Sunday, 3 March 2013

Malta Today: Debate reveals Gonzi tied to power and Muscat hawkish on migration

Greens would be coalition partner for both Labour and Nationalists if elected to power – leaders
Tuesday 26 February 2013 - 22:56 by Matthew Vella

Herman Grech's quick-fire 'yes or no' question session gave us the most revealing aspects of the two leaders in tonight's Big Debate, hosted by The Times at the Intercontinental Hotel.

Labour leader Joseph Muscat is, worryingly, in favour of a pushback policy if Libya can be considered to be a safe country of origin - Lawrence Gonzi is ready to hold a referendum on spring hunting. Two of the most European issues, in which the purported centre-left leader is to the right, while the prime minister who champions his party's EU credentials is not ready to bite the bullet and enforce the EU's ban on spring hunting once and for all.

We learned much about these two men yesterday: they won't introduce healthcare fees, they won't raise VAT, they won't raise pensionable age, they will use their EU veto (Gonzi said only in some exceptional case), they won't extend development boundaries, they won't oppose gay adoptions, they will hammer out some agreement with the illegal squatters at Armier, that Gonzi won't resign if he loses the election but Muscat might not hang on to 'power', and... they will form a coalition with Alternattiva Demokratika if the greens gain a seat in the House.

They each wore their political badge from the get-go: Joseph Muscat was for a new political unity that discards "the old way" of doing things and jettisons political apartheid; Michael Briguglio's was the 'voice of reason in parliament' and presenting Alternattiva Demokratika as a bridge between the "suffocating force of the two parties"; and Lawrence Gonzi dealt his strongest hand, the economy, creating jobs, increasing exports, and expanding tourism, educational and research opportunities.

Michael Briguglio was there only for the first half of the debate, putting himself forward on his party's support of gay marriage, environmental protection, a rise in minimum wage and a stop to illegal squatting at Armier.

"We're not in parliament but we've influence the agenda on divorce and the environment, and we've been on the right side of history on two referenda," Briguglio said, keen to offer AD as an opponent to the lobbies influencing mainstream politics.

"I don't agree with this supermarket of politics," the AD leader, referring to the parties' electoral programmes of tablet giveaways. But Joseph Muscat defended his costed programme which respected realistic targets of economic growth against Gonzi's more ambitious target and electoral programme.

"I have administered Malta through a financial storm, and I have managed to retain a rate of deficit that was below 3% of the gross domestic product. We are now forecasted to have the second largest economic growth in the eurozone. And we have the highest female participation rate in our history at 44% and almost full employment, with youth unemployment almost inexistent," Gonzi boasted.

Muscat differed on this last point, saying that Labour Force Survey data showed that youth unemployment in Malta was at 14.7% of the youth bracket.

Briguglio defended his party's decision to focus on issues such as drug decriminalization and gay marriage. "We have a historic responsibility to talk about those issues that other parties are not talking about, such as gay marriage: the other parties give lip service to full equality but they don't want gay marriage. Even the British Conservatives are in agreement with gay marriage."

The AD leader also answered critics on the effectiveness of one green seat in the House, saying one MP would still be enough to attend select committees and put issues on the agenda - here he came out the most forceful: "We will make proposal the other parties will have to talk about, and there are many issues that are not being talked about - we will table proposals that will have to be voted upon, such as those on Armier and hunting."

Muscat reiterated his party's commitment on its energy plan for a natural gas terminal and power station, even as Gonzi conjured up the threat of an LNG depot and dubbed the Labour proposal 'fantastical'.

"We're only the party with a realistic energy plan: we have answered the crucial questions, of how we will reduce bills and when," Muscat said when questioned on his electoral programme's deliberate removal of the two-year timeframe Labour previously committed itself to. "What we get from the government instead is a hazy plan to reduce the night tariff. We have already stipulated what the timeframe is for the reduction of energy bills."

On his part, Gonzi rebutted claims that he had wasted seven years to finally commit himself to a conversion to gas using a pipeline from the Sicilian mainland. "The reason for this wait was that we had to address all our energy infrastructure needs, first with closing down Marsa (and here journalist Mark Micallef promptly reminded him that Marsa power station was still in operation), extending Delimara, and now install the interconnector cable. Without it, we cannot close down Marsa, and we certainly cannot have Muscat's 'fantastical' project."

Gonzi also disputed the oft-repeated seven-year timeline for the gas pipeline, claiming that with financing in hand the pipeline can be ready in as little as four years.

Herman Grech faced the leaders with a host of problems that were left untouched by the electoral debate, such as hunting, immigration, land encroachment or pensions, giving Briguglio an opening to criticize both parties on their approach to pension reform.

"We're calling for the introduction of a second-pillar pension, but Muscat wants a voluntary third pillar which is only there for those who can really afford it. Gonzi never introduced the second pillar throughout his administration even though it was recommended by the pensions working group, of which I was part of."

Muscat countered, saying introducing a second pillar now would raise national insurance contributions that businesses would not be able to afford. "We can increase pension to 60% of the average salary over the long term by introducing more women into the labour market, through more childcare centres and family-friendly measures. My answer is that active ageing is the way forward," Muscat said, referring to the policy to allow more people to work after pensionable age.

Gonzi defended his "extraordinary reform" on pensions, by raising retirement age and the contributory rate. "We raised NI so that young people today can have a guaranteed pension in the future, and Labour criticised us on this."

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