Muscat, the comeback kid

Trying to decipher just why this particular PM manages to survive one political crisis after another, my conclusion is simple: it’s because the economy is doing well.

If the populace is out and about, shopping, dining out, spending money on entertainment that creates a ripple effect which is transmitted as a feel good factor.
If the populace is out and about, shopping, dining out, spending money on entertainment that creates a ripple effect which is transmitted as a feel good factor.

I sometimes wonder whether Joseph Muscat has secretly engaged the services of the crisis management “fixer” Olivia Pope (fans of the TV series Scandal will know what I mean).

Every time I think his image is going to take a steep nosedive in the arena of public opinion, due to a bad decision or simply due to choosing clearly unsuitable people for top roles, his public persona is saved in the nick of time and he manages to scramble back to the top of the heap. I swear it could be a made-for-TV script with the obligatory cliffhangers at the end of each episode which compels you to tune in next week, only to find that (even as the reputations of those around him crash, boom, bang and fall by the wayside), Muscat inevitably hangs in there, as popular as ever.

Michael Falzon, writing in yesterday’s issue of The Sunday Times, made a similar observation, describing Muscat as “the Teflon Prime Minister” on whom nothing damaging really seems to stick. He also rightly pointed to the PM’s uncanny ability to say exactly what the people want to hear at any given time.  Now whether this is due to Muscat’s innate political savvy or whether he has indeed hired the equivalent of Olivia Pope to advise him and handle any political bombshells which can potentially wreak havoc on the Labour administration, Falzon voiced what is patently clear to all those with ears to hear and eyes to see: “Muscat’s popularity has not waned one bit.”

The extent of the gap is really quite remarkable given all the potential disasters which have plagued the Muscat administration from day one

And just in case we needed further proof to cement this perception, there it was, on the front of page of MaltaToday – Muscat is leading Simon by 15 points in the trust barometer.  I imagine that quite a few members of the PN strategy team choked on their Sunday morning breakfast croissant on reading that headline.

The extent of the gap is really quite remarkable given all the potential disasters which have plagued the Muscat administration from day one (many of which were self-inflicted). Trying to decipher just why this particular PM manages to survive one political crisis after another when others (such as Sant and Gonzi) were mercilessly criticized at every single turn, with a corresponding plummet in their popularity, my conclusion is simple: it’s because the economy is doing well.

In Maltese we have a very apt expression, “hawn ‘l flus fl-idejn” (which loosely translated means that people have money in their pockets). [Of course, I am not forgetting that there is the other end of the spectrum, those who are living on the poverty line, but even they somehow contribute to the economy, albeit within their limited means].

It perhaps speaks volumes about the type of materialistic society we have become that as long as there is money to be made, many people can justify and excuse just about anything

When it comes right down to it, human nature is what it is, and if the populace is out and about, shopping, dining out, spending money on entertainment, investing in new homes, new cars and going on holiday, and generally ensuring that the economic wheels keep on turning, that creates a ripple effect which is transmitted as a feel good factor.

Sure, we grumble and moan and get pissed off at every turn because of bad customer service or inferior quality goods; sure, we rage against the traffic and against the lack of parking and reckless driving. Sure, government departments and officialdom can still drive you around the proverbial bend because of their red tape and bureaucracy.

But these are not the complaints of a population which is miserable because it is deprived of its basic human needs or civil rights, or because it is squashed under the oppressive boot of a tyrannical dictatorship or because it is facing the terror of a world war on its doorstep. You will notice that all the “problems” we have are connected in one way or the other with consumerism and the possession and acquisition of more “things”. They are, as the term has come to be known, First World Problems.

To be fair, even the Sant and Gonzi governments really only had to deal with First World Problems, but in their own way they both shot themselves in the foot. The former took decisions which affected the economy adversely (introducing CET to replace VAT, freezing Malta’s EU membership bid and hiking up utility fees) while the latter spent his whole term at the mercy of a wafer-thin majority and unable to control the internal rebellion of his own MPs, culminating in the disastrous decision to vote No in the divorce referendum. 

Muscat, however, seems he can do no wrong and that’s because even his most unsavoury decisions (such as giving carte blanche to developers and selling Maltese citizenship) always come down to the possibility of bringing in more and more cold, hard cash. It perhaps speaks volumes about the type of materialistic society we have become that as long as there is money to be made, many people can justify and excuse just about anything: from the ruination of our coastline with more concrete buildings to trading our passports to the highest bidders.

Construction magnates who are given the go-ahead to just keep on building anywhere they like, provide jobs and jobs equal people with money to spend.  Billionaires looking for a new passport for whatever reason just have to purchase a property on our tiny Mediterranean island where they are welcomed with open arms because that means a hefty commission for the lawyers concerned and more potential buyers for those with properties to sell. 

The business sector also seems quite happy with Muscat at the helm, as everywhere I look I keep seeing investment in the form of new business ventures. In fact, in retrospect, the PN electoral campaign predicting doom and gloom with its “Labour won’t work” slogan showing a queue of people registering for unemployment, could not have been wider off the mark.

It also helps immeasurably for Muscat’s ratings, of course, that the PN led by Simon Busuttil keeps getting it wrong again and again when it comes to reading the public mood. Are they determined to self-destruct or what? As one survey after another continues to show him lagging so far behind in the polls, maybe it’s time Simon engages his very own “Olivia Pope”.

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