Energising an electoral campaign

Energy has now taken centre-stage; and this in itself marks a positive development, in a country which has no natural resources such as gas, oil or even coal of its own.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna for MaltaToday on Sunday
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna for MaltaToday on Sunday

Judging by the first week of official campaigning, Malta appears to have taken some much-needed steps in the right direction in so far as political maturity is concerned.

Contrary to widespread expectation, the campaign style on both sides has been conspicuously 'cleaner' than usual. Certain blogs notwithstanding, we have not yet witnessed he sort of insidious character assassination attempts that so often accompany general elections in our country.

And while this may well change in the coming seven weeks, so far the public debate itself has tended to focus almost exclusively on issues and topics that are indeed of vital national importance.

Of these, energy has now taken centre-stage; and this in itself marks a positive development, in a country which has no natural resources such as gas, oil or even coal of its own, and which therefore relies exclusively on imported fuels and technologies to meet its energy needs regardless of who occupies the seat of government.

To be fair this is not exactly the first time energy has played a major role ahead of an election. In 2008 the campaign had touched upon the need to close down the Marsa Power Station to meet our EU commitments; and there was even talk about renewable energy sources (which had taken the form of the now-discarded idea for deepwater wind farms).

Needless to say, much of the five years that followed was likewise dominated by the energy-related decisions taken by the Nationalist administration: in particular the choice of heavy fuel oil for the Delimara extension, over the original intention to convert the same station to run on natural gas.

From this perspective, the present energy debate is not in itself an incursion into completely new territory. But on at least one level, the same discussion is demonstrably more profound and meaningful than any we have witnessed in recent years.

For while the BWSC debacle involved the inevitable 'corruption allegations' - fuelled in no small part by a damning auditor general's report, which had raised questions that have never been satisfactorily answered to this day - the ongoing debate about conversion to a gas regime now hinges on a straight comparison between two rival strategic approaches to solving Malta's energy problems.

Put briefly, voters are now being urged to choose between two similar but not identical options, at least one of which has been explained at length and in considerable detail... and the other which will be officially launched in the coming days (whereupon it will no doubt be broken down and analysed in corresponding detail).

For this, the credit must go in part to the PN for consistently challenging Labour to come up with its own proposals rather than merely criticizing the government's own record.

Labour took time to comply, but eventually delivered what was arguably a more thorough and convincing (on paper, at any rate) proposal than the PN had possibly accounted for.

What followed was a curiously contradictory counter-attack, whereby the PN both criticised Labour's plan as 'impossible', while also committing itself to pursuing roughly the same goals (though obviously not quite through the same channels). In so doing, the PN also seemed to belie its earlier claim that 'reducing the cost of electricity' is at present an impossible objective: indeed it has committed itself to also reduce these prices, and also through conversion to gas.

The upshot is that whatever the outcome of the election, there is broad consensus on the desirability of a power station run on the much cleaner natural gas option... though disagreement persists when it comes to the technical details of the purchase and supply of fuel.

Equally regardless of the election result, the incoming government will be committed to lowering a recurring cost that has seriously eroded the quality of life of families, while undermining the competitiveness of local industry. Surely, that in itself cannot be a bad thing.

Again, one is free to consider the differing proposals, weigh them on their own merits and decide accordingly... but what makes the entire exercise interesting is that, unlike former occasions, we are finally discussing Malta's precarious energy sector in precisely the sort of detail it deserves.

Still, there is room for improvement. It may have been rather rich of Finance Minister Tonio Fenech to insist on the publication of all Labour's correspondence with the private sector - when he himself flatly refused to publish similar correspondence between government and BWSC - but it remains a fact that certain claims made by Labour need to be substantiated.

Studies are in fact needed to justify (among other details) the proposed price of 9.7c per unit - which is almost half the current market price of gas - otherwise what Labour is effectively asking is for the country to merely take it on trust.

By the same token, more information is required about the financial status of Enemalta itself: and here again, it makes a welcome change that we are discussing the issue at this level of detail, because it is precisely what was lacking from all prior debates.

Indeed, the traditional approach has always been for party spokespersons to argue that 'their proposal' is the better option, simply because it's theirs.

It is a testament to the increasing perspicacity of the Maltese public, that the two parties  seem to have finally abandoned this blatantly supercilious treatment of the electorate.

On the contrary, today's electoral campaign has been 'energised' (so to speak) even by the active involvement of consultants, and the presentation of detailed breakdowns of practically all aspects of the proposals concerned.

It remains however a moot point how credible the two conflicting proposals really are. At a glance it is clear that some of the PN's official response was exaggerated: Labour's proposal for a gas terminal may or may not result in a price reduction to the tune envisaged by Labour... although it must be said that this seems from the outset slightly optimistic.

But to dismiss it out of hand as an 'impossibility' is clearly a throwback to the old way of doing politics, whereby policies are either good or bad depending on who proposes them.

Even here, however, Tonio Fenech's presentation last Thursday made a welcome break with tradition by going beyond merely discrediting the idea for all the usual partisan reasons.

Fenech also raised questions (rightly or wrongly) that would immediately interest anyone with any experience of the private sector and its dealings with government. His objections to the plan were also rooted in such considerations as the risk-factor involved in investment, as well as the feasibility of finding a long-term partner for such an ambitious (and expensive) project.

And on his part, Labour's energy spokesman Konrad Mizzi responded with an equally well-researched and convincing presentation making more or less the opposite claims.

Naturally, claims on both sides are subject to further verification... and there are still seven weeks of the campaign in which to answer all these questions.

Meanwhile, we are left with the unusual prospect of an election in which voters are asked to make their decision - not only on the basis of party allegiance - but primarily on the direction, credibility and feasibility of the same two parties' respective programmes.

Long may this remain the basic theme of this election.

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