Leaders play to the electoral script in TV debate

Well-rehearsed Joseph Muscat and Simon Busuttil trade barbs and accusations on matters that have little to do with our European future

Joseph Muscat and Simon Busuttil were hosted on PBS's Reporter by Saviour Balzan - Photo: Ray Attard
Joseph Muscat and Simon Busuttil were hosted on PBS's Reporter by Saviour Balzan - Photo: Ray Attard
Simon Busuttil attacked Muscat's record on governance - Photo: Ray Attard
Simon Busuttil attacked Muscat's record on governance - Photo: Ray Attard
Joseph Muscat set much store in highlighting his government's delivery of electoral pledges - Photo: Ray Attard
Joseph Muscat set much store in highlighting his government's delivery of electoral pledges - Photo: Ray Attard

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and Opposition leader Simon Busuttil deviated little from their electoral scripts yesterday on PBS’s Reporter, where presenter Saviour Balzan hosted the two leaders in a quick-fire question and answer debate.

Perhaps the novelty of the debate was the, rather understated, announcement that Muscat’s government had finally signed the “complex” LNG purchase agreement with the ElectroGas consortium on Friday. Busuttil scoffed at the news, saying the prime minister was more willing to announce a 2c decrease in fuel prices via press conference, rather than the natural gas plant deal.

Muscat however reminded Busuttil of his party’s mockery of Labour’s energy plan back in 2013. “You said this was an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ project, but here we are today signing the contract.”

Muscat set store in defending his government’s job creation record, telling Busuttil he had created nine jobs for each new jobless person, but the Opposition leader was adamant about the rising levels of unemployment.

“Our priority remains job creation,” Muscat said. “There is still more to do: what I know is that we have given free childcare, paying back VAT paid on car registration tax, and decreased utility bills. And for the time ever, there is a government that has not waited five years to deliver on its pledge to reduce income tax,” Muscat said.

Busuttil raised various economic concerns throughout the debate. “Under this prime minister, unemployment has increased every month; the deficit has increased; and the national debt increased by 3%; and there are questions on the suffering retail trade. Statistic show exports were down in these past two months.”

Muscat again referring to previous claims by Busuttil, in which the Opposition leader had claimed a Labour government would drive the country to a bailout. “We are not heading towards a bailout. We are working on unemployment with a national employment policy, to see that those people who do not have enough skills for those jobs currently being taken up by foreign workers, are given those skills necessary to take up these jobs.”

The prime minister defended having shown his “personal solidarity” with former MEP candidate Cyrus Engerer, whose acquittal on the vilification of a former boyfriend was overturned by an Appeals Court. Instead, Muscat used it as an occasion to remark that “unlike the previous administration”, there had been no interference in the course of justice – referring to the fact that the Attorney General had decided to appeal the acquittal of the Labour candidate back in July 2013.

Busuttil pulled no punches, accusing Muscat of having “chosen wrong over right.”

“He is defending a criminal,” Busuttil said of the former PN deputy mayor, who was accused by his former boyfriend in a police report of having used pornographic images of him and sent to his employer. “Engerer parades himself as a champion of gay rights and has now been found guilty of a homophobic action. For the prime minister to defend someone like him, who chairs the LGBT consultative council, is unacceptable.”

While Busuttil claimed he would “instantly sack” any of his members found criminally liable, Muscat accused him of ignoring similar incidents with two of his MPs – again left unidentified by Muscat, although his party last week mentioned Claudio Grech for his police card forgery back in 1996.

With the Broadcasting Authority guidelines offering some elbow room to the green party, in a pre-recorded intervention Alternattiva Demokratika chairperson Arnold Cassola accused both the European People’s Party and the Socialists & Democrats in the EP of having ignored the need to reform the Dublin convention, for member states like Malta who suffer the brunt of asylum claims in the south. “The greens’ manifesto calls for a change in the Dublin rules that keep migrants in member states where they first enter. Both Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz did not propose this in their manifestos in a bid to satisfy their own electorates in larger countries.”

Muscat described Martin Schulz, the candidate for the European Commission presidency, as somebody who had a plan for immigration and for a system of legal migration to the EU. “He proposes what Malta needs,” Muscat said.

Busuttil countered, telling Muscat that Schulz did not agree with his government on his attempted pushback of 40 asylum seekers back in 2013.

Muscat also defended the bipartisan agreement against the introduction of the financial transactions tax, that would levy a miniscule percentage on capital transfers.

But Cassola said the FTT was a tax on speculation and one that could generate millions for hospitals and schools, and which could be introduced gradually and through a transitional period.

Busuttil also set much store in attacking Muscat’s governance, saying the employment of his wife’s business partner as an MTA representative in New York and energy minister Konrad Mizzi’s wife as trade envoy to Asia, had put paid to his call for meritocracy.

Muscat accused Busuttil of playing down the fact that he had retained favoured people by the former Nationalist administration – namely PBS’s chief executive Anton Attard and former TV host Lou Bondì on the national festivities committee. “Busuttil says my government has no right to pick people we trust, while the PN government could choose whoever it wanted,” Muscat said, as the two leaders traded barbs on the consultancies Busuttil was paid by the former Nationalist administration for his legal services.

Muscat attacked Busuttil for abstaining on the civil unions bill, but Busuttil said the prime minister had refused to separate civil unions from gay adoption in a bid to exploit the Opposition. “I don’t take decisions according to populist concerns,” Busuttil said.  “I take them according to what I feel is right and wrong in my conscience.”

“I told the prime minister to allow us to vote separately on these issues, because we believed that society was not ready for gay adoptions. I am ready to take responsibility for my decision. I hope the Prime Minister will bear his share of the responsibility.”

Muscat however disagreed with suggestions by Busuttil that gay adoptions was not part of the manifesto. “It is a question of principle that we keep our word. Everybody knew what my position was. I changed my view when I heard different voices on the matter.”

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