Raphael Vassallo

‘We’ve got to hold on to what we’ve got’

'As of tomorrow – when the newly elected PN leader officially takes up office – the bipartisan political system we have all known since Independence will be no more'

Raphael Vassallo
19 September 2017, 7:30am
Debate between then PN-leadership, Adrian Delia and Chris Said
Debate between then PN-leadership, Adrian Delia and Chris Said
Once, many years ago, I said to myself: ‘If I ever end up quoting Jon Bon Jovi in a headline... well, that’s when you’ll know we’re approaching the very end of the very end.’  

And oh look: I’ve just quoted Jon Bon Jovi in a headline. What more evidence do you need? End times are clearly at hand. So let’s not all pretend – as we usually do – to be ‘surprised’ when the whole shebang comes crashing down in flames about our ears. And let’s not delude ourselves that this is just a minor ‘blip’, either... a slight irregularity that will adjust itself over time. No, no, no. The changes now affecting Malta’s political landscape are of a permanent and irreversible nature. As of tomorrow – when the newly elected PN leader officially takes up office – the bipartisan political system we have all known since Independence will be no more. 

Already there are graphic indications that one of the two major parties can no longer scrape together (or even come close to scraping together) a national majority. The last time the Nationalist Party won an election (2008) was also the first time it had ever governed without commanding more than 50% of the national vote. Over the next 10 years, its slice of the electoral pie has consistently diminished. In 2017, the PN even managed to lose two seats in what was previously – previously, mark you – its biggest stronghold: the 10th district. It has, in fact, been in complete free-fall for the better part of a decade now. 

There is a fairly straightforward reason for this, and it is the same reason I quoted Bon Jovi, above. The next line of that song goes: ‘It doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not’. Put those two verses together, and you have a reasonably accurate description of the entire Nationalist modus operandi at the moment. ‘We will doggedly stick to the only strategies and tactics we know... regardless if they actually work or not’. 

Now: this wouldn’t be such a tragically fatal outlook, if the strategies and tactics in question were worth keeping.  I won’t begrudge Simon Busuttil for sticking religiously to the old mantra of ‘attack, attack, attack’. It worked admirably for Eddie Fenech Adami in his time. And though I disagreed with the approach, I could still see a certain logic in the assumption that a once-successful strategy might conceivably work again.

"In two hours of talk - and tiresome talk it was, too - neither of them breathed a single word about the future at all"
Besides: even if there were all along clear indications (i.e., the Gonzi experience) that times had changed, and that the approach should really have changed with them... well, these are realities that only become fully visible with hindsight. Simon Busuttil did not have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight until last June. (Sadly, he also lacked the faculty of foresight at any time before that; which explains why he went on to lose by an even greater margin than his predecessor.)

But this only emphasises the urgency of the problem today. Chris Said and Adrian Delia do not have Busuttil’s excuse. They do possess the benefit of hindsight. They have all the indicators they need – not least, the election result – to come up with a new (and above all different) trajectory for their party. Yet what are they both proposing? What did they actually come up with over some six weeks of intense campaigning?

In the last debate on NET TV last Thursday, both contestants were repeatedly asked to outline their vision for the future of the Nationalist Party. In two whole hours of talk – and tiresome talk it was, too, seeing as how they both heckled and interrupted each other incessantly – neither of them breathed a single word about the future at all. 

Everything they said centred on the need to go backwards in time, and rediscover a forgotten age when the PN still knew how to win elections. Chris Said even said so explicitly, in no uncertain terms: his strategy to ‘return to winning ways’ involves rewinding the cassette to the last point at which it had played a victorious tune. Even his chosen slogan, ‘The Right Way’, is nothing but a deliberate rehash of Eddie’s ‘Is-Sewwa Jirbah Zgur’. It might have meant something 40 years ago... but we’re not exactly living 40 years ago, are we? 

The bigger surprise, however, came from Adrian Delia. Again, Chris Said has an excuse which simply doesn’t apply to his rival. He was a veteran of both Gonzi and Busuttil’s administrations: which also means that the (limited) successes of those administrations – but also their many manifest failures – are in part attributable to Chris Said. It is for this reason alone that Said has no choice but to present himself as a ‘continuity candidate’. He cannot consign the old ways to history, without also consigning himself to the same fate.

