Earlier this week, both Prime Minister Robert Abela and Opposition Leader Bernard Grech gave their take on Budget 2024 in comprehensive speeches in Parliament. The only thing in common between the two speeches was their length. Aside from that, the contrast could not have been starker.
The public had the opportunity to weigh and make a direct comparison between the economic and political thinking of both leaders. Let’s look at three main aspects that set them apart.
- Understanding of economic and social developments
Bernard Grech’s speech was, unfortunately, a repetition of the weak logic and misguided analysis that had characterised his interventions in the 2022 electoral campaign. In what he had sold as a 2-hour exposition of his vision of excellence, the Leader of the Opposition went into a litany of negative and repetitive attacks on the Labour administration and confirmed that, if elected, he would be a GonziPN Part 2 administration. Now, if ten years down the line, the only way forward is to present the same ideas that a decade ago were rejected wholeheartedly by the electorate, then it is clear that the Nationalist Party’s future as a political movement is on the line.
Malta has changed so much over the past decade. How can it be that the PN has not managed to take up any of these changes? The criticisms peddled by Grech are a carbon copy of what former PN leader Simon Busuttil used to say in early 2013, to which he has made an artificial addition of some of the ideas of his predecessor Adrian Delia, placed there to placate the Delia faction’s diehards.
We heard the argument about debt being higher in absolute terms than it was before. How on earth is that relevant? The first thing you learn in Banking 101 is that income determines how much you can lend someone. You can lend €10,000 to a millionaire without batting an eyelid. Lending half that amount to an unemployed person means you are not getting that money back. The same with a country. If Government today has double the revenue it had ten years ago, it can afford to borrow twice as much.
Then came the cheap labour/population growth economy nonsense. Robert Abela quoted data that shows that, out of every 100 new workers, nearly half are professionals or managers, and that even the small 8% share of additional low-skilled workers are today earning a third more pay than they did in 2013. Then, Grech pointed out that the country with the highest population growth, Syria, has a tanking economy – to demonstrate that countries with fast growing populations are economically distressed. In fact, the first thing that World Bank economists try to do in low-income countries is to make them reduce their population growth. This is why China had introduced its one-child policy back when it was an economic minnow.
Bernard Grech harped continuosly on Malta’s supposedly badly performing economic model. He claimed that we are not diversifying our economy and no new sectors are being created. The Prime Minister, in reaction, tabled several international reports that assert the very opposite. He drew attention that just one sector, information technology, is one billion euro larger than it was in 2013. Abela described concrete measures to strengthen skills, such as the stipend reform, and the allocation of €100 million to help businesses to carry out the green and digital transformations. He described how the reformed system of taxation will improve incentives in favour of investment and spoke of the doubling of the allocation for industrial infrastructure and support of FDI. More importantly, in contrast to the vagueness of Bernard Grech, he announced a €74 million investment by a multi-national pharmaceutical company that will create 180 new quality careers.
2. Addressing people’s day-to-day lives
The Leader of the Opposition spoke a lot about the cost of living, but then the only concrete measure he spoke about was liberalising energy distribution. Now, if that were to happen, as occurred in many European countries, the result would be higher electricity prices. But then, higher electricity prices do not seem to worry Bernard Grech, given how he idolised GonziPN’s energy policy, which had led to unprecedented burdens on families and businesses.
Grech tried to dismiss all the increases in social benefits, trying to pass them off as minor. That was quite a weak argument, after he had greatly praised the fact that, under the Nationalists, pensioners were awarded the full cost-of-living allowance. Let us leave aside that this is a lie, as the Gonzi reform introduced an anomaly in the so-called cost-of-living-bonus which Labour is now having to address at the cost of several millions of euros. How can you say that giving people increases more than the cost-of-living allowance is minor while, at the same time, praising a past administration for supposedly just giving the cost-of-living allowance? Bernard Grech’s narrative is a constant having-the-cake-and-eating-it attempt at befuddling people.
Another clear example was Grech’s attempt at misconstruing the additional mechanism against inflation. He argued that, because eligibility was widened, this meant that the number of people in poverty had doubled. This opened him to Abela’s quoting of official statistics that show the exact opposite. Moreover, he pointed out that, if Grech is concerned about the numbers in poverty, how could he praise GonziPN’s record when, at that time he was Prime Minister, we had double the number of persons dependent on social assistance?
