A year of change. Or was it?

2013 was a memorable year for a number of reasons. It witnessed the historic resignation of a pope, and a successor who seems to have already radically altered public perceptions of the Catholic Church.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

2013 was a memorable year for a number of reasons. It witnessed the historic resignation of a pope, and a successor who seems to have already radically altered public perceptions of the Catholic Church. Elsewhere the international news was dominated by intense political upheavals with far-reaching implications: the war in Syria and the ongoing diplomatic efforts between the USA and Iran being two prime examples.

In a purely local context, 2013 was a seminal year on a number of counts, too. It ushered in a change in government after almost quarter of a century of administration by the same party; and it would be fair to say that this change was eagerly anticipated by the large majority - the largest since Independence - which voted for it last March.

Whether they got the sort of change they had in mind, however, remains debatable. On the positive front, the Labour government has already implemented a few of its promises. Within six months of the election, it piloted important legislation that would effectively iron out the last remaining obstacles to full gender equality. Legal amendments have now made it possible for transgender individuals to marry according to their reassigned gender: a right that had been denied as recently as 2010.

The imminent civil rights bill will also permit legally recognised partnerships between couples of the same sex. And while this was a clear promise on the 2013 electoral manifesto, it is to be noted that certain voices in the country are still questioning whether the Muscat government even has a mandate to effect this change.

The government has also taken the important step of kick-starting a much-needed reform of the justice system: appointing a commission to draw up a list of recommendations, which was duly completed and submitted in October. Given the often farcical scenes we have witnessed of late in the justice department, the importance of this reform cannot be overstated.

But while these and other initiatives are all essential parts of a programme of change laid down in the Labour Party's electoral manifesto, by no means do they encompass the full breadth of the reforms promised by Joseph Muscat. And while it is still early days, it must be said that some actions taken by the new government appear to have struck out in an opposite direction to the one promised.

By far the most resouding battle cry of the last election was the need for a system based on meritocracy. Yet Muscat's first set of decisions as prime minister dented his credentials as the person capable of delivering such change. Many government appointments have been clearly dictated more by his own exigencies of the PL leader - to accommodate friends, to return favours, and to placate adversaries - than by the merit of the propsective appointee.

The appointment of Jason Micallef (former PL secretary general, and reputed to be a thorn in Muscat's side) as chair of the V18 project stands out as a conspicuous example. The choice of Micallef cannot realistically have been based on any cultural credentials that others do not possess. Ironically he himself appeared to confirm this, in a recent press interview that was devoid of any cultural references whatsoever.

Chairmanships of sensitive authorities have likewise gone to persons more known for their contributions to Labour's successful campaign, than for their expertise in the department concerned. James Piscopo, a former Labour party chief executive, will now oversee the reform of the public transport sector as chair of Transport Malta. This job was previously done by Mark Portelli, another political appointee who likewise owed his appointment to his closeness to the minister at the time.

This represents a straight continuation of Gonzi's old way of doing politics, which Muscat himself had incessantly criticised as Opposition leader. The contradiction is simply too glaring to ignore, and does not bode well for future appointments.

On another level, there have been promises that were kept but in unexpected and sometimes questionable ways. The downward revision of utlilty tariffs, which had formed a bulwark of Muscat's electoral machine, will be achieved in surprisingly little time by the incoming administration. Part of the reason was the speed with which the energy minister embarked on refashioning Malta's energy strategy - though not necessarily in the ways the PL had suggested during the campaign.

More contentiously, the financing of tax cuts and the utility price reduction will in part take the form of the celebrated 'golden passport' scheme. This was not mentioned anywhere in the manifesto, and has since sparked outrage by purporting to sell Maltese citizenship on an eminently mercantile basis.

To be fair, this controversial scheme also represents a major plank in Muscat's plans to revitalise the economy: and distasteful as it may be to some, it will be remembered that past administrations had simply failed to address pressing issues such as the deficit despite endless promises of a 'surplus' that never materialised.

But it remains debatable whether such a risky and unpopular strategy is the best way to address Malta's economic problems. And with the scheme set to come into force next month, it would seem that 2014 will likewise be a seminal year for the young administration.

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