‘Winning by default’ is no longer an option

But no matter: even if the debate proved entirely useless when it came to fulfilling the only true purpose of its existence… it did, at least, shed some light on exactly why and how the Nationalist Party got itself into its present, sorry state

Maybe I’m getting more naïve the older I get… but this week I actually made an effort to watch the final televised debate between Adrian Delia and Bernard Grech: hoping against hope that at least one of them would finally come up with some kind of ‘policy vision’ of his own (which, let’s face it, is the only point of even having such things as ‘leadership campaign debates’ to begin with).

Boy, what a waste of time. With hindsight, I may as well have watched a Roadrunner cartoon instead: in the equally futile hope that Wile E. Coyote would actually catch that dratted bird in the end, and put a stop to its blasted ‘beep-beeping’ once and for all….

But no matter: even if the debate proved entirely useless when it came to fulfilling the only true purpose of its existence… it did, at least, shed some light on exactly why and how the Nationalist Party got itself into its present, sorry state.

Before proceeding, however: for the purposes of this article, I will limit myself only to the contributions of one of those two candidates – Bernard Grech – to the exclusion of Adrian Delia.

This is partly because, at the time of writing, Bernard Grech is the one who seems to be cruising towards a comfortable (though hardly deserved) victory; but partly also because…

… well, let’s just say that there’s a reason why Grech remains such an overwhelming favourite, despite not having given the tesserati (or, for that matter, the wider Nationalist electorate) even a single valid reason to actually vote for him.

Fact of the matter is that Adrian Delia has already been at the helm of the PN for more than three years now; and in all that time, not only has he failed utterly to deliver on his own promise to turn the PN’s fortunes around… but he somehow succeeded in reducing its chances of winning the next election (or indeed, even narrowing the gap) to virtually nil.

Now: we could argue endlessly over how much of this was really his own fault, and how much the fault of all the so-called ‘PN rebels’, and all their incessant attempts to trip him up at every conceivable opportunity. But quite frankly, that would be another waste of time.

Like it or not, the reality is that most Nationalists now turn to Bernard Grech – and not Adrian Delia – for answers to all the fundamental, existential questions that have been dogging the PN for well over 15 years now.

Questions like: what is the Nationalist Party, anyway? What does it stand for? Why should we vote for it? And – most crucially of all – what can be done to extricate it from the bottomless pit it now finds itself in?

Yet incredibly, this is how the PN’s ‘Great White Hope’ actually replied, when the same general concerns were put to him directly last Wednesday:

“The PN has always been the party that people turned to, in times of difficulty, to put the country back on its feet. The reality is that the PN was founded to safeguard the interests of all the people of our nation; and also to ensure that everyone can live a dignified life. To achieve this, we need to maintain contact with people every day. […] We have to come up with ideas and proposals so that you can live a dignified life…”

Let me repeat that last part, just for dramatic effect: ‘We have to come up with ideas and proposals’…

Erm… what can I possibly say to that? Yes, Dr Grech: and about bloody time you realised it, too. That is, in fact, what is inevitably expected of any aspiring political leader, in any part of the democratic world (but even more so, in a leadership election that was precipitated precisely by the lack of ‘ideas and proposals’ coming from the incumbent leader).

So… um… where are all Bernard Grech’s ‘ideas and proposals’, then? Did he actually provide any at all: not just during that one particular debate (even if it was the last opportunity to do so before the election)… but any point since he first expressed an interest in contesting for the PN leadership, well over two months ago?

Speaking only for myself: I’ll be damned if I’ve heard even a single idea or proposal – still less a fully-fledged policy vision, of the kind we once expected from the PN – coming from Bernard Grech’s direction in any of that time. And it certainly cannot be for lack of any national issue or problem to actually base a political platform on, either.

In fact, given everything that has happened in this country since 2017 – and in particular, over the last 12 or so months – I reckon even a five-year-old child would be perfectly capable of sitting at a desk for five minutes, and outlining the basics of a workable political platform that could really challenge Robert Abela’s lacklustre government by 2022 (because let’s face it: it isn’t – or shouldn’t be – that hard).

