Raphael Vassallo

Was that a debate or a funeral?

Raphael Vassallo writes: The whole thing reminded me uncannily of a funeral. That ominous black backdrop clearly didn’t help much – what were they even thinking?

Raphael Vassallo
29 August 2017, 7:30am
Is there anyone out there who hasn’t heard those identical (and equally vacuous) catchphrases at least a thousand times before?
Is there anyone out there who hasn’t heard those identical (and equally vacuous) catchphrases at least a thousand times before?
Last Thursday, I decided to watch the televised debate between the four PN leadership contestants. I can’t say my expectations were very high... there is, after all, a limit to how often you can hear the same old recycled clichés and platitudes before falling asleep in your chair. But I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so depressing, either.

The whole thing reminded me uncannily of a funeral. That ominous black backdrop clearly didn’t help much – what were they even thinking? – but it was the facial expressions that really did the trick. With one exception – Chris Said, who clearly has a lot to grin about right now – they were all glum, morose and deathly despondent. Frank Portelli in particular looked and sounded like he might burst into tears at any moment (which is ironic, because he was also the only one to display anything resembling a sense of humour on the night).

Portelli was an exception for other reasons, too. With that beige overcoat and blue shirt, he vaguely resembled a newly regenerated ‘Doctor Who’ stepping out of the TARDIS... perhaps uncertain which century he had actually landed in. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that his ideas are straight out of the Victorian era. Or maybe I’m just watching too much retro TV.

But at least, he added a dash of colour and verve to proceedings. Everything else was so... grey. All the candidates were so... similar. With (once again) the exception of Chris Said... none of them exuded even a glimmer of confidence or optimism. And without any exception at all, none uttered even a single word that we don’t already know by heart.

In fact, by the end of the debate two hours later... I was none the wiser regarding any of those four men’s plans or visions for either the Nationalist Party or the country. And it wasn’t for lack of opportunity. The journalists present actually did an excellent job of asking all the right questions. Each candidate in turn was asked very specifically what he intended to do, if elected party leader, that was in any way NEW. And not a single one of them gave a clear answer.

Even worse, they all said exactly the same thing. They would ‘bring the party closer to the people’. They would ‘go back to basics’. They would ‘reaffirm the party’s core principles’.  Oh, and of course... they’re all in politics ‘to serve’ (excuse me while I reach for the sick bag under my seat).

I mean... come on. Seriously. Is there anyone out there who hasn’t heard those identical (and equally vacuous) catchphrases at least a thousand times before? What do any of those things even mean, anyway? ‘Closer to the people’, for instance. How much ‘closer’ do they want to get? It’s not like the Stamperija is in a different galaxy, you know. It’s slap-bang in the middle of a densely populated urban neighbourhood, in a country that is simply crawling with people everywhere you look. All they have to do to ‘get close’ to those people is actually emerge from their cocoon every once in a while.

And besides: the PN already has youth centres, ‘sectional committees’, ‘kazini’ and regular coffee morning/bingo sessions in every nook and cranny of the frigging country. Party officials make direct phone-calls to practically every single household throughout every single election campaign.  The infrastructure to connect with people is all there, already in place... all you have to do is actually use it.

But like I said earlier: at least, Said was the only one smiling. That makes a big difference in the world of politics, you know. It is in fact about the only reason why Said can be described (in a very roundabout way) as the ‘winner’ of last Thursday’s debate. Not for anything he said, or any vision he actually conjured up to mesmerise his audience... but merely because he was the only one of the four to strike up a vaguely human rapport with the viewer.

There is, of course, a very good reason why only Chris Said would be capable of doing that right now. The others are far too busy fighting off the usual co-ordinated bevy of allegations/revelations/accusations, etc... all coming from the same, overtly pro-Said source. It is in fact difficult to imagine a more clearly vitiated contest than the one we are currently witnessing. And the implications are quite serious, for a party that likes to think it ‘rescued democracy’ back in the 1980s.

If Chris Said goes on to win this election, it would not be on his own merits... it can’t be, because (at the time of writing) he hasn’t actually demonstrated any yet, beyond all the usual platitudes. It would only be because his opponents were all methodically and systematically annihilated in mid-race. Under the present circumstances, he looks set to cross the finishing line first... not because he ran any faster than his competitors, but simply because his competitors were all tripped up soon after the starting pistol: leaving him literally the last man running.

If that sort of thing happened in an Olympic race, the event would have to be called off and investigated. The winner might even be stripped of his medal. It would, in a word, be considered ‘cheating’.

But to be fair, the rules of the political game are indeed slightly different. People with serious liabilities should have known better than to enter the race to begin with. They cannot realistically cry foul when their dirty linen is exposed by others: it’s what generally happens when you have dirty linen to expose. Besides, the exact same tactics were used against Labour very recently... and I don’t recall any of the four candidates complaining too loudly at the time.

By the same token, Chris Said cannot personally be blamed for having fewer skeletons in his closet than, say, Adrian Delia or Frank Portelli. But it’s not exactly the ideal way to win a leadership race, now, is it?

Personally, I would expect the winner of any leadership race to be the one who evokes the most plausible, doable and appealing vision for the future of the party and country. Yet we heard nothing of the kind in those two hours. Again, there is a good reason for this: both Delia and Portelli wasted most of their allotted time fending off the above-mentioned accusations, leaving them little opportunity to actually expound any ideas of their own.

But I didn’t hear any original ideas from any of the four at all. Chris Said, for instance, made much of his promise to restore ‘maternity’ and ‘paternity’ to a law which he himself approved in Parliament a few months ago. Leaving aside the total misrepresentation of that law and its wording... what, is that the best he could come up with? A minor disagreement concerning legal terminology? That’s supposed to excite and invigorate the PN grassroots? To (in his own words) ‘bring young people back to the party’?

Apart from being a text-book case of skewed priorities, Said’s attitude towards that particular issue is also regressive. I use the word in its literal sense: he wants to go back in time, and reverse a decision that many people feel was progressive.  Whether you agree with him or not, the fact remains that he is basically looking backwards, not forwards. And the rest of his ideological mantra – Christian values, the value of life, solidarity, etc. – is equally anchored to the past.

These may indeed have been hugely innovative and exciting ideas, when they were first proposed as ideological motifs for the PN... but that was by Eddie Fenech Adami in 1977: a full 40 years ago. There is nothing even remotely ‘innovative’ about repeating that line today. Not, at least, if you have absolutely no intention of building anything of your own, on top of the structure you inherited from your predecessors.

Meanwhile, Alex Perici Calascione went a whole step further: he even told us that “there is nothing to change from the PN’s seminal ‘Fehmiet Bazici’ document”. What is that, if not another way of saying that, under his leadership, the PN will remain tethered to the same basic vision and identity that has underpinned it for decades?

And OK, some of those ‘Fehmiet Bazici’ might even still be valid today. After all, one doesn’t expect a political party to magically transform into something completely different from one day to the next.

But ‘sticking to what’s already there’ is, by definition, nothing ‘new’. Like that awful cliché about ‘being in politics to serve’, the entire approach is nothing but a hackneyed repackaging of the same old political message that has been emanating from the PN since I was around six years old... and I’m 46 today. It is dull, boring and hopelessly meaningless to my ears: just imagine how antediluvian it must sound to people born two decades later.

The PN doesn’t need a new leader to ensure that everything remains the same. Quite the contrary: it needs a new leader to ensure that the party gets the reinvention it so desperately and urgently needs. So if this tired, repetitive and unimaginative mantra is the best any of the aspiring contestants can actually come up with... well, maybe it was indeed a funeral I watched last Thursday.