[ANALYSIS] Budget speeches | Muscat and Delia: statesman versus demagogue?

Overshadowed by the Hal Far riots, Joseph Muscat emerged the statesman in addressing popular prejudice, in contrast to Adrian Delia, who veered on demagoguery to use the incident as a curtain-raiser for a simplistic critique of an economic model linked to the importation foreign labour. Yet it is the dark side of Malta’s economic miracle, hinted at by Delia, which raises questions on Muscat’s own claims to statesmanship

Muscat seems too keen on brushing aside Delia’s critique on the dark side of the Maltese economic miracle
Muscat seems too keen on brushing aside Delia’s critique on the dark side of the Maltese economic miracle

Roll back the clock to 2011.

Back then Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi was facing intense criticism from Joseph Muscat for his handling of the migration crisis and what was portrayed as a meek stance in securing burden-sharing with other EU countries. But Gonzi had a steadfast reply to Muscat’s political opportunism.

“We choose life when there is a choice between life and fear; life and egoism. We have to continue to expose the needs of our country; that we do need help with this burden, but we cannot ignore the value of life,” Gonzi said.

On that occasion Lawrence Gonzi also lashed out against “racist” comments posted on local websites amidst an influx of migrants. “We worry when we see these numbers coming. But we cannot forget that every one of these people, whatever their colour, are people like me and you and deserve all the help they can get.”

In 2012 Gonzi also passed the message to fellow conservative leaders at the EPP, asking: “Do I succumb to the populist approach and pretend there is nothing I should do because this is somebody else’s problem? Or do I translate this non-negotiable value into practice, and do everything I can to save those lives at sea?”

Muscat seems too keen on brushing aside Delia’s critique on the dark side of the Maltese economic miracle

In a reversal of roles, Muscat’s strong declarations on migration made in response to Adrian Delia’s ambiguous statements following the Hal Far riots, were awkwardly reminiscent of the stance taken by his predecessor.

In his budget speech Muscat, himself a harsh critic of Gonzi’s migration policies when in Opposition and the author of controversial migration plan presented in 2009 which foresaw the suspension of international obligations if Malta was deemed to be “full up”, did not mince his words in condemning xenophobia and upholding the value of human life.

“I was mistaken when it comes to the pushback, yes, but I warn the Opposition not to repeat my mistake. I appeal to parents watching me on TV right now – if a person is drowning in the Mediterranean, would you save them?” Muscat asked.

Like Gonzi before him, he appealed to the media “to pay attention to their comments section. This is their responsibility too. We do not want certain populist winds to take flight here.”

In the case of Delia it was more of a case of what he did not say rather than what he said.

He limited himself to fanning the anxiety created by the riots inviting his audience to imagine 300 people rioting in a small village or football ground and awkwardly questioning the government for issuing a statement which highlighted the fact that not all migrants had participated in the riot. He made no effort to show a sense of leadership by also condemning generalisations and on-line hate.

By twinning justified criticism on governance with scare-mongering on migrants, Delia may be actually making it easier for Muscat to re-invent himself as a statesman

In contrast Muscat emerged as the statesman who offers leadership on a difficult issue in which he now finds himself at odds with populist sentiment.

“I don’t think I’ll be very popular on this issue but when Lassana Cisse Souleymane was murdered a few blocks away from where the riots took place, I said a few things which I’ll repeat today: we need to learn from the mistakes of other countries. We are a country of immigration. We went around the world. Ask your relatives whether how they were treated abroad affected how they lived,” he said.

The Gonzification of Muscat?

Muscat’s conversion on this issue may well be the reality of power: as a Prime Minister of an EU country Muscat had to change. He may also have come to understand like Gonzi that stamping your feet does not help much in achieving modest results.

Still Muscat is less conditioned by criticism from EU institutions on other aspects of policy like the golden passport scheme, which offers Maltese (and by consequence EU) citizenship to the global rich against a price. One even may be tempted to think that for Muscat it had become politically untenable to defend the scheme while still advocating pushbacks for the poor.

Moreover, Muscat is facing a different political context than Gonzi. While Gonzi faced criticism from the Opposition on being too soft in confronting Europe to wake up to its responsibilities over the influx of boat people, the present day Opposition is more focused on the risks posed by the increase in foreign workers, a phenomenon which is not directly connected to the plight of people living in open centres which are inhabited by asylum seekers.

Delia himself has on several occasions urged the government to bring in migrants rescued by NGOs on the high seas even in cases where Muscat was reluctant. Yet on this occasion Delia toyed with an “us vs them” rhetoric threading between legitimate concerns on the “importation of precarious labour” and representing foreign workers as a threat to working conditions, wages and housing affordability.

