Government ministers have a new buzzword. They tell us they want to make the country ‘future-proof’ as it recovers from the pandemic slump. Except what they say doesn’t add up.
‘Future-proofing’ a country does not mean making it immune to crises. The entire world has just been reminded of nasty surprises. We should expect more, not fewer, surprises in the future.
Crises cannot be avoided but you can have a system that mitigates the worst scenarios. You cannot guarantee that you will not be struck by serious illness. But you can reduce the odds and have robust safeguards. You can eat right, exercise and take out a good insurance policy. You need to have a good system.
The government rhetoric shows we don’t have such a system. In one breath, Robert Abela tells us that we will bounce back from the pandemic slump thanks to the economic policies of the last seven years.
Taking another breath, Abela and his ministers tell us that we must restore our reputation on rule of law (which can only mean a crackdown on some key economic operators). And we should radically change the last seven years’ policies on the environment and development (which ministers like Aaron Farrugia and Carmelo Abela readily concede were mistaken).
But rampant overdevelopment, cronyism and lax investigation of suspected money laundering have not been simple mistakes that damaged the system. They were a feature of the system associated with the disgraced Joseph Muscat’s period in power”.
Muscat did not future-proof the country because he worked on future-proofing Labour’s hold on power. The system required to help a country deal with crises is poison for the system required by a political party to retain a grip on power.
Open democratic government is the most reliable system to handle a wide variety of crises in the long run. No democracy can avoid a drought, but no democracy has ever suffered a famine. The system signals problems quickly and makes the government act because it’s accountable.
Autocratic China can handle certain crises better because it can act faster – the ruling Party needs no checks and balances. But its autocracy depends on economic growth. No one knows if the Communist Party can survive a serious economic slump without ruthless violence.
Do we need reminding on which half of the spectrum Muscat’s system lies? The democratic system depends on taking violence out of private hands and leaving force only in the hands of the State. Yet the police force was allowed to deteriorate into a cluster of mini-enterprises – some officers to moonlight as lawyers, others milking overtime, while the most senior officers are embroiled in allegations of being in cahoots with money launderers and assassins.
The army, meanwhile, had a bonanza of promotions that excluded some of the more senior officers. The Auditor General, looking at the procedures and results, asked whether the government realised the importance – for the country – of a security system in competent hands. Yet the government continues to resist implementing the Auditor General’s recommendations.
Or rather, the governing Party resists. Reforming the police and the army would mean surrendering the Party’s ability to intimidate, threaten and dehumanise critics. It is intimidation openly practised by party officials, organising Facebook retaliation, and party activists, occupying government-appointed roles.
The conflict between taking care of Malta and of Labour is evident in the case of tourism. This website has revealed a dual system of distributing sponsorships: one through official channels, the other through the then minister’s fixer. No prizes for guessing who got the lion’s share of the funds and how that weakened the sector. Meanwhile, no one can explain how it benefitted tourism to give vital marketing funds to a private airline for millionaires.
All this came at an opportunity cost for the tourism sector, which now badly needs all the help it can get. The funds wasted could have been used to make some of the investments the government is pledging now.
The conflict between national and Party interests show up in Abela’s reliance on the ‘Office of Joseph Muscat’. An astrologer could give the ‘advice’ that ‘Office’ is giving the country. Actually, an astrologer would do better, since the government’s continued association with the internationally disgraced Muscat makes it more difficult to restore national reputation.
But Abela the Labour leader needs Muscat’s cover. So il-King is embraced as part of Abela’s armour.
Eventually, of course, the conflict between national and Party interests will affect even Abela. In the longer run, he will find, just as Muscat did, that future-proofing himself as Labour leader is on a collision course with future-proofing himself as prime minister.