At 100 years, is Labour in labour once again? Five key questions answered

Where is Labour heading over key issues which shape the party’s reformist identity? We asked Daniel José Micallef, Desiree Attard, and Maria Brown

Photo: James Bianchi
Photo: James Bianchi

The Labour Party has emerged from the implosion of the Muscat government, its numerous corruption scandals and a leadership contest, unscathed in opinion polls.

With a new leader keen on reaching out to critics of Labour’s track-record on governance, the party has a big opportunity to consolidate its hold amongst middle-of-the-road voters. But can the party also retain the progressive edge and sense of purpose, which characterised its history; or is it destined to become more moderate, bland and “normal”?

MaltaToday caught up with Labour Party president Daniel Jose Micallef, the former deputy mayor of Marsaskala Desiree Attard, and sociologist and LEAD participant Maria Brown, asking them to map the party’s priorities in five key sectors and to take the liberty to make a few suggestions.

Former Labour deputy mayor Desiree Attard
Former Labour deputy mayor Desiree Attard

Civil liberties: unfinished business?

Under Joseph Muscat, Labour spearheaded a social revolution which turned Malta from a laggard in international rankings into a ‘beacon of hope’. But lately the party showed more caution on regularising sex work and recreational marijuana, and has been overtaken by civil society groups testing its limits on abortion. What’s the next frontier in the party’s civil rights agenda?

Daniel Jose Micallef: The last 12 years marked a huge turnaround for our country. Even from the Opposition we put on the national agenda issues, which were considered taboo. In nine years, our country introduced divorce, civil unions, and equal marriage. Legislatively a lot has been done; I still think we need to focus much more on education even from early ages, and tackle head-on a culture of visible hatred in the age of social media. The right to privacy, the right-to-disconnect and other labour market related rights are some of the topics I anticipate will be on top of the agenda in the near future.

Desiree Attard: The country needs to have a mature discussion on sexual health and reproductive rights. Government has already launched several campaigns on sexual health, but we need a cohesive approach to education, especially for teenagers. Society needs women and men who know what a healthy sex life should be, what contraceptives are available, what respect for one’s partners entails, and that their bodily autonomy is inalienable.

Maria Brown: The priority should be that of strengthening existing civil liberties in a holistic manner. For example, while live-cams and biometric passports contribute to safer and better-organised communities, these also pose unprecedented challenges to privacy and data protection. Investments in multi-disciplinary working groups that research how to capitalise on such technologies with ethical expertise, are key. Labour should springboard quality assurance and devolution of the existing provision of legal aid, also through collaboration with local councils.

The MaltaToday view: Judging by the polls, abortion remains a no-go area for any party aspiring to power, but Labour can still distinguish itself by allowing full freedom to its members and activists to debate this issue, thus passing the message that being pro-choice is a legitimate position. The recreational use of cannabis should be legalised to break the link between illegal mafias and many law-abiding adults. Sex work should be decriminalised in a way that these workers benefit from full legal protection as all other workers, while action against human trafficking should be stepped up.

Sociologist and LEAD participant Maria Brown
Sociologist and LEAD participant Maria Brown

Gender equality

Joseph Muscat had promised the ‘most feminist government’ in Maltese history but female representation in parliament and public boards remains on the low side. The government now wants to increase female MPs through a corrective constitutional mechanism. But beyond institutional changes, the government is also expected to tackle the gender pay gap and deeply entrenched sexism. What’s the next step?

DJM: Labour was, and still is the main political force advocating for gender equality in Malta. On a number of aspects, our country seems to have hit the pause button decades ago. Our focus as a party is to see enacted without further delay, mechanisms which address the lack of gender balance in the political realm, which would then undoubtedly serve as a catalyst for further change at all levels in our country.

DA: Government must address work-life balance. Conservatives will say that the issue is not legislative, and that patriarchal mentalities cannot be changed overnight, but this is only partly true. Government must introduce measures which change the role of men when it comes to caring responsibilities, as well as give all workers their right to personal, quality time. That is how you destroy archaic mentalities.

MB: One priority here is to reframe the discourse into one of gender equity. There are imbalances that would benefit from allocating more resources to women, such as gender mainstreaming and electoral gender-corrective mechanisms. Policy and incentives that resource men, LGBTI+ identities and families need to be developed, in dialogue with social partners: examples include increased maternity, paternity and parental paid leave, including sick leave to take care of dependents; increasing state aid to support health needs of LGBTI+ persons; disassociating state-funded childcare and after-school services from employment, to eliminate pending discrimination between children entitled to these educational resources (by virtue of their parents’ employment status), and those who are not.

 PL president Daniel José Micallef
PL president Daniel José Micallef

The MT view: Labour should consider changing its statute to ensure that one of its deputy leaders is always a woman.

Social justice

The Muscat administration deserves credit for introducing free childcare, tapering welfare benefits, removing exam fees and raising pensions. But while the working class has been spared austerity, inequality is raising its head. European Commission statistics show that Maltese workers are receiving a smaller share of their country’s GDP than they were at the beginning of the decade. How can Labour boost its credentials on its core issue?

