The danger of unopposed government

In a speech intended to commemmorate his first 100 days in office, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat gave a broad outline of his programme for the next five years, highlighting priority issues

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

On Sunday, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat gave a broad outline of his programme for the next five years: highlighting a number of priority issues.

Paradoxically, he did this in a speech that was supposed to commemorate his first 100 days in office. In truth, however, there was little to look back on. Apart from the Marriage Equality Bill, parliament barely had time to approve anything before taking its annual summer break. Since June 3, Muscat’s government has in fact been largely absent: perhaps unsurprisingly, seeing as the period also coincided with one of the hottest August in years.

Muscat’s speech was, however, revealing of the course he intends to chart in the coming term. Though parsimonious with details, the prime minister clearly listed out the policy areas which most need attention. These include the environment – with an emphasis on waste management; immigration; traffic and road safety; rental reform; drugs, and the survival of the national airline.

These are by definition all potentially contentious issues, which would – under normal circumstances – form the natural fault-lines dividing political opinion in the country. The circumstances are however far from ordinary. Muscat himself alluded to this, when he observed that “in the absence of any real Opposition, Government has the added responsibility of keeping a watchful eye over itself”.

This is problematic for a number of reasons. In the past legislature, Muscat’s administration proved less than successful in ‘keeping a watchful eye over itself’... as attested by the Panama Papers revelations in April 2016, and the prime minister’s manifest failure to take decisive action against two senior members of his own government. This failure occurred at a time when the Opposition, then led by Simon Busuttil, was very vocal in criticising government’s shortcomings.

Now that the Nationalist Party is in such disarray, a serious vacuum has been created within the country’s institutional system of checks and balances. The media, and civil society in general, have a role to play in keeping government in check: but it falls to the Constitutionally-appointed Opposition to man the fort on the political front. Since the election, the main Opposition party has essentially been rudderless... and the ongoing leadership contest has exposed dangerously deep divisions which threaten to further undermine the PN even after a new leader is chosen.

Regardless whether the victor is Chris Said or Adrian Delia, the Nationalist Party will emerge fractured and (temporarily, at least) diminished after this unsightly campaign. The new leader will face an uphill struggle merely to keep the Nationalist Party from falling apart at the seams... let alone to present a unified, credible alternative government to the present administration, of the kind the country so sorely needs.

This changes the landscape considerably. From this perspective, it is disappointing that the prime minister would offer so little information to accompany the ambitious political programme he unveiled last Sunday. With one or two exceptions, we were given only a vague outline of the desired results... without any indication of how those results are to be achieved in practice.

For example: Muscat raised the issue of alternative technologies to land-filling as a means of dealing with waste. We already know that the Maghtab landfill can only continue operating for a few more years at most. Unless alternative solutions are found shortly, the only viable option would be another landfill somewhere else.

Clearly, that is not a long-term solution. But Muscat did not stop short of excluding that option... all he effectively said was that ‘other solutions exist’... none of them easy or unproblematic... and that ‘more discussion is needed’ before taking any final decision. 

That is not a very satisfactory approach. It would have been better (and more responsible, in the absence of any Opposition party to apply the brakes) to lay ll the options down on the table, to at least give us a clearer idea of what we will actually be discussing.

Much the same could be said for Muscat’s warning about the dangers of an isolationist approach to immigration. It is all well and good to talk about the need to avoid the creation of more ghettos in future. But what is his government doing to avoid that scenario? In what way is Muscat’s immigration policy different from Gonzi’s before him? Again, it would have been more helpful to present a long-term plan for the gradual integration of immigrants – which is after all the government’s declared policy – than to merely present a wish-list for the future.

On a more positive note, it must be said that Muscat’s declared aims (if not always his intended methods) are broadly aligned in the right direction. The proposal of a refund scheme for plastic bottles is commendable: as is the overall emphasis on the environment. 

But the prime minister’s failure to commit to clear lines of action – at a time when there is no functional Opposition – effectively gives Muscat ‘carte-blanche’ to press ahead with whatever reforms he chooses, virtually unopposed. 

This is not good news for the country. The fact that Muscat seems to be cognisant of the added responsibility – while welcome in itself – is a poor substitute for a properly constituted parliamentary Opposition.