The Malta Independent 5 December 2021, Sunday

7 key takes from Robert Abela and Bernard Grech’s post-budget speeches

Albert Galea Sunday, 24 October 2021, 10:00 Last update: about 2 months ago

Prime Minister Robert Abela and Opposition Leader Bernard Grech addressed parliament last Monday and Tuesday, giving their respective reactions to the budget announced by Finance Minister Clyde Caruana the week prior.

In their two-hour speeches, the political counterparts outlined their respective party’s vision for the country and their pre-electoral rallying cries to voters, as the general election draws ever nearer.

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The Malta Independent on Sunday delves into both speeches to extract the seven key points from each – three from Bernard Grech’s speech, three from Robert Abela’s speech, and one more which applies to both.

The PN has moved on from its one-issue strategy

One of the PN’s biggest downfalls in the 2017 general election was that the party was perceived to be pushing on exclusively one-issue – that being the government’s rampant alleged corruption.

That strategy consigned the PN to another humiliating electoral defeat. 

However, now it seems that Bernard Grech and his party are fronting a more proposal-centred electoral campaign.  

That Grech used much of his speech to outline multiple proposals – some of which we already knew, others which were new – is a symptom of how the party seems to be basing itself around its ideas.

Criticism on alleged government corruption, such as in the case of the Vitals Global Healthcare saga, still, rightly, features, but this is a PN which feels more all-rounded than previous pre-election iterations.

PN goes for bigger and better to try and appeal more

During his speech, Bernard Grech did praise some of the government’s budgetary measures – however at the same time, he and his party have promised that they can implement other measures better than Labour can.

Take stipends, for example: the government said it will bump them up by 10% while the PN has now proposed increasing them up by 25%.

Take vouchers, for example: the government made stimulus vouchers (which was the PN’s idea in the first place, mind you) one of its core pandemic recovery measures while the PN is now proposing 500 travel vouchers for all youths.

Much rather than relying on a Joseph Muscat-esque cult of personality with Bernard Grech, the party is trying to go bigger and better on some things which the PL has proposed in an effort to appeal to voters more. 

There is, however, incongruence in the PN’s arguments

The PN and Bernard Grech’s initial reaction to the budget was that the government has no long-term vision for the country, and that the deficit had been allowed to climb too high. 

That the party commissioned billboards speaking of the biggest recession that Malta has faced in its history is clear enough in that regards.

The found its way into Grech’s Monday speech, where he said that the country had lost 1.3 billion owing to poor leadership, direct orders, and flawed contracts.

The incongruence however comes when Grech then – in the same speech – argued that the PN can one-up a number of the measures which the government had announced.

But, the PN would be using the same – according to them – dire finances to govern the country if it does win the next election, so the question posed is: if the government is already, with this budget, spending too much – how is the PN then going to spend even more with the same balance sheet at its disposal?

Labour’s criticism of the PN is built on its past, more than its present

Throughout his speech, Abela fired numerous broadsides at the PN – and they all gave an indication of how the pre-2013 era is still ripe in the minds of the PL.

Abela punctuated his speech by remarks of how a PN government, in the 2008 and 2009 financial crisis, had introduced measures of “austerity” and burdened the people with more taxes.  He spoke of the PN’s abject failure in its public transport overhaul, of its failure to procure vaccines for handling the swine flu pandemic, and of the infamous 2006 rationalisation programme which made throngs of ODZ land developable.

Besides criticising the finances behind some of the PN’s ideas, there was little said of what the PN has proposed thus far.  Instead, special criticism was reserved for Bernard Grech and his issues with the taxman.

Could it indicate that the PL has less critique than it would like on the PN’s proposals thus far? It’s a bit too early to say, especially given that we’re not technically in an election campaign. But the PL will no doubt be seeking to capitalise on the PN’s past governing self.

Malta’s handling of the pandemic will be one of the PL’s main selling points

Abela made it clear in his speech that his government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic – both from a health standpoint, and particularly from an economic standpoint – will be a matter which will feature heavily in his pre-election pandemic.

The Prime Minister made sure to mention Malta’s break-neck vaccination programme, and how the government had resisted going into a total lockdown despite pressure from multiple quarters (including the PN) to do otherwise.

But more so, from an economic perspective, Abela made sure to point out that the government’s support measures had saved over 100,000 jobs and that employment is now at a record-low.

By looking at only the points of praise, and perhaps glossing over certain more questionable decisions – such as how the second wave of Covid-19 cases in the second half of 2020 was handled – the PL have a powerful point in their favour to call upon.

Abela gave his biggest indication yet of an early election

Robert Abela has done little to allay speculation that he will be calling an early election – and Tuesday was rife with speculation that the announcement for the country to go to the polls would come on that same day.

For a second, one of his final remarks in his speech actually made a few hearts flutter and think the Prime Minister was indeed about to announce the election.

“The choice of whether this budget is carried out or not is in the hands of the people,” Abela said.

While the announcement didn’t come – the remark only increased speculation that an election may well come as early as next month, even if Abela has said that he wants to see the budget implemented by this legislature.

Abela has until Tuesday 26 October to call an election if it is his inclination for it to be held on 27 November, as has been speculated.

The latest election date he can set is September 2022 – but that timeline would not match up with Abela’s latest remark, that it will be the people who decide whether the Budget for 2022 is implemented or not.

The environment will be one of the key electoral battlegrounds

It appears that both political parties have (finally) come to the realisation that Malta’s environment has, perhaps, arrived at (or gone beyond, depending who you speak to) its breaking point.

Both Grech and Abela put a number of apples in the green cart during their respective speeches.

Grech, for instance, lauded multiple PN proposals which include making major projects on ODZ land subject to a vote in parliament, electrifying the public transport fleet by 2025, not building the Marsascala marina, and, in general, “fighting back against unregulated urbanisation around the country.”

Abela meanwhile pointed out how a new national park will be created at Inwadar as part of the budget, and a host of other measures including measures to promote traditional Maltese architecture and the restoration of properties in urban conservation areas.

He also went to great length to point out that the PN has no credibility to speak about the environment, saying that Bernard Grech’s top aide is the same person who drafted the controversial 2006 local plan changes and rationalisation programme.

What he didn’t go to great lengths to point out was, naturally, the fact that the Labour government has had 8 years in government to change the same local plans.

The guilt of both sides when it comes to poor protection of the environment over the years will make for an interesting scenario coming into the next general election.

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