Five reasons the PN is strategically wrong to pander to xenophobia

The PN's readiness to pander to xenophobic instinct and inability to make strategic sense shows an already obvious inspiration deficit

This is Malta in 2019: seeking to extinguish a public relations snafu over a spelling mistake on a billboard that provoked Labour’s smug reaction, top PN brass shared on social media mocked-up Labour billboards that sent up government ‘mistakes’. Air Malta profits, surplus (confirmed only a day later by NSO data), but fatally, “stuffing Malta with foreigners” – an error that shows the PN’s readiness to pander to xenophobic instincts and inability to make strategic sense when it already has an inspiration deficit.

 

1. Foreigners also vote!

Lashing out at foreigners, a significant portion of voters in local elections and to lesser extent MEP elections, is plain madness. EU citizens, the majority of foreigners in Malta, can vote in both elections and constitute a majority in St Julian’s and St Paul’s Bay, and a significant minority in Gzira, Sliema and Msida. Some ‘foreigners’ have little interest in what happens in Malta and are here for a short time, but others may be genuinely interested in the wellbeing of their new home. They may not vote today, but tomorrow they may become citizens through marriage or naturalisation… how can the PN be trusted by such potential voters when it sends out a stark message of exclusion?

2. The Maltese know foreigners contribute to growth

Malta is not some left-behind community hit by austerity where foreigners are a threat to material wellbeing. It is a country experiencing an economic growth partly fuelled by foreign labour, both at the top and bottom end of the labour market: the latter are doing jobs the Maltese are no longer interested in doing.

Surely it brings in problems with the accommodation of large numbers of foreign workers in small housing units across already depressed communities. Integration is indispensable for effective law enforcement in communities impacted by the influx of foreigners, but the PN does not seem so keen in this aspect of policy-making.

Meanwhile there is also a creeping perception that ‘foreigners’ are just accessories to fast economic growth rather than full members of the community, with their own aspirations and interests. Unionised foreign workers and civic-minded foreign residents are part of the solution to problems like cheap labour and over-development. That is why such residents, like the PD candidate Cami Appelgren, have taken a leading role in environmental campaigns.

3. Generic statements on foreigners can turn toxic

PN exponents often dismiss criticism on pandering to xenophobia by claiming their grievance is with an economic model based on population growth. But if the PN itself is not proposing an alternative model of growth, generic statements on ‘foreigners’ will only resonate with people who simply see them as a threat. That is a scapegoat the PN is creating to cater for the anger and frustration of people, when there is not even such anger and frustration.

When migrant workers are not perceived as threats to economic well being, it is more likely that some play up their presence as some form of “cultural threat” – something that only plays well into the hands of the far-right, which finds its discourse legitimised by one of Malta’s major parties.

4. The problem: greed, low wages and over-development, not foreigners

Labour’s pro-business policies have contributed to over-development in towns and villages, giving short-term benefits to those who charge exorbitant rents and pay low wages. Residential areas have become construction sites, sustained only by cheap labour: official data estimates 10.3% of both Maltese and foreign workers in construction being paid the minimum wage, compared to 6% in all other economic sectors. So economic diversification, increasing minimum wage and regulating the rental market are more realistic solutions than ranting against foreigners.

But it is unclear where the PN stands on these issues exactly. Does it agree with a more substantial increase in the minimum wage than the cosmetic one granted in the last two budgets? Does it support the government’s proposals to regulate the rent market to protect Maltese and foreign tenants alike? Does it advocate more stringent planning policies?

Under Delia, the PN has not solved its existential problem: whether it wants to reclaim its place as Malta’s pro-business party (and therefore accept foreign labour as part and parcel of the economic equation); or if it wants to outflank Labour from the left by advocating greener and more left-wing policies.

Historically the party has evaded this dilemma by projecting itself as a party of ‘balance’ but it has failed to produce policies that reflect this. Without this debate, the PN’s short-cut is a populism that might work in a climate of austerity, but not in this climate of growth where even those left behind see no hope in the PN’s blueprint.

5. The PN: no longer the party of openness and European values

The PN was once the pro-Europe party that embraced openness and the contribution of foreigners to the local economy. Its forward-looking vision of Malta prospering in the world relied heavily on construction and property, as well as the granting of public land to speculative interests, Maltese and foreign alike. But in Opposition, the PN has seen Joseph Muscat usurp this ideological space for Labour.

So now the party that once ranted about Sicilians taking Maltese jobs after EU membership, is presiding over the greatest influx of foreigners and a construction boom that surpasses anything ever experienced before. The PN forgets that its own voters, especially those whose baptism of fire came in the 2003 EU referendum that pitted them against Labour’s insular world-view, recoil at crass anti-foreigner rhetoric.

Muscat instead has conjured his own brand of economic nationalism to fend off nosy foreign critics of Malta’s piratical tax regime, indirectly reining in xenophobes in his own ranks.

For the PN, the risk is that by exploiting a popular concern it disorients M.O.R. voters who may have concerns over the sudden influx of foreign workers but find any hint of xenophobia distasteful and crass.

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