News | Sunday, 07 June 2009
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365 days of Joseph

A year ago today, Joseph Muscat promised an earthquake of change. Has he delivered? JAMES DEBONO on Labour’s great white hope

A year ago, a 35-year-old sitting MEP took over the helm at the Malta Labour Party, promising to change Labour into a progressive party.
But a year later, on the eve of his first electoral test, Muscat’s “coalition for progress” turns out to be more vague on policy even than Alfred Sant’s MLP, and is considerably more xenophobic to boot.
While Sant stolidly refused to exploit the immigration card, Muscat has taken his cue from his Azzjoni Nazzjonali namesake, by proposing not to respect Malta’s international obligations to rescue migrants in the high seas if the country is deemed to be “full up”. But in his reading of the surveys, his analysis turned out to be contrary to that of another man seemingly enlightened lit by the beacon of progressive politics.
A few months before being elected US president, Barack Obama made a startling reflection on American politics by noting that working class voters “express their bitterness by clinging to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

But while Obama strayed away from exploiting these sentiments by addressing voters’ underlying economic frustrations, Muscat has gone overboard by stoking an already inflamed anti-immigrant sentiment.
Elsewhere, he has very little to say on fundamental matters, except exploiting the discontentment of hunters and trappers, bus drivers, dockyard workers, doctors and nurses, and practically anyone with an axe to grind with ‘GonziPN’.
The fundamental reason for this could be Muscat’s lack of a coherent economic vision. Similarly to Sant, he remains ambivalent and vague when it comes to addressing fundamental concerns – he pays lip service to traditional socialist ideals but does not explain how he plans to sustain growing government expenditure without raising taxes or cutting services or benefits.
Under his tutelage, the newly restyled “Partit Laburista” has ended up promising all things to all people. One day it expresses concern on the deficit, the next it says that government is not helping industry enough to face the crisis. One day it criticises government’s tax-and-spend policies, the next day it wants it to spend more on public services. One day it calls on the government to honour its pledge to cut income tax for higher-income groups, the next day it promises free healthcare forever, after concocting an artificial controversy on a report commissioned by the government, which proposes means testing certain services.
And it promises all this without explaining how it will balance the equation between expenditure and revenue.
Like Alfred Sant before 1996, Muscat’s only progressive stance so far has been his promise to introduce a divorce bill in parliament and to give a free vote to his MPs. Yet as Sant himself discovered in 1997, Muscat might find a parliamentary majority dead set against such a bill.
What makes Muscat a different political creature than Sant is his charisma and tact. His body language, or his public declarations of admiration for his wife – such as those in his first speech after being elected – may appear naff and off-putting to the sophisticated voter. But surely Muscat has shown he can inspire confidence, not just in the Labour crowd, but even in late converts to his “Labour-lite” creed.
It’s this that tends to make him look like a provincial and kitsch version of Tony Blair, who feels very much at home surrounded by Labour crowds. For unlike Sant, Muscat likes human contact.
One may well argue whether emulating Tony Blair in these hard times could be counter-productive. Blair’s smile resonated with the mood of Cool Britannia in the carefree 1990s. But does it work amidst an economic crisis?
Yet even in these dark times, electorates can be more receptive to superficial types like David Cameron than gloomy and complicated types like Gordon Brown. And while Gonzi seems so similar to Brown, Muscat is undeniably similar to Cameron.
He has definitely shown political tact by not committing himself on anything, and (arguably unlike his party’s MEPs) he pushes all the right buttons in difficult political situations. When Gonzi proposed his former rival for the Labour leadership, George Abela, for the Presidency, he heaped praise on his former rival in the leadership contest, distancing himself from Alfred Sant and George Vella in the process. What started off as the Prime Minister’s masterstroke to divide the party, ended up actually strengthening Muscat’s hand.
He even threw the ball of reform in the Nationalist court by proposing clear regulations on party financing.
Yet despite his calculated moves on the national level, Muscat has failed miserably in setting Labour’s house in order. He was either too weak or too obliging to show secretary-general Jason Micallef – one of the architects of Labour’s 2008 defeat – the way out.

And the re-election of Micallef gave the impression that Muscat’s fiddling of party structures was more an exercise in damage limitation than the epochal earthquake he had promised.
For Muscat, the constant dilemma is whether he prefers to be feared or to be loved. By choosing love over fear, he commits himself to too many people at the same time, risking disappointment among those he promised eternal love.
For as soon as he was elected leader, he embarked on a charm offensive, opening the doors of the party to former ministers like Joe Grima, and even inviting Peppi Azzopardi – whose programme the MLP had boycotted – to join a commission to reform the party media.
By recruiting economist Edward Scicluna and former Sea Malta chairman Marlene Mizzi as star candidates in yesterday’s EP elections, he showed strategic shrewdness in reaching out to middle of the road voters. Yet Scicluna and Mizzi will share their platform with fiery eurosceptics like Sharon Ellul Bonici and Joe Cuschieri, whose claim to glory was sacrificing his seat in parliament so that Muscat could become leader of the Opposition.
Tomorrow, Muscat might end up facing the resentment of those he had approached to contest, but who failed to get enough backing to get elected. He might well end up with an incompetent MEP elected simply for his dedication to the leader.
But ultimately all will be forgiven if he wins big time, and scores an absolute majority in an election he has successfully turned into a referendum on GonziPN.
While “a coalition of the disgruntled” may be enough to win him a European election, it remains doubtful whether the young upstart can be trusted as Malta’s next Prime Minister. For now. He has four more years to grow up.


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