An Armchair Critic Special | Deal… or No Deal?

When we realise that we have reached the middle of the week and arrive home from work, some of us have a habit of lightening up a little or going on the next level, by doing something we enjoy or something that keeps us fit. Others, enjoy nothing more than keeping up with the ordeals of the upcoming general election, and what better way to do so, than watch a debate from  your own home, occupied in the comfort of a sofa and /or armchair. This is one of those times.

You must have realised or at least fathomed by now that we quite love watching debates. The exhilarating feeling between the leaders, who turns out to be the negotiator or the disruptor, and who will deliver best when under pressure. Well, what is not to love? It helps us make an educated choice when we go and execute our civil obligation to vote and honestly, gives us something to talk about in informal conversations. 

What are we criticising?

The Malta Chamber Election 2022 Debate organised by the Malta Chamber of Commerce. 

Who is participating today?

For the Labour Party: Prime Minister Robert Abela

For the Nationalist Party: Opposition Leader Bernard Grech

Gentlemen, begin!

Following the enlightening opening remarks by the Chamber’s President, Marisa Xuereb and CEO Marthese Portelli, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition take it to the stage to make their opening remarks. 

Abela: Abela starts by saying that businesses are one of the key organs of the economy and this is why Government held their hand during dire and challenging times and as a result, the results of this speak for themselves today. But all is not well, just yet- referring to the ongoing war in Ukraine. Abela condemned the war and said that the Government will keep up the discussion with stakeholders. Abela reassured the audience that the wage supplement scheme given to employers and employees in light of the COVID-19 Pandemic, will be retained. This was mentioned in light of Grech’s speech at a Nationalist Party rally, alleging that the wage supplement will be sneakily taken back by the Government from businesses. 

Ah, the measures which will incentivise businesses, but we have already discussed some of these. In case you forgot, here’s a small recap:  reduction in the corporate tax rate, better rights for obtaining a bank account, Malta Enterprise schemes (just to name a few). And there we go, Abela’s motto by now ‘With us, you know where you stand’. 

Grech: Grech opens his speech by thanking the Chamber’s efforts in the business arena. Grech pointed out that those watching were not pleased with the level of dialogue and governance. Grech did not mince his words, and jumped straight to the FATF’s decision to greylist Malta and that there is no solid or concrete plan that will lead Malta out of the greylist. Grech pledges that with his leadership, the social and economic role of the business sectors will be maintained. Ah, ESG criteria, again. How this will come to fruition, no one knows. But hey, it’s part of Grech’s plan to safeguard the environment, which does make some sense in hindsight.

Labour’s Trade Union Proposal: A breach of law? 

The moderator imposed a question on the Labour Party’s trade union membership proposal, in that employers are concerned about the legalities of this proposal. A question was imposed on Grech, pointing out a contradiction between his words and a pre-budget document released by the Nationalist Party. 

Abela: Abela maintained that this issue will be discussed in a round table discussion with all relevant key players rather than jumping the gun and fast forwarding to legal enactment. A further question is imposed by the moderator, not whether the proposal will be implemented or not, rather how it will be implemented and if this implementation is an undemocratic one. Abela said that the rule that a worker will not be obliged to enter into a trade union will remain. 

Grech: On a question if Grech had a change of heart, Grech said that consultation was made before the electoral programme rather than after. Grech maintained that the worker should have a choice and not an obligation. Grech says that the Labour Party’s way of going about this is communist and oppressive at heart, (What…?)  and the Nationalist Party instead wishes to incentivise an employer to reach their obligations by reaching ESG criteria. Wow, this escalated quickly. But essentially both are somewhat similar so, why the not-so-niceties?

Trusting businesses: Why should an entrepreneur trust either leader?

Abela: Abela did not hesitate to say that the Labour Party’s track record is the proof in the pudding. The fact that Abela’s administration was constantly with businesses and aiding them during unprecedented times is proof of consistent maintaining of strong economic pillars. Abela also mentions the strong position Malta holds in terms of economic growth on an EU level and how maintaining a balance between economic needs and prioritising people’s livelihoods in the COVID-19 pandemic was key to success. Abela says that with the measures proposed by the government, and consistent consultation, incentivising will not fall short in the Government’s conduct, without any contractual stipulations and terms and conditions. 

Grech: Grech attacked Abela’s use of the term ‘track record’, as worrying. Grech’s motto ‘What you see is what you get’. Grech says that he is transparent with his policies and that what is being said by the Nationalist Party and Grech himself, proves that a Nationalist Party Government will see consistency and an ally for businesses. Grech pointed out the ambitions and needs which the Chamber of  Commerce and the Nationalist Party share. 

Christmas came early: More action, less cash giveaways?

Abela: Ah, a little PN Manifesto kerfuffle joke. The nexus which differentiates the two parties lies in the answer to this question, according to Abela. Everything which was proposed and devised in the manifesto, according to Abela, is fundamental and carefully costed. Contrary to the Labour Party’s manifesto, the Nationalist Party has not given a hint or solid calculation at what the total costs of their aspiring projects would amount to. Abela maintained the importance of keeping up the discussion with key sectors and the measures put forward in the Labour  Party’s manifesto are not simple giveaways, but their raison d’etre is economic growth. Ah, this is important, the projects will be financed from economic growth. Abela also discussed Malta’s energy sector and how maintaining stability in energy supply prices is imperative. 

Grech: Grech visualised an example of how the Labour Party’s modus operandi will work in practice and how according to him, not one single new economic sector has been created by a Labour Government. Grech also attacked the potential idea of a metro for Malta and that the PN’s initiatives are by no means generous giveaways, but investments. Grech said that a PN government will see no increases in income tax or social contributions. 

