Raphael Vassallo

There is a ‘new way’... but nobody’s tried it

The electorate had no difficulty making that quantum evolutionary leap when the time came. So perhaps the PN might want to give it a try before electing a new leader

Raphael Vassallo
20 July 2017, 7:30am
Tonio Fenech
Tonio Fenech
One of the odd things about reading Tonio Fenech’s letter to the Nationalist Party last week is that – while he and I approach almost all issues from a diametrically opposed angle – I still find myself agreeing with most of what he wrote.

Not only that: but several of his arguments seem to echo my own sentiments about that party, sometimes dating back 10 years or more. Let me start with one example. Tonio Fenech makes the pertinent observation that the Nationalist Party tends to take its own supporters for granted. 

“Every day I come across more and more people who feel that this home has been stolen from them, not through some democratic process, but through a sense of denial for what we stood for, even our most basic values.  [...] These people, like me, feel that the Party has taken them for granted, assuming wrongly that we will just continue voting PN because that is what we always did.”

Hmm. That’s an awfully familiar sensation. In fact it reminds me of a conversation I once had with a PN activist – I won’t bother mentioning names, because it was someone rather low down the party hierarchy – at a social gathering around 2006 or thereabouts. 

I’ll admit the issues being discussed at the time were a fry cry from the ones that now upset Tonio Fenech so much. Indeed, the PN was very much touting Fenech’s own line back then: i.e., that the party should be guided exclusively by ‘Catholic values’, and simply jettison all the unwanted ‘liberals’ and ‘secularists’ who had somehow tagged along for the ride. So it’s important to stress that – at the time I’m talking about – Tonio Fenech himself was on board with precisely the same attitude he now berates so loudly.

But anyway, the issue we were discussing was (then PM) Lawrence Gonzi’s crusade to entrench Malta’s abortion law into the Constitution, so that it would require a two-thirds majority to ever in any way amend. 

I won’t dig up all the old arguments again: suffice it to say that Gonzi’s ‘new way of doing politics’ – which he had promised just a year before – added up to the same old tactic of simply forcing the party (and, in this case, the entire country) into a certain ideological direction... without ever bothering to ask its voters what they actually thought of the idea, and how it might go down with all the different (often incompatible) factions and points of view that had somehow got embedded into that party over the years.

Some time later, Gonzi would take the same concept several light years further: arbitrarily electing to turn the PN into an ‘anti-divorce’ party before the 2011 referendum. Unaccountably, he felt he could set thousands of his own party supporters adrift in a lifeboat... and still somehow steer his ship to electoral victory with only half its crew on board. It was a mistake from which the PN has quite frankly never recovered.  

During that conversation, I told this nameless PN activist that I – who had hitherto always voted Nationalist – no longer felt represented by (or comfortable with) the direction that party had chosen to take. And yet, it still somehow expected me and other like-minded voters to carry on supporting it in every election regardless... as though it no longer mattered what the party actually represented.

The response I got? “Well... if that’s how you feel... vote Alfred Sant!” 

I still remember the look of incredulous disbelief I received, when I replied: ‘OK, then... when’s the election?’ From an expression of smug complacency, it changed to bewilderment, then horror, then pure outrage... in that order. It would almost have been comical, had the original answer not pissed me off so much. The transition betrayed a certain underlying sentiment that was prevalent in PN circles at the time... and evidently still is, though the leadership and ideological thrust have both changed since then. 

To put it succinctly: there was this bizarre idea that people like me would always baulk at the idea of ever ‘voting Labour’, under any circumstance whatsoever... even if the Nationalist Party had morphed into something we could never, ever bring ourselves to vote for again. It was almost as if ‘voting PN’ were some kind of religious duty; or akin to loyally supporting a football team, even when it starts playing like shit.

Now: ‘undying loyalty’ of that kind may well have a place in something as vacuous and utterly inconsequential as ‘football’. Let’s face it: the worst thing your favourite football team is ever going to do is get itself relegated... or maybe done for match-fixing. Big deal. It doesn’t change anything out here in the real world, you know.

In politics, however, it’s another matter. We don’t necessarily support a political party because we like waving its flag, or singing along to its anthem. The question of what a political party is and does – what causes it chooses to represent, and how it fights its battles – assumes paramount importance when debating whether you actually want to see it in power or not.

But that was just never considered important by the Nationalist Party. Tonio Fenech may be arguing from the clean opposite perspective today, and may even have contributed to the same attitude himself. But he is still 100% spot-on when he argues that: “Principled people, many committed Catholics and Christians [… ] simply cannot accept our positions [...] for them it is not something they can turn a Nelson’s eye to but a serious moral issue. Forget this, and you will never see these peoples’ votes again.”

The only part he left out is that you don’t have to be a Christian or a Catholic to have political principles of your own, or ‘red lines’ which cannot be crossed. Under Gonzi, secularists and liberals felt just as disillusioned and sidelined as the committed Christian faction of the PN does today. And in both cases, the party just pressed on regardless... nonchalantly ignoring the great big cracks and chasms that were opening up all over its support-base.

The big difference is that Tonio Fenech’s missive comes at a point where the PN is itself at a crossroads. It is now poised to elect a new leader, after an even more crushing defeat than the last one. More importantly, it must also confront the sheer failure of the Simon Busuttil leadership era... which perversely mirrors that of Gonzi’s second term, even if Busuttil tried to take the party in a very different direction. 

Unless the PN somehow faces up to the reasons for this failure, the new leader (whoever it turns out to be) will inevitably repeat the same mistakes. Or rather, mistake (singular). In both cases, there was the same error of judgment involved. At the risk of simplifying, I would define it as ‘over-reliance on the persona of the party leader, to the exclusion of all other views or perspectives.’

Lawrence Gonzi’s ‘new way of doing politics’ was simply to refashion the Nationalist Party as an extension of himself. He was personally against divorce... so the PN had to (fatally) take up the same position. He has strong pro-life opinions; so his personal views had to be reflected in the Constitution, where they could bind future governments and entire future generations, etc, etc.

Busuttil went about things slightly differently; but when it came to performing a rather spectacular U-turn on the same-sex marriage issue, he simply substituted the party’s perspective for his own. He changed his mind on gay marriage since the Civil Unions debate... so it follows that the entire party can simply be expected to revise its multifarious opinions accordingly, without ever asking any questions.

Sorry, folks, but it doesn’t ‘follow’ one tiny bit... for reasons that by now should be too obvious to repeat. The good news, however, is that there has all along been a ‘new way of doing politics’ waiting to be explored; it just hasn’t been attempted yet. The PN – and all other parties, for that matter – has to hit on a way to adopt its ideological positions on the basis of what its prospective voters actually want... rather than simply telling those voters what to think, which is the only thing it has done these past 15 years.  

This would, admittedly, require a little work. The party’s statute would have to change, as would its internal dialogue processes (if any) and decision-taking mechanisms. It would also involve a minor evolutionary step, beyond the (quite frankly childish) stage of ‘everything depends on the party leader’... to a stage where the leader is de facto an extension of the party identity, instead of the other way round.

And come on, people. It is not even that difficult. The electorate had no difficulty making that quantum evolutionary leap when the time came. So perhaps the PN might want to give it a try before electing a new leader. Otherwise, it will once again be putting the cart before the horse.