Year of ‘change’ | Michael Falzon

Looking back at Labour’s first year in power, political analyst Michael Falzon argues that a change was necessary, though it might not have been the change people expected

Michael Falzon
Michael Falzon

Himself a former minister under Eddie Fenech Adami, architect Michael Falzon has seen governments come and go for the past 30 years. Most of these have been administrations led by the same party he once formed part of; and this factor alone, he reasons, may explain the relative ease with which Joseph Muscat’s party sailed into power one year ago today.

I meet the former Environment Minister at his office in Birkirkara with a view to asking the most obvious question. A year ago he had argued that change was necessary. Now that he has witnessed this change and its effects, does he still think the same way? And is it the type of change he expected?

Sitting at his desk, Falzon shrugs. “I didn’t expect all that much. When I said that the change was necessary, I meant it literally: we needed a change because the Nationalist Party had been in government too long.”

Longevity in politics, he argues, may be desirable for political parties; but when a government outlives its natural lifespan the effects are not exactly desirable for anyone else.

“After 25 years of practically uninterrupted power, the PN became a self-serving institution. People recognised this, and duly kicked it out.”

The idea that we have embarked on a new political direction does not cut it. The direction is clearly the same. Ideology is dead…

This sort of electoral fatigue is hardly unique to Malta, either. “There was an article in the Economist recently which made the same point about South Africa. It was just a fleeting mention in a paragraph, but the analogy is apt. Ever since around 1994, South Africa has had the same party in government – the ANC – and according to the Economist it has become self-serving, as all governments inevitably do when they last too long.”

All the same, Falzon makes it clear that he was (and still is) referring to a change in administration, not in policy. “I never believed in all the talk of a ‘change in direction’, on the need for a Third Republic, or anything like that. A lot of pompous hype, if you ask me. The idea that we have embarked on a new political direction does not cut it, either. The direction is clearly the same. Ideology is dead.”

Ironically, he reasons that continuity from the former administration was also a factor in Labour’s landslide win. The Gonzi administration, Falzon points out, did not lose the election because of its political or economic direction; and the fact that Muscat stuck to roughly the same course, especially on matters of finance and the economy, made it easier, not harder, for him to win the election.

There are however areas where Falzon sees a change… not perhaps in the way government operates, but rather in the style of leadership of the Labour Party.

This week saw another controversial Muscat decision: the appointment of his own Social Policy Minister Marie Louise Coleiro as President. The manoeuvre seems to have irked and irritated Coleiro Preca’s considerable power-base within the party. Elsewhere it has been interpreted as a symptom of a government that seeks to carry on another unwholesome PN trait: its insistence on occupying all strategic positions.

I see it as Muscat’s attempt to re-dimension his party’s ideological position, and to move away from the left-wing policies of Old Labour under Mintoff

Falzon however disagrees with the latter interpretation. “We appointed four Nationalist Presidents on the trot,” he observes. “No one can complain if the Labour government appoints a Labour President.”

Nonetheless he offers his own interpretation for a move that has come at a certain political cost for Muscat. “I see it as an attempt to re-dimension his party’s ideological position, and to move away from the left-wing policies of Old Labour under Mintoff…”

Coleiro Preca was among the last of the figureheads from those distant days; and arguably the one most aligned to the ideals represented by Old Labour.

“To many people she represented the old Mintoffian policies of appeasing all the people who look up to government as their mean of survival. She is popular, yes, and has a way of doing things that strikes a chord with people. In fact she exemplifies the ‘nanny state’ that Muscat is keen to distance himself from…”

As for the argument that Gonzi broke with tradition and appointed a President from the Opposition ranks – raising expectations for Labour to do the same – Falzon hints that Muscat may have had good reason not to want to reciprocate the gesture.

“It is a moot point whether Gonzi appointed to George Abela to weaken the Opposition, or to reflect his own wafer-thin majority in parliament. But either way, by appointing Abela he also sowed the seeds for the rebellion that he eventually had to face. Let’s not forget he did this a year after kicking out so many Cabinet ministers, and informing them by an SMS…”

Does he envisage Muscat facing similar problems for his own unpopular choice of President? Falzon shakes his head. “No. I don’t think there is the same level of resentment at the choice of Marie Louise Coleiro Preca. Besides, the Gonzi rebellion was the accumulation of many factors, this was only one of them.”

But it would seem policy continuity is not the only area where the Labour government has simply carried on where its predecessor left off. In the last 12 months there have been numerous indicators that the culture of nepotism and political back-scratching – for which the PN government was so harshly criticised at the time – has continued unabated, too. We all saw how people close to the Labour administration, or who somehow participated in the campaign, were ‘rewarded’ for their efforts. Falzon himself earlier said that this is inevitable when a government spends too long in power; yet with Labour, it happened in less than a year.   

Gonzi at least had the excuse of leading a quarter-of-a-century old government. What’s Joseph Muscat’s excuse?

“It’s not a question of excuses. This is how things are done in this country. I think that Muscat overdid things a bit, though. There is no doubt that some people were favoured for political reasons more than merit. Clearly the euphoria of ‘Malta Taghna Lkoll’ has not lived up to expectation. This has to go down as a bad mark for government…”

But, he adds, the fact that Muscat has already reneged on his meritocracy promise also tells us a lot about how politics are done in Malta. “It’s an indication of the pressure Muscat is under. He will always be under pressure to give more to the party faithful. That’s the way things work.”