The trackless tram and traffic: A step forward or back to the start?

A question imposed by the moderator on the trackless tram and its imprint on bicycle lanes and one-lane roads. 

Grech: Grech said that bicycle lanes will not be closed, but this is about people’s responsibilities and not waiting for the Labour Party’s ‘gimmick’ of a metro proposal. The trackless tram can be delivered and can come to fruition by the end of the legislature and will contribute to less traffic and vehicular accidents. The trackless tram will also see people give away their cars and be incentivised for giving up their vehicle as a means of transport. And feeder mini buses? Sounds unnecessarily complicated. On whether there will be road construction for the trackless tram to run smoothly, Grech gave a shaky answer and blamed the Government for making roads without a solid plan. 

Abela: On the trackless tram, Abela said that it is not just his opinion that the trackless tram is not a viable transport alternative, but a renowned international organisation. A jibe at Grech for not planning to follow his own initiatives, which Grech immediately denied by interrupting Abela’s speech. Abela said that while a lot has been done to improve Malta’s transport infrastructure, more must be done and this need, ambitious as it may be, is achievable. On congestion, Abela said that initiatives will be introduced to reduce congestion and make transport more sustainable, such as incentivising electric cars and a hydrogen gas pipeline. Abela ditched the idea that he is leading a status quo government and instead, labelled himself as leading a government that is not afraid of embracing change. 

Good Governance: Fact or Fiction?

Abela: Abela said that from day one, he took the necessary decisions required to maintain Malta’s governance and reforms pertaining to the judiciary whereby the Prime Minister’s input would have been required, Moneyval Reports and Venice Commission Recommendations. Abela said that while there were mistakes and these same mistakes may have led to an incline in distrust, he warned current candidates’ that correctness and integrity will be the driving force in the Government paving the way. On clientelism, Abela said that he does not believe that the whole electorate is a favour-seeker, but acknowledged that the current electoral system in place can elicit this sentiment. Abela hinted that electoral reform must be taken seriously and all alternatives should be considered for a better electoral system. 

Grech: Grech silently whispered a few times, during Abela’s answer (but amplified by the microphone “what does that have to do with anything?”) Grech said that Abela’s ‘handwashing’ attitude is evidence of his rigour in not shouldering responsibility. Grech said that he would not send cheques to prove good governance or economic growth, but if need be, he would. Grech said that he will incentivise employment and that in the future with a Nationalist government, the future would be bright. Grech seems to reminisce on the past by saying that if it were not for the Nationalist Party’s past initiative to enter the European Union, Malta’s situation would be dubious. Grech admitted that aeons of people have not yet been convinced, but after years of reflection, he will keep on appealing for the people to vote for the Nationalist Party. 

“The Planning or Permit Authority?” “U mur ‘l hemm”

Abela: Abela claimed that the controversial Sannat permit was not a definitive permit and is still in the first stage of approval, and is pending two more potential appeals to determine its viability and compliance with the relevant law and regulations. Abela said that all government authorities in Malta must observe general guidance imposed by the Government.  He claimed that the Government has no standing in the Authority’s decisions, but the Authority has an obligation to keep up with the government’s priorities.

Grech: Grech said that previous Nationalist administrations had made mistakes, but the difference is that one admits to its mistakes. Maybe go back to the last question? Grech cited the proposal to create new ODZ land on a yearly basis by the Nationalist Party. Grech said that the Planning Authority should remain a ‘planning’ authority but more focus on better aesthetics and more serious planning should be made.

Today’s Ranking 

Today’s debate is probably the best debate we have had so far, from the moderator to the questions asked and the degree of answers which the respective leaders provided. We think now we have a clear picture of how our prospective leaders would answer when on the spot and under pressure. In the first few questions, the leaders performed exceptionally, answering questions imposed by the moderator consistently and cohesively. There were a few times where both of their responses and in between jibes towards each other were facetious and jocular, Grech more than Abela with the ‘secret’ whispering and exacerbation of sudden thoughts and sentiments. But what is a good debate without a bit of undergraduate drama? 

The leaders were asked questions on fundamental issues which have been on everyone’s minds since and before the beginning of the election. Proposals devised by the parties which would substantially change Malta’s infrastructure and future economic potential. One issue which was worth noting, was the feasibility of the trackless tram. In hindsight, the trackless tram idea sounds amazing and a lovely spin on sustainable transport- but can we really call it sustainable if it prevents other sustainable methods of transportation, such as bicycles, from having a place in the road without the anxiety of a potential accident?

Certain issues, such as a question on the Sannat permit controversy should not be downplayed, but instead embraced- after all, that is the point of a debate. Seeing how the leaders would handle this was crucial in light of proposals aimed to re-imagine Malta’s environment by both parties. Here, Abela said a statement that echoed well to those listening. 

On this, both Grech and Abela admitted previous parties’ administration mistakes, with the only difference that despite Abela admitting it, Grech kept on insisting that Abela was feigning ignorance. What was enlightening was that Abela said that in his time leading, serious consultation and devising solutions is key to a freshly renewed Labour Government. 

Today’s rankings will be based on public speaking skills, solid and concrete answers from the leaders, how each leader handled their adversary and how ambitious each leader sounded when painting the plan for the future to those standing before them. 

Robert Abela

Style and Delivery: 8

Time Management: 6

Adversarial Conduct: 8

Business-Minded: 9

The Man with a Plan: 8

 

Bernard Grech

Style and Delivery: 7

Time Management: 6

Adversarial Conduct: 8

Business-Minded: 6

The Man with a Plan: 6

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