labour is faltering. Managing rampant corruption, as in the case of the smart meters saga, means exposing corruption no holds barred, even if many of its own supporters were willing participants in the rotten process. Will this administration, elected on the promise of zero tolerance to corruption, stand by this electoral promise? Time will tell, but considering some of its decisions so far, the prospects do not seem so good. Well-meaning and honest citizens are all waiting and watching.

One definitely positive radical change was the overhaul of the country’s energy policy. The need for the restructuring of this sector was evidently crying out and by the looks of it, the Labour plan that took the PN by surprise during the electoral campaign, was no ‘Alice in Wonderland’ idea. We still have to wait a few more years to see it really happen but the odds are that it will.

This brings us to another positive change. The energy agreement with the Chinese, if successful, will have a positive effect on Enemalta’s financial well-being as some €200 million will be wiped off its debt slate, but the implications are deeper than that. This Labour administration has a more global view of foreign policy and it is very positive that it is trying to venture outside the EU more than the previous administration did. Perhaps this could not happen before, but now that we have been EU members for a decade, it makes a lot of sense for Malta to spread its economic interests outside the hold of Brussels. Nevertheless, in spite of Muscat’s friends within the European Socialist group (PES), Labour still needs to learn how to handle Brussels better.

Last but not least are the laws enacted and the actions taken on whistleblowers, church and state relations, the attempt to reform the justice system, and the introduction of more liberal ideas such as mixed education, civil unions and gay rights as well as other laws in the pipeline amongst which the one on political party funding. Admittedly many such ideas were also in the plans of the outgoing PN administration but it was obvious that it had all its energies sapped by internal strife and was not really in a position to govern the country effectively.

Perhaps in hindsight, going into opposition was the better option for the PN; rather than squeaking through for another five years of fragile power. The PN, itself, also has the opportunity to face the challenge of reinventing itself and become once again a strong political force to be reckoned with.

On the negative side, there was the inexperience of government culminating in the disastrous handling of the passport and refugee issues and the pompous approach adopted by Muscat in trying to convince us all that a radical change was happening when it was not. Whether those changes were needed at all is another matter.

One year is a short time and we will still need to wait at least another two years to see the full force of the changes brought about by this new administration. So far it has not been bad but it could have been much better. There are still some unopened cans full of worms: issues like pensions reform and the need for sustainability in our medical care, besides the issue of social integration that must be part of the solution to the immigration problem.

The next two years should tell us more but so far the benefits of institutionalized change, undoubtedly one of the musts of a vibrant democracy, have been more positive than negative in the great scheme of things.

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