The Leader is always right - Mark Anthony Falzon
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The Leader is always right - Mark Anthony Falzon

A growing number of people in Malta are no longer inclined to spend part of their Sunday mornings in church. Happily, there are no such problems in the secular department. The attendance at the Sunday ser­vices held by the two parties does not seem to be going down at all. Indeed, and if the Labour congregation at Żebbuġ last week is anything to go by, we may even be looking at a flowering of religiosity.

As expected, the sermon was a hit. In keeping with the current party slogan, Joseph Muscat laid out his economic vision for the Malta of the future. He defended the Corin­thia deal and hailed it as the bringer of great gifts to the people. The audience loved it. If the look in the eyes of some of those present were any keener, it would be adulterous.

Now part of me can see why. In good form – and he really was down to perfect fighting weight last Sunday – Muscat can be very convincing indeed. Convincing, however, does not necessarily mean right. In fact, the more I think about what he said, the more I see how horribly wrong he was on so many counts.

Take his choice of metaphor. Again and again, he told his audience that Malta “trid tagħmel qabża kbira ’l quddiem”. That translates straightforwardly as a “great leap forward”. It’s an expression that, given the history of certain infamous events in China, politicians would be well-advised to avoid.

But that’s a minor matter. The really bad bits had to do with Muscat’s economic thinking, which basically boils down to “let the rich get rich enough and there’s likely to be some left for the rest”.

Except that’s generous, because Muscat is proposing much more than to let the rich do as they will. I could live with that. In fact, he intends to help them get richer – using our money and resources, of course.

It was in this vein that the trickle-down pabulum dished out by Muscat included an extended reference to the Corinthia deal. His reasoning was as follows: At present, the best Malta can offer is tourist accommodation that costs a few hundred euros a night. Faced with such crushing misery, hotel operators have no choice but to keep salaries low, which in turn means migrant workers.

A six-star Corinthia will change all of that, Muscat said. It will mean guests who pay thousands a night, and who therefore won’t much mind that extra bit that will go towards better salaries for “uliedna u n-neputijiet tagħna” (our children and grandchildren, presumably Maltese).

As it happens, such a hotel features in the recent BBC documentary series A Hotel for the Super Rich and Famous. The episodes go behind the scenes at one of London’s luxury hotels and show the fanatical attention to detail that is needed to run such a place. We are told that rooms cost up to £20,000 a night, that the hotel buys its crystal champagne flutes at £200 a piece, and so on.

Muscat intends to help the rich get richer – using our money and resources, of course

By the Prime Minister’s argument, you would expect this hotel to offer high salaries that attract British people to the industry. While the documentary makes no mention of salaries, it does reveal that most of the staff, and especially the women who do the housekeeping, are, in fact, not British. For some obscure reason, this super-luxury hotel, which by the way is called the Corinthia London, employs mostly migrant workers.

Which doesn’t bother me in the least, because I have no issue with migrant workers in principle. That, however, is not the point here. Rather, it is that, based on the evidence, Muscat’s argument is clearly wrong. Hardly a minor slip, considering he is trained as an economist.

And yet even that is a mild reading, because Muscat knows well that the reason why the Corinthia deal is controversial has nothing to do with hotel upgrades. Instead, it has everything to do with the hundreds of apartments that the group intends to build, with his blessing.

In fairness, Muscat did mention the construction rampage he so loves to captain. (Permits for newly approved dwellings are up by 376 per cent since 2013.) Again, his argument was a trickle-down of sorts. He said something about the benefits of people working hard to buy a flat that they might rent out to, yawn, migrant workers. (Presumably not those who will not be em­ployed at the six-star Corinthia.)

Now it is true that, as construction and the value of real estate balloon, very many are raking it in. Growing numbers, however, are not. It was one of Muscat’s ministers who the other day announced a hostel where Gozitan students will be able to lodge at subsidised rates. Rightly so, too, because the cost of accommodation has shot up, and not all Gozitans are rich. (At least not until they are employed by the six-star Corinthia.)

The point is that the total and planless free-for-all captained by Muscat is likely to cause problems in the not-too-distant future. More and more people will have no choice but to beg for social housing and subsidised accommodation. Some of those in his audience in Żebbuġ will be the hardest hit, which is why it was painful to watch them cheer his descriptions of the super-rich who will populate the Corinthia enclave.

The climax of Muscat’s speech was reached when he drew a parallel with 1971, which according to him was the finest moment in recent Maltese history. In 1971, the majority voted in a Prime Minister who was proposing a radical economic departure: he would see the British out (‘ikeċċi lill-Ingliżi’) and build a new economy.

This was brave of Mintoff but even braver of the many thousands whose livelihoods depended, directly or indirectly, on the British presence in Malta. It was, Muscat said, a risky step into an uncertain future, and one that paid off.

You can’t say Muscat has no imagination. In 1971, Mintoff was not proposing to kick the British out but rather to renegotiate the defence agreement on his own terms. Be that as it may, the move was indeed brave of him and of the people who elected him.

Which is exactly why Muscat’s parallel does not work. What Muscat is proposing is not at all a radical departure, but rather the opposite. There is nothing new about powerful interest groups that capture the public good. We saw it happen with Portomaso and Smart City, and now with the db and Corinthia deals. If Muscat wants to compare his great leap forward with Labour’s past, Mintoff’s is the last name he ought to mention.

Joseph Muscat is indeed an excellent salesman, and his main trade is husks.

mafalzon@hotmail.com

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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