Joseph Muscat's new year

If ordinary citizens can make commitments to better themselves in the coming year how much more should a Prime Minister consider doing the same?

(File photo) Prime minister Joseph Muscat addresses Commonwealth business forum opening.(Photo: Ray Attard)
(File photo) Prime minister Joseph Muscat addresses Commonwealth business forum opening.(Photo: Ray Attard)

For many people, the end of a year presents an opportunity to take stock of one’s current situation, and on the basis of that assessment, make resolutions for the year ahead.

It is more of a tradition than anything else; and some take such resolutions more seriously than others. Nonetheless, even if there is something vaguely contrived about the idea, there can be little doubt that availing of the New Year to do a little soul-searching is not, in itself, a bad thing.

This is true for all individuals, but it has a specific relevance to those who wield power. If ordinary citizens can make commitments to better themselves in the coming year… how much more should a Prime Minister consider doing the same, when his or her actions and decisions have a profound impact on the entire country?

For Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, this New Year celebration has a double significance. It marks the end of a difficult year for him politically: characterised, among others, by the loss of a parliamentary backbencher, and the fallout from a number of unpopular decisions (eg, the Zonqor point development). 

On another level, 2016 marks the halfway point of his government’s first term in office. Even without the pretext of the New Year, it makes sense to take stock of the first half of one’s mandate, in order to improve the second.

If Muscat is honest in his soul-searching, he will find much to criticise and amend about his own performance, both over the past 12 months and throughout his term as Prime Minister. Already, he has been shown up by the Opposition for numerous shortcomings on meritocracy, accountability and transparency. Just at the closing of the year, we also have evidence that public perceptions of corruption are on the increase.

A recent Eurobarometer study revealed that a staggering 81% of Maltese businesses now believe that corruption is widespread on the island. This is a 7% increase when compared to the last time the study was conducted, which was coincidentally in March 2013 when the Labour Party was elected to government.

Admittedly, the report talks only of ‘perceptions’. But a cursory look at the developments of the past year seems to confirm, or at least provide solid basis, for that perception. 

For instance, the Eurobarometer report indicates 47% of Maltese businesses – the highest rate in the EU – believed that the practice of funding political parties in exchange for public contracts or political influence is rampant. This follows on from a year in which at least one widely-known political party donor, Marco Gaffarena, was at the centre of a media storm concerning ‘political influence’ in ‘public contracts’. 

In another revealing finding, 73% of businesses now believe that national politicians either accept bribes or otherwise abuse their power. This is a significant 12% increase over March 2013, the second highest rate increase in Europe. 

Moreover, 61% of businesses also believe politicians at the local level are corrupt, a 12% increase from March 2013. Elsewhere, 69% of Maltese businesses believe that bribery and connections are the easiest way to obtain certain public services – up by 6% from 2013.

It cannot be a coincidence that this nosedive in public trust coincides with a gradual erosion of the principles of good governance, which can be felt across the board. Joseph Muscat was elected on the promise to bring the monster of nepotism and corruption to heel. He cannot ignore evidence that he has not only failed, but given rise to an even more unmanageable monster instead.

In his own defence, Muscat may well point towards his government’s successes over the same time period. These are neither few, nor insignificant. Malta has registered impressive economic growth since his election in March 2013, and economic forecasts suggest this trend will continue in the near future. Muscat has undeniably silenced his critics on this front; especially those who had predicted that Malta would need an IMF bailout after his first two years as Prime Minister (i.e., now).

Elsewhere, Muscat has certainly delivered on the promise of civil liberties, especially in the LGBTIQ sector. Perhaps the most significant achievement concerns education: debatable though Muscat’s vision for tertiary education may be, there can be no doubt that his policies for primary and secondary education are working. Literacy is on the increase, and Malta no longer languishes at the bottom of the European education table.

All this does the Muscat administration credit; but it also makes its shortcomings that much more conspicuous. The prime minister does not need to defend his credentials on the economic front. But there is more to governing than economic growth alone.

Joseph Muscat also promised to raise standards in other sectors apart from education. His meritocracy pledge raised expectations of a thorough reform of public administration. This, quite frankly, has not materialised at all.

At the start of 2016, midway through his first term, Muscat would do well to think about his future legacy. Surely, he will want to bequeath more than just economic growth in his first five years. Surely, he will want to be remembered as the man who did more than just ‘promise’ to battle corruption.

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