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MALTATODAY 26 November 2023

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2 maltatoday | SUNDAY • 26 NOVEMBER 2023 ANALYSIS Is Bernard Grech opening the floodgates BERNARD Grech seems to have realised his party's abstract cri- tique of an economic model based on population growth is not resonating with disenchant- ed voters. Different polls show these vot- ers remain firmly entrenched in the "non-voters" camp. But with surveys showing immigration to be one of the top concerns of disenchanted Labour voters, Grech has tried to spice up his rhetoric with xenophobic tropes and statistical exaggerations. He follows up his statements with disclaimers to avoid the far- right tag, something that is so off-putting for some of his own potential voters. During his speech in parlia- ment last Wednesday when the budget estimates for the Office of the Prime Minister were be- ing discussed, Grech started off by recounting what people are telling him. It was an attempt to give his message a populist touch. To do this he referred to a Learning Support Educator who told him that "eight of her eleven students are foreigners". He al- so referred to people lamenting "that they do not feel comforta- ble using buses despite the fact that these are free because these are full of foreigners". But aware that this 'discomfort' may also reflect racial prejudice, he immediately presented his first disclaimer "that it would be great mistake to make a dis- tinction because someone is a foreigner." The problem for Grech is two- fold. His pandering to prejudice is off-putting to younger voters who have grown up in the new multicultural Malta with surveys showing less concern on migra- tion among the 16- to 35-year- old cohort. And his contradic- tory statements and disclaimers are unlikely to quench the anger of those who simply want to purge Malta of foreigners, and who will thus still perceive him as a snowflake. Muddying the waters After his first disclaimer Grech could not resist pandering to another racial prejudice, that which distinguishes foreigners from the European Union and those 'imported' from outside the bloc. In so doing, the same Grech who voices the LSE's problem with handling classrooms where foreigners constitute a majority, ignores official statistics show- ing that Italians account for 1,123 out of 8,000 foreign stu- dents attending Maltese schools. Italians, in other words EU citi- zens, emerge as the most repre- sentative 'foreign' nationality in our schools. And to further muddy the wa- ters he proceeded to cast doubt on NSO statistics by hinting that thousands of foreigners are stay- ing without any legal permit. He even claimed that Labour has "nearly doubled the population", which would mean that Malta now harbours a population of 850,000 instead of the official 535,000. He also claimed that the coun- try has "lost control on who is entering and leaving" and is en- dangering "security" and "peo- ple's peace of mind." In doing so Grech is not only depicting foreigners as a security threat, but risks legitimising even wild- er claims made by the far right on the Maltese becoming a mi- nority in their own country, fully knowing that mistrust in official immigration statistics was a ma- jor factor contributing to Brexit, the election of Donald Trump in the USA and the rise of the far right in other EU member states. Grech's tightrope walk Then again, Grech walked a tightrope between rightful con- demnation of "modern day slav- ery" and his belief in the "dignity of every person", and a divisive 'us vs them' mentality. In a di- rect appeal to working class dis- contentment he presented the argument that the availability of cheaper foreign labour is re- sulting in a "race to the bottom" which pushes wages downwards. While Grech is right in de- nouncing cheap labour preva- lent in some sectors of the econ- omy, he fails to condemn those businessmen who resort to such practices, shifting the blame on foreign labour. He also ignores economic realities like skills shortages in several economic sectors including crucial pub- lic services like health. He also overlooks the fact that Maltese workers shun manual jobs, par- ticularly those requiring longer hours but which still must be performed. Finally, Grech also spoke from personal experience, referring to his own mothers' stay in hospital during her final days. He expressed gratitude and praised the Maltese and foreign health workers for their excel- lence, but also referred to his With MEP elections looming on the horizon, Bernard Grech tries to milk the immigration issue in a terse balancing act between vague xenophobic tropes and humanitarian disclaimers. But will this help him win over angry disenchanted voters or will they go for Norman Lowell's unadulterated, anti-establishment far- right asks JAMES DEBONO. JAMES DEBONO Bernard Grech has stepped up the rhetoric blaming foreigners for some of Malta's ills amid disclaimers to denounce discrimination. Grech is not only depicting foreigners as a security threat, but risks legitimising even wilder claims made by the far right on the Maltese becoming a minority in their own country

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