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Beyond the gas, mud and ice

These nine weeks of electioneering have been fast and furious, with much hype, negativity as well as good elements. And its key moments are telling.

The Prime Minister has been dealing his best hand which can’t be faulted: results

Firstly, this campaign has generally shown we’re a well-functioning democracy. For all our hot-blooded arguments, it was mostly conducted on the media and in well-attended activities organised by both main parties. Labour’s was obviously better financed, slicker and better controlled to look good on the media. But the Nationalist campaign, after the first month especially, came over as more substantial, with more passion in it and Lawrence Gonzi growing in confidence as the campaign peaks.

The first two weeks were taken up by arguments about Labour’s main plank in its electoral platform: another gas operated power station.

Arguments flew over how much all of this shall cost and on Labour’s own foreign consultants’ admission, its option would be dearer than the government’s plan for a gas pipeline some years hence.

The Nationalists then came out with their own proposal that will use to fruition the interconnector cable we shall have next year to supply cheap electricity from the European grid at night.

Thus, tariffs can be reduced at night using to its full potential another investment in the energy sector, the smart meters.

In the cold light of day, despite lack of hype, the Nationalist option looks better thought-out and much less risky. Pinning our energy policy on another power station costing several hundred million euro and tying ourselves to buy all its production, leaving the cheaper interconnector cable idle, sounds very risky indeed, not just for our energy sector but, importantly, for our economy as well.

Then came the mud-slinging. First, the kickbacks-for-oil scandal. Labour thought it was a godsend to its advantage. The Government saw to it that the police investigated all allegations. Lawrence Gonzi clearly declared justice shall be done, no one spared. When Labour was trying to pin down a minister or two using weak arguments, even about an artisanal clock, two other men were charged, one of whom a long-time official of Enemalta often invited by Super One and Joseph Muscat himself to chastise the government precisely on oil purchases and Enemalta.

Hoist by its own petard, Muscat’s negative campaign suddenly started appealing for positivity. That should have been its practice from the outset. Amid all this came the Nationalist counter-attack on Muscat’s handling of his Safi Labour club “ice block” case. This was certainly a substantial error of judgement by Muscat. And to top it all, he denied knowing anything about it, when it’s now obvious he did. Muscat’s deep error of judgement has been compounded by a big dent in his credibility.

How can we be sure he won’t make another big error of judgement when running the government, rather than just a party club? How can we believe what he says on the economy, education, health and jobs if he can’t be trusted to tell the truth to a Times journalist asking a question about the goings-on in a Labour club? And to make matters worse, Labour has made heroes of Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando and Jesmond Mugliett whom Labour was denouncing as corrupt as recently as 2008, hounding them in the media and even publishing the book L-Iskandlu tal-Mistra.

In this campaign, the Labour leader has certainly been presented visually well in the media. Being at early middle age, of course, helps. But when it came to debates and substance, Gonzi has had the edge.

In the very well-run The Times debate and in Xarabank last Friday, Gonzi was surely winning on substance while Muscat sounded weak without tight scripting. His well-rehearsed mantras sounded fresh in January but very tired of late, and his almost childish każin-type quips don’t go down well. We expect more from someone who may be running the government in a few days’ time.

And this has been Gonzi’s strength. The Prime Minister has been dealing his best hand which can’t be faulted: results. Jobs. Education. Training. Health. Infrastructure. The economy. That’s the real argument and the substance of this election. Which grows many-fold in significance when we compare and contrast Malta with so many other countries.

When the European Commission issued its latest economic forecast, it confirmed Malta as the second fastest growing economy in the eurozone. That is Gonzi’s huge achievement and a significant event in the campaign itself. It’s not electioneering and needs no dressing up and hype. Which brings into relief what may happen in a few months’ time if we change direction, as Muscat is telling us to do. To go where? Mantras and slogans, I’m afraid, are no direction.

After all the hype, the mudslinging, gas-fuelled proposals and ice blocks, it all boils down to the economy. Politicians will always say things to please, especially in election campaigns. From the Opposition, no action is required to back up their words. But when the election is over and done with, who can best keep our economy on an even keel in choppy international waters? Certainly the man who has already and undoubtedly done so in the last five years: Lawrence Gonzi.

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