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[ANALYSIS] Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando's last laugh?
The man who paved the way for divorce to be introduced under Lawrence Gonzi’s watch, has brought down the man perceived to be the power behind the throne. What does yesterday’s vote say about the long-term legacy of a man who made all this possible?
19 June 2012, 12:00am
Judging by a MaltaToday survey showing that he had little chance of getting elected on the Nationalist ticket (being distrusted by 43% of Nationalist voters, and trusted by only 31%), it seemed to be a way of bowing out of the political scene in an honourable way.
Yet this announcement also freed his hand completely from any concern of not being elected next time round.
JPO may well claim that he has been a thorn in the government's side since before Gonzi's re-election in 2008.
In fact he built a reputation of a politician guided by strong environmental principles, when he opposed the development of cement plant in Siggiewi and a temporary landfill a short distance from the prehistoric temples of Mnajdra.
Then came the shock: Alfred Sant's pre electoral revelation that Pullicino Orlando, back then perceived to be a loyal ally of Lawrence Gonzi, was the owner of pristine land in Mistra earmarked for the development of the MEPA-approved 'Spin Valley' disco. This contrasted with Lawrence Gonzi's promise to redress the country's environmental deficit.
But instead of ditching him on the eve of the general election, the GonziPN electoral machine excelled in turning an embarrassment in to a political opportunity, turning Pullicino Orlando into a martyr of Alfred Sant's antics.
This reached a climax when Alfred Sant refused to confront JPO in a press conference, to which Pullicino Orlando was sent as a PN journalist.
Yet once elected with a staggering 5,131 votes from two districts, Pullicino Orlando quickly became an embarrassment to the PN. Not only were Sant's allegations proved right, and the permit for the disco revoked... but the MP who had proved so useful an electoral asset was suddenly turned into a pariah subjected to the criticism of PN-friendly media pundits after the general election.
Former PN general secretary Joe Saliba frankly admitted that Pullicino Orlando's fiery show of defence had led the PN to victory; but still declared that the MP should have resigned upon being elected.
Ultimately Pullicino symbolised 'GonziPN' - the disparate coalition which reassured Gonzi's re-election but was pregnant with all sorts of contradictions, including the personal recriminations of those who felt excluded from the inner echelons of the party despite having played a role in its re election.
A cathedral too far
Upon being elected in 2008, JPO flatly refused to disappear. Instead of resigning, he embarked on creating a niche for himself: becoming the first MP to test Gonzi's one seat majority, by striking out against a project in which Richard Cachia Caruana was involved as a member of the St John Co-Cathedral Foundation.
The involvement of Cachia Caruana was significant: as the PN's foremost strategist, it was natural for JPO to view the 'eminence grise' as an embodiment of the party which had used him and dumped him.
The controversial project, opposed by Astrid Vella's Flimkien Ghal Ambjent Ahjar, envisaged an underground museum to house St John's collection of Flemish tapestries.
In this way JPO could rehabilitate his name by re-inventing himself as a defender of a symbol of Malta's heritage. while also getting at the man whom he blamed for first milking him for all he was worth; then banishing him to the political wilderness.
In the end, JPO got the first taste of victory by testing for the first time Gonzi's one seat majority. In February 2009, the project was withdrawn.
But it was only after Gonzi's dismal performance in the MEP elections in which Labour won 55% that Pullicino Orlando first hinted at his resentment at the way the party had treated him before the election mentioning Cachia Caruana by name as the man whose orders he followed during the Mistra controversy.
As votes were still being counted Pullicino Orlando, expressed his resentment in an interview with MaltaToday.
In that interview, he revealed that before the general election, when he faced Sant's allegations on Mistra, he had acted according to the instructions he received from Richard Cachia Caruana.
"He would always give the instructions. The Prime Minister told me to follow his instructions to the letter. And I did."
In the interview he invited Gonzi to "watch this space" and in subsequent months he did everything possible to retain his visibility.
And Gonzi did watch Pullicino's space: appointing him chairman of the Malta Council for Science and Technology in March 2010. But this did not stop Pullicino Orlando from expressing very unorthodox views.
