Built to last? Labour’s cocktail of over-development and liberal reforms cripples the PN

Key to Labour’s ability to retain support at 2013 levels is the Opposition’s inability to respond to the two greatest social changes of the past two decades: the country’s social mores and Labour’s ‘development’ model

Over the past decade Malta has been engulfed by breathtaking change on two fronts: a liberalisation of mores and values which restored agency to thousands previously kept invisible; and the brutal unleashing of market forces on a fragile landscape which made communities helpless in the face of force majeure.

This change was cushioned by a strong welfare state that is now increasingly dependent on economic growth – rather than taxation – but which shelters natives, especially those who own property and have a stable job, from the ravages of change. This makes rebellion even more unlikely.

It is in this context that one can understand the failure of the Nationalist opposition to position itself as an alternative, despite corruption revelations which have shaken Labour to the core. For corruption, important as it is, was obscured by the sheer scale of changes in the social fabric which left little thought for anything else. And it’s this that explains why corruption has not captured the collective imagination, especially when compared to grassroots struggles against over-development and campaigns extending new rights and liberties to previously marginalised individuals.

People are either mesmerised or angry at the pace of change. And while Labour perversely reconciles neoliberalism with social liberalism, the Opposition is itself divided. The factor favouring Labour is that the change is not only too big to be reversed, but it’s also that the Opposition lacks an alternative to it.

Over the past decade Malta has been engulfed by breathtaking change on two fronts: a liberalisation of mores and values which restored agency to thousands previously kept invisible; and the brutal unleashing of market forces on a fragile landscape which made communities helpless in the face of force majeure
Over the past decade Malta has been engulfed by breathtaking change on two fronts: a liberalisation of mores and values which restored agency to thousands previously kept invisible; and the brutal unleashing of market forces on a fragile landscape which made communities helpless in the face of force majeure

That downward spiral which started under the PN

The Nationalist problem on over-development is that the downward spiral had started well before Labour’s election in 2013, with Malta seeing its first destructive building boom between 2006 and 2008. It was only the economic downturn after 2009 which slowed down the process.

But Labour did hit the accelerator after being elected, moving the policy goalposts further in favour of the developers’ lobby and extending the benefits of the building boom to a wider stratum of its aspirational voters. Coupled with this was an unprecedented increase in population which brought more pressures on infrastructure and that further weakened working class solidarity.

It was not surprising that even traditional PN voters who looked up to their party as a pro business, modernising force were dazzled by Joseph Muscat’s ‘Dubai vision’. Neither was it surprising that those who rejected this model of development could not look towards the PN for inspiration. Laments on uglification from the deep Nationalist establishment – as was the case with contractor Nazzareno Vassallo in an interview on the Sunday Times last week – only reinforce this distrust based on the proximity of the PN with segments of the business class when in power. People still facing the ravages of the ‘rationalisation’ of building boundaries can’t be blamed for their distrust.

Balance in imbalance

On this topic the PN is running with the hares and chasing with the hounds. It may propose cosmetic reforms but it falls short on a promise to change policies, which contribute to uglification. The most it can promise is to strike a better balance between business and the environment, a mantra which has already been adopted by Robert Abela’s Labour, which is increasingly adopting the discourse of past PN administrations.

After the excesses of the Muscat administration, which saw public land being handed over to fat cats like Sadeen and the DB Group, Abela can easily project a more nuanced approach, rendering the PN irrelevant without taking any significant step to reverse the direction.

On the other hand the PN needs to win back the developers and property owners who enriched themselves in the past years, while retaining its appeal among its own crowd of Dubai aspirants. For let’s not forget that Smart City was Malta’s first taste of Dubaification. And neither can those shocked by Charles Polidano’s pending tax bill ignore the fact that this was left to accumulate under successive PN-led administrations. That may explain why the PN does not win any votes on this issue.

Disillusioned Labour voters and floaters simply do not trust it, while those seduced by Dubai and Singapore now opt for Labour.

In this way the PN’s failure to root its critique of Labour’s corruption in populist antagonism towards the power of big business groups, made it easier for Labour to depict the PN’s stance as an elitist response to its widening of the circle of beneficiaries beyond the traditional elites.

