01 February 2006

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Business Today

Impatience not ill-intent

Alfred Sant’s closing discourse at the Labour Party general conference was a laboured effort to dispel the notion held by some that the party is not different from the PN. Referring to those who see no difference between both major parties as ‘snakes’, Sant went on to list a number of concrete proposals for the environment and tourism which are supposed to position the party differently from its political rival.
It is only fair to say that the Labour Party has been trying for the last year and a half to churn out policy documents and give the impression of a party in renewal. The exercise has borne fruit in that today the MLP is much more comfortable talking to NGOs and constituted bodies than it was until 2003.
And although there are ‘snakes’ who would never give the MLP credit where is due, there is a silent majority out there clamouring to know more about what the party has to offer.
The first two policy documents to be produced, tourism and the environment are in many respects a continuation of the policies adopted by the short-lived Labour government between 1996 and 1998. They rest on the fundamental premise that a Labour government would deliver effective results in the shortest time possible. But in some aspects detail is lacking.
The proposal to lower the taxation burden on tourism is still pie in the sky. The rationale behind such a proposal makes sense because a revival in tourism could provide the short term boost required to kick start the rest of the economy. But when push comes to shove, it is the details that matter. People are impatient to hear the details of a future Labour government’s political manifesto. Which taxes and by how much will a Labour government reduce to kick start tourism?
The same holds for the proposal to have the Malta Environment and Planning Authority approve applications within a six month timeframe. It is one of those proposals that can make a lot of sense but it requires details. Will public consultation be dropped? Will developers be exempt from carrying out environment impact assessments?
Just like government’s pre-budget document lacked detail, Labour’s policy documents approved over the weekend lack beef in some of their aspects. Party officials may argue that these documents, and those that are still to come, are intended to outline the MLP’s broad vision for the different areas under review and the details will come in the electoral manifesto closer to the election.
It is impatience and not ill-intent that leads many to ask about the Labour Party’s offerings. This is why many were disillusioned when the generic document approved last year entitled a Plan for Social and Economic regeneration was a watered-down version of an earlier document that included some radical thinking.
Tourism and the environment are possibly two of the easier areas to deal with because there is consensus about their importance to the country’s wellbeing. It will be more interesting to hear the Labour Party’s proposals on good governance, transparency, social relations and competitiveness.
Alfred Sant knows that boosting competitiveness will probably be the biggest headache. People on the ground are fed up of sacrifices but as an economist Sant understands that Malta’s competitiveness has been eroding and unless redressed it will only create more problems for the all-important export sector. He is caught between an electorate that wants to hear sweet words and a reality that bites.
When the country failed to adopt a social pact it missed a golden opportunity to redress a deteriorating situation. There are various reasons why that pact never materialised and government’s methodology of trying to get an agreement may have also been flawed.
Alfred Sant knows that a new Labour government will probably have to start its stay in power faced with a weak economy. A broad three-year agreement between unions, employers and government to boost competitiveness will probably be required to get things back into check.
There is a lot that can be done to propagate a progressive vision of change while at the same time bringing the economy back on track. This, however, would require a measure of hardship from everybody, not least a fatigued electorate. It may not be a sweet thing to hear but if the Labour Party can translate sacrifices into a long-term vision that inspires, it will be able to convince people that change is positive and it can benefit everyone.
This is why details are important. The Labour Party insists it is the party that tells the truth, even if it is unsavoury. How a future Labour government intends to restore competitiveness and steer the economy to greater heights while ensuring a fair redistribution of wealth, is possibly the single most important issue that has not yet been dealt with. It will eventually have to bite the bullet.

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