Raphael Vassallo

They’re not ‘dinosaurs’. Dinosaurs are extinct...

Their precious Nationalist Party has just been gutted like an Icthyosaurus at the last election and as a result, is now poised for a new leader and a new sense of direction

Raphael Vassallo
29 June 2017, 8:28am
Well, just stop and think for a second how these ‘dinosaurs’ must be feeling right now
Well, just stop and think for a second how these ‘dinosaurs’ must be feeling right now
My cartoon-drawing days are long over, but there is an obvious caricature just crying out to be drawn right now. It would portray Joseph Muscat at the controls of a giant ball-and-chain demolition bulldozer – marked ‘civil liberties’ – in the process of smashing the Stamperija in Pieta’ to atoms.

The cartoon would be spectacularly apt today, in light of the gut-wrenching internal recriminations we now see boiling over from the Nationalist Party headquarters. But the truth is that it would have been just as applicable any time since around 2010. That, more or less, is how long the PN has been enduring this sustained siege. And to date, it has lost every single skirmish, every single battle, and every single attempt at a counter-sortie. 

So one-sided has this war become, that if it were a movie I’d probably have to hit the pause button and take a break. Too repetitive, too predictable, too painful to sit through to the end. How many times are we going to watch the same old political strategy successfully chipping away another block from the PN’s foundations? How long before the defenders finally realise that, unless they address this great big gaping hole in their defences... they cannot possibly hope to win this war?

OK, let’s focus on the latest offensive. (With hindsight, the same considerations apply to all previous battles, too: divorce, IVF, embryo-freezing, civil unions, etc). 

Joseph Muscat’s first action upon re-election was to foist a gay marriage bill onto the Parliamentary agenda. It would, of course, be cynical to assume that his intention was merely to place the PN in a tight spot; I see no real reason to doubt the sincerity of his intentions (even if the argument could easily be made: Joseph Muscat once told us he was against full marriage equality for same-sex couples, though he seems to have forgotten that today). 

But all that is irrelevant, really. The PN has indeed been put in a tight spot; and once again, it appears to have no visible strategy to get out of it.

For once, I’ll admit I don’t have one to suggest myself, either. Short of the party actually splitting into two – a very real possibility, by the way – I see absolutely no way around this that can keep all factions content enough not to openly rebel. I bet Joseph Muscat doesn’t, either... and that’s why he keeps going at it hammer and tongs. What I find hard to understand is how nobody (or at least, very few people) seem to see exactly WHY this is proving such an impossible war to fight. 

Consider, for instance, the reactions to Tonio Fenech’s comments on the gay marriage issue. I have lost count of the times he has been labelled a ‘dinosaur’ on Facebook and elsewhere. What is interesting is that most of these reactions come from people who would  normally support the PN: in other words, people who feel comfortable within the PN’s liberal faction... as opposed to the conservative faction dominated by the likes of Tonio Fenech, Edwin Vassallo, and (if you go back far enough), Eddie Fenech Adami.

Ah, yes. Therein lies the rub. If Tonio Fenech is a ‘dinosaur’, for simply adhering to what has always been the Nationalist Party’s core ethos and identity... what would we have to call Eddie: ‘the father of European Malta’, who invented so much of that identity to begin with?  What about the views of tens of thousands of Nationalists who no doubt see things the same way? Who have serious misgivings about the ‘ultra-liberal’ direction (by their reckoning, anyway) this country now appears to hurtling in? Are they all ‘dinosaurs’, too?

If so, they must be a hugely successful species of dinosaur, to survive their own extinction for so long. For make no mistake: the dinosaurs (real ones) are long gone... but those people are still very much alive and kicking. And they are not going to just fade into nothingness, either... simply because their views are no longer strategically useful for the PN. 

On the contrary, it could very well work out the other way around. Those people ARE the PN... or at least, they were, there before all this ‘new-fangled stuff’ (sticking to the same perspective) cropped up to annoy them. They certainly have more claim to seniority within that party: whose motto for over a century was ‘Religio et Patria.’

Well, just stop and think for a second how these ‘dinosaurs’ must be feeling right now. Their precious Nationalist Party has just been gutted like an Icthyosaurus at the last election... which, incidentally, also means that it has clearly lost the liberal vote it hoped to regain with its U-turns on civil liberty issues... and as a result, is now poised for a new leader and a new sense of direction.

Well, if I were one of the ‘dinosaurs’ myself (note: just to avoid any misunderstandings: I’m all for the new marriage act myself, wherever that places me on the evolutionary scale... but like I said, that is irrelevant to this article) I’d probably turn to my critics and say:

‘Oy! You pesky little mammals... thought you could just evolve out of nowhere and drive us to extinction, did you? That it was time for us old fossils to be muscled out of the way, huh? Well, just look where all your ‘liberal re-branding’ has landed the PN these past four years:  all the way back to the Precambrian, if you ask me. Oh, I might be a little on the Jurassic side myself... but hey! Even my pet velociraptor could have done a better job than THAT...”

And who can really argue? I can see the logic in that argument, even if I disagree with the direction the ‘dinosaur’ faction wants to go in. The fact is that no party can possibly hope to simultaneously straddle those two opposite dimensions forever. Sooner or later, it will be torn in two.

From this vantage point, a lot of other past political strategies suddenly make a lot more sense. The PN obviously recognise and understand this inherent structural weakness their party has inherited. But they also know that, if they managed to keep their divided party together for so long in the past, it was by appealing to a ‘common cause’ that could (briefly) force the warring sides into an uneasy truce.

This is why I went out of my way to mention Eddie Fenech Adami earlier. Whatever you make of him in other areas, to me, this was his single most extraordinary political accomplishment. He was a veritable master at capitalising on situations with a view to forging unlikely alliances. As opposition leader in the 1980s, he successfully turned an electoral campaign into a ‘battle for democracy’; as Prime Minister, he turned his own party’s EU membership bid into the ‘be-all and end-all’ for the entire country. 

And it worked every time. Heck, even I fell for it. I genuinely believed – election after election – that we had to keep voting the ‘dinosaurs’ in; not necessarily because we liked them, or agreed with what they represented... but only because the alternative was too awful to contemplate.

But then... just look what happened when the PN finally ran out of ‘common causes’ to glue their reluctant supporters together. What reasons did liberal PN voters have to carry on supporting the PN... when ‘their’ party suddenly (and inexplicably) chose to take a position against divorce in a referendum? 

And what reason do conservative Nationalists still have today, to continue supporting a party that openly supports same-sex marriage (which, for the umpteenth time, is anathema to them... regardless what you or I think?)

Basically, the PN needed another ‘cause celebre’ which never materialised. First they tried demonising Joseph Muscat, because the strategy was so spectacularly successful with Alfred Sant. It didn’t work. Then they tried blowing the Panama issue up into something many million times bigger than it actually was... and that didn’t work either.   

 What are they going to do now?

I reckon that will prove the single most important question the next PN leader will have to face. He or she is either going to have to cook up yet another ‘be-all or end-all’ issue – and it will have to be something really (but REALLY) big, if it’s going to have the same effect as EU membership – or simply accept that their party cannot be both liberal and conservative at the same time... and finally decide which side of that fence the PN is actually on.

Otherwise, the decision will have to be taken by others. One half of that party will end up simply abandoning ship.