Meanwhile just this week there has been yet another indication that government may be interfering with the work of autonomous Constitutionally-appointed bodies... this time a complaint by The National Audit Office. Again, this was an area where successive Nationalist administrations faced considerable criticism in their day.

Falzon nods, citing this as one of a number of clumsy mistakes made by an government that has yet to find its feet.

“The issue between Cardona and the NAO shows up the inexperience of the Muscat administration. And also how they believed their own propaganda before the election… when they accused the government of being directly responsible for all the cases of corruption…”

Contrary to widespread perception, most of the typical corruption that takes place in this country is carried out without the complicity or even the knowledge of the minister concerned. “But the minister always takes the blame,” adds the former minister who faced his own fair share of corruption allegations in the early 1990s. “It’s the culture of our country… and politicians are ultimately a reflection of the people who elect them.”

The reality, he argues, is more complex than political propaganda would have us believe. “Yet when Labour accused the PN government of dishing out tenders left, right and centre, they evidently thought that it was true that a minister could simply interfere in the adjudication process like that. But it’s not that simple. Even if you look at the recent corruption cases” – here he rattles off a list that includes the Enemalta scandal, the smart meters scandal, all the way back to the Malta Maritime Authority scandal of 2004, “it was always the people at lower levels who were involved. For a minister to get away with that sort of thing in an EU member state is not as easy as people seem to think”.

Meanwhile the NAO allegation is arguably the least of the issues in which the Muscat administration has tripped up in its own feet. “The worst example by far was the way Muscat handled the IIP issue. The Nationalist hysteria may not have been justified, but this doesn’t change the fact that he mishandled the situation completely. In the end government had to amend the scheme three times. What does that tell you about the level of thought and planning that went into the first scheme they launched?”

Falzon admits that he was taken aback by the scale of the clumsiness involved in this one issue alone. “Take the secrecy clause, for instance. This to me was the most serious flaw in the scheme. It was sheer madness. Who are the people who would not want to show that they came here to apply for a passport? Obviously it is people who are doing it behind the backs of their own governments…”

Apart from openly attracting dubious characters, this could have had repercussions of international relations. “Let’s say a Russian oligarch falls out with the Russian government and secretly becomes a Maltese citizen… how would that impinge on Malta’s relations with Russia?”

The most surprising thing, he says, is that all these implications seemed to take Muscat by surprise when they emerged. “I would imagine he was advised by Henley to include a secrecy clause; but Henley doesn’t have the same considerations to face as a national government. I would have expected Muscat to reason through the possible consequences beforehand, and to realise he was getting drawn into a dangerous game. Is it possible they didn’t think deeply enough?”

As things stand, the secrecy clause was the first thing to go (or be ‘whisked away’, as Falzon puts it). “Clearly they understood the danger when it was explained to them, but this only means they didn’t see it for themselves.”

Another cause for concern is that in some areas, mistakes such as these could have serious economic consequences. “Recently there were reports that private security firms hired by state entities such as MEPA, Enemalta and so on are being replaced by security personnel employed within the public service. I am aware that Labour had complained about the hiring of these firms before the election… it was one of the examples of Nationalist ‘bazuzli’… and you could argue that they needed to be replaced. But that is not an excuse to employ more people in the public sector. These people are now dependants on the State. Lino Spiteri was right to describe this as ‘the thin end of the wedge’. If the government’s plan is to replace all outsourced services with state employees, the results in terms of wage bills, etc., will damage the economy in the long term.”

Again, Falzon attributes this decision to the internal pressures Muscat is under to provide for his own. “That’s the sort of pressure governments have in Malta,” he adds almost grimly. “You can argue that it is wrong, but it is also the reality.”

But it is not all doom and gloom. Asked to specify any ‘good points’ he would dish out to the Muscat administration, Falzon praises it for its achievements in energy and in re-establishing forgotten trade links.

“Muscat showed that his energy plan was doable. This did not surprise me; most of the criticism before the election was a lot of hysterical nonsense anyway. ‘Alice in Wonderland’… the danger of an explosion the size of 50 atomic bombs…” he almost breaks into a laugh as he relives the scaremongering of just over a year ago. “The PN risk making themselves look ridiculous if they repeat that sort of thing now. I’ve read the OHSA report. The risk of an explosion is around one in 10 to the power of five – or something like that, anyway – and we are talking about LNG gas, which is nowhere near as flammable as the gas in an ordinary cylinder.”

This has not stopped the scaremongering, he adds. “The latest is that we shouldn’t buy gas from Azerbaijan because it’s not a democracy. I don’t know how anyone can take that sort of thing seriously. Malta has been buying oil for decades. Look at all the oil-rich nations of the world. They are practically all dictatorships. Should we not buy from any of those, either? It’s ridiculous. A small country like Malta does not have the luxury to base its dealing with other countries on human rights issues. Not even larger more powerful countries do that, anyway.”

Contrary to all such criticism, Falzon cites Malta’s willingness to look beyond the usual international trade partners as one of its better points.

All things told, then, does he believe the change was worth it?

“I would say it was necessary. Even if the incoming government has its fair share of flaws, we still needed a change after 25 years. As time passes, these people will probably stay on too long as well.”

He pauses, then adds with a chuckle. “Then we’ll need a change from them…”

More in Interview