[WATCH] Muscat and Busuttil’s final TV slog, a picture of the leadership they offer

Labour Party leader Joseph Muscat and Nationalist Party leader Simon Busuttil tonight faced off in a televised debate that reinforced the opposing narratives that voters are called to decide upon

Joseph Muscat and Simon Busuttil faced off in Brodcasting Authority leaders' debate
Joseph Muscat and Simon Busuttil faced off in Brodcasting Authority leaders' debate

Political debates at the Broadcasting Authority used to be a piece of theatre but in the highly caustic snap election of 2017, the bitter divide between Joseph Muscat and Simon Busuttil reinforced the two opposing narratives that Maltese voters are called to decide upon: a leadership style that focuses on the economy, and another leadership style that is pitching itself as Malta’s guarantee for good governance.

Shorn of Xarabank’s carte blanche for jabs and uppercuts – and playground jibes on body language and hyperhidrosis – Muscat and Busuttil took their seats and turned on their engines: Busuttil, earnest and labouring hard the accusations of corruption against the Prime Minister’s men; Muscat, eyes trained on the camera with self-confidence, at times taking Busuttil down a notch, at others reciting the party manifesto.

Busuttil truly framed the introduction of Wednesday’s debate, describing Muscat’s carelessness at garnering a 36,000 vote majority, with Labour’s alleged ‘best in Europe’ government now fighting in a snap election to regain control, dogged by allegations of corruption.

“Muscat closed his eyes to corruption... every major project has been tainted by corruption: bribery on the sale of citizenship, visas, and now even on the LNG tanker,” Busuttil said, accusing chief of staff Keith Schembri and former energy minister Konrad Mizzi of using offshore companies to hide their actions, and of Muscat taking Malta down a dangerous road when no action was taking on the Panama Papers fallout.

“We must have the courage to write a new chapter for Malta, to right the wrongs and go forward on what has been done right,” Busuttil said.

But Muscat’s reply seemed intent on glossing over the serious accusations of corruption that were flagged by three individual Financial Intelligence Analysis Unit reports. “I choose to speak about the future and refuse to be negative like the Opposition leader, which people are now tired of, because it clouds the positive achievements of this government. I take pleasure in those who speak to me, women, trans people, students, the disabled, who tell me how their lives have been improved under this government.”

Instead he accused Busuttil of scaremongering on an impending departure of the gaming industries, when Labour had just announced SkyBet’s addition to the roll call of gaming names in Malta. “The choice to whether to stop halfway or move forward, to go back to that party that said it could not fix its problems, or the government that has created more jobs, cut taxes and utility bills.”

Busuttil returned to the corruption narrative, accusing Muscat of not simply erring, but of having come into power with the intent to plan out a suspicious offshore network and of committing a crime.

“The Prime Minister did nothing when the cases flagged by the FIAU and which I took to the magistrate when these cases went under inquiry came to his attention,” Busuttil said of Schembri and Mizzi. “The PM once said that he who does not fight corruption, is himself corrupt. There are four cases here where action has not been taken. If his chief of staff is placed under a criminal investigation, it will mean that Muscat must also resign, even if he is elected PM.”

Muscat again hit out at Busuttil, who in 2013 warned his voters that Labour in power would send Malta into a bailout. “We ended up with a surplus,” Muscat said.

In a later intervention where he took on Muscat’s surplus comment, Busuttil insisted that the PN had been prophetic about the surplus, having committed in its 2013 manifesto that Malta would eradicate the deficit by 2016. “We knew where the country’s economic direction was heading…”

Muscat accused Busuttil of being alarmist about the some of the island’s prized industries: “The Opposition leader reads out SMS text messages to alarm people that the gaming companies will leave, while we’re speaking to them about their plans for growth,” he said, after Busuttil read out a text message claiming that gaming giant Betsson would leave the island if Labour wins.

Muscat also accused Busuttil of ignoring the false invoicing that his party committed to solicit donations from the db Group to pay party officials’ salaries. “If Busuttil is PM next week, he would have rode the wave of an inquiry that will expose a calumny visited not just on my family and I, but on our country. It is he who brings Malta’s name into disrepute in the international media and institutions,” Muscat said, briefly referring to the Egrant inquiry.

But Busuttil countered saying that he was fighting to clean Malta’s name. “If Muscat was saying the truth, why did he not sack Schembri and Mizzi? Because he finds nothing wrong with holding an offshore company… the owner of Egrant was transmitted not in writing, but by Skype… and who could have been more important than Schembri and Mizzi?”

“If he is so convinced on Egrant,” Muscat retorted, “why does he not say whether he will resign if the inquiry is found to have been based on a lie, and take responsibility for this lie?”

Muscat found time to focus on his party’s proposals, setting much store by further tax cuts, better pensions, a €700m costing to rebuild roads, reduction of tax on part-time and overtime, as well as free transport for the old and young. But he attacked the PN’s plans to make childcare universally free, insisting that mothers must be in gainful employment to benefit from the service.

On his part, Busuttil said the PN would create 30,000 high-value sector jobs, apart from a 10% tax for SMEs and a new 10% tax band for 120,000 taxpayers earning not more than €20,000 a year, apart from a 5c reduction on fuels immediately.

Muscat also attacked Busuttil over having introduced “an unpredictable element” with former Labour MP Marlene Farrugia in his coalition, without mentioning her name.

“Her behaviour in the last BA debate led the Authority itself to stop the debate halfway… we would have a PN government borne of instability, and a weak prime minister held hostage, and this is a crucial decision people have to make.”

The two leaders’ conclusions once again brought out their vision of a Malta they purported to represent.

To Busuttil, Muscat today was the past: “Four years ago, he was the future…” Now, scandal over the past four years had dragged his government down.

“I promise you clean politics. A strong economy for everyone, not just for the people at Castille to benefit from. A just society that will help people, and a better quality of life, a better environment, and one that will overcome the problem of traffic.”

Muscat pitched his ‘Maltese dream’: “I don’t mock the idea of Malta being the best in Europe. I erred and for that I paid a political price. I stand before you in judgement. Judge me by my actions and by what I delivered…

“They said Labour wouldn’t work and today we have record jobs, tourism, and women in work. This legacy is yours… I won’t rest my case on SMSes or a whispering campaign, but on those of you who don’t attend political rallies, to make the best choice as to who will lead the country.”