A political stalemate

In his two-hour speech in Parliament, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat went to great lengths to discredit the Opposition leader’s economic credentials while stressing his government’s economic successes, which have seen the country register exceptional growth rates

Viewed as a battleground between the two sides of the House of Representatives, this year’s showdown between the two party leaders over the Budget seems to confirm a sensation of political stalemate.

Of course, the annual exchange of Budget responses in Parliament is about much more than that. It is also a commitment by the Prime Minister to give an account of his government’s past performance and future policy direction, as well as an opportunity for the Opposition to explain its alternative vision for the country.

In his two-hour speech in Parliament, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat went to great lengths to discredit the Opposition leader’s economic credentials while stressing his government’s economic successes, which have seen the country register exceptional growth rates. Much of his delivery was targeted directly at the Opposition leader Simon Busuttil, whom he variously branded an incompetent who “cannot get one single sum right.”

Muscat is perhaps justified to bask in the current economic sunshine – given the storms so many had forecast following his electoral victory – but he would be making a grave mistake by thinking that economic growth alone will eclipse the many valid points raised in Busuttil’s criticism.

Even if the Labour government can take credit for individual decisions which helped boost a stagnating economy, the fact remains that all the country’s major economic pillars – financial services, I-gaming, a thriving maritime sector and most of the current tourism infrastructure – were bequeathed to Muscat by the former administration. 

On infrastructure alone, the government has little to show for its first two and a half years in office. Irksome and stinging though his approach may have been, Busuttil was right to burst the bubble of Muscat’s complacency. “Where are the capital projects of this government?” Busuttil goaded Muscat last week. “Renzo Piano? Fort St Elmo? Interconnector? Oncology centre? Coast road? Flood-relief project? There are all projects of the PN administration…”

Muscat’s response was to belittle the Opposition leader by reminding him of the PN’s past failures… but this does not change the fact that Labour has so far only overseen the fruits of projects undertaken under Lawrence Gonzi. Meanwhile, several of Labour’s own promised projects – including a new power station that was supposed to be complete within two years – have yet to materialise.

Nor can the Prime minister so easily deflect the criticism concerning meritocracy and transparency. Regardless of the Opposition’s own track record on both those scores, it remains incumbent on the present government to live up the obligations of good governance (not to mention its own electoral manifesto). Government must contend with a pervasive (justified) impression that an army of party aficionados has been awarded with public positions of trust. 

One need hardly remind Joseph Muscat that it was precisely the same impression, lovingly nurtured by the Labour Party, that marked the beginning of the end of the Gonzi era.

Busuttil was also right to point out that the Muscat administration has taken steps to weaken independent government watchdogs such as the Ombudsman’s office. Muscat offered no real rebuttal of this argument, beyond reminding Busuttil of his former government’s actions in this regard.

Hence the sensation of stalemate. For while Busuttil is growing more incisive in this line of attack, his efforts sometimes backfire with stunning precision.  His jibe about the PN’s economic successes, for instance, overlooks the fact that the same could be said for all today’s most pressing problems. 

The example he himself singled out is a classic case in point. Today’s traffic problems also have roots in the lack of vision of previous governments which boasted on increased car ownership as a sign of prosperity, while dead-legging the bus reform as a simple act of reduced government subsidies.

The PN government also undermined Arriva from the start, as it operated fewer buses than required to cater for people’s real needs. We have yet to hear any concrete proposals from the Opposition, on an issue where long-term solutions may be unpopular with some segments of the population.

Indeed, while Busuttil scores points for his criticism of the government, he is not even on the playing field when it comes to proposing an alternative vision for the country. Even on the economy, the only hint he gives is that he is averse to government spending and any increase in jobs in public sector. But his contention that economic growth cannot be sustainable if the government continues to employ people in the way it was doing – 5,500 in two years he claimed – needs to be qualified.

His claim would be more credible if he distinguishes between those employed in ministries for administrative jobs and those like Learning Support Assistants employed in important sector like education.

Likewise, he would be more credible if he occasionally acknowledged successes by the Labour government in other areas: such as education, civil rights and equality.

What emerged from this clash is ultimately that both sides are entrenched in their respective positions, unable to advance their arguments to any meaningful level: two sparring antagonists who confront each other point for point… even though there is no discernible difference between the two when it comes to proposals and ideas.

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