‘Our priorities have changed, since 2017’ | Daniel Jose Micallef

PL deputy leader DANIEL JOSE MICALLEF rebuts criticism of the ‘greenwashing’ and ‘vote-buying’ variety: arguing that Labour’s generous campaign promises – on the environment, and elsewhere - are the fruit of its past economic successes

Daniel Jose Micallef
Daniel Jose Micallef

Our recent polls suggest that the gap between the two parties has dwindled to around 25,000; and that there is a higher level of abstention among Labour voters, than Nationalists. Admittedly, other polls suggest differently; but are you concerned that – according to our survey– Labour seems to be losing some of its appeal, among its own voters?

As you yourself said, there are different polls. Your survey says one thing; the surveys of two other newspapers say something else. But I am on the record as having always said the same thing, about polls in general. In my opinion, it is not a good idea to base your future plans on surveys: whether they are good or bad. 

In fact, my message to supporters in Naxxar, last Sunday, was precisely to not pay any attention to surveys. Because I’ve never heard of a General Election that was won through polls. At the same time, however, I strongly rebut the narrative that is being pushed about the Labour Party – even by certain newspapers – that this election is a ‘foregone conclusion’; or that Labour is – to quote a recent Times editorial – ‘unbeatable’. That annoys me a lot, in fact. 

So let’s put things into a little perspective. Until just a few years ago, an election victory of 13,000 votes was considered a ‘landslide’. And my own first experience in the counting hall, ended up with chants of ‘Spicca il-Labour’ [Labour is finished]… because we lost an election by 1,500 votes. 

This is why I am not impressed with surveys indicating that parties are ‘unbeatable’. I am 36 years old: I spent most of my adult life under a party-in-government which also thought of itself as ‘unbeatable’. And we all know what happened, in the end. So we cannot allow ourselves to be carried away by empty words: we have the example [of the PN] of what can happen to a party, when it becomes too arrogant and big-headed.

Fair enough, but the Labour Party’s campaign is sending out a different message. Yesterday, Prime Minister Abela issued a strong warning against ‘voter abstention’. Isn’t this a confirmation that the PL really is concerned about a degree of voter disengagement? 

No, I’d say the Prime Minister’s appeal yesterday was simply aimed at a younger generation of voters, to ‘make their voices heard’. Because there are always trends of abstention, among voters – in any election, not just this one – and there are always certain patterns that one can observe. For instance: that abstention rates start out high; but begin to stabilize as we draw nearer the election date.

So our appeal – especially to younger voters – is to participate in the democratic process. But it’s an appeal we always make, before every election: even when the polls show much lower abstention rates, than today. And if, in our case, our appeal is to support the Labour Party: it is because we firmly believe in our own message; we believe in our vision for the country; and we will remain with our feet on the ground, whatever the polls say.

Turning to Labour’s campaign: Abela claims that the manifesto will contain over ‘1,000 new ideas’. One he has already revealed concerns a 700 million investment in ‘open spaces’. But wasn’t this also an electoral pledge made in 2017? And if so: aren’t you just promising to fulfil the unkept pledges of yesteryear?

I don’t agree with your interpretation, and I’ll tell you why. First of all, let’s put things into perspective: in 2017, our top priority, when it came to capital investment, was in infrastructural projects. 

I think everyone will agree – notwithstanding any reservations about certain projects – that over the past five years, Malta’s infrastructure has undergone a revolution, in some aspects. You have to bear in mind where we actually started from. In 2013, this country was incapable of designing even a single traffic junction; we had the only roundabout in the world – the Kappara junction – which had eight sets of traffic lights. 

Meanwhile, the last time something had been done about the Marsa junction, was a temporary arrangement when Alfred Sant was Prime Minister [1996-98]. But that ‘temporary arrangement’ soon became a permanent one. This is why, in 2017, we had to prioritise a massive upgrade of the Marsa junction, among others.

But today, our priorities have to be different; and we will now address environmental concerns – especially in urban areas - with the same impetus and urgency. 

Some of the seven projects we have identified so far – for example, the pedestrianisation of St Anne’s Street, Floriana; and the roofing of the Santa Venera tunnel – have long been in the public domain. But let’s be honest: there are also projects that we define as an ‘opportunity-cost’. To mention one example: our proposal to relocate the Hamrun milk factory to an industrial zone, and convert the area – more than 10 tumoli, in the middle of a densely populated town – into a public garden, with underground parking. 

There were a lot of other options we could have considered, for that site. I don’t think there would have been too much controversy, if – having removed a polluting factory from the middle of an urban area – the government decided to make use of the property itself: to rent it out, perhaps; or even to develop it, for financial gain. 

But the only option we looked at, as a party, was to convert the area into a public space, to be enjoyed by everyone. Because let’s face it: our environment has been neglected for many, many years…

But it shouldn’t have been, in the past five years. Labour had promised to make the environment a ‘top priority’ at the last election, too. And yet, the rate of construction has skyrocketed in this country since 2017. Is this sudden ‘green awakening’, then, just a belated realization of all the open spaces that have been lost to development?

More than ‘losing open spaces’, what happened in the past five years was that the country’s economic rhythm permitted certain projects to take place. You know as well as I do, that all the construction going on at the moment – no matter how much of it is criticized – is being done within the parameters of the Local Plan of 2006. Now: what has changed since 2006… and especially, from 2013 onwards? Not the Local Plans themselves – those have remained the same – but the rate at which construction was taking place.

And yes, that same economic rhythm has caused, and still causes, a certain element of inconvenience to the public. But bear in mind that – although government usually gets the blame for all construction projects – most of them are spearheaded by the private sector; building on privately-owned land…


But even private projects are facilitated by (highly dubious) planning policies: which are drawn up by government itself. Would you agree, then, that the overdevelopment of Malta is the direct result of the Labour Party’s failed environmental policies?

