Half a year after the Labour Party’s biggest electoral triumph since 1955, Keith Micallef analyses the highs and lows of the Muscat administration.

The ‘Malta Tagħna Lkoll’ (Malta belongs to all) slogan was central to Labour’s election manifesto.

It emphasised meritocracy, the need for change, civil rights, as well as restoring the party’s traditional left-wing social policies, which had been put on the backburner during Alfred Sant’s leadership.

The PL was elected with a mandate to reduce utility tariffs and bound itself to the ambitious target of constructing a gas-fired power station by March 2015.

Though some may argue it is still early days, the huge margin of victory in the March 9 election means expectations were very high from day one, even though it also gave the Government huge room for manoeuvrability.

The highs:

Adopting the same Budget

The decision to adopt the Nationalist administration’s Budget, which was voted down last December, was key to Labour’s pledge of continuity in economic policy.

Contrary to 1996 when the Sant administration replaced VAT, Dr Muscat avoided unnecessary economic shocks to the country, while giving some breathing space to a new administration faced with tight deadlines to approve the budget which was long overdue.

The Whistleblower Act

In its few months in office the Labour administration achieved what the PN-led government failed to do in the longest legislature since 1987.

In the 2008 election, which the PN won by a whisker, the Whistleblower Act was central to the party’s credentials that it was still the best choice to lead the country forward.

The attempt to push it through Parliament in the midst of the political crisis that finally brought down the PN government appeared to be more of an attempt to gain precious time.

Removal of time-barring on political corruption

Fewer than 100 days after being elected to office, the Labour administration legislated so that politicians and others involved in political corruption will no longer be able to invoke prescription when cases land in court. This Bill was hailed as an important step in the fight against corruption.

Judicial review

One of the very first decisions of the Labour Government was to appoint former European Courts of Human Rights judge Giovanni Bonello as head of a justice reform commission.

Its remit is to have everything in place for the reform to start by the year’s end. Apart from conveying a positive message by addressing some of the judicial system’s most endemic problems, Dr Bonello’s appointment was seen as very much in line with the meritocratic credentials on which Labour was elected to power.

Owen Bonnici has also proven his worth as one of the most dynamic parliamentary secretaries.

Oil deal with Libya

Piggy-backing on the Gonzi administration’s excellent relations with the new Libyan leaders, the Labour government managed to strike a deal to buy oil and other energy supplies at preferential rates. Though this deal may be hampered by the political instability which still prevails in the North African country, in the long-term it could potentially help Malta in its bid to stabilise fuel and energy prices.

Joanne Cassar and transgender marriage

In the field of civil rights, the PL built on where it had left off in Opposition by pushing through amendments to the Civil Code which gave transgender people the right to marry.

This followed an out-of-court settlement that ended a European Court case instituted by Joanne Cassar who was stopped from marrying a man. This left the PN no choice other than to make a formal apology to Ms Cassar.

The lows:

Billboard meritocracy

Labour’s call that it would abide by the principle of meritocracy was thrown out of the window from the very first day with a number of appointments that were exclusively based on political beliefs.

A list of Labour officials, candidates or prominent figures who had endorsed the party on its billboards during the election campaign were appointed to government boards – and there seems to be no end in sight. Meanwhile, officials whose credentials were never questioned were unceremoniously replaced.

This created a problem of continuity in organisations that were operating seamlessly.

Some of the most notable ones were the appointment of former Labour general secretary Jason Micallef as head of the Valletta 2018 Foundation and the appointment of the PL’s CEO James Piscopo as head of Transport Malta.

Besides, the appointments of former PN MPs Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando and Franco Debono smacked of political spitefulness rather than meritocracy.

Pushback threat backfires

Malta’s relations with the EU, as well as its reputation in the international community, took a plunge following the Prime Minister’s threat to send a group of Somali asylum seekers back to Libya shortly after reaching the Maltese shores.

Though he later tried to play down the incident – saying his intention was to “make Europe smell the coffee” – the reality was that his gamble failed to pay off, amid accusations he was resorting to populist tactics.

In one fell swoop, Dr Muscat was accused of fanning the flames of racism, indirectly sparking a wave of embarrassing insults towards European Commissioner Cecilia Malmström.

Franco Mercieca waiver

One of the first controversies of the Labour administration was the Prime Minister’s decision to grant Parliamentary Secretary for the Elderly Franco Mercieca a waiver from the ministerial code of ethics to continue practising his profession as ophthalmologist.

Though this waiver had been granted to carry out highly specialised cornea operations, this newspaper revealed that Dr Mercieca was also doing routine eye operations in private hospitals.

The environment

Contractors and hunters evidently feel more comfortable with the Labour Administration, with concessions already given that should worry even the most moderate environmentalist.

A call for expression of interest for land reclamation projects was issued and height restrictions for hotels were relaxed.

With revision of the local plans under way, environmentalists are deeply concerned that this might turn out as an exercise to appease the development lobby. Coincidentally, Sandro Chetcuti, a well-known developer with close links to the Labour Party, has been appointed to the Building Regulations Board.

Meanwhile, hunters are currently benefiting from a relaxation in the autumn season curfew, incensing many people.

Prisoners’ amnesty

Though not unprecedented, the decision to grant a 100-day prisoner amnesty did not feature in Labour’s manifesto.

The decision taken by Home Affairs Minister Manuel Mallia to break the news personally to the inmates during a visit at the Corradino Correctional Facility proved to be a misjudgement.

Police board

An investigation by the Police Board, a watchdog, pinned most of the blame on an inspector for failing to inform his superiors of his findings, instead of those who convicted the wrong man.

The conclusions led to a political backlash, with Opposition leader Simon Busuttil describing the board’s findings as “a travesty of justice” and calling the Police Commissioner “a Labour activist”.

Excessive deficit procedure

Though the new administration is yet to present its first proper Budget, it is already in a straitjacket following the EU’s decision to start excessive deficit procedures against Malta.

In general the economy has been doing well, but unemployment is on the rise. The first opportunity for the Labour Government to implement its roadmap for the economy is now fast approaching with the upcoming Budget.

‘PL still settling in’

Martin Scicluna – chair of Today Policy Institute

Just before the election, I wrote an article saying that it was “time for a change to Labour”. I considered that the Nationalist Party with its in-fighting and, overridingly, the unfolding account of maladministration and corruption at Enemalta, rendered it unfit for government.

I also concluded: “A Labour government will not be perfect. It will make mistakes.”

Six months later, I have no reason to alter that judgment.

The new Administration has made a patchy start due to a mixed bag of (mostly) inexperienced new ministers and some dodgy administrative decisions.

While it has undoubtedly injected a refreshing new energy into government, it must beware that the reservoir of trust on which it was elected is not dissipated on partisan, political point-scoring and a lack of policy focus. Hubris in politics never lies far below the surface.

‘Impossible to honour pledges’

Michael Briguglio – Sociologist, former AD chairman

The most striking thing is that the Labour Government is coming to terms with the fact that it has promised everything to everyone. In politics such an approach is not sustainable in the long-term.

So far, the new administration has not scored high on immigration, the environment – where I fear that developers will have a field day – and the fiscal policy since it is still forging ahead with plans inherited from the previous government to lower taxes for high earners.

In addition, the concept of meritocracy is not being practised as the top posts are not going to those better qualified.

On the other hand, I rate Education Minister Evarist Bartolo as better than his predecessor as he is more committed to consult, even on small issues such as school uniforms.

I also have a high opinion of the manner in which Helena Dalli is conducting consultation with the social partners.

Regarding foreign policy, I was satisfied by the Government’s stance against military intervention in Syria.

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