INTERVIEW | Sunday, 04 November 2007

The populist in Labour’s ranks

Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca has made a name for herself as an old school Socialist firebrand. James Debono finds out that 33 years in politics have mellowed Labour’s social policy spokesperson to a more moderate shade of red

With a baggage of 33 years in politics, Marie Louise Coleiro Preca is still projecting herself as the evergreen poor people’s tribune in parliament.

The price of ricotta and sugar, as well as anecdotes about poor families struggling to survive, animate the veteran politician’s populism. But aware of the social changes which took place in the past 20 years, she is careful to address the expectations of middle class families who also form part of her constituency.

Surely she represents continuity between Old Labour and New Labour times. She makes it clear that there is no turning back to the price controls and the centralised economy of the 1970s and 1980s, but at the same she devises less draconian ways through which the State can assert itself to regulate prices and labour conditions.

Criticising a social budget with a Mintoffian stamp when it comes to welfare benefits was no easy task for Labour.

Labour’s initial reaction to Gonzi’s budget bonanza was a pre-cast “too little, too late” billboard. But how can one say that to a family with two young children earning Lm 10,500, who will get an extra Lm 38 a month in their pocket through the widening of tax bands, the COLA increase and the increase in children allowance?

Coliero Preca does not mince her words describing these three pillars of Gonzi’s social budget as “positive for certain categories of people” – mainly, middle income earners who will pay less income tax.

“Over the past years, the tax burden has increased so much and has pinched people so much that even this compensation offered in the budget will not be enough. It will take years for these people to recover.”

Labour’s spokesperson for social policy contends that middle class families relying on a salary were exposed to a “series of tremors” which diminished their purchasing power in such a way that they could not live up to their expectations and life style.

The first shock came in 2003 when VAT was raised from 15 to 18 per cent. The second big bite into their income came when the electricity surcharge was introduced in 2005.

“Couples and families used to plan ahead, taking a house loan and paying for the education of the children in private schools. Now their income is not enough for them to maintain their life style.”

From this perspective, the budget relief was not enough to compensate for the pinch they suffered during the past years. According to Coleiro Preca, these families will only recover when they receive the equivalent of the income they lost in the past years.

But according to the Labour MP, the worst off are the low income families with grown up children who will benefit neither from the widening of tax bands nor from the increase in children allowances. These families will only benefit from the Lm 1.50 cost of living increase.

“The government has forgotten minimum wage earners, those relying on part time work as a primary job and those who are genuinely unemployed… They will not get a single cent from the widening of tax bands.”

But will the budget offer an incentive for these workers to work harder to earn more?

“How can these persons be expected to work harder when they have a full-time job from which they earn a minimum income?” asks Coliero.

One measure proposed by the Labour government which will affect all social classes is the 50 per cent reduction of the energy surcharge. Wouldn’t such a measure encourage people to waste a precious and expensive resource?

Coleiro Preca disagrees, insisting that the surcharge is hitting people who have no choice but to use electricity for their needs.

“I meet butchers and store keepers who say that they pay tax even when they do not sell anything. They cannot switch off the freezer as they would have to throw away the food stuff. When one decreases the surcharge one is simply helping people to carry on with life.”

Coleiro Preca would not reveal the workings of Labour’s formula to half the surcharge.

“I do not have a mathematical formula. I do not want to mislead anyone. Do we know how much an oil barrel will cost tomorrow? The cost has been constantly changing for the past month and weeks.”

She insists that the difference between the two parties is that while Labour wants to put money in everyone’s pocket, the Nationalists have put the money in the pockets of middle class earners.

“What we are saying is that just as the Nationalist government found no difficulty in putting an extra Lm 12 million in people’ pockets through income tax cuts, we will put an extra Lm 20 million in everyone’s pocket. What is the problem with that?”

Yet the Labour stalwart is careful to note that the reduction of the surcharge will not come at the cost of tax cuts for the middle class.

“The tax cuts are here to stay. We want all those who are doing well at present to continue to do so when Labour is elected.”

Reducing the surcharge is one way how a future Labour government would decrease the cost of living – which turns out to be the top concern of the Maltese, as confirmed by numerous surveys.

