Bernard Grech’s golden opportunity

Grech must certainly address the measures introduced by the Budget. But a partisan critique, aimed only at enthusing his party hard-core, will surely fall flat

It has already been widely noted – by this newspaper, among others – that Budget 2021 was unlike any of its predecessors in recent history: having been completely overshadowed by the COVID-19 crisis. 

But it is also unusual because it came at a time when the Opposition party had just changed its leader. As such, Budget 2021 was not merely an opportunity for Prime Minister Robert Abela to make his mark, after a mere nine months in office; it is also an opportunity for Bernard Grech to set his own stamp as newly-elected Opposition leader.  

Understandably, then, there is a certain level of expectation ahead of Grech’s formal Parliamentary response, scheduled for tomorrow. As such, Monday’s address should be treated as his maiden speech in Parliament: his first major encounter with Robert Abela, and a golden opportunity for the newly-elected Opposition leader to show some proper leadership mettle, to give us a taste, as it were, of his qualities as a potential Prime Minister-in-waiting.  

Monday’s debate is therefore is the ideal platform for both the PN and Bernard Grech to show the people what their new leader is all about. If he fails to engage with these expectations by outlining, in some way or form, a vision for the Malta he believes in – concretely, and disrobed of bland platitudes – he risks coming across as a disappointment. 

While his actual approach to this important appointment remains to be seen, it must be said that Bernard Grech’s initial reactions to Budget 2021 have so far been rather weak and predictable. Admittedly, some of his criticism may even be justified: it is true, for instance, that the budget presented last Monday does not outline any clear, long-term strategy for future economic recovery. 

But this has to be counter-balanced by the truly extraordinary economic conditions the country is currently in. Faced with a health crisis that seems to have no end in sight – at least, for the foreseeable future – it would not have been amiss for the Opposition party to at least acknowledge Abela’s achievement in maintaining government subsidies, without also raising taxes, or introducing any new ones. 

Besides, it is to say the least questionable for Grech to claim that “nothing had been heard about a holistic plan to help businesses survive”, when the government has extended its wage supplements – without which many businesses would certainly collapse – until next March. 

Having said this, Grech must certainly address the measures introduced by the Budget. But a partisan critique, aimed only at enthusing his party hard-core, will surely fall flat.  

The reality is that the Opposition is no longer facing the Labour Party run by Joseph Muscat: and it now seems clear that Robert Abela is preparing for a reshuffle that will prize technocrats and political doers. This means that the PN must respond to Labour’s own advances with arguments that prove the Opposition’s judicious analysis of the challenges the country faces. 

Likewise, Grech is within his rights to criticise government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic; but he must also outline what the PN would do in government; how it would support and finance the national health effort.  

Grech must also talk about schools, and how he would support educators under the difficult circumstances they face; not to mention how he would finance a proper remuneration package for these important front-liners.  

Another topic Grech will have to talk about is domestic security and police reforms. He should also outline the PN’s vision on immigration: whether it wants to be a government that abides by human rights obligations; but also seeks solutions for irregular migrants; carries out fair repatriation programmes, whilst also addressing local insecurities by investing in towns and communities: and not by scaremongering, and banging the drums of xenophobia.  

People will want to know what Bernard Grech has to say about climate change and the coming industrial transition. Will he simply go along with the mantra of economic growth, with no concern for the long-term implications of climate catastrophe? Will he buy in cheaply to projects such as the Gozo tunnel, or does he believe in alternative and green modes of transport that can make Malta a more liveable place? 

In truth, these are all areas that the Opposition should not have waited until the annual budget response speech to address. But if every budget is ‘State of the Union’ speech for Malta, Bernard Grech must make tomorrow’s speech his own ‘vision for the union’.