You can’t solve problems with empty catch-phrases

If politicians are not even going to try and come up with any solutions to the issues affecting, it’s a bit like a footballer who can’t be bothered to score a few goals

OK, so the following anecdote will probably seem a little irrelevant, given everything else that’s going on the moment – you know: the recent resurgence of COVID-19; the Nationalist Party leadership race; the ongoing immigration crisis, etc. - but… trust me, I’m going somewhere with this (or at least, I hope I am).

In any case, here goes. A few years back, I had a conversation with a Nationalist Party activist (too far down the food chain to bother naming) about the long-term effects of the 2011 divorce referendum.

For make no mistake: the changes brought about by that referendum were by no means limited merely to the ‘introduction of divorce’. Up to a point, it also shattered the fundamental dynamics of how politics actually functions in this country.

But on with the story. At one point, our nameless narrator began describing his own experiences during the 2008 election campaign, when he accompanied a Nationalist candidate on a number of house visits.   

Increasingly, they started encountering the sort of social problems that would later become much more visible during the referendum campaign itself: people who couldn’t marry their long-term partners; people complaining about the length (and outcome) of Church annulment procedures; people who resented the fact that their children – through no fault of their own – were technically classified as ‘bastards’, etc. etc.

In one particular house, they were confronted by an elderly man – not exactly a ‘liberal’, by the way; more the type who traditionally covers his fridge-door with images of Padre Pio, San Gorg Preca, Pope John Paul II, etc. – who explained that his daughter (by then middle-aged) was living with her partner ‘in a state of sin’… and that, for various reasons, her situation couldn’t be rectified by any existing legal option.

“The last thing I want before I die is for my daughter to be married,” he said; and then, turning directly to the candidate, he added: “So… what do you intend to do about it if you are elected?”

Apparently, the silence that followed was so absolute, that you could hear the grandfather clock ticking ominously away in the other room.

“What could we possibly reply to that?”, the narrator carried on with a helpless shrug. “You can’t exactly tell a man, in those circumstances: ‘Sorry, but… I’m a Catholic; I’m a conservative; I’m against divorce… and therefore, YOU have to be lumped with your problem’. You just can’t say it…”

And yet, of course, that was the only honest answer the candidate could possibly have given; and not only that, but it was also the official position of the political party he was in that house to represent in the first place.

But what made this incident (and others of its kind) so significant, back in 2011, was that it was the first time – at least, for the person who described it to me – that the Nationalist Party found itself forced to confront the sheer meaningless of its own empty rhetoric.

Take the environment, for instance. How many times have we all heard about the ‘need to strike a balance’ between the interests of, say, the construction/development lobby… and the complaints of a growing number of citizens

It was, in a word, something of a watershed moment: demarcating the precise instance when a political strategy that had always worked so well in the past – and for so very long, too – suddenly found itself crashing headlong into cold reality… only to instantly explode on impact, with all the consequences that followed (e.g., losing first the referendum, then the general election, in quick succession).

Now: I don’t know if that’s the sort of thing Bernard Grech had in mind, when he recently told an interviewer that he had “learnt the lessons” from the divorce referendum (See? I told you this was going somewhere).

What I do know, however is that the substance of the anti-divorce campaign he chose to spearhead at the time – entitled ‘Zwieg Bla Divorzju’, if you’ll remember – was exactly the same as that ‘answer’ a PN candidate couldn’t bring himself to give to that constituent, directly to his face, in his own home.

So to me, at any rate – and, on the basis of other things he has said lately, I strongly suspect to Bernard Grech also – the ‘lesson’ to be learnt from that referendum was painstakingly clear. When confronted by problems that are: a) very real; b) very serious, and; c) affecting a very great number of people… a politician’s response cannot be – as (let’s face it) it had always been before – to simply leap onto a pedestal, spout an instant halo, and endlessly pontificate about their own cherished ‘principles’ and ‘values’.

After all, politicians exist to offer people tangible solutions; not meaningless personal opinions. (Note: people like me, on the other hand, exist precisely for that latter purpose… and… well, just look at us...)