Neither did he take Muscat to task for addressing problems, which may have contributed to the riots.

For like Gonzi before him, Muscat is liable to criticism for not doing enough to address the roots of the problem. Gonzi kept an inhumane detention regime, which isolated migrants from the rest of society while introducing open centres in isolated areas like Hal Far or Marsa.

Muscat may be credited for reforming the detention regime and for being the first political leader to speak openly in favour of integration. Yet it seems that not enough has been done to prepare for the latest influx despite the luxury of being given a four-year reprieve between 2014 and 2018 during which Italy shouldered Malta’s burden. Meagre allowances, high rents and obstacles to joining the legal economy all contribute to the festering wounds.

And even his high-sounding platitudes on saving lives contrasts sharply with attempts at EU level to trust the life of migrants in the hands of the Libyan coastguard which keeps them in concentration camps.

The dark side of the economic miracle

Muscat may be right in blasting the Opposition’s simplistic arguments which ignore realities like the skills gap in the economy which foreigners are filling without competing with Maltese workers. Moreover, the impression given by Delia that non-EU nationals constitute the majority of foreign workers is not only factually incorrect but panders to prejudice against non-Europeans.

But Muscat seems too keen on brushing aside Delia’s critique on the dark side of the Maltese economic miracle. For while official statistics suggest that less than a fifth of legally employed foreign workers are engaged in elementary jobs, migrants are very visible on construction sites, where a number of them are not just exploited but have sacrificed their life on the altar of Maltese property boom: eight have lost their lives in 2018 and 2019.

Muscat’s declaration that these workers have full rights to join trade unions and fight for their rights did come across as a surreal one. For while it is true that unions have opened sections for these workers, the GWU itself had suggested mandatory union membership as a way to circumvent the real obstacles for the unionisation of these workers. Also surreal was Muscat’s declaration that precarious work is being eliminated. And while official statistics do not substantiate Delia’s alarmism, there is a case for evidence-based policies based on studies investigating the impact of different categories of migrants, including those on the higher end, on specific segments of the labour and property market.

Still, by focusing on scare-mongering Delia is letting Muscat off the hook. It is not clear whether Delia wants more rights for all workers irrespective of nationality or whether he is just pandering to those who simply do not like the presence of non-European foreigners in Malta.

Reclaiming the centre ground

Muscat’s sharpest observation in his speech was his dissection of Delia’s politics: that he skirts around the issue, pandering to public concerns without having the courage to go all the way, with the risk of legitimising the far-right without him identifying with the far-right.

One may well suspect that Muscat is again speaking from experience, having come full-circle from being a demagogue himself.

While it remains doubtful whether Delia can make any inroads among xenophobic Labourites who remain loyal to their strong leader irrespective of their reservations on migration, Delia has once again offered Muscat a golden opportunity to reclaim the centre-ground as a statesman who speaks responsibly, despite lingering doubts on governance issues and his subservience to big business interests.

In the confrontation on migration Muscat can conveniently position himself on the side of openness in a polarity favoured by French leaders, the likes of French President Emmanuel Macron, which pits politicians advocating walls that separate, against politicians who are open both for business and migrants. It was no surprise that Muscat turned the tables on Delia, by describing Delia’s stance on foreign workers as anti-business and a betrayal of the PN’s historic role as a “party of business.” In reality being pro-business in Malta often translates in closing an eye to blatant disrespect for law and regulations.

Overall the budget speech ritual suggests that while Delia is still desperate to tick all the boxes of discontentment to save his embattled leadership and find a sense of purpose, Muscat can afford to affirm his leadership qualities by directly challenging the prejudices of some of his supporters and doing so forcefully.

Yet in presenting himself as a statesman Muscat remains exposed to criticism that he fails to show the same sense of leadership in clamping down on corruption and patronage, which are also intertwined with the power of big business interests. The risk is that by twinning justified criticism on governance with scare-mongering on migrants, Delia may actually be making it easier for Muscat to re-invent himself as a statesman.

Key words used by Muscat

Approximate number of times mentioned

  • Foreigners 12
  • Sustainability/future proofing 12
  • Economic growth 11
  • Investment 10
  • Housing 10
  • Problems (which are being solved) 8
  • Education 8
  • Women 8
  • Disabled 7
  • Climate Change 7
  • Cosmopolitanism/openness 7
  • Trust/credibility 7
  • Job creation 6
  • Poverty 6
  • Health 6
  • Surplus 5
  • Equality 5
  • Unity 5
  • Thrift 5
  • Child-care 4
  • Plastic 4
  • Integration 3