Raphael Vassallo

If you’re going to ‘rebel’... do it properly

I expected Delia's ill-conceived motion to be duly outvoted in parliament, but I did not expect the entire PN to also spontaneously combust...

Raphael Vassallo
28 November 2017, 7:16am
Damn. Why do I never learn that certain impulses are there to be acted upon... instead of only written about in articles from time to time?

Last month, I predicted that Opposition leader Adrian Delia would be roundly defeated in his bid to stop lesbian couples from claiming sick leave when availing of IVF treatment abroad. I ended that article with the line: “I might just run down to the nearest bookie (any old street corner, these days) to place a bet before the first gong. Here: it’s €10 on the lesbians... KO in the first round. Anyone willing to offer decent odds?”

Why, oh why, did I not place that bet? Whatever the odds, I’d be ‘X’ amount richer than I am today. Not only was it indeed a spectacular KO in the first round... but Delia emerged from the encounter so thoroughly beaten up, that it is debatable whether the party he leads can still claim to even exist at all.

And this, I must confess, is something I did not predict in that article. What I expected was for Delia’s ill-conceived motion to be duly outvoted in parliament... and that the fall-out would include the irreversible loss of both the LGBTIQ lobby, as well as the progressive Nationalist vote in general.

But I didn’t expect the entire PN to also spontaneously combust like that; or at least, not quite so suddenly and emphatically. In practice, what happened last Thursday was that Adrian Delia entered the House with 28 MPs representing the Nationalist Party – plus another two representing its junior ‘coalition partner’, the PD – only to stagger out reeling a couple of hours later... with only 21 seats to his name.

"There are two PNs represented in the House; the 21 seats controlled by Delia and the seven seats contolled by a rebel faction led (or so it seems) by Simon Busuttil"
Incredible as this may seem, the PN somehow managed to lose seven whole parliamentary seats in one fell swoop... and it would have been eight, too, had another Nationalist MP (Claudette Buttigieg) also been present for the vote.

Meanwhile, the Opposition as a whole – including PD – lost nine seats. In the 20-odd years I’ve been writing about politics in Malta, I have quite frankly never seen anything even remotely comparable to a fiasco of this magnitude.

The only instance that comes close was the public spat between Dom Mintoff and Alfred Sant in 1998. The fall-out of that encounter was arguably much more serious in the short-term – Sant’s government collapsed as a result – but that’s only because Labour happened to be in government at the time, while Delia’s PN is currently in Opposition. (What would have happened had Delia lost seven seats... as Prime Minister? I shudder to even imagine.)

And even then, only because Sant had tied the Cottonera project issue to a vote of confidence in his own government... which he went on to lose.

Already you can see certain parallels. The jury is still out over whether Sant would have been able to weather that storm, had he not made the fatal mistake of anchoring his own government to a doomed public project. Likewise, had Delia succumbed to internal pressure and granted his own MPs a free vote – as, after all, he had promised to do before being elected PN leader – the fallout would have been nowhere near as serious.

But no: both Sant and Delia took a gamble that backfired spectacularly. They tried to impose their will on the party through brute political force... and were defeated by their own backbenchers.

The only other difference is that Delia ended up literally eviscerating his party in the process. There are now two PNs represented in the House, not just one. There are the 21 seats controlled by Delia... and the seven seats controlled by a rebel faction led (or so it seems) by Simon Busuttil: who has now made it very clear that he doesn’t take his orders from the party leader. As far as I can see, it is a totally unprecedented state of affairs (at least, since Independence) for an Opposition party in Malta.

As such, it calls for a little analysis. It is tempting to just read the entire situation as a vote of no-confidence in Adrian Delia as PN leader... and thus pole-vault to the conclusion that he should be replaced. But alas, things are rarely that straightforward in politics. I think we need adopt a broader view of the current situation. One of the questions we need to ask is: what is the PN, anyway... and who actually owns it?