No: because the rate of development is not dictated by government policies, but by the economic situation of the country…

But if the standards of enforcement are so low; and if controversial permits are still dished out by the PA, despite negative recommendations by case officers, and agencies such as the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage…?

You’ve opened up a whole new – and very long – discussion there. But let me start with this. When a case officer recommends refusal of any given project… you have to look at the merits of the individual case. Sometimes, development applications will be recommended for refusal because – for example – they didn’t have clearance from the CPRD. What happens, though, when the developers do get the necessary clearance, in the end? The Planning Board overturns the recommendation...

Yet there is a perception out there, that every time a planning commission board overturns a case officer’s recommendation… it’s like some kind of ‘scandal’…

But it very often IS a scandal. Take Xlendi, for example. The project was recommended for refusal, because a five-story block would completely ruin the aesthetics of the entire bay. Yet the permit was granted all the same. Surely, this could be controlled through better, more serious planning policies: so what is Labour proposing, to that end?

I certainly agree that there is need for more awareness, and better regulation. This is why, in our manifesto – apart from all the projects we have already announced; and will keep announcing, every day, until the manifesto is launched [at next Friday’s AGM] - there will be an an entire chain of inter-linked proposals, to safeguard the urban and rural environment. So yes: if we’re talking about the environment… we’re talking about setting standards in design aesthetics, too.

Onto some other campaign promises now: some of which – including tax cuts, increased salaries, increased pensions, etc. – seem to be exaggeratedly ‘generous’. But is this really sustainable, given the unfolding war in Ukraine – which has already cost government its lucrative Russian passport sales - not to mention the post-Covid economic situation; the imminent tax harmonization; and other issues which now threaten government’s revenue?

Again, I disagree with your interpretation. You’re assuming, for example, that all those issues you mentioned, represent ‘loss of revenue’ for government. But in recent years, I think we have all seen very clearly how the politics of austerity did not work, anywhere in Europe. Our own experience, by way of contrast, is that if you reduce taxation… you can, at face value, look at it as ‘lost revenue’, yes; but then, you have to also look at the economic projections.

And if even the European Commission’s projections - which are certainly not written by the Maltese government – are more generous than our own, by forecasting an economic growth of 6%; and if, just a few days ago, NSO statistics revealed that in 2021 – the year of the pandemic - Malta’s GDP actually grew by 500 million, over 2019: i.e, the last year before the pandemic…

That, to me, is a certificate of how successfully Malta has handled the COVID-19 crisis. For if the government had not dug its hands deep into its own pockets, and spent a LOT of money to ensure that businesses did not fail… today’s situation would be very, very different…

But today’s situation is already different, from when those projections were made. The Ukraine war will impact the prices of energy, foodstuffs, etc. So shouldn’t the Labour Party’s promises be readjusted accordingly?  

That’s what I was coming to. The above statistics show that there is a certain economy consistency, and certain trends, that we can base our electoral promises on. But yes: there are also external factors, that have to be accounted for.  Now: if the pandemic has taught us nothing else, it is that ‘economic growth’ does not exist just for the money to be squandered capriciously. You have to make sure you have enough reserves, to withstand those external factors when they arise. 

We see this even now, that the effects of the conflict in Ukraine are already being felt: as confirmed by the Finance Minister. The important thing, however, is that Maltese government is in a financial position to both withstand those challenges; and also guarantee, as far as possible, to maintain the same standards, and quality of life, for its people.

This is why it is no coincidence, that Malta’s energy prices are still the cheapest in Europe. Because the government took a conscious decision to absorb as much of the energy price-hikes as possible, to ensure that – when it comes to re-igniting the Maltese economy – we won’t have to do ‘bring it back from the dead’, through CPR. 

It will still be up-and-running; and all it would need are the necessary incentives, and the necessary confidence… which I think our government has already shown; and will keep showing, in our election manifesto.

But there are other interpretations. Our columnist Josanne Cassar, for instance, described the recent bonanza of tax refunds as: ‘It’s raining money’. Couldn’t it be argued – especially in view of the recent dip in polls – that the PL is so desperate not to lose any more votes, that it is now promising ‘heaven and earth’ to everyone?

That’s a very unfair assessment. Why? Because if there’s one thing everyone agrees upon, it is that today’s inflation is ‘imported’. It is not the result of government’s own actions; and as such, it is not something that government has any direct control over. So if government did not respond, by sending out a clear message that it would be financially assisting the people, at this time… I can assure you, the criticism would be very different.

Besides: it’s also unfair, because - if you look at the past five years – tax refunds have been handed out each year; not just because there’s an election. It was even included in our 2017 manifesto…

But that’s exactly my point: with each election, the Labour Party seems to be ‘upping the ante’ of how much it can offer the electorate, in the way of freebies. And what is that, if not the ‘power of incumbency’ all over again?

No! No, it’s not like that at all! Look: we can even go ‘promise by promise’, if you like. Obviously, many of those promises are going to eventually revolve around a ‘better return for people’. This is after all inevitable: because our whole vision, as a Labour Party, is ultimately all about improving the people’s quality of life.

If we are talking about pensions, for instance: just ask the pensioners themselves, how much things have improved – and will continue to improve – since the days when pensions were frozen, at two-thirds of COLA. Because it’s all a question of perspective, at the end of the day. You might see it as ‘raining money’; but when I speak to pensioners, the first thing they always ask me is... ‘what are you going to do about pensions’? And if it’s parents, they will ask me about ‘children’s allowance’; teachers, about salaries; students, about stipends... 

So personally, I prefer the criticism that ‘it’s raining money’: when all the ‘money’ that ‘it’s raining’, will actually help people fight the effects of inflation, in difficult economic times...