Yet how can the government control prices when inflation is being fuelled by the rise in the price of cereals and oil in the international market?

“Whenever I spoke on the cost of living I always recognised the fact that prices are affected by what is happening abroad. We are not crazy.”

So how can Labour control the cost of living in a liberalised market?

“The point here is that Malta lacks the basics. We have rightly liberalised the economy and we have joined the European Union. But we lack the regulatory mechanisms which many European countries have.”

While accepting the free market maxim that competition should result in better quality products and lower prices for the consumer, she also notes that this is not always the case in a small market like Malta.

“In a small country it is easy for a few importers to dominate the market. Many essential products like sugar are imported only by one or two importers.”

What the MLP wants now is stronger regulatory bodies.

“In the United Kingdom they have a very strong office of fair trading despite having a very large market which can regulate itself. In a small market like Malta this is even more necessary. Unfortunately despite introducing a strong legal framework to protect the consumer before joining the European Union, the Nationalist government failed to match this with an adequate enforcement system.”

She also mentions concrete examples of suspicious price increases.

“Lets take the case of ricotta. We all know that due to the rise in the price of cereals the price of ricotta had to go up. Yet the price of ricotta increased from 70 cents to Lm 1 – a 43 per cent increase. But I would like to ask: which regulatory body in Malta has called on the sole producer of ricotta in Malta to assess how much of this increase can be attributed to the increase of prices abroad?”

In his budget speech Alfred Sant declared that the MLP would turn back the clock back to 1995 when it comes to children allowance payments. In his reply the Prime Minister pointed out that if this were to happen couples with two children earning Lm4,000 would see their allowance reduced from Lm752 to Lm358.

Coleiro Preca insists that Sant was simply saying that a future Labour government would revert back to the principle that all families should receive this benefit.

“Alfred Sant was not saying that he would decrease any children allowances. He was just saying that many families were robbed of this benefit during the past decade, only to get it back 10 years later.”

Children’s allowance was the hallmark of the welfare state, constructed by Old Labour in the 1970s.

“When the MLP introduced children’s allowance, it also introduced a set of benefits which together constituted what we called a family wage. Our vision was not that of giving hand outs in return for nothing. It was our way of sustaining families and give them the peace of mind to plan ahead. Families could afford to encourage their children to study without falling behind, despite the extra costs involved. We changed the social face of the country.”

Coleiro Preca still expects the PN to give credit to the MLP for introducing this benefit.

“The PN at that time voted against children’s allowance. At least they should give Labour credit for having had the foresight of introducing this benefit.”

But she admits that it is very easy for the PN to get away with rewriting history.

“Everyone under the age of 35 years does not remember what Labour governments did. It’s easy for them to give the impression that they are inventing the wheel. Even when it comes to reducing the deficit, Labour also deserves credit because many of the public entities sold by the PN for million of liri were created by Labour.”

Once a Labour firebrand, Marie Louise Coliero has adopted a very moderate approach to politics.

“The level-headed citizen would like to see continuity between different administrations. There is a chain linking the actions taken by all past governments. It is an insult to people’s intelligence when the Nationalist Party gives the impression that the sun rose 20 years ago.It is even worse when they try to give the impression that the sun rose with Lawrence Gonzi becoming Prime Minister. Let’s be mature enough to recognise the milestones of every administration, Labour and Nationalist alike.”

In the past years the number of part time workers shot up from 17,013 in 2001 to 26,000 in 2006 – a dramatic increase of 52 per cent in just five years. Labour Leader Alfred Sant expressed concern that the kind of jobs being created do not offer stability to workers. Yet could it not be that workers, especially women, see part-time as a way to supplement income without sacrificing family time?

“If one analyses the figures one finds that a significant number of them are men at the peak of their working lives,” says Coliero Preca.

Actually, NSO statistics show that the majority of those whose sole income comes from a part time are women. While women number 14,973, the number of men whose sole income is derived from part-time work amounts to 10,093.

Recently the government has changed the law to ensure that anyone working more than eight hours a week benefits from sick leave and vacation leave. Previously only those working more than 19 hours benefited from these perks.

