Governing in prose

If there was a lesson to be learnt from recent events, it would be that Muscat and his government should stop believing their own hype

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

Now almost exactly a year old, the Labour administration still has a lot of promise to live up to.

The events of the past weeks have underscored a few harsh realities that have emerged since Joseph Muscat stormed to electoral victory after what he described as 'campaigning in poetry'. The Labour campaign may indeed have been a poetic success; but the style of government that ensued has often been prosaic and even clumsy.

In the aftermath of a resounding chorus of international condemnation, it appears that Prime Minister Muscat simply failed to anticipate what was all along a largely predictable local and international reaction. On both levels the oversight is remarkable. Surely a seasoned euro-parliamentarian such as Muscat could and should have foreseen that the citizenship scheme in its initial form was inevitably going to attract opprobrium. And even after various amendments, it still comes across as a rushed, if not botched, operation.

Perhaps the most remarkable consequence of this oversight was that the Labour government has somehow managed to invert - at least insofar as public perceptions are concerned - its previous position of political superiority. Though Muscat still enjoys a hefty nine-seat majority in parliament, the near-unanimous vote of censure in the European parliament last week has taken much of the wind out of his sails. The same turn of events has also offered the severely bruised Nationalist Opposition a chance to feel vindicated at international level: making it a double blow to the Labour government's pride.

Yet all this could have been averted had the Muscat administration not rushed in its eagerness to launch the scheme, and above all had it the political nous to perceive how its intentions would be construed at European level.

Admittedly, it remains to be seen what consequences, if any, the EP vote will entail. Governments are free to ignore non-binding resolutions, and there is still time to patch up any differences with the European Commission and avoid infringement procedures. With hindsight, however, it remains unclear whether this was indeed just a case of genuine oversight, or whether Muscat, cushioned by his government's local unassailability, felt he had enough political strength to weather any severe storms so early in his legislature. If the latter is the case, it would fit with the time-honoured tradition of governments taking their riskiest or most unpopular decisions in their first term of office, so as to minimise any future electoral damages.

Either way, the entire episode smacked heavily of poor preparation and undue haste, and this in turn underscores how central the IIP scheme may be to the implementation of Muscat's electoral programme. Given that the same scheme was not contained within this same manifesto to begin with, this strategy comes across as excessively risky even by the impulsive standards of past Labour governments. It would appear to be a case of putting all one's eggs in one basket, when there is a strong possibility that the basket might not bear the weight.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the issue was how Joseph Muscat himself defended it throughout. His insistence on the importance of a €1 billion cash-injection into the economy may serve to sway some local opinions - few can deny that cash-injections are indeed necessary, if nothing else to avoid future Commission-imposed excessive deficit procedures - but the same argument does nothing to address the legitimate complaints raised by representatives of other member states in the European parliament. On the contrary, it plays right into the hands of European detractors who accuse Malta of trying to make a fast buck at the expense of their nationality.

All this points towards the possibility that Prime Minister Joseph Muscat may be sufficiently buoyed by his recent electoral success to genuinely believe the successful illusion projected by his party's campaign. He seems to believe he can, as he promised before the election, govern as well as campaign in poetry. Above all, his government appears to be under the illusion that the post-election feel-good factor generated by its impressive victory would be enough to carry it through its entire first year in office.

Indications however suggest otherwise. Joseph Muscat cannot rely only on the public trust he enjoyed before and immediately after the election. Expectations remain high, and in many cases have not been met. And there are looming challenges ahead - not least, reforms in the public transport, health and education sectors - that are simply too important to risk any repeat of the IIP experience.

If there was a lesson to be learnt from recent events, it would be that Muscat and his government should stop believing their own hype. Good governance does not only mean capable administration of the country's resources; it also means understanding its people and not underestimating (or worse still ignoring) their possible reactions to one's initiatives.

Ironically it was Muscat himself who set these standards for good governance, in an election campaign that had hinged precisely on the need for a more inclusive way of doing politics, so that citizens no longer felt powerless or ignored by the administration. We have yet to see his government live up to those standards; though to be fair there still is time.

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