But Adrian Delia? Wasn’t the whole point of his candidacy to wrest away the reins of the party from the people who had screwed things up so badly? Wasn’t he the ‘outsider’, whose merit rested squarely on the fact that he had no share whatsoever in any of the blame for the current state of the PN?

If so... why is he proposing exactly the same formula used by Lawrence Gonzi to transform a once-invincible party into a serial loser of elections? Why does Adrian Delia (just like Gonzi before him) present to us his own limited, narrow perspective, as if it were the only viewpoint that mattered?

Do I need to remind Delia that the PN started losing support precisely because of this stuck-up, antediluvian, ‘I-am-right-you-are-wrong’ attitude? Highly complex social and medical issues need to be met by highly complex and evolved policies. It is clearly not enough to base a party’s policies upon its leader’s private fetishes and fantasies. Not in the 21st century, at any rate. 

Gonzi discovered this to his cost, when he unwisely tried to impose his own moral compass onto the PN on issues such as divorce. But to be fair to Gonzi, he was a lot less absolutist in his approach than Delia was last Thursday.

For instance: it is simply unacceptable that a potential future prime minister pre-emptively aborts any form of discussion on issues like abortion and euthanasia. Delia summed up his entire position on such matters in just two words: ‘absolutely not’. That is the approach of a tin-pot dictator... not the leader of a party that claims to have once ‘rescued democracy’. 

There is an important irony is that statement, by the way: for the PN can indeed justify its claims to have been a force for democracy in the past. Freedom of expression was under severe threat by the government that preceded Eddie Fenech Adami’s in 1987. Now: I will resist the temptation to go off on a tangent about how the transition could actually have been handled much better... certain basic rights continued to be denied us even long after that cut-off date... but the fact remains that it is partly thanks to the PN that we are no longer living in an age of absolutes. 

This country has clearly progressed beyond the stage where we needed a prime minister’s permission just to discuss things... and the PN can take some of the credit for that.

So all we needed, I suppose, was Dr Adrian Delia – the man who claims to want to ‘restore the PN to its former ‘glory’ – threatening to roll back even that milestone achievement. ‘There will be no discussion on the subject,’ we were told, ‘because Mr Bigshot Head Honcho doesn’t want the issue to be discussed.’  

Erm... sorry, Mr Bigshot Head Honcho, but that is not your call to make. It will not be Adrian Delia (nor Chris Said, whose views on such matters are identical) to simply ban any future discussion because he doesn’t like the subject. The subject will be discussed, with or without their input. And if either of them intends to turn this into a case of ‘my way or the highway’... I can assure them from now that the rest of the country will gladly take the highway, as it has always done in the past.

Meanwhile... much more seriously, from the perspective of a leadership election... if both candidates represent identical approaches, and each promises to repeat the exact same mistakes as his predecessors... what the hell is there even to choose between them?

Once again, the question is more relevant to Delia: who, after all, is the only one claiming to represent a ‘New Way’. So... why on earth does he do nothing but parrot and echo Chris Said’s own arguments?

It’s uncanny: no other word to describe it.  Chris Said delivers a five minute expose of his archaic reasoning – still using the same old ancestral slogans and mantras (eg, ‘Solidarjeta’) that date back to the Cold War... and a few seconds later, Adrian Delia repeats almost exactly the same sentiments, in almost exactly the same words. Both espouse the same ‘principles’ and ‘values’ (though neither seems capable of articulating what those ‘principles’ and ‘values’ even are...). And, more incredibly still, both seem to think that there is nothing about the Nationalist Party’s ethos and ‘core beliefs’ that even needs to change. 

If that’s the case... then quite frankly I see no reason for the PN to change leader, either. It’s like deciding who gets to steer the Titanic headlong into an iceberg. Does it even matter? If the old captain only knows one course to set for the ship, and doggedly refuses to realise the danger... and if the incoming replacement captain has no intention of changing that course even by the tiniest of degrees... no, not even when the iceberg is looming dead ahead on the horizon... and if (to bring this impossibly long sentence to an end) both your two aspiring future captains suddenly start singing: ‘We’ve got to hold on to what we’ve got... doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not...”

... well, who the heck is going to care which one of those two losers ends up going down with the sinking ship? We’ll all be too busy trying to squeeze ourselves into a lifeboat to even notice...