Hackled and booed while on his way to Parliament in 1997 to present the budget. Leo Brincat will be listening to a tough budget delivered by Gonzi. The Opposition spokesperson for foreign affairs speaks of Labour’s unsophisticated approach, the economy and the EU Constitution
In November 1997 Leo Brincat was public enemy number one. He presented one of the hardest budgets for years announcing higher utility rates, the reduction of stipends, the introduction of a drainage tax and other austere measures that created widespread discontent not seen since the tumultuous eighties.
Brincat’s drive to Parliament had to be re-routed by the police because of a massive student protest in Valletta’s main streets. On entering the building he was hackled by students amid cries of “hands off our education.”
Next Wednesday Brincat will be sitting on the Opposition benches listening attentively to the finance minister’s budget speech, which purports to be an amended re-run of the austere budget Brincat had spelt out in 1997.
The Labour MP smiles when I ask him whether budget 2005 is a déjà vu for him.
“Yes and no. In 1997 we were very down to earth about the economic situation we inherited. We were saying that austerity measures were required. Today, apart from the spin on the international price of oil, Government is constantly boasting as to how the economy is performing well. Without excluding the fact that this could be a tough budget, judging by the Prime Minister’s own words this should not be a hard budget.
“I heard Gonzi this week during the parliamentary debate on the economy. He was very upbeat, giving the impression that things are looking up. If this is the scenario I don’t expect Government to resort to austerity measures, which we were inevitably constricted to implement in 1997.”
With hindsight, what would Brincat have done differently in 1997?
“We were unsophisticated in the approach adopted. We did not spin before the budget. This government is using a totally different approach. Take the oil crisis: although media reports on the subject have dwindled because the price of oil has marginally gone down, there was a concerted effort on a daily basis to interview experts on the impact of oil to create public awareness on the price escalation. I am not negating the fact that oil prices did go up but I anticipate this spin was used by Government so even if it does take tough measures, they will be far below what the public would have expected due to the hype.”
The Labour government had touched stipends and created a whole storm. Today Government has published a report with wide ranging recommendations that include a loan system for stipends and University registration fees. How is the approach different?
“This is one example of Labour’s lack of sophistication. But there is also an element of political hypocrisy. In 1997 I was insulted while on my way to Parliament to read the budget speech. The police didn’t allow me to pass from the usual route because of the student protests, which they had every right to resort to. Today, there doesn’t seem to be the same ferment, even if the Chalmers report is talking of means-testing and suggests stipends be looked at as educational assistance rather than a social service.
“The sustainability of stipends was an issue in 1997 but when we tried to take measures to address the situation we had criticism from all quarters. Up until now Government does not seem to have been the subject of such criticism. To be fair Government is saying it is not bound by the Chalmers Report, but today we are used to this type of kite flying to test the public’s reaction.
“The Labour Party was penalised at the time for being politically honest, even if some tell us we were politically naïve. The defect we had was that we were too down to earth and honest even if I believe the electorate should be treated so. We were also unfortunate. Like a surgeon in the middle of an operation we were judged while still performing the incision.
“Even if we were to be voted out, it would have only been fair had we been voted out at the end of a five year legislature when the operation would have been complete. I wouldn’t have said anything had that happened. But circumstances meant Labour had to be judged simply on its first two years in office. Every government that is judged on its first two years will have a similar result to ours, especially if taking tough decisions.”
Having gone through the ordeal of preparing a tough budget himself, I ask Brincat for his assessment on what is possibly passing through Lawrence Gonzi’s mind at the moment.
“This is not exactly the best of time. It feels like you are isolated from everybody else because despite maintaining continuous consultation with ministers and departments every minister will be fighting for his turf and pushing his demands. You become the Cabinet’s bogey man,” Brincat says.
He reminisces about 1997. “Alfred Sant had understood the predicament we were in and I was keeping him constantly informed of the financial situation as it developed. The result was that we created a Cabinet sub-committee that met on a weekly basis to control public expenditure. There was another Cabinet committee to review recruitment of people with the civil service.
