It won’t be leaders’ speeches that decide the next general election. That hardly ever happens, anyway, but there’s a special reason this time round. If the Independence Day speeches given by Robert Abela and Bernard Grech are anything to go by, the speeches will be almost identical. Being undifferentiated, they can’t make the difference.
Monday’s speeches were the same in their structure, vision and appeal. In places, not least the final crescendo, they were identical almost word for word.
Both leaders promised they would renew Malta with a green new deal that would grow the economy, give everyone more disposable income, raise the quality of life for everyone and usher in an environmental renaissance.
Grech was more specific in promising salary raises for teachers and nurses, while assuring the thousands of workers employed in the public sector, under Labour’s patronage bonanza, that none would be sacked.
On the contrary, their jobs would be protected by a Nationalist government because its economic and employment policy would be more prudent, restore Malta’s reputation with foreign investors and, thus, prevent the country from going bust.
Abela touched all bases by saying Labour wouldn’t slow anyone’s progress down since he didn’t believe in class envy, let alone war. Labour would simply enable the lowest-income groups to progress at a more rapid pace.
Neither leader touched on the specifics of the tough decisions to be made – if they mean what they say. What they promised isn’t possible without more income redistribution – higher taxes, which are explicitly ruled out.
Take Abela. Without more redistribution, growth (in contemporary market economies) will produce more inequality, not narrow the gap.
If you deny that, produce the case studies that show otherwise. Just three. At a pinch, one.
As for Grech, his party promises evidence-based policies. We need the evidence that you can tackle the deficit, retain a public sector that’s ballooned over the last eight years, raise salaries, tackle inflation, invest in the environment… and retain our present low top rate of income tax. Not least, when our medium-term tax income from gaming and financial services is uncertain.
On Monday, both parties offered Scandinavian-style quality of life as though it could be had without Scandinavian-style taxes.
Both leaders have a ready answer to this criticism. One is that, if I display such scepticism, then it means I “don’t believe in Malta”. They accused each other of that all night.
What I don’t believe in, of course, is fairy dust. The issue for voters isn’t whether they believe in Malta but whether they believe these leaders.
To counter disbelief, both leaders appealed to their personal convictions and experience. It’s the sword they will use in making difficult decisions: their ability to understand and empathise with the little guy… Unlike their opponent who is relentlessly negative and arrogant and either (a) shackled by a sheltered, privileged upbringing and obligations to Joseph and Michelle Muscat (Abela, in case you wondered) or (b) haplessly unreconstructed and interested only in power.
Both parties offered Scandinavian-style quality of life as though it could be had without Scandinavian-style taxes– Ranier Fsadni
If this seems cynical, it’s because I haven’t yet said that both speeches were good – given their purpose – even uplifting. It has to be both since their rousing parts were almost identical, even in wording.
Both leaders affirmed faith in Malta. Both said they put Malta first. Both said they were in it for the country and our children. Both appealed to every individual voter, irrespective of party background, to be part of the change they would usher in as prime minister.
Both echoed Eddie Fenech Adami. Both echoed Muscat.
Instead of urging his listeners to be the “protagonists of history”, Abela told them to be the “stars of Team Malta” while Grech told them to “be the change”, using the same reiteration of the turn of phrase that Muscat used in his 2013 mass meetings.
What does all this add up to? It’s not a cynical conclusion.
First, the parties must have the same polls. That’s what explains the similarity of appeals and tested phrases.
The echoing of past leaders, of both political parties, indicates both have problems with their base (the PN obviously more than Labour) but also think they can attract cross-party voting.
Second, it’s apparent they think they can’t win an election (only) by using public coffers to bribe the electorate. They feel they need to offer a moral vision of a good society, not just an affluent one. Perhaps even social critics should take a better view of the voters.
Third, both political parties have put their finger on the biggest constraint facing Malta’s future social development. Abela came closest to naming it, when he said that the new transformational challenge is renewing the environment and revolutionising mobility.
What unites both those issues – as well as the plethora of proposals offered by the PN (and, yes, Abela has stolen some of them) – is that they’re confronting a politics of space.
Spatial planning and allocation for multiple users is what underlies a proposed marina, ODZ development, construction works disturbing your serenity, building heights and a lack of green parks close to home (to name some).
These are not just technocratic issues. They are political. They involve a decision on what should be commons and what private or state property. They involve spatial justice, not just ‘development’.
It’s as ideological as politics could get and nothing is more ideological than describing the issues as technocratic. Abela cannot get his politics of space without sacrificing his politics of patronage. Grech cannot get his without telling us how he’ll pay for it.
Monday’s speeches, in other words, reflect our predicament. It’s not as bad as we think because our leaders understand the urgency of a politics of space. But it’s not as good as it needs to be, either, because our leaders refuse to come clean on the political decisions involved.
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