DJM: Together with social mobility and equality, social justice is essentially what the Labour Party stands for. Different times pose different challenges: the current times where Malta is experiencing unprecedented economic growth, the main challenge remains to ensure that this growth is with a purpose for all; that the fruits of our economy are distributed with equity, prioritising the most vulnerable in our society. A lot has been achieved in this regard, but a lot of challenges remain especially in the housing and labour markets. The challenges have changed during the last years and some are partially attributed to the growth we experienced, but nonetheless those facing them rightly demand swift and bold action to better their quality of life.

DA: The welfare state needs to be strengthened, and updated for modern realities. Low-income families and individuals should not benefit from piecemeal ‘charity’, but from structures that close the gap between the rich and the poor. I’d like to see, for instance, social security contributions reflecting the modern gig economy, and zero-hour contracts, which are a nightmare in terms of workers’ rights.

MB: Studies repeatedly show that the elderly and older females in particular, children and ethnic minorities remain particularly vulnerable to social injustice. Labour has to proactively address social injustice through advocacy of increased and holistic investment in lifelong learning, also to curtail welfare dependency in line with the party’s principle that social progress is measured by the progress of society’s most vulnerable. Areas of lifelong learning that need to be consolidated include financial literacy, digital literacy and employability. Presently, state-funded lifelong learning programmes are facing challenges that include integration of immigrants, ageing population and pension sustainability. Yet many adult educators and trainers’ working conditions are precarious: part-time, definite contracts without collective agreements and vaguely recognised professional status. Maltese society is duty-bound to invest in people educating adults and vulnerable adults in particular. As things stand, adult educators’ precarious status negatively role models the social injustices affecting their most vulnerable students.

The MT view: A ‘living wage’ based on the recommendation of an independent panel should be established and as a start the government should include it as an obligation in public procurement. Employers who pay a living wage should also benefit from a quality mark certified by a public authority.

Urban planning and the environment

In order to kick-start a construction boom the Labour government embarked on policies which accommodated the developers’ lobby. The Muscat administration also continued the PN’s policy of dishing out land cheaply to developers for speculation purposes. This led to decisions which sacrificed the well-being of local communities on the altar of private profit. How can Labour reclaim its environmental credentials?

DJM: Joining planning and environment in one ministry is a step in the right direction to achieve balance, which is difficult, and sometimes subjective too. Many a times we speak of the environment solely in terms of our countryside, whilst the urban environment in which we spend most of our time is normally overlooked. We need to look into bold decisions to provide a better living environment in our communities, and in some aspects a culture change is required.

DA: The Planning Authority’s local plans haven’t been updated since 2006. Their updating is the starting point if Government is serious about structural and sustainable planning. The Public Domain Act should be properly enforced, safeguarding our beaches, cliffs, and valleys and sites such as Manoel Island and the Inwadar Park at Żonqor Point, in Marsaskala.

MB: A Labour Party branch solely dedicated to the advocacy of sustainable development could draw on good practices developed by its successful branches that include FŻL, LEAD and Nisa Laburisti. Collaboration with councils may include participatory community-development pilot projects. and participatory mapping that democratises spatial representation and urban development, bringing local knowledge and perspectives to the attention of governmental authorities and decision-makers.

The MT view: Government should introduce a national fund financed by a levy on building permits, to buy green enclaves located in urban centres to turn them into open public parks. Owners who relinquish these properties in a voluntary way should be given due recognition for civic responsibility.

Democracy and governance

Before 2013 Labour promised “a second republic” and to govern according to the principles of meritocracy. But since Panamagate, the country was gripped by an unprecedented institutional paralysis, which ultimately contributed to the meltdown of the Muscat administration. How can Labour restore trust in the institutions?

DJM: The Constitutional reform is undoubtedly an opportunity to discuss a number of aspects which merit revisiting: the way debates are carried out at parliamentary level, measures to attract the best possible talent to the political realm, further checks and balances and also timeframes within which institutions are expected to give the necessary results… are some of the topics, which crop up regularly.

DA: The Constitution was tested last year: frankly, it has failed us. Government needs to take a long, hard look at our prime law, and update it to meet the needs of a young democracy. In particular, our Constitution needs to be secular, strong on the justiciability of social, economic, and environmental rights, and with a clear separation of powers.

MB: The recent political crisis illuminated gaps that developed between Labour’s principles (upheld by its genuine activists) and governance deficits. Bridging such gaps is key. Whilst Labour needs to create opportunities for its representatives in government to reach out to the party, the onus is also on the Labour MPs to seek and engage with such opportunities and seek guidance on how they can walk the talk that their Labour supporters and constituents elected them for. Labour should also spearhead a reform of improved remuneration for MPs, in consultation with stakeholders that include rival political parties.

The MT view: A basic principle of a democracy is that of no taxation without representation. In line with this principle, citizenship by naturalisation should be granted to all third country nationals who have worked and lived here for a minimum of five years and to all children who have completed a school cycle here. Aaron Farrugia’s decision to start publishing a transparency register listing all meetings with lobbyists and stakeholders should be applied across the board.

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