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Fiscal conservatives and a dormant opposition

Bar a few hasty comments here and there, the PM’s recent interview with Il Foglio did not exactly arouse much excitement. While this is not surprising, it is a pity because here Joseph Muscat is making a case for a government that is presented as a model of fiscal conservatism and social progressivism.

Social-democrats who support the welfare state but remain fiscally conservative aren’t new political creatures. Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, and François Hollande, to mention a few, are typical examples. In Malta’s case this is somewhat different in that the PM seems keen on a healthy debate — if only the Nationalist Opposition could wake up and tell us what it thinks.

In his interview Muscat was somewhat ambiguous when targeting the “Leftist critique” of wealth in order to make a point and probably court Ferrara’s neo-liberal readership. He emphasizes that wealth must be created for it to be distributed equitably. But then again who would disagree with such a statement?

Even to the so called “far left”, wealth per se is never “the enemy” but just an instrument. Since Adam Smith wrote his monumental work on labour and capital, any critique to do with wealth—whether it comes from the right or the left—tends to be focused on how wealth is produced, consumed and distributed.

A progressive on social matters like the PM would be more inclined to say that we should find ways by which there will be an equitable distribution of services and ultimately an opportunity to partake of the production and consumption of wealth—whether one happens to be an investor, producer, or service-provider.

Given the way financial services work these days, taxation may well have become ineffective. Hence Muscat’s argument for low tax must be qualified as such. However, there is a point to be made over a rebalancing of wealth distribution in that the rights that come with a full participation in wealth-creation must be equitable for both moral and practical reasons.

If I were to take the PM for his word—and from time to time we should believe our politicians—then what he claims to be at the core of his politics should be discussed objectively. His premiership brought tangible progress. But there are also many issues that he frequently acknowledges, such as social inequality, which needs urgent care.

Politics is an art by which we find ways of living together equitably

Personally speaking, I have no nostalgia for fixed certainties, let alone fixed ideologies. To me politics is an art by which we find ways of living together equitably, in a democracy based on social justice, freedom, diversity and an equality of rights and opportunities.

There is always a sense by which we would aim at such ideals, which everyone expects to be principled and based on objective reality. And let's not delude ourselves: in any economy, the need to address inequality is as objective as wealth creation. Inequality is not a leftist’s hobbyhorse. Unequal societies do not produce wealth and are detrimental to the economy and the market. The point is to keep one’s government to task in order to secure a future that will not see the kind of boom and bust that far wealthier nations have endured.

This is where a healthy debate needs to be had, and where I do not sense anything coming from an Opposition which, as my friend Michael Briguglio recently argued in this paper, remains ineffective.

Malta’s Opposition seems to have gone in blissful hibernation. From time to time it wakes up to mimic the noises of independent-minded groups that are serving the nation as a surrogate Opposition in taking the Government to task over issues such as the environment (thanks to the Front for the protection of ODZ), or poverty (thanks to interventions from Allejanza kontra l-Faqar and Caritas), contraception, and many other causes which are often dealt with piecemeal by various NGOs, the independent Media, the Church, and other organisations.

Many would arguably say that it is good that in this day and age, one cannot really speak of the PN as a right wing party and the PL as being exactly on the left. But where would this leave all those in civil society who have consistently protested against governments of all hues? Could civil society afford to keep fighting a game with moving goalposts? Isn't there a strong point in asking for clear principled positions from the ruling parties (and here I would include the Opposition and the hegemony it still enjoys in Maltese society)?

While there is a healthy degree of sensitivity towards the tangible experience of politics, such as a tall building in one’s neighbourhood, the Maltese seem reluctant to demand that matters which have lasting effects on our islands must be tackled by a wider consensus, where Government and Opposition are duty-bound to find ways of working together.

It seems to me that we are at a stage where we have to take stock of how politics is evolving in Malta. With a government that has taken the centre ground and often looks bullish and overconfident, and an Opposition that is increasingly absent and void of ideas, our democracy seems to be taken for granted.

One thing which people find irritating is the kind of policy making that is hardly debated or challenged. If the PM and his government would care to tell us more — as Muscat indeed does on Il Foglio — maybe with the help of an active Opposition there will be a degree of consensus found over matters that are far longer term that you or I, let alone Joseph or Simon.

 

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