One year later…

Much more work needs to be done if Joseph Muscat is to deliver on his most important electoral promise of all: the creation of an egalitarian society based on meritocracy, which one year later has not so far been forthcoming.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

Exactly one year ago today, the Labour Party under Joseph Muscat won the election by a landslide, after a campaign which arguably raised national expectations to their utmost limit.

Muscat has certainly delivered on some aspects of his ambitious programme since then, including those parts which were sneered at as an ‘impossible’ dream straight out of Alice in Wonderland. Against expectation he has fulfilled his most pivotal electoral promise – a reduction in utility tariffs – on the strength of an energy policy which successfully tapped into hitherto unutilised resources.

Both achievements are feathers in the young administration’s cap; and Muscat can claim other successes, too – notably in the areas of education and civil rights, where his ‘progressive’ credentials have so far been most manifest.

So far, so good. But given both the scale of his electoral victory and the breadth of the vision with which he dazzled the electorate one year ago, more was and still is expected from the Prime Minister who promised to unite a nation. And there are areas where his government is already displaying the same flaws which brought the Nationalist Party to its knees after 25 years at the helm.

On the issue of meritocracy, the Labour government has so far fallen far short of the standards to which it committed itself before the election. In the space of one year we have seen numerous public appointments, as well as the establishments of boards and quangos, that seemed tailor-made for specific individuals, all of whom can be seen to have played a part in the Labour Party’s victory... or, conversely, who would be more conveniently controlled or silenced in their new positions.

Elsewhere we have seen hints of government interference in the work of autonomous public institutions. The National Auditor is the latest to complain of such interference, in what already sounds like an echo if the preceding administration’s way of doing politics.

From an outsider’s view, this looks less like the implementation of the Malta Taghna Lkoll slogan, than a straight swap of the old clique for a new one. And perhaps because the new administration is still finding its feet, it has been even clumsier than its predecessor at making roughly the same mistakes.

There are reports that government’s drive to accommodate people has also extended to employment in the public sector: and NSO statistics indicate that public employment is on the increase. If it is true that such employment is being dished out on the basis of political preference, it would be a veritable mockery of the same electoral slogan on which Joseph Muscat rode into power 12 months ago. But even if not, the broader economic implications are to say the least worrying.

For all its flaws, the Gonzi administration effected certain reforms which were instrumental in both warding off the effects of the economic crisis, and keeping the internal economy stable. Of these, the most vital was the apparent downsizing of an over-bloated public sector which engulfed far more resources than were necessary for the administration of such a small country.

One can argue endlessly over the methods used to achieve this goal; but from a strictly economic perspective it was imperative to put a stop to a haemorrhage which made lasting hopes of economic growth all but impossible.

By swelling the previously slimmed-down public sector once more, Muscat risks undoing the good that was done by past governments, and the consequences for the economy could be serious. On its own, this could be an indication that the Prime Minister intends to implement an economic policy that may radically inflate recurrent government expenditure, at a time when the same government is also committed to reducing the national debt.

Add to this the possibility of political nepotism at work behind some of this employment drive, and this same dubious policy starts looking more irresponsible than merely inept.

Clumsiness was also inherent in the government’s entire handling of the citizenship sale issue. Even if events proved that the scheme in itself is not quite as bizarre as it was made out to be, it remains a fact that Malta was ploughed through much unnecessary international criticism, which could easily have been avoided had Muscat done his homework properly. As things stand, the scheme had to be amended no fewer than three times before it was finally deemed acceptable.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the first year of Labour is that, in nearly all other questions of policy, the new government has so far represented mere continuity instead of the promised change of direction. On immigration, the Muscat administration has defended its controversial detention policy using the exact same arguments as its predecessor; and its more bullish stance with the EU has likewise yielded the exact same results: i.e., nothing at all.

And on other issues such as hunting and the environment, there is no discernable difference of any kind between the two sides.

Clearly, much more work needs to be done if Joseph Muscat is to deliver on his most important electoral promise of all: the creation of an egalitarian society based on meritocracy, which one year later has not so far been forthcoming.

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