So if politicians are not even going to try and come up with any solutions to the many, many issues affecting the country at any given moment… it’s a bit like a footballer who can’t be bothered to even try and score a few goals, or make a few tackles, in the course of an entire game.

Quite frankly, they may as well not even be on the pitch.

Then again, however… the thing with ‘lessons’ is that they are rarely applicable only to one person; or even, for that matter, only to one subject.

Bernard Grech is hardly the only local politician who needed to have it spelt out to him so drastically in 2011; just as ‘divorce’ is not the only social issue that clearly requires more than just empty rhetoric in the way of a political response.

In actual fact, the same lesson can be made to apply to virtually any issue you care to name… so I’ll limit myself to just one example for now (on the understanding that it would work exactly the same with any other).

COVID-19.

Naturally, I wouldn’t want to conflate the two issues too much: if nothing else, because the problems caused by one – divorce – were ultimately fairly easy to address, through a very simple legislative change (so much so, that nobody’s even talking about them anymore… a mere 10 years after the referendum).

As we can all see, however, the problems caused by global pandemics tend to be slightly more complex and challenging than that. And yet, the same basic lesson from the 2011 divorce referendum still applies; even if, admittedly, in ways that are slightly less conspicuous.

So where all the country’s health experts urged a partial, cautious re-opening strategy... the government caved in to the demands of the hotel/entertainment lobby

For when confronted with a national problem that is: a) very real; b) very, VERY serious, and; c) affecting not just large numbers of people, but the entire population (not to mention the entire economy)…

… government’s response was still to fall back on entirely empty, meaningless political catchphrases, which – while they may have worked very well, in the past – are clearly of no use whatsoever against the present threat.

Like, for instance: ‘we need to strike a balance between [in this case] the interests of the economy, and the interests of public health’…

Speaking for myself, I have now lost count of the number of times I’ve heard either Prime Minister Robert Abela or Health Minister Chris Fearne resort to that same one-liner in recent weeks; and while I don’t exactly disagree with the overall sentiment… well, there are two problems that I can see with it, even at a glance.

The first is that it is exactly the same line that every single administration of government in this country – Labour or Nationalist, it really doesn’t matter – has always taken, whenever faced with problems pitting incompatibly different interests against each other (in other words, all the bloody time).

Take the environment, for instance. How many times have we all heard about the ‘need to strike a balance’ between the interests of, say, the construction/development lobby… and the complaints of a growing number of citizens who are (quite rightly) alarmed by the constant, seemingly unstoppable loss of rural open spaces in this country (not to mention people dying in construction accidents, etc.)?

Now: compare that to the number of times we have all seen any actual evidence of a truly ‘balanced’ approach to such matters, and… well, you’ll get to the second problem in no time at all.

Sure, we can all appreciate the need to ‘strike a balance’ in this scenario, too; after all, nobody involved on the health side of this debate – the doctors, the nurses, the epidemiologists, etc. – was ever heard arguing in favour of a second total lockdown... or, even more drastically,  calling for a second closure of the airport.

What we haven’t seen at all, however, is any sign of this ‘balancing act’ actually existing in practice. On the contrary: the present government seems to have pursued the exact same line it has always taken in the past: it has talked about the need for balance, certainly… but when it came to taking decisions, it very clearly listened  to only one side of the debate, to the almost-total exclusion of the other.

So where all the country’s health experts urged a partial, cautious re-opening strategy – characterised by limitations to the number of countries we opened up to, coupled with more restrictions on public gatherings – the government caved in to the demands of the hotel/entertainment lobby: flinging the floodgates wide open to all visitors from all countries… and not only permitting, but actively encouraging the organisation of mass events numbering anywhere up to 20,000 attendees.

Where’s the ‘balance’ in that, I wonder? And if, as we can now all see, there is no real sign that any such balance exists at all… that, as usual, one lobby-group can be seen to clearly outweigh all others, when it comes to influencing government’s policy decisions on any given topic… well, what value does the same oft-repeated catchphrase really have in practice?

About as much value, I suppose, as the PN’s former anti-divorce stand had for that elderly man, who wanted nothing more than to see his daughter married before he died.

In a word: absolute zilch…

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