Robert Abela then attacked the PN’s proposal that only the COLA increase should not be taxed. He drew attention to the fact that this would not help those on the minimum wage or pensioners. In fact, it would make them worse off, as for these groups all increases are not taxed. As usual, the PN would hit those on lower incomes to grant benefits to those on the highest incomes. This would be a similar tax policy to that which they had espoused during the 2022 election campaign – removing tax refunds to pay for a tax cut of €2,000 to those earning more than €60,000.
Let’s contrast the PN Leader’s strong defence of importers and attack on those seeking to understand if importers have increased their profits with the actions of the Prime Minister. Abela announced that there will be a reduction in the prices of 54 medicines. Among others, some brands of medicines for diabetics will be lowered in price by more than half thanks to the government’s discussions with importers.
The Opposition Leader grumbled about construction and development, while defending GonziPN’s decision of authorising the development of land as large as Siġġiewi. On the other hand, after the successful action to save Hondoq ir-Rummien from development made possible by a Nationalist administration, Dr Robert Abela announced changes to the local plans in Wied il-Għajn and Wied Żnuber, to give relief to the people of these localities.
The Prime Minister also announced that the country’s landscaping and greening projects would increase and create new spaces 11.5 times the national stadium. Investment in the environment will be more than doubled, with major projects such as the Victoria Park in Gozo. The Prime Minister also carefully explained the Government’s strategy for Gozo. Incentives to limit development as much as possible to renovation have been strengthened, with a €40,000 grant for first time buyers buying a UCA house in Gozo. Robert Abela reiterated that Gozo will be the first part of the Maltese islands to be climate neutral, thanks to large renewable energy projects in our country’s exclusive economic zone.
3. An inane population policy versus a plan to keep authorities in control
The most disappointing part of Bernard Grech’s speech was that concerning his population policy. He constantly argued that we need to reduce our population, and his spokespersons have gone on national television claiming that they will reduce the population to what it was in 2013. This is nothing short of inane and a clear clarion call for xenophobia.
Grech tried to spread the story that Government’s plan is to have an 800,000 population for Malta and Gozo. He called foreign workers cheap labour and said that, under a Nationalist government, none would be allowed. His narrative was that foreigners are leading to a lower quality of life for the Maltese, and completely ignored their essential contribution in many fields, such as the health sector.
In sharp contrast, Robert Abela tackled the issue head on. Stressing that he would never go down the road of populism, he praised foreign workers and said that he would never say they are not needed in sectors of crucial importance, such as health and long-term care.
The Prime Minister’s attack was not on the foreign workers but on their being abused. He maintained that his socialist principles do not allow him to stand and watch while there are a few agencies that are turning the importation and constant dismissal of foreign workers into a business. The authorities are going to come in strong on these practices. Temping agencies will be heavily regulated. There will be a notable financial difference in the cost for those who focus on bringing new workers instead of renewing the permits of workers who are already here.
The Prime Minister appealed to voters to not repeat the mistakes of foreign electorates who let in populist governments. Going for right-wing populist solutions has one result, he said: economic failure and instability. Instead, a Labour government will be ensuring that it is the authorities of our country that retain control of immigration. Besides announcing tough regulations and higher fees, Abela pointed out at the introduction of certification systems to ensure that foreign workers are adequately skilled and are not abused by agencies bringing them to Malta. The Prime Minister declared that any agencies that do not apply for a licence will be stopped immediately, and the others will undergo intense scrutiny. He called on all those in the employment services sector to regularise themselves, but also spent some time to warn those who in the property rental sector are also exploiting the situation. Heavy fines are coming in for abusers, particularly those who rent property to too many people, to the detriment of both these foreign workers and to other residents.
The Prime Minister showed great statesmanship when he chose this route. Keeping true to socialist principles, instead of adopting an anti-foreign rhetoric, is brave but necessary. We all know what happened to the UK after Brexit. People were fooled into thinking that immigration would be stopped. Today there are many more immigrants in the UK than before Brexit.
That is exactly what would happen if Bernard Grech and his lot are let in Castille. While arguing that they will bring the population back to what it was in 2013, they are also saying that they will increase jobs by 60,000. So, on the one hand there will be no immigration, and on the other they have an employment target that would nearly double the number of non-EU workers in our country.
To trust these people to lead us would be a sure recipe for disaster.