Never since the arrival of Knights of St John in the 16th century had Malta seen such a dramatic influx of people from every corner of the world.
It was one of those changes nobody voted for in 2013 but which generated the tax revenues enabling Labour to keep its promises. Malta’s population hit a record 519,562 in the 2022 Census, up from 417,432 a decade earlier: an increase of 102,130. The country’s foreign population shot up five-fold to 115,449.
Not only did it bolster the tax coffers, but it topped up a pension pot with foreign-paid social security, to reach €200 million in 2021 – six times what it was in 2012.
And while non-EU nationals accounted for 36% of foreign workers, now they account for 56%. But the cost has been felt in terms of demographic and infrastructural pressures, a greater demand for housing, and distortions in the labour market where nearly 12,000 non-EU workers perform lowly paid elementary jobs. And while foreigners are more likely to take up jobs which the Maltese no longer want to do without actually taking Maltese jobs as demonstrated by the low unemployment rate, the growth of an underclass living at the margins in over-crowded flats and exposed to occupational hazards, casts a dark shadow on Labour’s growth model.
Ironically, Labour, which in its first months in power had sent a strong message that Malta was ‘full up’ by setting in motion a push back to Libya which was aborted by the European courts, ended up selling citizenship to rich foreigners and embracing cosmopolitanism.
But despite the massive influx of workers from outside the EU, the ‘full up’ mantra is repeated by Robert Abela right up to this day in relation to irregular migration. It is migrants from Africa who remain the main target of racism, culminating in the assassination of Lassana Cisse in 2019. Migrants also continue to die on the altar of growth; six from nine workplace fatalities in 2021 involved foreign workers.
Civil Liberties: Welcome to Rainbow country
Back in 2013 Malta stood in 18th place in a ranking of 49 European countries indexed by ILGA-Europe in its ‘Rainbow map’, which assesses the laws of each country which impact on the LBGTI community. In contrast for seven years in a row, Malta has occupied the number one spot on the Rainbow Europe Map, with a score of 92%.
Just 12 years ago Malta had no divorce, same-sex couples could not even visit each other as family members when hospitalised, IVF was still the stuff of endless ethical debates, authors were taken to court for publishing obscene stories, trans gender people were not allowed to choose their own gender, annulments issued by ecclesiastical courts was still recognised by the state, police were still hounding youngsters for smoking cannabis, and advocating abortion rights immediately earned you the baby-killer tag.
Yet all this changed in a decade where Labour’s reforms pushed the boundaries. In just a decade Labour has introduced full marriage equality including adoption rights for same sex couples and it has been a global leader in criminalizing gay conversion therapy and in allowing people to choose their own gender. Embryo freezing and pre genetic testing is also allowed. Malta is also on the verge to becoming one of the first EU countries to allow the sale of cannabis from no profit clubs, preceding larger countries like Germany who are expected to follow suite. But while Malta has made impressive steps in liberalising social mores, Malta still lags behind in female representation and reproductive rights.
And while abortion is less of a taboo then it was 10 years ago a timid reform allowing abortion in cases where the mother’s health and life is in grave danger has still been met by a hysterical reaction from the opposition.
Wealth and Inequality: More people living better but some lag behind
In 2014 10.2% of the population were unable to afford three of nine essential items, and were hence considered as material deprived. The severe material deprivation rate dropped to 5.4% in 2021, according to Eurostat figures.
In contrast the percentage of people at risk of poverty increased from 15.8% in 2014 to 16.9% in 2021. Since the at-risk-of-poverty rate is determined by the number of people earning less than 60% of the median household disposable income, this means that while the proportion of the population who cannot afford the necessary items for a decent life has decreased, there are now more people who have lagged behind the others in relative terms.
Inequality, measured using the Gini coefficient (in which a value of zero denotes perfect equality while a coefficient of 1 would denote perfect inequality) increased from 0.56 to 0.60 between 2014 and 2017, but decreased to 0.55 in 2020. In 2017, the wealthiest 10% of households were 95 times richer than the bottom 20%. Three years later they were 80 times richer in an indication that inequality was reigned in.
And while wages have stagnated with the minimum wage increasing by just €132 a month between 2013 and 2023, incomes were boosted by a 25% reduction of utility bills, the abolition of school exam fees, in-work benefits, and free childcare. On average, the per capita income from pensions rose to nearly €9,500 in 2021, an increase of 21.7% over pension income in 2013. This suggests that state funded top ups-financed by tax revenue from economic growth- have been essential in supplementing meagre incomes. In the absence of redistributive taxation which is shunned by Labour, its social policies are increasingly dependent on sustaining current levels of economic growth.
