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[ANALYSIS] Is Godfrey Farrugia a game-changer?

It is not Godfrey Farrugia’s 2,089 first count votes in the 2013 election but his example to voters which is troubling Labour most

james
James Debono
18 May 2017, 8:00am
Godfrey Farrugia
Godfrey Farrugia
The charismatic family doctor and former independent mayor of Zebbug was one of Labour’s star candidates in 2013 and was rewarded by 2,089 first count votes.  

After the election he was appointed Health Minister. But after being publicly over-ruled and humiliated by the Prime Minister on a tent set up outside the Emergency Department to serve as a reception area in case of an influx of influenza patients, Farrugia was removed from his post in a reshuffle which saw Konrad Mizzi take over the health ministry, paving the way for the partial privatisation of the sector. 

In January 2015 facing the first signs of dissent from Marlene Farrugia, Godfrey Farrugia’s partner, the former minister was appointed whip of the parliamentary group, in what may well have been a preemptive move. For by appointing him in such a sensitive role Muscat was both confirming his trust in Farrugia but also exposing him to a conflict interest, that of having to choose between party discipline and his partner. 

Farrugia’s tried and tested loyalty 

Unlike his partner Marlene, Godfrey Farrugia was reluctant to break with Muscat. As Labour whip he even voted in favour of the government in three successive no confidence votes presented by the PN in tandem with his partner, despite publicly expressing himself in favour of Konrad Mizzi’s resignation. Farrugia did stand his ground in his role as Labour’s last vocal social conservative but on its own his stance only served to represent the inevitable diversity of views among Labour voters on contentious issues like euthanasia and embryo freezing.

By showing loyalty towards the government even in difficult times, Farrugia proved his loyalty to the party and kept the respect of the grass roots who elected him. While his partner Marlene burned her bridges with Muscat by setting up her own party and teaming with the PN opposition on a number of issues, Godfrey Farrugia kept his bridges intact.

It is Godfrey Farrugia’s perceived loyalty towards the government, which earned him the respect of Labour grassroots, which has returned to haunt Muscat. It is Farrugia’s past reluctance to cross the political Rubicon, which makes his decision to resign from the party and contest with the Democratic Party under the PN, more devastating for Muscat. 

This perception was reinforced by Farrugia’s address at the PN mass meeting last Sunday in which the former Labour minister intelligently distinguished between what he described as the “fake” Labour Party led by Muscat and the real Labour Party which he is representing in the national force. 

For his speech was not directed at the Nationalists in front of him but towards Labourites angry at recent events, watching him from home. He explained that he was forced to decide simply because the PM had called an election a year ahead of time instead of using this time to strengthen the party. 

Adressing himself to Labourites, he said that the Forza Nazzjonali would defend them and they had nothing to fear.

A role model for Labourites?

Surely the decision by Godfrey Farrugia will be interpreted as a betrayal by a majority of Labour voters. But this may well not be the case among a category of disgruntled Labour voters who resent Muscat for retaining Mizzi and Schembri despite their ownership of companies in Panama. By recruiting Farrugia the PN has finally managed to provide these Labour voters with a credible role role model, something that backfired in the case of Salvu Mallia. For unlike Mallia – a self professed switcher who expressed his anger against Labour in extreme and sometimes rude language – Farrugia comes across as a soft-spoken conciliatory figure who is more motivated by principle than by anger.  Moreover while Mallia distinguished himself from the PN by adopting a liberal stance on issues like abortion, Farrugia reinforces the PN’s more conservative orientation on this issue. This may well be the only drawback for the PN as it may reinforce its conservative image. But this may well be obscured by the party’s endorsement of gay marriage.

It is doubtful whether Farrugia’s high esteem in his hometown will be enough to get him elected on his district even if he may well bring with him a number of personal votes. In the PN camp, some 9,000 are up for grabs in this district as Lawrence Gonzi, Tony Abela and Joe Cassar will not be contesting this time around. But Farrugia will also be facing competition from PN deputy leader Beppe Fenech Adami and outgoing MP Antoine Borg. But it is the national impact of his candidature which may be the greatest impact.

Labour’s counter move

Labour’s reaction on the social media was that of diminishing Farrugia’s stature, making him look like an unwilling victim of his partner’s designs. Blogger Glenn Bedingfield asked “The Nationalists are happy with Farrugia, but is he happy?” Still while many Labour supporters mocked Farrugia, Muscat and other party spokespersons commented respectfully on Farrugia’s decision, thus giving a dignified response in the face of the blow.

But in an apparent move to contrast Farrugia’s candidature; a few hours later former Nationalist MP and Marlene Farrugia’s former husband Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando presented his candidature on the seventh district – the same district contested by Godfrey Farrugia.

Unlike Godfrey Farrugia’s candidature this did not come across as a shocker simply because Pullicino Orlando had anchored himself to Labour since before the 2013 election. His candidature may well have been meant to diminish the impact of the Farrugia candidature, making the whole affair assume the look of a family saga or soap opera. But it also came at a cost, earning the party a rebuke from its former leader Alfred Sant (who had exposed Pullicino Orlando’s interest in a dubious permit for a disco in a Natura 2000 site before the 2008 election). Sant’s succinct reaction to Pullicino Orlando’s candidature was he would more gladly vote for Tal-Ajkla than for Labour’s latest recruit.

james
James Debono is MaltaToday's chief reporter on environment, planning and land use issues, ...