[WATCH] From the PN's underdog status to Robert Abela's ‘small picture’, journalists reflect on 2021

Xtra on TVM News Plus | Looking back on the events of 2021, three journalists give their views on politics, the COVID pandemic, climate change and NGO activism

(From left) Kurt Sansone, Keane Cutajar, Edward Montebello and Xtra host Saviour Balzan
(From left) Kurt Sansone, Keane Cutajar, Edward Montebello and Xtra host Saviour Balzan

The Nationalist Party still has time to convince people to vote for it despite being the underdog, Net News journalist Keane Cutajar believes.

In a look at the events that shaped 2021, Cutajar said the PN under its leader Bernard Grech has come out with proposals and time is needed for people to understand them.

He was participating in a three-way debate with One News editor Edward Montebello and MaltaToday online editor Kurt Sansone on TVM News Plus’s Xtra.

“There is still time for the PN and despite the surveys what counts is what people do in the polling booth on election day… the PN is the underdog,” Cutajar said, reflecting on the first whole year of Grech as leader.

Sansone, who is responsible for presenting the monthly MaltaToday surveys, said according to poll findings on government performance last October, the government enjoys good marks on the two most important issues for people – the economy and disposable income.

READ ALSO: On the issues that matter, government gets positive marks except the environment

This is one of the reasons why the Labour Party continues to enjoy a comfortable lead in surveys despite all the tribulations the government has gone through, he added.

“People base their decisions on a basket of issues, corruption is one of those issues but not the only one and not the most important one, according to our surveys… the problem also lies with an Opposition that is fragmented, which is also a factor people take into consideration when choosing who to vote for,” Sansone said.

Montebello ascribed the good survey results to Prime Minister Robert Abela’s ability to “see the smaller picture” as much as the bigger picture.

He said Abela’s sensitivity to issues affecting those on society’s lower rungs distinguished him from his predecessors.

“The decision to include a cystic fibrosis medicine on the government formulary shows that the government is able to empathise with people and their individual needs even if in this case it only concerned a few people,” Montebello said by way of example.

Climate change

The COP-26 summit in Glasgow earlier this year was one of the major international events that shaped 2021 but Montebello believes that an international overseeing body is required to ensure agreed targets are met. "We have to make sure that words and promises are translated into concrete action now."

Sansone noted that addressing climate change would be an overriding issue internationally for the years to come but governments faced the challenge of adopting measures to address the problem that were also socially just.

“It is fine to shift to electric vehicles but if these are unaffordable the risk is of restricting cars to the rich, which places a challenge on governments to take into account social justice when adopting green measures,” Sansone said.

Rule of law NGOs

On the impact rule of law NGOs are having, Cutajar said they played an important role to be watchdogs on authority. “If these NGOs had not protested in 2019, Joseph Muscat may have not resigned… this is why it is important that the voices of these NGOs continue being heard.”

For Sansone, the test of credibility for NGOs like Repubblika and Occupy Justice will come over time when the PN is in government.

“These NGOs were born in a post-Daphne climate and it is understandable that their main target today is the Labour government and their audience is more inclined to support the PN… the test of credibility comes over time when the administration changes and we will see whether they retain the same energy to criticise what is wrong,” he said.

Sansone said Graffitti has been around for almost three decades and they have built their credibility over time. “Today nobody tells Graffitti they are PN or PL, because irrespective of who is in government, whenever they felt the need to protest, they did so.”

However, Montebello insisted that the rule of law NGOs had the chance to show their credibility earlier this year when it emerged that PN MP Jason Azzopardi had failed to submit his income tax returns between 2017 and 2019. The criticism was meek, he said.

COVID pandemic

All three journalists agreed that the COVID pandemic was the overriding issue that characterised the past 12 months.

Cutajar said overcoming the pandemic and its challenges requires a concerted effort from everyone.

Montebello noted that the sound economic decisions taken by the government ensured that the war chest was still providing a sound cushion almost two years later. He said the country also managed to reduce unemployment.

Sansone added the pandemic was a shock to the system and its impact on everyday human behaviour will have to be analysed over time.