Mixed feelings in Muscat’s year one

Muscat should ditch the ‘know it all’ attitude and keep the economy on track. If he loses a good chunk of his 2013 vote, it means Labour might be underestimating Simon Busuttil

A bit 'know it all' - Mucat's 'best cabinet in history' gets a reshuffle 12 months later
A bit 'know it all' - Mucat's 'best cabinet in history' gets a reshuffle 12 months later

Underestimated by the Nationalist Party when he took helm of the Labour Party, Joseph Muscat, the former Super One journalist and avid campaigner against Malta’s entry to the EU, proved everyone wrong.

He was a close ally of Labour leader Alfred Sant, working hard to keep Malta out of the EU. He was understandably disappointed when the yes vote triumphed, despite his leader’s ridiculous insistence that the ‘Partnership’ vote had prevailed. Once he jumped onto the EU’s gravy train to successfully contest the MEP elections, in Brussels Muscat proved himself as a relatively successful MEP. When Sant stepped down his allies put their weight behind the young MEP from Burmarrad, electing him leader.

It was a tall order for him: Labour was in a mess. But he implemented drastic changes within the party – Super One became ‘One’; ‘MLP’ became ‘PL’; and blue became the new red.

Shrewdly he took advantage of the disgruntlement amongst various sectors of the population during his time in Opposition, listening to them as well as promising them heaven on earth. He convinced pale blue and hard-core Nationalist paid-up members that he could be trusted with running the country. Former Nationalists, the likes of Cyrus Engerer, Godfrey Farrugia, Manuel Mallia and Deborah Schembri, contested on the Labour ticket. Labour had now become a ‘movement’ as opposed to the Nationalist Party struggling with internal and political bickering of its own.

The Nationalist Party was in a mess – Labour’s election victory was a done deal.

But the promise of a fresh start was immediately tainted by the Prime Minister’s rushed decision to remove Godwin Grima as head of the civil serivce and appoint Mario Cutajar – formerly a GWU militant – in his stead. A few days later permanent secretaries, with the exception of two, met the same fate.

The abrupt changes jarred with the ‘Malta Taghna Lkoll’ pledge, and Muscat appointed the biggest cabinet in history, costing taxpayers tens of thousands of euros but, in so doing, keeping the absolute majority of his MPs in his nine-seat majority, happy. It was to be “the best cabinet in Malta’s political history”, only to be reshuffled a year later.

Muscat is never short of surprises – it’s one of his trademarks. He must have been bitterly surprised himself at Godfrey Farrugia’s decision to resign after having refused the Prime Minister’s decision (and discretion) to relinquish the health portfolio and take charge of another portfolio.

Farrugia’s resignation and his partner and Labour MP Marlene Farrugia’s frequent criticism of Muscat’s irrational decision to sell Maltese citizenship, messed up his plans to reshuffle his Cabinet at a later stage.

But it also coincided with Muscat’s most important electoral pledge: cheaper electricity tariffs. It was no surprise that the next day of the reshuffle, Muscat littered the streets with billboards announcing cheaper electricity bills in an expensive damage-control exercise.   

His decision to anchor an LNG tanker the size of three football pitches at Marsaxlokk Bay was met with a chorus of disapproval, not least from concerned Marsaxlokk and Birzebbuga residents. It’s a shame that MEPA gave the green light without a maritime impact assessment and a risk assessment at hand.

Muscat’s decision to appoint Marie Louise Coleiro Preca, his most popular minister, as President may be a case of weeding out the ‘old guard’; hence his decision to nominate Karmenu Vella to become Malta’s next European Commissioner, regardless of whether the former Mintoff-era minister is fit for the post. He was surely a good tourism minister.

Year one: mixed feelings

The promise of meritocracy has fallen flat on its face; but civil rights and liberties are at the forefront of the Muscat administration and Helena Dalli is very much on the ball.

Minister Manuel Mallia’s performance is unimpressive – at times messy; but Owen Bonnici’s performance in the justice department is outstanding.

I am perplexed by the Prime Minister’s decision to put the health portfolio under Minister Konrad Mizzi’s wing, who already has the mammoth task of managing Malta’s energy sector. Perhaps, once Charles Mangion is co-opted to parliament he will be entrusted with the energy sector.

Tourism is doing well. Government’s childcare incentives are commendable. But unemployment is on the rise.

And the government badly needs a change in attitude, primarily a change in the Prime Minister’s ‘know-it-all’ attitude.

If Joseph Muscat manages to get the economy in shipshape, create jobs and implement his civil rights and liberties programme – despite the vociferous opposition from various quarters – things will change for the better.

But on the 24 May, he has a major hurdle to overcome – trying to keep intact the overwhelming majority he won a year ago. He will win the European elections – that is a given – but if he loses a good chunk of those votes along the way he’d better watch out. The Nationalist Party is, slowly but surely, gaining ground.

Labour and Muscat are repeating the same mistake Gonzi and the Nationalist Party did when he took helm of the Labour Party: underestimating Simon Busuttil.

Frank Psaila blogs at Frankpsaila.blogspot.com

More in Blogs

Get access to the real stories first with the digital edition