[WATCH] MEP candidates battle it out on social policy

Tensions rise on current affairs programme Xtra as PN MEP candidates Peter Agius and Frank Psaila and labour MEP candidates Josef Caruana and Alex Agius Saliba pick off social policies and the growing Maltese economy

Four MEP candidates on Xtra; From left: Labour MEP candidate Josef Caruana, PN MEP candidate Peter Agius, PN MEP candidate Frank Psaila and labour MEP candidate Alex Agius Saliba
Four MEP candidates on Xtra; From left: Labour MEP candidate Josef Caruana, PN MEP candidate Peter Agius, PN MEP candidate Frank Psaila and labour MEP candidate Alex Agius Saliba

On TVM programme Xtra, MEP candidates Peter Agius, Frank Psaila, Josef Caruana and Alex Agius Saliba took turns to lay down their views on a myriad issues—from the reputation of their respective party leaders, the contentious gender quota debate, social housing and the growing economy.

Especially on the issue of poverty vis-a-vis the growing economy, the candidates were in disagreement and the debate became heated. The labour candidates Josef Caruana and Alex Agius Saliba called the Nationalist Party "hypocritical" on the issue of social housing, claiming that a labour administration had done its best to tackle poverty, while the PN candidates said that labour had engendered a new poverty class and could not call the party a socialist one.

Is Adrian Delia the right leader for PN?

Labour MEP candidate Josef Caruana said that Malta's democracy could not be described as "sane" after MaltaToday's latest survey results. "The government does not have a healthy competition. The Prime Minister is doing things according to democratic principle, keeping his electoral promises and distributing wealth to all facets of society and cannot be compared to PN leader Adrian Delia's performance. He did not do anything credible so far," he said.

The survey said that 54.8% of responders trusted Muscat, just 15.9% trusted Delia and 24.6% trusted no one.

Agius replied by saying that Delia has only been leading the PN for a year—"the surveys are hiding those Nationalists who are still waiting for an alternative government. I ask the citizens to judge and examine our proposals. We need to give Delia some time and it's for that reason that we cannot as yet compare him to Muscat."

PN MEP candidate Peter Agius
PN MEP candidate Peter Agius

Agius Saliba said that the survey results scared him with Delia having, in one year, a "golden opportunity to change the PN with the new way" but was still regurgitating issues which had served Simon Busuttil a massive electoral defeat.

"It's normal for there to be some uncertainty at this stage," Psaila said, adding that the labour party would soon go through the same uncertainty and disagreements when Muscat would have to step down as party leader.

Another exacerbating factor was the PN losing two elections with such massive margins, he argued. "When you lose an election in such a way, you have to do much more to convince people. There are many nationalists that are still hurting and it’s not easy to heal those wounds, but since then, there was a renewing of the PN," Psaila said, adding that the PN is now in a state that can better represent the people, especially because Delia was never a part of the party's past.

Are gender quotas a good thing?

From those who voted for the PL in the last general election, 78% agreed with a quota system, while the figure dropped to 57.6% among PN 2017 voters. 69.2% of all voters agree with a a quota law to increase the respective number of men and women in parliament to reach a balance between the two sexes. 24.2% don't and 6.6% are unsure.

Labour MEP candidate Caruana said on Xtra that the survey results surprised him especially because today's generation was more conscientous towards women's rights.

"When you're a visionary like Muscat, it's easy to pick sectors and start changing them immediately. It's time for that change," he said.

PL MEP candidate Josef Caruana
PL MEP candidate Josef Caruana

Agius retorted by saying that the reality was quite different. "It's true that Joseph Muscat clearly has a PHD on how to sell things but under a labour government, there are less women employed in government boards than under the Gonzi administration where 30% of board members were women," he said.

He added that there are many women in Malta who are victims of the gender pay gap due to unfair working hours. "It was the labour party's nemesis David Casa who made leaps and bounds for the work-life balance, pushing for a ten day leave for men in the European Parliament," he said, adding that men's positions should also be strengthened to ensure a balance. "Women cannot work beyond 6pm most of the time due to family constraits and meetings during the night exacerbate this issue, so giving men more free time could help solve this," he said.

Agius Saliba scoffed at this and said that since self-government, Malta had just 27 elected women in Parliament. It was only the current labour administration that was doing its part. "This government worked hard to get women in the world of work—the word quota, for a woman to take the place of a man, is negative but it’s good to start forcing changes."

Agius replied by saying that he had nothing against positive discrimination.

A decrease in poverty?

"The labour party won the general election in 2013 on socialistic principles," Caruana said, adding that people who are at risk of poverty could never trust in the PN, especially since poverty was double the amount at the time of a PN administration than it is now.

"80,000 people were at risk of poverty during the Gonzi administration in 2012. Today, that figure is down to 40,000. Those who are completely deprived are just 14,000 today," he said.

He added that when labour came to power in 2013, there was nothing the government could work on in terms of housing. It had to start from scratch following a PN drought. "The question of social housing is always a problem. Today, the procedures take time. You can't just build a block of flats. There are ODZ issues, the environment, and so on."

PL MEP candidate Alex Agius Saliba
PL MEP candidate Alex Agius Saliba

Agius replied by saying that the 4% growth in the economy per year would not continue ad infinitum. He argued that Maltese labour could not, for one, compete with foreign entities that employ cheap labour.

"The country report of the EU Commission shows a number of low-skilled people who are at risk. These people are starting to see an alternative in the Nationalist Party," he said.

Caruana called the Nationalist Party hypocritical at this point and said that it could not look poverty in the eye with an honest glance.

Agius Saliba said that a labour government lowered the income tax rate and invested in pensions, social measures for schoolchildren and mothers (free school transport and free childcare services) and would continue to do so. "This government did not fail in this regard. It would have failed had it kept these funds locked up. We had a boom in property prices, yes, but solving it is not as easy as snapping one's fingers."

The MEP candidate insisted that the PN criticising government at every turn was not helping. He mentioned the government's Individual Investor's Programme as an example, a scheme which was continuously harassed by the PN, but that simultaneously had provided the necessary funds for social housing.

PN MEP candidate Frank Psaila
PN MEP candidate Frank Psaila

Psaila responded by saying that wages were still too low. The medium-wage earners and low-wage earners are threatened, he argued. 

"Naturally we are in the opposition so there's only so much we can do, but I’ve been to houses of labourites who keep asking for social housing, who keep complaining that they cannot makes ends meet."