Monday, 5 November 2012

Malta Today: Labour’s policy complex

I’ll show you mine if you show me yours: Joseph Muscat’s answer to those challenging his party on concrete policies says much about Labour’s self-confidence.
Monday, November 05, 2012 by James Debono

Intelligent voters naturally have a right to demand an explanation from Muscat of how he will reduce energy bills.

Labour leader Joseph Muscat clearly does not want the debate to shift towards a scrutiny of Labour's alternative solutions.

At this stage he wants the debate to remain focused on the government's record in office, which is far from rosy. Clearly he does not want the PN-allied media, as well as the independent media to pounce and make mince meat of Labour's alternative policies.

For as long as these policies are absent the media can only note their absence. On the other hand the moment these are published they will become centre-stage.

Still, Muscat does not refrain from presenting clear policy commitments like a promise to reduce water and electricity bills without any corresponding increase in taxes or expenditure.

Concurrently he spends most of his time lambasting bureaucracy and talking about fast-tracking MEPA permits, all music to the ears of disgruntled small and not so small businesses-which are clearly the target of his policies without explaining which planning policies will be changed and how. Asked by the Malta Economic Update on ODZ development, Muscat replied that "ODZ construction is not a priority," an evasive reply especially when considering that making ODZ construction a priority is hardly an option.

Although one has to recognise that Muscat has moved Labour to a more socially liberal direction, especially when compared to the ultra-confessional PN, even when it comes to civil liberties, Labour still does not explain whether embryo freezing will be allowed to facilitate IVF and whether civil unions will include all the rights of married couples including adoption.

Labour's strategy will be that of presenting more concrete proposals during the frenzy of the electoral campaign when rational debate on the specifics will be more difficult.

One may understand Labour's apprehension of seeing its policies dissected in the absence of level playing in the media.

But since Labour has deliberately chosen to make the reduction of energy bills its main platform, intelligent voters naturally have a right to demand a full explanation of how this will be done, and preferable now before the frenzy of mass meetings sets in.

If Labour is so confident that it has a clear roadmap on how to reduce bills it should be willing to pay the price of public scrutiny.

Surely some would attempt to demolish Labour's proposals simply because they resent anything Labour says. But voters are intelligent enough to judge for themselves the kind of scrutiny offered. For while media imbalances do exist in public broadcasting, Labour is one of the few parties in Europe to own its own TV station.

If Labour truly believes it has the right policies it should be able to take the risk of putting its proposals to public scrutiny especially if these involve alternative technological solutions or elaborate computations, the validity of which cannot be assessed in the frenetic few days before the election.

Surely the PN did the same thing in the last election when it promised to reduce the top rate of income tax at the start of the electoral campaign - a pledge it was unable to enact because the world was in the meantime hit by the worse crisis since the great depression.

Still this time round Muscat risks being overtaken by events. The government will be presenting a concrete budget, which may well serve as the party's electoral manifesto especially if Franco Debono votes against it. In this way the electorate will be offered a choice between ratifying the concrete proposals made in the budget and Muscat's roadmap.

The budget may also offer an element of the tax relief promised in 2008. If this is enacted Gonzi would be in a position to go for the election saying that he actually honours his commitments. Surely one would be perfectly justified in questioning the viability of measures enacted a few weeks before the election, especially if the government falls without the budget getting the seal of approval.

One factor Muscat seems to ignore is that while parties in government are generally judged on the basis of their record in office, opposition parties can only be judged on the validity of their alternative policies.

But Muscat's greatest problem at this juncture is to convince electors that he is a statesman with a vision and not a salesperson trying to con them with a new product of dubious credentials. The fact that he only presents win-win situations for everyone at the same time is problematic.

For how on earth is this possible at a difficult time when all governments in the world are facing big financial problems?

Perhaps Muscat is banking on surveys showing that the segment of Nationalist voters he is attracting are more interested in getting their MEPA permits fast-tracked and in paying less bills rather than invest in energy efficiency.

He seems much less interested in that strategic category of voters who are presently undecided because they are irked by the PN's conservatism in moral issues and bad governance in several sectors, but who remain sceptical of Labour's absence of policies.

Neither are these voters, some of which have probably invested in solar energy to save on their bills impressed when some Labour spokespersons belittle any mention of photovoltaics. These voters would have been more impressed if Muscat condemned planning policies (which allow penthouses on any three floor apartment block) enacted by the PN, which deny access to solar energy to thousands of households.

Ultimately it will be this category which will determine whether Labour will win big time, whether the PN will close the gap or whether the Greens will do better this time round.

Muscat may still win without the support of this category but the end result would be an arithmetic victory of a disparate coalition of interest groups instead of a durable hegemonic block ready to accept the painful changes any government elected in 2013 will have to enact.

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