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Did anyone win the debate?

There was much anticipation for last Friday’s Xarabank debate between Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi and Opposition leader Joseph Muscat. The electoral campaign has unofficially taken off and the public should monitor such debates to help them decide who can deliver.

But at the end of the two-hour televised discussion, most viewers were none the wiser. Both leaders failed to make major inroads into opposition territory, though some argued that Dr Gonzi had the edge.

The two leaders appeared more interested in steering clear of hot potatoes and avoiding political gaffes than scoring points. With months till the next election, the public is expecting substance.

Dr Gonzi confirmed his status as a good speaker and came across as convincing in explaining the way his Government managed through impossible economic times. However, his strategy of dipping into his bag of statistics every time he is asked a pressing question is no longer effective with many.

Every time the Prime Minister trumpets the investment of a new firm, many remember the never-delivered promise of the thousands of jobs that were meant to be created at SmartCity.

What many thought was his stroke of genius – when he claimed that a Brazilian company had, in fact, set up shop in Malta – could well backfire as details of its true worth unfold. He gained more credibility by admitting he was unhappy with the Arriva bus service.

In the red corner, the Labour Party might have been justified to sit on the fence for the past four years and criticise the Government’s shortcomings. That’s the easy part.

But within weeks, Labour could be in government for the first time in 15 years and the public has the right to scrutinise its policies. Voters expect to hear Dr Muscat explain the way he intends to cut bureaucracy, reduce the deficit, increase accountability... But he didn’t.

Instead, he relied on tired and somewhat populist arguments and constantly harped on the need to cut energy prices. It was Labour which chose the energy tariffs as its main electoral platform so it cannot blame anyone for demanding the details on the way it plans to offset such a reduction in the bills.

One may understand his apprehension of seeing his party’s policies dissected by an ever-inquisitive media and online forums. But, at this rate, his reluctance is showing him up to be steering a party big on talk but small on tangible ideas.

What Dr Muscat clearly succeeded in doing last Friday was to lay to rest the ghost of his predecessors. He came across as a moderate, at times doing the unthinkable in Maltese politics by openly agreeing with his political adversary. Coupled with this approach, Dr Muscat has clearly come a long way since his first televised encounter with Dr Gonzi.

But the young Labour leader still needs to convince the electorate he is a potential statesman with a vision and not an inexperienced politician who is merely capitalising on general disgruntlement.

He needs to acknowledge that the world is still trying to pick up the pieces from the 2008 financial collapse.

The economy is still in no way out of the doldrums and issues like deficits, pensions and healthcare will be even more challenging in the coming legislature where the EU is tightening up its act.

Will yesterday’s policies be enough to take on tomorrow’s demands? The two leaders did not provide enough answers.

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