On 3rd June, 2017, Malta went to the polls. The result of the general election was a landslide victory for the Labour Party, led by Joseph Muscat. Four years later, much has changed. Malta has a new Prime Minister, Robert Abela, as well as several new faces in the Abela Cabinet. With the benefit of hindsight, one is today in a position to analyse the Labour Government’s performance during the past four years. Was it a success? Was it a failure? Was it part success and part failure?
When one considers that by the end of May, 2021, the Labour Government had managed to implement 84% of its 2017 electoral manifesto, I think that there can be no doubt in anybody’s mind that the past four years were successful ones for the Labour Government. However, this does not mean that it did not have its shortcomings too. In fact, there were some areas of its administration of the Maltese Islands which definitely left much room for improvement.
Let me start with Labour’s successes. In the four years after the June, 2017 General Election, both the Muscat and Abela Governments were highly successful in the economic sphere and also managed to implement several very important social measures, such as the 2020 Budget increase in pensions which was the biggest pension increase since 1980; the two COVID-19 Voucher Schemes which formed part of several creative initiatives during the COVID-19 pandemic which kept the economy strong and saved jobs.
One also has to mention the 700 million Euro Malta roads project, spread over a period of seven years, which started in January, 2019 under Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and has continued under Prime Minister Robert Abela. By April, 2021, the magnificent Marsa Junction Project had been inaugurated, and Infrastructure Malta had rebuilt 310 residential roads across the country.
Perhaps the greatest success Labour has achieved since the last general election has been in the way both the Muscat and Abela governments have used European Union funds. These have been used to register significant progress in the infrastructure of the country (as mentioned above); in the provision of water; in education and training; in aid given to farmers and fishermen; in projects in Gozo; in upgrading health services and facilities as well as successfully containing the COVID-19 pandemic; in strengthening the security of the country; in helping businesses; in the social housing sector; etc.
In July, 2020, representatives of the Maltese Government attended an intense four-day summit in Brussels, Belgium regarding the budget for the European Union’s Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), 2021-2027. Prime Minister Robert Abela led the final round of negotiations on behalf of the Maltese Government. His success was astounding as Malta was allocated the enormous sum of 2.27 billion Euro, 1.923 billion Euro falling under the MFF and 347 million Euro as part of a Coronavirus recovery fund. With 2.27 billion Euro in hand for the period 2021-27, Malta’s future is secure.
Another notable achievement of both the Muscat and Abela Governments relates to making the Maltese Islands as discrimination-free as possible. Various measures and the enactment of numerous regulations have ensured the rule of democracy and freedom of action for minorities which were previously discriminated against, e.g. the LGBTIQ community; persons with disability, etc. Education is also being used as a tool to supplement the various measures undertaken by the government.
These, among others, were the major areas of administration in which the Labour Governments were successful during the last four years. However, there were also areas where the results were mixed or could even be classified as failures.
One of these was the area of good governance, the fight against corruption, and the guarantee of the rule of law in the Maltese Islands. Under Joseph Muscat’s leadership from 3rd June, 2017 to 13th January, 2020, the Labour Government failed to adequately ensure the rule of law and was also plagued by various allegations of corruption as well as numerous episodes of lack of good governance.
Dr Muscat was widely criticised for retaining in public office two persons implicated in the Panama Papers scandal, i.e. Minister Konrad Mizzi and his own chief of staff, Mr Keith Schembri. It was also under his watch that investigative journalist and long-time critic of the Labour Government, Daphne Caruana Galizia was assassinated on 16th October, 2017. There is also a dark cloud of allegations of corruption in several deals concluded by the Muscat Government, such as ElectroGas; Vitals Global Healthcare; the Montenegro wind farm; and Pilatus Bank. Furthermore, during a public inquiry, Muscat’s chief of staff, Keith Schembri was alleged to be implicated in the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, although this has never been proved.
Dr Muscat himself was condemned by the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life for breaking the ethical rules concerning acceptance of gifts when he accepted three bottles of Pétrus wines, estimated to cost €5,800, as a gift from entrepreneur Yorgen Fenech who had various commercial relationships with the State, which bottles were left to the State by Muscat. Fenech is also the alleged mastermind behind the Daphne Caruana Galizia assassination. An important point to note here is that Joseph Muscat assumed political responsibility for what happened under his watch and resigned as Prime Minister on 13th January, 2020. Furthermore, there is absolutely no proof that he was involved in any criminal acts.
In stark contrast to the criticism of Dr Muscat’s period in office, the Robert Abela Government has been widely praised for its initiatives to improve good governance in Malta, consolidate the rule of law and eradicate corruption. Following the December, 2018 recommendations of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, the Maltese Government took immediate action and introduced, among other measures, constitutional amendments ensuring the independence of the judiciary in Malta. These reforms concerned changes in the manner of appointing and removing members of the judiciary in the Maltese Islands. Because of its important reforms, the Maltese Government has earned praise from GRECO, the Council of Europe’s Group of States Against Corruption (March, 2021, 87th Plenary Meeting, Strasbourg).
A new Commissioner of Police was appointed and a sustained drive against money laundering and all other forms of corruption was initiated. This reached its peak on 20th March, 2021 when Keith Schembri was arraigned in court and charged with money laundering, criminal conspiracy, fraud and forgery.
Under Robert Abela’s leadership, higher standards were demanded from all holders of public office. Thus, on 23rd June, 2020, Konrad Mizzi was expelled from the Labour Party’s Parliamentary Group. Earlier, Chris Cardona had been forced to resign as Labour Deputy Leader for Party Affairs. Cardona had been mentioned in relation to involvement in the Caruana Galizia assassination. To be fair, it must be said that he always vehemently denied these accusations which, to date, have never been proven. However, Prime Minister Robert Abela has emphasised that high standards of good governance require accepting political responsibility even when criminal responsibility is not proved.
An area of administration where both the Muscat and Abela Labour Governments have dissatisfied voters is that of protection of the environment. In my opinion, this is the one and only area where people have a right to say that both Labour Governments have failed and where improvement is urgently needed. Rampant over-development has led to a situation where construction cranes can be found almost everywhere and where citizens have to put up with a daily cacophony of noise as well as enduring clouds of dust in our towns and villages. Moreover, the Maltese Islands are being subjected to a process of uglification which can eventually even have a negative impact on tourism. Abuses by the construction industry have also been frequent and have had serious negative repercussions, even fatal, with the collapse of buildings.
It is fair to say that fault lies also with a previous Nationalist administration since in 2006 there was the biggest ever extension to development zones. Solutions are not easy to come by as these would have economic repercussions since the construction industry is the backbone of economic development. Furthermore, the highly debatable, perhaps even erroneous, argument has been put forward that amendments to what is allowed and what is not allowed in the construction of buildings, e.g. changing the building heights policy, could result in compensation claims running into huge amounts of money.
The good news is that Minister for the Environment, Climate Change and Planning, Aaron Farrugia, speaking to The Malta Independent on 2ndJune, 2021, stated that local plans introduced by a Nationalist Government will be reviewed through the Strategic Plan for the Environment and Development (SPED). Farrugia’s statement is encouraging because a future Labour Government must set the protection of the environment and control of construction as a top priority.
Having presented an objective and critical analysis of the performance of the Muscat and Abela Maltese Governments during the last four years since June, 2017, it is obvious that the balance tilts on the positive side, particularly in the latest period of administration under the leadership of Prime Minister, Robert Abela.
In a nutshell, the citizens of Malta are better off today than they were four years ago.