Pullicino Orlando kept himself busy in his attempts to carve a niche on the political scene. For a while he toyed with anti-immigration sentiments. In two articles published in The Times in 2009, he argued that Malta should consider opting out of its international obligations. He also suggested towing immigrants within swimming distance to Libya - a declaration, which blots Pullicino Orlando's liberal credentials.
The 'bolt from the blue'
Yet it was Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando's decision to drop a bombshell on Lawrence Gonzi, by setting the divorce locomotive into motion, which will ensures the MP's place in history.
Teaming up with Labour exponents like Evarist Bartolo and Green Party chairperson Michael Briguglio also helped the maverick MP dispel memories of Mistra, rehabilitating his name among opposition voters.
Moreover on this single issue Pullicino Orlando felt safe enough to vote for an opposition motion proposing the wording of the referendum question: on which the Prime Minister allowed a free vote on his bench. This was the only occasion prior to yesterday where Pullicino Orlando voted against government.
But by setting the divorce locomotive in motion, he struck at the heart of the party's identity, putting the PM in an embarrassing situation of having to vote against divorce after the referendum was approved.
The divorce issue also brought to the fore a split between the party's liberal and conservative wings: even if one can argue that by forcing a resolution of the divorce issue before the general election, JPO has done his party a favour by nullifying a potential electoral asset for the Opposition.
This was not the last sortie by Pullicino Orlando into the civil liberties camp. In March he became the first parliamentarian to propose gay marriage. Ironically, by doing so he made sure that it would be a Nationalist MP to be the first to make such a proposal.
It seemed that JPO had reconciled himself to basking in the limelight as Malta's leading "liberal" parliamentarian. Then he surprised everyone by opening fire on the issue of Turkish membership in the European Union. What seemed a non-issue for most Maltese - except for a few doctrinaire 'Islamophobes' - can be seen to have its own hidden logic directed against Richard Cachia Caruana.
For it was during this petty controversy that Pullicino Orlando re-exhumed the cable in which Richard Cachia Caruana had lobbied for Malta's entry in Nato's Partnership for Peace programme.
This set another locomotive in motion, which eventually led to today's vote. Possibly sensing Pullicino Orlando's motives, the Opposition immediately pounced on the government's fragile one seat majority presenting a motion to ask for the resignation of Cachia Caruana. Unlike Franco Debono, Pullicino Orlando's silence kept everyone guessing. Also unlike Debono, he voted against the Opposition's motion asking for the resignation of Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici.
His only statement was to reiterate the view that an election should be the best way forward in the circumstances. But this did not keep Pullicino Orlando from voting in favour of government in a confidence vote the following Monday.
For Pullicino Orlando, the backlash for voting against government on the Richard Cachia Caruana motion is a calculated one.
Having already declared that he will not be contesting the next election, Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando has put himself in a position where he is no longer accountable to the electorate for his actions.
Neither can Gonzi do much to punish him for his insubordination, as he still depends on his vote in parliament to continue the legislature. Moreover, in the case of Richard Cachia Caruana one does one expect the same wave of public sympathy generated by Franco Debono's vote against Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici.
A survey conducted by MaltaToday shows that nearly half the electorate are oblivious to Cachia Caruana's fate; while 27% are against and 24% in favour of Labour's motion. Clearly the Labour motion has not struck a chord with the electorate; nor has the Prime Minister's defence of his man in Brussels sparked much sympathy for the Cachia Caruana.
Besides, like Franco Debono before him, Pullicino Orlando has managed to settle his score with an individual cabinet member, thanks to his collusion with the opposition. What the opposition gets from the bargain is further confirmation of the government's instability.
This collusion may well be Pullicino Orlando's major weakness after yesterday's vote. For now he risks being perceived as a turncoat or a closet Labour supporter.
This may well not be the best note for a politician to end his political career, but who said that this is Pullicino Orlando's last hurrah to GonziPN?
James Debono is MaltaToday's chief reporter on environment, planning and land use issues, ...