Yet the man whose job it is to do precisely that, evidently can’t be bothered to even try. And even more bizarrely, he not only expects to win this leadership race without actually doing any running… but he also seems confident that his victory will serve to ‘reunite’ the PN, and – I kid you not – even restore it to all its former, election-winning glory…

Which brings me back to the first (and altogether more interesting) part of his extraordinary non-answer last Sunday: “The PN has always been the party that people turned to, in times of difficulty, to put the country back on its feet…”

Once again, Bernard Grech is perfectly spot-on with that observation. I can even attest to it myself: having voted PN in every election between 1992 and 2004, despite misgivings of my own (to put it mildly) about certain aspects of its policy direction under Eddie Fenech Adami.

But here, too, there is a reason to account for all those past electoral successes. Actually, there are two (and to be fair, Bernard Grech has at least understood one of them.)

The first – as Grech correctly surmises – is that a great many people found themselves ‘pushed’ towards the Nationalist Party over the years… not necessarily because they agreed or identified with its policies or ideology… but simply because they felt that the alternative was far worse at the time.

At the risk of hugely oversimplifying matters: back in the 1970s and 1980s, the main driving force was a concern with the erosion of democracy under Dom Mintoff and Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici; and throughout the 1990s, it was the dangled carrot of EU membership (and, more specifically, Alfred Sant’s opposition to the same… not to mention his disastrous stint as Prime Minister between 1996 and 1998, which led to his unelectability 10 years later).

Before we even get to the second reason, then, a small problem already swims into view. What I have just described above (however sketchily) was the state of play until we actually achieved the objective of joining the EU in 2004.

And you surely won’t need me to remind you that the PN’s electability issues began to surface almost immediately afterwards… paving the way to the present scenario, in which the Nationalist Party cannot possibly hope to replicate that same dynamic, for the simple reason that neither of those two driving forces is still in place today.

Yet that is precisely what Bernard Grech now seems to be banking on. His inability to draw up a political policy-platform of his own – which should all along be the starting point for any career in politics – merely confirms that he simply expects to win elections by default… on the strength, as it were, of his opponents’ weaknesses.

But – and here’s the second reason, coming right up – not even Eddie Fenech Adami himself did that, back in the glory years. All those electoral victories I alluded to – 1981, 1992, 1998, 2004 – were not achieved simply on the basis of Labour’s failures. On the contrary, Eddie Fenech Adami won those elections precisely because he did what Grech has so far failed to do, and imbued the Nationalist Party – and, it must be said, the country as a whole – with a much-needed sense of political direction.

I’ve already mentioned the obvious example – EU membership – but even that pales into insignificance, when compared to the truly revolutionary changes he instilled within the party when first taking over in 1977.

To put it another way: Eddie Fenech Adami would hardly have secured a wafer-thin national majority in 1981, if he did not also succeed in repositioning the entire PN on the political spectrum: moving away from the more overtly right-wing policies of the Borg Olivier era, and reinventing the Nationalist Party as a socially-conscious, Christian Democrat, “workers’ movement” (thus entrenching himself deeply into Mintoff’s ‘home territory’, as it were).

Likewise, he would hardly have succeeded in so thoroughly overhauling Malta’s entire economic model in the late 1980s/early 1990s – re-opening markets, ending the reign of ‘sole agencies’, introducing VAT, and all the rest of it – if he wasn’t also driven (for better or worse) by a clearly-defined political ideology… which he even took the trouble to spell out for us, in the form of a slogan that still reverberates throughout Maltese politics to this day: ‘Xoghol, Gustizzja, Libertà’…

Where is the equivalent of any of that, in Bernard Grech’s current bid to take over the leadership of the same party? And if – in the course of two whole months’ worth of campaigning – he was unable to impart even the vaguest semblance of a political identity, or direction, to the party he intends to lead… how on earth can he also expect to ‘restore the PN to its past glory’?

Well, I guess we’ll all find out soon enough…

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