The economy, stupid (apart from other important stuff)

While enshrining his anti-corruption drive into the next electoral programme, Bernard Grech should choose to show his mettle on bread and butter issues, which remain central in any election campaign

Nationalist Party leader Bernard Grech
Nationalist Party leader Bernard Grech

Nationalist Party leader Bernard Grech unveiled an anti-corruption package of laws in the form of 12 legislative measures that need to be taken to fight corruption, apart from various other crimes connected to mafia-like associations, and other shortcomings in our system of governance.

They are measures that have been pending for some time now and will be crucial to ensure that we are on the right track – not just for the sake of addressing Malta’s greylisting problem, but also to ensure that our system of government is constitutionally built on the pillar of rule of law, and that it contains within it a system of checks and balances that limit its overweening power.

Malta may not be bad as other EU nations whose own powers have rendered its citizens powerless – nations whose secret services have been at the heart of political conspiracies, nations whose own policies have tolerated the development of narco-states, nations whose own tax evasion regimes and bank scandals receive scant attention from the powers that be.

But we can do definitely better. And nobody knows it more than us that, we as a society, want a government whose checks and balances keep it from benefiting one political party every time power swings from one side to the other.

Having said that, I am sure that Grech knows that the closer we get to the thick of the electoral campaign this year, the last thing he might be placing at the centre of his campaign to chip the votes off Labour will be the anti-corruption fight. At least, it won’t be his number one priority, because campaigns that win votes are seldom negative cones.

We will be facing a slow-burn, five-month campaign of sorts, brutal for all parties with the shadow of the pandemic and the fear of an economic slowdown hanging over us.

In a year where people are still carrying the burden of the great COVID pandemic and the post-pandemic fatigue, where the costs of services and imported products are sky-rocketing, where retail prices are about to give in to the high cost of imports, and job uncertainty could start rearing its head, the last thing the electorate could wish for is a campaign that revisits the high-octane charge of the 2017 election.

Not that the fight against corruption can be so easily brushed aside. It is always said that there is ‘fatigue’ from the Panama Papers aftermath and the Caruana Galizia assassination, but – fatigue notwithstanding – they are black marks for the nation and many of us want closure on them.

But Grech would also be wise to – while enshrining his anti-corruption drive into the next electoral programme – choose to show his mettle on bread and butter issues, which remain central in any election campaign for people pondering on the party they will vote for.

He knows that Robert Abela cannot be easily lampooned as some anointed premier who sat on his predecessor’s laurels, or ignored that administration’s problems with governance and accountability. Voters understand that there has been zero-tolerance on impropriety, sometimes not as zealous as one would expect, but politicians have been sacked, asked to resign, and others told to move on. Those who hoped for a more confrontational PM, might have underestimated Abela’s style, which has even angered Labourite voters who demand a more bellicose leader who gives shorter shrift to the critics and foreign institutions.

Despite what some on the PN camp may think, Abela gets flak for having appointed a harsh police commissioner, has returned the FIAU’s free hand, and allowed foreign CEOs to steward other bodies such as the MFSA. Abela and Grech, too, are politicians who work in a surreal field of politics where applying standards does not necessarily win them brownie points – we can only hope that the high moral ground benefits them in the long run and regales them with a high standing.

Still, to return to matters electoral, we can expect voters to want a modicum of decorum in the way government is managed, but they still want continuity. And it is for that reason that they drown out the shrill voices of self-interest groups who seem to demand mass resignations from one day to the next.

The big perception game in politics is who can deliver, and who cannot? Who can take decisions and who cannot; who can turn the economy around and keep it going... in this perception game, Abela’s Labour still manages to convince where Grech’s PN cannot.

And it is not because the people do not want to see the Nationalist Party in government (even if a chunk converted over to Labour in 2013 seem unable to stomach their return); the fact is that many people want a change for the better, today, yet cannot find that alternative within the PN. And this is the challenge for Bernard Grech.

And with the perception game being what it is, Grech must also promote some serious contenders to be the face of the new PN. It is not just the great ideas for when – if – he is elected to government. He needs representatives with eloquence and conviction, who can communicate that the PN means business. It cannot be Grech’s own deputy party leaders, whom he failed to change; and maybe herein lies the rub... Grech must be courageous enough to push forward the new faces that represent the future of the PN.

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The other day I was discussing the challenges for any newly-elected government on a TV discussion programme.  I insisted that the two measures that need to be immediately seen to is the remuneration of elected parliamentarians. If we want to get serious about the quality of our elected representatives and want competent individuals who do not land in the parliamentary seat for the wrong reasons, we need to improve their financial package.

This was a measure Joseph Muscat repeatedly resisted, for reasons known to him only. Muscat was like that, and it was strange when considering that he commissioned a committee to explore ways of improve this remuneration and would have found a favourable climate of sorts to raise MPs’ salaries. Or perhaps, after Panama, that climate would never return...

Today anyone standing for election is basically either very comfortable, or has an ego that cannot be held back from one of those green chairs; or perhaps they are intent on cashing in on their influence; or perhaps, they are just idealists who can withstands a life of frugality!

The other step that is needed is to tackle the great problem of both tax avoidance, and evasion – to see that the State collects what it is due, which today runs into the hundreds of millions.

In the next months, any government will be under incredible pressure to sustain ailing sectors of the economy in the light of the pandemic. There will be more pressure to increment taxes and that would only worsen the economic situation. The shortfall in revenues must be matched with a diligent collection drive. Failure to do this will result in economic disruption.