The political cost of prosperity

Beyond party-politics there is a danger in investing too much in economic growth, and too little anywhere else. It is not just the PN that is weakened by the promise of a fast buck, but the fabric of society as a whole

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

It is understandable that Malta’s economic situation – in good times and in bad - has traditionally always been the mainstay of public discourse, even to the neglect of other issues. Bill Clinton’s immortal phrase ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ was more than just an electoral slogan; in some respects, it is almost a law of nature.

Increasingly, economic management has overtaken all other historical concerns when it comes to assessing the worth of any government, in Malta as much as everywhere else. With very few exceptions, ‘the economy’ has only ever been quantified on the basis of raw figures: employment, GDP, purchasing power, retail price indexes, and so on.

There are, however, other ways in which a country’s economic well-being may be gauged. Some of these are, in fact, often debated in the press: is there a just distribution of wealth? Does economic growth give rise to issues of social inequality... with rising rent prices being a classic case in point?  Is our economic model too dependent on transient cash-cows, making it vulnerable to future shocks? Does our dependence on cheap labour threaten to undermine basic workers’ right?

Such questions are sporadically raised in public discourse, but there has been little broader discussion of the long-term implications of our current economic plight. In an island where we are constantly seeing greater deregulation of financial services and planning policies, economic expansionism, and larger tax cuts (for domestic and foreign taxpayers)... is this economic allure actually weakening the public sphere itself?

Intriguingly, former Prime Minister Alfred Sant seemed to indirectly hint as much in a recent interview. “For evident reasons today we have a problem because we have a weak and divided Opposition,” he said. “The PN is demoralized and not coherent with its declarations. This worries me a lot. If we look at the history of Malta since Independence, the PN – even when one didn’t share its views – was always coherent during Gorg Borg Olivier’s and Eddie Fenech Adami’s times. If the Opposition is not coherent, this will reflect on the democratic governance of the country.”

Sant noted that when he returned to Malta in 1977 from his diplomatic posting, PN leader Eddie Fenech Adami was surrounded with the likes of seasoned politicians like Louis Galea, Guido Demarco, Ugo Mifsud Bonnici and Censu Tabone.

“This doesn’t exist in today’s PN which looks as if it is suffering from the lack of human resources. Why? Is it because there has been so much economic expansion lately that talented individuals are preferring to make the best of the present circumstances for economic and social reasons rather than pursuing a political career within the PN?”

The question was directed at the Nationalist Party, and the person asking it has obvious political leanings. But as a question in itself, it can be equally applicable to a much broader, less immediately political audience.

On a political level, Sant suggests that the PN's own people feel better off making money in the private market – i.e., availing of the present government’s policies - rather than assist their own party in devising alternative policies to challenge government. It is an observation that cuts deep into a party whose own elites have traditionally worshipped the supremacy of the private sector over that of the public, and which now is seeing its own ideological stomping ground taken over by Labour's neoliberal agenda.

That alone poses serious questions for the PN: can it reinvent itself into an alternative to Labour? And is that alternative some sort of misguided populist and conservative right-wing party? Can it truly offer an divergent kind of discourse to Labour's neoliberal agenda even, if this comes at the cost of alienating some of its traditional market allies?

So far, it appears Adrian Delia is nowhere near to offering the kind of political alternative to bruise Muscat's expansionist agenda. And with the Busuttil faction untiring, the millstone around the PN's neck is only producing weary cat-calls that are taking the party nowhere.

Beyond party-politics, however, there is a danger in investing too much in economic growth, and too little anywhere else. It is not just the PN that is weakened by the promise of a fast buck, but the fabric of society as a whole.

This reflects Sant’s concerns about the state of the opposition party; but it should not be just the Opposition’s job to oppose. What is most worrying is that Labour is presiding over a weakened sphere of public activity. Will tax cuts buy the public's consent into submission? Will the seduction of roadworks distract the fragmented environmental lobby? Will the economic boom simply inspire people to "make hay while the sun shines" and retreat from any meaningful criticism or public act of resistance?

The only spark of judicious public discourse today hails from non-partisan actors: the social and civic NGOs, the environmental activists, religious and humanitarian charities, the residents' action groups that are witnessing first-hand the ravages of uncontrolled free market liberalism.

It is this sphere, with its charismatic personality, that can provide the unifying force necessary to offer a sorely-needed alternative to Malta’s present political discourse. But it must be given room to speak.