Luckily the answer is easy enough on paper. The only people who can truly claim ownership of the PN are the paid-up members who own a stake in it. It is they who elect party leaders... and in September, they voted for Adrian Delia. No ifs or buts. That’s what happened, full-stop.

"The only people who can truly claim ownership of the PN are the paid-up members who own a stake in it. It is they who elect party leaders... and in September, they voted for Adrian Delia"
That makes Delia the only legitimate PN leader, at least according to the party statute. And herein lies part of the problem: regardless of one’s private views on the issue that was being discussed before that vote (I happen to agree with Busuttil’s stance for a change), Delia was technically within his rights to set his own party’s policy direction on what he considers a social issue.

He was also within his rights to deny a free vote. Simon Busuttil should know this, because he did exactly the same thing with the Civil Unions bill (and also faced a backbencher revolt, in the form of Edwin Vassallo).  One can, of course, question the political wisdom of such a move. In fact, I already did myself, in this very article. But at this stage, with the barn door wide open and the bolting horse nowhere to be seen...  that would be to miss the point entirely.

Even if we all agree that Delia is clearly an inexperienced politician who is way out of his depth... he still remains the official PN leader, chosen democratically by the only people who officially have the authority to choose PN leaders.

This forces us to turn our attention to the rebels, and ask what they are actually trying to achieve here. There are, after all, ways and means to rebel against a party leadership. The most dramatic way is to simply resign from the party altogether. It is also the most honest and logical way in this instance... because let’s face it: the objections to Delia as PN leader go far beyond his views on IVF. Busuttil, in particular, had objected to his entire candidacy for the leadership in the first place.

Echoing Daphne Carauana Galizia’s arguments (which have separately been echoed all over the social media by other Nationalists) he claimed that Delia does not fit the profile of a PN leader, because he is not ‘above suspicion’.

This raises the question of why the party rebels still consider themselves part of the PN at all, given their stated opposition to its new leadership. To give a practical example: Daphne herself didn’t. She wrote (as always, rather explicitly) that she would not vote for a party led by Delia, and would instead ‘fight the PN with the same conviction she had fought against Muscat’s Labour’ (or words to that effect).

The same question also applies to the thousands of disgruntled Nationalists who endlessly complain that they no longer identify with ‘their’ party. That, in their own words, they have been ‘orphaned’.

It is a regrettable metaphor, because it implies a ‘parent-child’ relationship between political parties and their supporters. Much as I hate to explode such a romantic illusion... sorry, but no such kinship exists. For one thing, one does not ‘choose’ one’s parents... but one does choose which political party to vote for.

Secondly, parents are by definition responsible for their children. Perhaps these ‘political orphans’ should ask themselves whether the PN – or any other party, for that matter – has any form of comparable obligation towards themselves.

What makes them think the PN is ‘theirs’, anyway? It’s a political party: it sets out its own political agenda, and voters are free to agree or disagree with it as they please. If the party adopts a position that sits uneasily with its voters... well, it just kisses those voters goodbye, and moves on. It certainly has no obligation to represent them against its will.

The bottom line is, if the PN no longer fits the bill of the party you want to vote for... then just stop bloody voting for it, and consider your options.

There are plenty to choose from that I can see even at a cursory glance.  You can (like Daphne did) choose to fight it from the outside: try and scuttle the PN altogether, and start again from scratch.

You can also decide (like Marlene Farrugia did) to start again without destroying the PN... and just form a new party that really can provide a foster home for all those political ‘orphans’ out there.

You could also take the path of least resistance, and try to salvage the PN from the inside: in which case, the core strategy would have to involve persuading the pro-Delia faction to ditch their chosen leader, and realign itself with your own principles.

And lastly, you can just vote for the remaining options, or not vote at all. There are other political parties to choose from, you know.

The one avenue I don’t really see open to you, is the one the Parliamentary rebels seem hell-bent on taking: to insist that the recent changes in the PN were all just a bad dream, and that - by whingeing, whining and stamping your feet – it might just ‘go away of its own accord’.

Sorry, folks. Ain’t gonna happen.  And I’m willing to place another bet on it (really, this time).