Moreover while people are less materially deprived then they were 10 years ago, old certainties like the aspiration of becoming a home owner upon marriage, are being eroded. For despite annual grants to first time buyers a KPMG study has shown that households on an average income could only afford to take a mortgage which financed 76% of an average-priced apartment in 2021. This meant that most households could only afford to buy a flat costing €201,400 at a time when the average price of properties was estimated at €265,000.
Building mad: Labour’s love affair with developers
Between 2013 and 2022 a grand total of 76,407 new dwellings were approved by the Planning Authority, 50,302 of which were issued between 2018 and 2022. This means that during Labour’s decade in power 9142 more dwellings were approved then in the entire period between 2003 and 2013 when a total of 67625 new dwellings were approved (of which 31,000 were approved between 2005 and 2007 on the eve of euro adoption). While the building boom of the past five years can be attributed to increased rates of economic growth which left more money for people to invest in property in contrast to slump between 2009 and 2012 when only 16761 permits were issued, it was also the result of shifting policy goalposts. Piling up on local plans approved in 2006 which increased the development zone by an area the size of Siggiewi, were new policies enacting in Labour’s first two years in office including a policy annex which translated the height in floors in the local plans to a metric height and a reduction in the minimum height of each floor. Thanks to this underhanded measure many found themselves winning the planning lottery, discovering that they could knock down entire buildings and replace them with new 5 storey blocks and thus becoming “sinjuri zghar” (little rich men). Yet there were limits to Labour’s pro development push.
Strong opposition to ODZ developments including the Zonqor university led to a reversal of a policy allowing petrol stations on agricultural land and to a stricter application of a rural policy which was liberally applied in turning piles of rubble in to villas between 2015 and 2019.
And while the building boom remains an essential peg in the economic growth model, not just in terms of tax revenues but also in accommodating the legions of foreign workers, this comes at an opportunity cost diverting investment in job creation to land speculation and a windfall in profits for property developers who also wield the kind of political influence which erodes trust in the institutions.
In short Labour finds itself increasingly torn between the frustration of local communities opposing over development and the need to keep feeding the monsters who are uglifying the country.
Public Concerns: Exit utility bills enter crime and construction
While before 2013 the main concerns registered in successive polls were the cost of living and utility bills, the main concerns under the Labour administrations were traffic, the environment, construction, foreign workers and to a lesser degree corruption.
Although COVID and the war in Ukraine have brought back inflation to the fore as a main concern, energy subsidies have so far shielded the population the hike in global energy prices. While concern over utility bills peaked at 50% in February 2010, this concern has disappeared from surveys conducted in the past decade. Moreover, even in the last MT survey people were more concerned with crime (28%) then with inflation (20%) After a decade of Labour in government Malta is perceived as a more crowded, bustling, noisy and dangerous place where post-materialist concerns on the environment, immigration, quality of life and good governance are still eclipsing bread and butter issues. But the ability to keep concern on living standards at bay depends on the government’s ability to sustain subsidies for energy in the coming years.
Corruption: A promise betrayed
One of the first laws approved by Labour was to remove prescription for politicians accused of corruption, which were previously time barred. Yet 10 years down the line no elected politician has been accused of corruption and Malta’s ranking in Transparency International’s corruption index has slipped from 45th to 54th place.
Moreover, Labour elected in 2013 on a promise of greater meritocracy and transparency, has been rocked by a series of corruption scandals often linked to dirty deals involving politicians and big monied interests.
While allegations of corruption and impunity have dominated political discourse since independence, also thanks to an aversion by successive governments to checks and balances, the Panama papers and the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia who was haphazardly and prosaically exposing the dirt, inevitably threw the spotlight on Malta. This came at a tremendous reputational cost culminating in the grey listing of the Maltese financial system and a repeated censure by a vast majority in the European parliament. While this did not in any way dent Labour’s electoral super majorities in 2017 and 2022, it contributed to political instability which culminated in the resignation of Joseph Muscat in 2019 following the arraignment of Yorgen Fenech. Muscat’s failure to nip the problem in the bud by kicking out Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri after revelations that had set up companies in Panama days after being elected to office stands out as Labour’s mortal sin, whose gravity was magnified tenfold by revelations linking Schembri and Mizzi to Yorgen Fenech.
And while no major corruption scandal has so far rocked the Abela administration,Abela still has to carry the weight of the scandals he inherited from his predecessor as has been the case in the past days following the courts’ decision annulling the Vitals deal.
Moreover, despite recommendations by Greco and OSCE, Malta still lacks a transparency register documenting meetings between lobbyists and politicians and a special inquiring magistrate tasked to lead anti-corruption investigations. In the meantime, no politician has so far been arraigned and accused of corruption allegations.