“Whenever a quango or department wanted to recruit people they had to prove their case to the Cabinet committee. We could not leave the job of scrutiny to top civil servants even if these had performance bonuses that were somehow never deducted.
“Most of these civil servants simply wanted to be alright with the people under them and certain drastic decisions were never taken. We were constrained to take decisions on a political level instead.”
Next Wednesday could very well be payback time for Labour as Gonzi spells out one hard measure after another. Will Brincat be rubbing his hands?
“No, it is definitely not the case. If one were to remove the 22 months of a Labour Government, the Nationalist Party has been in power since 1987. Ministers may have changed but basically it is a Party that has outlived its expiry date. The PN was resigned to stay in opposition for a number of years after the 1996 electoral defeat and when they found themselves back in the driving seat in 1998 they were not prepared to govern. Today this is being reflected in the way certain ministers are leading their portfolios. Gonzi tries to give a patina of someone who is decisive and dynamic but it is clear the performance of individual ministers leaves much to be desired and there isn’t the dynamism the Nationalist ministers had in 1987.
“Today everything is falling onto the Prime Minister’s lap. We are back to the times when everything is channelled through the Prime Minister otherwise nothing will move. The Prime Minister is trying to give the impression he is solving problems one at a time and all he is doing is picking them up one at a time. The Skanska agreement, the rationalisation of PBS and the Freeport privatisation all have major deficiencies.
“Gonzi does not deserve any credit for tackling these issues; after all, he did not appear out of nowhere. For years he was Deputy Prime minister, at times also Acting Prime minister and it is useless for him to keep a distance from what happened in the past. He has to shoulder responsibility for that period.
“Alfred Sant is still criticised today because he was president of the Labour Party during the period when Labour governments had certain shortcomings. I was also president of the party and although it is a prestigious post, the role has no executive powers and much less influence on what the government of the day decides. Gonzi was in a position of much more responsibility and influence over the last six years.”
Brincat refers to the speech John Dalli gave during the PN general conference and insists not all is well within the Nationalist Party.
“Although Lawrence Gonzi is trying to give the impression the Party is united, John Dalli’s intervention in the general conference was a clear sign that cracks have developed. The most damning statement John Dalli made was that various Nationalists today are feeling emarginated from their party. The image Lawrence Gonzi is trying to project of an inclusive party was shattered by John Dalli.
“The former minister also made another important statement concerning the attack mounted against him just before resigning. He said when Labour attacked him he could fight the criticism back because he knew where he stood with us. But in this case he was subjected to an attack behind his back and so could not fight it. I believe the leadership campaign Lawrence Gonzi conducted was not as clean as he projected it to be.
“Dalli and I have clashed a number of times but we were never personal in our attacks. On the contrary when we had the famous Bondiplus programme before his resignation, I was criticised as being more cautious than the programme’s presenter. I will leave it up to you to decide whether the presenter had a political agenda or not in the presentation of that programme, something, which Labour always accused Bondiplus of having.”
Brincat does not consider himself to be a Jeremiah or false prophet as PN Secretary General Joe Saliba described those who speak negatively about the current economic situation.
“What government is saying about a turnaround does not coincide with the assessment the EU gave in the convergence programme. The EU based its figures on forecasts presented to it by Government and it is still suggesting there can only be improvement in the medium term. But frankly speaking, when seeing that over the years different the Nationalist government never managed to reach the targets it set itself as regards deficit reduction, I have misgivings on how government can attain the target of around three per cent deficit in 2006.”
Brincat recognises the seriousness of the situation and says the status quo is not an option. He recalls the attack mounted against George Vella by the PN during the run up to the election because the former foreign minister had warned that the country needed to ensure it remained competitive. “They accused George Vella of advocating a wage freeze, which he wasn’t. Only this week in Parliament, Parliamentary Secretary Edwin Vassallo continued to misquote what George said then. The irony is that a day later I read in The Times that the Prime Minister was considering a wage freeze for three years. Government’s ploy to promise not to raise income tax and VAT for not raising wages is not much of a plausible trade off.
