Patience is one of the more agreeable of virtues, although in politics survival is more about tenacity than it is about patience.
Is Alfred Sant a patient man? Twice defeated at the elections with a leadership contest in 2003, his party still not yet detoxified of its lethal embrace of his way of doing policy… only three weeks ago Sant presented a four-page policy on pensions after a decade of silence, claiming the pensions problem was actually no problem at all. Instead it proposed suspending reform right up to 2011, when his party-in-government might well be seeking re-election.
Patient, of course, are Labour’s delegates, whose Gozitan jaunt last Saturday was spent cooped up in a sports complex, crowning an extraordinary general conference that celebrated 480 hours of consultation the party held with stakeholders in a bid to draw up policy paper upon paper, plans and drafts.
It was Labour’s most useless party conference of the year, held in the sweltering heat of mid-July in Gozo’s only non-airconditioned hall. And it turned into an apt metaphor for the party in Opposition – patient Labourites who spent two decades waiting for their party to get back in government, now know victory is nearer than it ever seemed before, if not for the fact that the Nationalist Cabinet seems bent on testing the rules of gravity as they plunge further into an abyss of unpopularity: tourism is at an all-time low, the minister for the environment pushes through an extension of building zones, civil society – the one given birth by the PN itself – has turned against government, and ministers preside over bribery scandals and the squandering of public funds.
For the first time since the EU watershed, Labour is sailing through some very calm waters while the Nationalist government veers out of control in a miasma of unpopular ministers, unpopular policies, unfinished projects and non-starters, scandals and gaffes.
In that awful midsummer Gozitan heat in a sports complex turned hammam, Alfred Sant and the Labour executive committee tenaciously remained decked in their suits and ties. It couldn’t have helped much the stilted image of Labour’s “team”. Such a ludicrous decision must have surely been taken by the organisers of the conference, the image-conscious part of Labour where grins without any grit are in abundance.
Alfred Sant’s speech was taking away so much energy from the man, that had PR man Ray Azzopardi not walked up to the podium to plant a handkerchief for Sant to soak up the sweat, his speech would have surely ended up a soggy mess.
But was the July roadshow the right time for a popular endorsement of four policy documents? It is clear that it’s the chaos within the government that suffices for Sant to just sit back and manoeuvre his party back into power calmly. Which is why all those delegates fanning themselves crazy patiently waited for the party hymn to blast through the tannoy and sing yet another conference to an end. They’ve been patient for ten years, they can stand anything now.
That’s clearly not good enough for the rest of us. While the prospect of Labour in government becomes ever more palatable than having to endure Gonzi’s tired Cabinet for another five years, the ideological hollowness of the Opposition and its platitudes are a sad reminder of the state of politics of the island.
While the Nationalist government flounders even further, Labour’s policies don’t necessarily grab the party any more vital points than it ever had before. Its spokesperson for social protection, Karl Chircop, made his belated debut on the subject of pensions on the day Labour issued its position paper. He refused addressing the subject earlier on because Labour hadn’t finished its four-page proposal yet. Surely, career politicians know better.
While Gonzi presses ahead with his over-ripe colleagues, not all of Sant’s MPs are clearly top-notch material. The honourable system of democracy has a habit of producing some abysmal choices in the form of Silvio Parnis, a young MP with a serious first-count vote. But at the moment, Labour’s spokesperson for the elderly is stuck in seedy allegations from the Nationalist media of having had power of attorney from old people from whom he inherited their property.
As a working-class MP disconnected from Labour’s caste of architects, lawyers and medical professionals, Parnis, a health supervisor, should be a sort of socialist hero to many. But instead Parnis doubles up as TV presenter of sob-story show ‘M’intix Wahdek’ (“you’re not alone”), the name of his own charity organisation. On Super One radio, his show ‘Problemi tal-Qalb’ was removed after a party decision not to have MPs conduct their own programmes. But the reality is that Parnis’s image as the unlikely champion of the poor and destitute, a mix of Tista’ Tkun Int rubbed in with choice constituents, jars with the model of the euro-socialism Labour wish to have, and has probably become an embarrassment for the party.
And only last week, news leaked of Marie Louise Coleiro’s angry letter to party secretary-general Jason Micallef, who contrary to what he had assured the MP, did not distribute a pamphlet on pensions she drew up for the party executive. Instead, Micallef would have given “an incorrect impression or interpretation” of her viewpoints to the members of the executive, for which a peeved Coleiro said had had serious implications on her personal integrity.
And then there’s Justyne Caruana, the young bright Gozitan who describes journalists as “serpents” and says they do not belong to the Labourite family. It’s telling to see the party leadership applauding her and smiling incestuous smiles when she said those words in crass hysterical drama last weekend at the party conference.
Her poison visibly discomforted Wenzu Mintoff and MEP Joseph Muscat who, sat some rows behind Caruana, were left unimpressed and uneasy as well-wishers shook hands with the MP as she took her place back among the delegates. In typical fortress Labour mode, she fails miserably to see, for example, that the independent press was virtually univocal in its dissenting stand against the development boundaries extension, despite the otherwise editorial differences between The Times, The Independent and MaltaToday.
The Gozitan MP is incapable of understanding the different nuances of resistance towards government, and just like Sant she thinks that whoever is not with them is against them. In doing so, Labour is really ensuring its policies will remain a family affair.
So now Labour hopes to steer into power with its repackaged valise of more “plans”, designed to show that Labour can manage this country better than the fumbling lot in the Cabinet. Not mere fodder for speeches and soundbites, Sant said on Saturday, but actual platforms for Labour’s government policies. It’s the work of a technocratic management.
But gone are the new ideas that once hailed Labour’s historic bloc back in 1996. Divorce is no longer on Sant’s agenda. Why would he rock the boat?
And yet, even though Labour enjoys higher ratings than the PN’s, rumoured to be at their lowest ever, Alfred Sant is still not able to top the popularity ratings enjoyed by Gonzi himself. It’s not just the Labour leader’s wooden charisma – it’s the lack of freshness, a confirmation of Labour’s effortless re-election strategy, confident that the weary Nationalist party will have alienated enough voters by the next election.
As rising prices and energy and fuel prices rocket, Sant has chosen to let the chaos on the other side do the work for him. The arrogance of the Nationalist government has made Labour a welcome prospect more than ever before. But will this mean new votes for Labour from floating voters? That’s the kind of confirmation Labour needs for a major breakthrough.