[ANALYSIS] Five years of Labour: How Muscat changed Malta

Long read • 1,293 words | Surveys and demographic data suggest that in the last five years in power, Labour has changed both the concerns of Malta’s inhabitants and the reality in which they live

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat gets a hero's welcome at Labour's mass meeting. Photo: James Bianchi
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat gets a hero's welcome at Labour's mass meeting. Photo: James Bianchi

After five years of Labour in government Malta is now a more crowded, bustling and noisy place where post-materialist concerns on the environment, immigration, quality of life and good governance are eclipsing bread and butter issues.

This represents an epochal shift in people’s concerns when compared to the last days of the Gonzi administration where people where mostly worried about making ends meet and paying bills.

While before 2013 the main concerns were the cost of living and utility bills, the main concerns under the Muscat administration have been traffic, the environment, foreign workers and corruption.

Utility bills have disappeared as a concern over the past five years
Utility bills have disappeared as a concern over the past five years

While nine years ago concern over utility bills reached 33% and peaked at 50% in February 2010, only 0.3% expressed this concern in the last MaltaToday survey, down from 20% three months after Labour was elected in 2013.

Concern on the cost of living has also fallen from 44% in 2012 to just 2% now and concern on jobs has completely evaporated to nothing from 18% in 2013.

On the other hand concern over traffic and roads increased from 9% in 2013 to a staggering 26% in the last MaltaToday survey. This matches an increase of almost 47,000 vehicles in Maltese roads between 2012 and 2017.

Foreigners and construction: the new concerns

New concerns have also emerged under the Muscat government. While prior to 2013 respondents used to mention illegal immigration as a main concern, this is now eclipsed by concern on the number of foreigners living in Malta.

Foreigners working and living in Malta has now appeared as a concern, distinct from illegal migration
Foreigners working and living in Malta has now appeared as a concern, distinct from illegal migration

Before 2014 concern on migration fluctuated according to the number of boat arrivals, reaching a 27% peak in 2009 and rising again to 17% in 2014. But the latest MaltaToday survey shows 10% concerned with the number of foreigners living in Malta and 6% concerned about illegal immigration. This probably reflects the sharp increase in the number of foreigners from less than 13,000 in 2012 to nearly 38,000 in 2016.

Even when it comes to environmental concerns, respondents are now more likely to mention problems related to construction than the generic concern with the “environment” mentioned in pre-2013 surveys.

But at 16% concern on the environment and construction has now emerged as one of the top three concerns along with traffic and immigration. Concern on construction and over development only started picking up in MaltaToday surveys in March 2017 when 4% mentioned this problem.

A construction boom has also led to greater inconvenience for residents
A construction boom has also led to greater inconvenience for residents

The increase in concern on over development reflects the increase in new permits for dwellings from just 3,000 in 2012 to more than 9,000 in 2017. Curiously absent from the list of concerns is any reference to the increase in rents and property prices.

The rise and fall of the corruption issue

At 10% concern on corruption remains far higher than ever registered before 2013 when concern on this issue never surpassed the 3% mark. But concern on corruption has dipped from a record all time high of 30% in March 2017 when the issue served as the Opposition’s battlecry, to 10% now. Concern on corruption had already dipped to 8% in September 2017 after the general election.

A placard at an anti-corruption protest called by the Nationalist Party soon after the revelations of the Panama Papers in March 2016. The placard reads: 'Who does not fight corruption, is corrupt'. Photo: Ray Attard
A placard at an anti-corruption protest called by the Nationalist Party soon after the revelations of the Panama Papers in March 2016. The placard reads: 'Who does not fight corruption, is corrupt'. Photo: Ray Attard

These surveys suggest that during the past five years Muscat has managed to address the main concerns impacting the Maltese before 2013 but in so doing has unleashed new problems, which he is less successfully addressing. Some of these concerns like that on rampant construction and foreign workers/residents, can also be the direct consequences of the government’s pro-business policies.

The Opposition’s dilemma

The new landscape of Maltese concerns also represents a dilemma for the Opposition which is desperately in search of a new battlecry after Simon Busuttil’s failure to narrow the gap by picking good governance as his main issue.

Surveys suggest that corruption is less felt as an issue than the traffic, environment and immigration triad. This may strengthen the Opposition’s temptation to give less importance to good governance and more importance to one of the top three concerns even if this would ignore the direct relationship between good governance and environmental protection and good planning.

Adrian Delia has shunned the corruption battlecry of his predecessor
Adrian Delia has shunned the corruption battlecry of his predecessor

The Opposition is also walking on a tight rope between addressing popular concerns which could further alienate it from business interests and reaching out to the business community which includes segments that benefit from rampant construction and from the availability of foreign workers at both ends of the labour market.

Addressing the concern on foreign residents and workers may also be tricky for a party that in the past has always stood for openness and a rejection of xenophobia. Yet concern on the social, environmental and infrastructural problems caused by a rapid and unplanned increase in population (an increase of 40,000 between 2012 and 2016) cannot be dismissed as sheer racism but may reflect concerns on rising rents and the presence of seasonal migrants with little sense of belonging.

Moreover, surveys do not measure the intensity of feelings the Maltese have with regards to particular issues. While the environment may be a very important issue for the Maltese it remains doubtful whether it can change the way people vote in elections. Furthermore it is also doubtful whether issues like traffic are even seen as electoral issues.

The PN will have to reassure people it will deliver on the economic front
The PN will have to reassure people it will deliver on the economic front

One pitfall for the Opposition is that merely exploiting the new concerns does not cancel the need to reassure the public that it will continue delivering on the economic front if elected to government in four years’ time.

In fact Muscat’s greatest accomplishment so far has been that of dispelling old Labour’s bad reputation when it came to managing the economy and in creating wealth and jobs. This also depends on his ability to sustain current levels of economic growth and to dispel fears of an overheated property market and a possible EU clampdown on Malta’s competitive advantage in gaming and financial services.

The changes beyond the surveys

While surveys on concerns give a clear picture of Malta after five years of Labour, they do not account for all the changes taking place.

The increase in disposable income, which may have served to decrease concern on the cost of living, may have been a result of the increase in the beneficiaries of free childcare, which has facilitated the participation of more women in the labour market.

Although the absence of certain civil liberties has never featured in surveys on concerns, the introduction of gay marriages has not only made a segment of the population feel more included but has markedly changed the country’s image from that of a laggard in the field to a world leader.

Malta has shot up to top spot in the Rainbow Index under Labour
Malta has shot up to top spot in the Rainbow Index under Labour

The Rainbow index puts Malta at the top of Europe when it comes to LGBTI rights up from 18th place in 2012. So far progress on this front has not resulted in any conservative backlash except for that which exacerbates rifts in the PN.

And while concern on corruption may have slipped from a peak in 2017, deteriorating standards in governance and the culture of impunity have attracted increased international attention particularly after the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. The use of the power of incumbency before the last election, particularly in the planning sector is another indication of declining governance standards.

The baby and the bath water

Ultimately the question facing Muscat after five years is whether he could have achieved the same progress in the economy and civil liberties without having sacrificed so much on the environmental and good governance fronts.

For the time being, Joseph Muscat continues to win hearts and minds
For the time being, Joseph Muscat continues to win hearts and minds

Muscat’s own high approval rating also raises the question on whether high rates of economic growth have rendered the country more tolerant of environmental degradation and corruption.

For a while, Muscat may still be winning hearts and minds because voters feel that they should not throw away the baby with the bath water.

However, one should also be careful that the filthy water does not become too toxic for the baby itself.

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