“We have to look at the factors identified by the World Economic Forum, which contribute to a loss of competitiveness. First and foremost is government’s wasteful spending. It is useless taking certain measures that will have an impact on workers when government can do much more to cut down on waste and control its expenditure. The easy way out is to cut leave and holidays. The truth is we need to be more productive.”
Brincat is not convinced of the argument that with Alfred Sant at the helm it will be difficult for the Labour Party to win the next general election.
“There was a time when I used to feel this sentiment among Labourites but since the June EU parliament election I feel the argument has subsided drastically and today Labourites believe they can win an election with Alfred Sant at the helm. Even a minority of die-hards, who may have certain misgivings about Alfred Sant, tell you that in the circumstances he is the best man to lead the party. The prevailing sentiment is ‘let’s get on with the show’ and it is a feeling shared by the vast majority of Labourites.”
What about floating voters, I ask.
“We still need to work more to bridge the gap with floating voters but I do not attribute this problem to Alfred Sant. He is one who engages in dialogue with Constituted Bodies and other organisations. He is also one who meets people on a one to one basis. Although he is not perceived as such, Alfred Sant is a good listener.
“The whole party should shoulder collective responsibility for the fact that we have not yet made a concerted pitch towards floating voters. We need to intensify further our efforts in this regard. After an electoral defeat it was important to re-mobilise the party’s hard line and today I think it’s in the bag. The EU issue we handled well. We adjourned our policy in such a short period when one considers how long the British Labour Party and the Greek Socialists took to change their stand on Europe.”
Brincat believes EU membership is no longer an issue with the MLP’s grass roots even if he admits that some may not be too enthusiastic about membership. He also lauds the Party’s decision to create to distinct portfolios for EU affairs and foreign affairs. “In this way we are giving the EU as much importance as other foreign affairs issues. This is also reflected in the choice of people who were entrusted to shadow the EU portfolio: first Evarist Bartolo and now George Vella. They are two senior spokespersons in the Party.”
Brincat expresses his hope that a future Labour government would retain such an arrangement.
Brincat draws a distinction between neutrality and non-alignment, both of which are entrenched in the Constitution. He insists neutrality still has its relevance especially in a geographic context where fundamentalist traits are creating a north-south divide.
“Malta needs to be perceived as an honest broker by all factions in the region,” he says.
The Labour spokesperson for foreign affairs says neutrality will also have a bearing on the position the Party will adopt as regards the European Constitution. Brincat believes Government is wrong to rush the debate on the EU Constitution since few people know the true implications this will have on Malta’s political and legal framework.
“I was watching PBS and on the day the Constitution was signed in Rome and the station conducted a vox pop. None of the people interviewed knew what the Constitution meant. I do not expect people to know every chapter and verse but they should be informed of the main thrust the Constitution intends taking. MIC’s serious failure to inform the people on the EU Constitution, now that there is no raging controversy about membership, is incomprehensible. Within this context it makes no sense for Government to rush the debate in Parliament even when the Parties themselves are not yet fully well informed,” Brincat says.
He stops short of outlining his personal beliefs on the EU Constitution when I ask him for his views, insisting that he should first air them in the Party’s executive. Is it worrying that the Party does not yet have a position on the issue?
Brincat insists there is no urgency to start the debate since some countries will be holding a referendum on the issue in two years’ time. He argues the overriding objective at the moment is the financial and economic situation of the country and warns that any attempt by Government to debate the EU Constitution in Parliament before year’s end will simply be a political diversion from the budget.
As for the Labour Party, Brincat says the point of departure should be the decision taken in November last year when the general conference accepted the reality that Malta was now part of the EU. He emphasises: “We shouldn’t use the debate on the EU Constitution to turn the clock back and go against what was decided last year.”