PN: Alien language to the young

The PN is equally dumbstruck by the change in people’s mores and values unleashed by the divorce referendum but accelerated by the liberal reforms ushered by Joseph Muscat.

In the following years we had the enactment of full marriage equality, one of the most progressive gender identity laws in the world and laws permitting embryo freezing. Two exceptions remain: reproductive rights for women and citizenship and inclusion for migrant worker communities. The reason for this is the historical weakness of the women’s movement in Malta and the active cultivation of xenophobia by Labour itself, particularly against Africans reaching Malta by boat.

Yet even on these issues, reality is catching up, with the pro-choice movement showing signs of vitality and foreigners living here increasingly demanding a say on what happens around them. The current debate on abortion triggered by Marlene Farrugia’s bill to decriminalise liability for women and doctors, would simply not have been possible a decade ago when pro-choice voices were immediately shot down as murderers and marginalised. Ironically two years after Malta joined the EU, it was former PN deputy PM Tonio Borg who tried to stop history, by supporting a campaign by Gift of Life to entrench the criminalisation of women and doctors who commit an abortion, in the constitution.

The problem for the PN is simply that it has become itself a prisoner of the two-party system, which prevents it from being a coherent voice for conservatives but also from adopting more liberal positions and reinventing itself as a social liberal centrist party.

Even some of the most rigorous critics of Labour’s corruption or environmental policies feel closer to Labour when it comes to civil liberties. Ironically, while the party finds itself affirming its commitment to protect life from conception to death, it cannot avoid harbouring candidates who hold different values, as is the case with new candidate Emma Portelli Bonnici. Still, the balancing act between Edwin Vassallo and new more liberal voices is hard to sustain and ultimately the PN speaks a language which is alien to younger people, whose values and aspirations have changed.

Surveys have repeatedly shown that support for the PN among voters younger than 35 hovers at around 20%. This explains why Labour is so keen on pushing reforms like cannabis liberalisation and euthanasia, which capture the imagination of strategic groups of voters.

Labour’s toxic cocktail

While it is the PN which faces the brunt of the contradictions unleashed by these two great national transformations, Labour is not spared from its own contradictions.

Labour like the PN is a coalition, which is increasingly divided both on environmental issues and on the further expansion of civil liberties. Moreover liberal reforms have also been tainted by the proximity to big business interests and the ensuing corruption.

Rosianne Cutajar’s story itself, that of a courageous liberal reformer who unlike many in her party also extended the promise of inclusion to migrant communities, sees nothing wrong in consorting with people like Yorgen Fenech, incarnating this contradiction of sorts. Labour’s own crop of post-ideological, young, fun-loving ministers who openly flaunt branded attire seem to represent a slackening of political standards, which makes future debate on Labour’s soul even more unlikely.

Possibly in the right conditions Malta could be fertile ground for a national conservative opposition, which opposes both economic neoliberalism for the dislocation and anomie it brings about in daily life; and social liberalism, which erodes age-old certainties. But if the PN takes this direction it will inevitably reduce itself to a rump, deprived of its strategic liberal wing.

In the meantime, while even on abortion Labour can afford to be against without closing the door, it has not lost the support of its own conservative constituencies. What has kept the Maltese working classes on board was Labour’s ability to square the circle: that of advocating policies which have increased inequality while still improving living standards, by lowering bills, introducing free childcare and removing exam fees.

While in the short term this has defused anger, Labour’s promise not to increase taxation to redistribute wealth makes its social policy dependent on a development model which further increases inequality and disrupts communities.

That does not mean that segments of the working class, especially those in precarious employment and who pay rent, are not taking the brunt. But neither has the PN, whose track record on precarious employment was even worse than Labour’s, has much to say to these voters, which also include a large category of foreigners who cannot even vote.

But the disarray in the opposition brought about by its positioning on these changes further contributes to the perception that Labour is a better manager of its own contradictions. In the absence of the unlikely rise of third parties or independents able to articulate a populist alternative to Labour’s model of development, the end result of this could well be Abela winning the next election with the same margin despite an increase in non-voters.