Coleiro Preca recalls that in 2001 when parliament was discussing the Industrial and Employment Relations Act in 2001, Lawrence Gonzi as Social Policy minister had resisted her suggestion to extend these benefits to those working less than 19 hours.

“He said that the time had not come for such a measure. But in the past seven years many people have been exploited.”

Now that the law has been finally changed, Preca says that some employers have found another loophole, that of turning their workers in to self employed and thus depriving them of any benefit.

The Labour spokesperson is careful to point out that many employers are honest and do not exploit their workers. Once again it is the lack of enforcement of the law which irks the Labour spokesperson.

She claims that the Industrial Relations Department is depleted of resources.

“This is the only safeguard for non-unionised workers. Before changing the laws we should have the structures in place.”

One of Alfred Sant’s trump cards presented in his budget speech is making all overtime tax free. Coleiro Preca defends this proposal arguing that “it puts more money in people’s pockets and rewards hard work.”

She contends that minimum wage earners end up losing their tax free status simply because they put in few extra hours overtime.

“They could even lose certain benefits like housing assistance, simply because they start falling under a new financial bracket.”

On family matters Marie Louise Coleiro is very careful not to irk conservatives but she refrains from giving a narrow definition to the the word “family.”

“We talk about different types of families… isn’t a unit formed by a separated woman living with her children not a family? Isn’t a separated man who does not have custody of his children but pays alimony not a family member?”

Coleiro Preca considers cohabiting partners as a family unit but points out that the first priority of a Labour government will be that of granting equal treatment to all children, irrespective of the type of family into which they are born.

“Our document on the family focuses on children. We want to ensure that children in any type family get a good start in life. As former Children’s Commissioner Sonya Camilleri said, ‘children cannot wait.’”

Yet the MLP is refraining from taking a stand on issues like divorce which according for Coleiro is “not a political issue” but interlinked with spirituality and values.

What does Coleiro Preca have to say to couples who want to re-marry but are not allowed to do so by the state?

“What would I say to people who do not want divorce? On this issue we will be hearing what civil society says. This will be our starting point. Finally the government will have to decide but first we have to hear all voices.”

Yet divorce is a universal civil right, recognised everywhere but Malta and the Philippines. Why wait so long to introduce something taken for granted elsewhere?

“We have our own peculiarities. We have always to keep abreast of local realities and aspirations. Imagine if I buy my daughter a dress 10 sizes larger than her size...”

In the past weeks Coliero Preca clashed with the Commissioner for the Family Sandro Spiteri after he gave an interview on Nationalist Party daily In-Nazzjon praising the budget’s family friendly measures. She also criticised Commissioner for Children Carmen Zammit for issuing a statement singing the budget’s praises. The Nationalist Party accused Coleiro Preca of launching a personal attack on the two commissioners.

“I never attacked anyone personally in 33 years of politics. I simply did my duty. These two persons occupy two national posts. They represent everyone. They cannot ignore those categories of people who were once again ignored by the government in the budget.”

She advises Sandro Spiteri to follow the example of his predecessor Dr Angela Abela who was mostly concerned with families suffering from social exclusion. She also disputes Spiteri’s right to give an interview to a partisan newspaper in the run-up to an electoral campaign.

“Mr Spiteri had every right to give an interview to In-Nazzjon but only in his personal capacity and not as a chairman of a national commission.”

Coleiro Preca also expected the children commissioner Carmen Zammit to take a stand for those families are suffering because of the surcharge.

“A family with three children has to pay higher bills than a childless family, simply because they have to switch more lights on for their children to study. That’s why the MLP’s policy on the surcharge makes sense, because families with more children will benefit most.”

The seasoned politician undeniably gives a human face to Alfred Sant’s managerial vision of politics. Yet with her party promising so much before the election, getting funds for social policy from a managerial government could be Coleiro’s greatest challenge if Labour wins the election. But Coleiro Preca is sure that this will not be the case.

“Nothing will be done carelessly... Everything will be done within the framework of a plan. What we need is better budgeting for capital expenditure.”


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