Bernard Grech’s missed opportunities

You don’t exactly need a Masters degree in Political Science, to understand that an Opposition party has to actually offer something slightly different from the current government’s policies if it ever wants to get elected to power again…

Opposition leader Bernard Grech
Opposition leader Bernard Grech

In a way, I suppose it’s just as well that ‘consistency’ is not our strong point as nation. Because if we had to judge everyone using the exact same yardstick, every single time… well, I can think of no better way of continuing that sentence, than by quoting Shakespeare’s Hamlet (written more than 400 years ago): “Use every man after his desert, and who shall ‘scape whipping?”

Who, indeed? Not Adrian Delia, that’s for sure. Consider, for instance, how often the former Opposition leader had to face resignation calls – emanating from within his own party – after each successive media poll suggesting that the Nationalist Party stood no chance at all of winning an election, for as long as Delia remained at its helm.

As recently as last June (though I shall have to admit it does feel a lot longer ago) The Times reported that: “Nationalist MPs on Sunday met and urged Adrian Delia to consider resigning the party leadership following a dismal showing in a Times of Malta poll.”

And last February, the same Nationalist MPs had likewise bayed for Delia’s blood after yet another disastrous survey performance: this time, in a MaltaToday poll.

To quote from that news report: “The PN leader was facing pressure to resign after polling data showed the Nationalist Party has been unable to gain ground despite the political turmoil government faced last December […] Party sources earlier told MaltaToday that a majority of MPs asked Delia to resign ‘for the good of the party and the country’…”

Fast-forward to the present, and… well, what do you know? Despite a change in leadership last October, our last two ‘Trust Barometer’ surveys still point in roughly the same direction.

For even if Bernard Grech has undeniably fared better than Adrian Delia, in terms of his own popularity – almost doubling the latter’s trust ratings, from 14% to 30% - the fact remains that the Nationalist Party still seems to have absolutely no chance of winning an election under Bernard Grech, either.

As things stand, the percentage gap between Labour and the PN appears to be permanently stuck at around 16.7%... in other words, significantly higher than the actual (as opposed to ‘projected’) distance between the two parties at the last election: which, as I recall, stood at roughly 11%.

From this perspective, our own editorial – published last week – may actually have been over-generous towards Bernard Grech, by predicting that: “if nothing changes, Grech may not just ‘fail to narrow the gap’ (which represents the most realistic of the PN’s electoral targets, at the moment); but he may even end up losing the next election with the same gap as Busuttil…”

I stand to be corrected, of course (let’s face it: numbers were never exactly my forte) but my own reading of our latest survey actually suggests that the PN is likely to lose the next election by an even higher margin than three years ago: which was (and to date, remains) the biggest electoral drubbing ever received, by any local political party, since 1945.

OK, at this point there are two ways this argument could be developed: I could waste a lot of time asking pointless questions, such as: ‘Why are there no calls for Bernard Grech’s resignation, emanating from within his own party, after such damning poll results?” (or, if you prefer: “Why is the Nationalist Party not using the same yardstick to measure Bernard Grech’s leadership qualities, as it did with Adrian Delia?”)

But like I said at the beginning: consistency has never been our strong point as a nation… and (for a host of reasons that I won’t bother delving into) it would be just slightly unrealistic to expect any of it today.

So instead, I’ll ask the question that the Nationalist Party should really be asking itself – and did ask, all the time, under Adrian Delia – when faced with the seemingly-unavoidable prospect of third, crushing defeat on the trot.

Why is the PN clearly (and consistently) failing to ever climb out of the hole it managed to dig itself into in 2017? Why is it stuck at precisely the same abysmal support levels… despite having changed leader, not once, but twice in the past three years?

At the risk of oversimplification, I would say there is only one answer, really. And it is that – despite those leadership changes – the PN has not actually altered its own policies (or, even less, its rhetoric and/or general attitude) one tiny iota, since the publication of the 2017 electoral manifesto under Simon Busuttil.

Again, there is no shortage of examples to support that claim: you can literally pick any issue at random – for instance: immigration; the environment; civil rights; corruption; the relationship between politics and ‘big business’, etc. etc. etc. – and you will find that nothing of substance has really changed at all, under either Adrian Delia or Bernard Grech, since Busuttil’s time.

Right now, I don’t have the space to delve into all those issues separately: so for the time being, I’ll stick to just one. The environment (with a specific emphasis on hunting and trapping): not, perhaps, because this one issue can realistically be described as the sole reason for the PN’s failure to make any electoral progress; but rather, because it is an issue that resonates overwhelmingly with younger voters… and - as our surveys also indicate quite clearly - it is this specific (and all-important) category that the PN seems consistently incapable of ever winning over.

And this is not, itself, particularly surprising. Within days of winning the leadership election last October, Bernard Grech was specifically asked to outline his own views on spring hunting (among other things) in a press interview.

His answer? “It’s been decided. There was a referendum. So I don’t think it’s an issue anymore. So it’s yes.”

This was, incidentally, in the same week as the Labour government attracted overwhelming criticism for its decision to hand over Il-Miżieb and L-Aħrax – Malta’s largest woodland areas – to be managed, as a hunting reserve, by the FKNK.

Bernard Grech’s response? “What I would like to see is sharing. If hunters want to use the area for their pastime, I have no problem with that. They have been doing so for a long time. But I think we can find a way for all to share the area…”

Now: for what it’s worth, I myself happen to disagree with Grech on both those points (and also, while I’m at it, on his equally wishy-washy views on the Gozo tunnel project… not to mention his failure to take any visible stand on over-development, and a few other things beside). But the point here is not so much that I am personally disappointed by these woefully predictable policy mistakes…  it is that these positions make no sense whatsoever, coming from an Opposition leader in the early 21st century.

Let me put it this way: not only is Bernard Grech’s stand on environmental issues identical to that of Simon Busuttil before him – which, separately, forces us to confront the sheer futility of expecting the next election result to be any different from 2017 – but (much more bizarrely) they are also identical to the official position of the Labour government under Robert Abela.

This, for instance, is from the Labour government’s own statement in response to criticism of the Mizieb/L-Ahrax deal: “the agreement merely formalised and regularised what had already been in practice for decades”; and “the public would enjoy the same free access to the reserves as it always had.”

And that is not merely a ‘similar’ position to the one taken by Bernard Grech in that interview… it is almost a direct ‘copy-and-paste’ of exactly the same arguments (in almost exactly the same words).

Likewise, Grech’s proposal for a ‘referendum’ on the Gozo tunnel issue, turns out to be nothing but a rehash of an idea first floated by former Gozo minister Anton Refalo – who, I need hardly add, was actually a representative of the Labour administration.

On at least two environmental issues, then, there is no visible policy difference whatsoever between the PN and the PL. Which also means that, when it comes to actually choosing between those two parties – in an election that cannot realistically be much more than a year and a half away - there is, quite frankly, no tangible reason under the sun to prefer Bernard Grech’s PN, to Robert Abela’s Labour.

The only difference would be that, instead of having a Labour government that consistently capitulates to the outrageous demands of every single powerful lobby-group on the island – from hunters, to developers, to zoo-keepers, and beyond – we’d have a Nationalist government doing all the capitulating instead.

I mean, honestly. You don’t exactly need a Masters degree in Political Science, to understand that an Opposition party has to actually offer something slightly different from the current government’s policies (and, even more so, from the policies that proved so catastrophically disastrous under its previous leadership) if it ever wants to get elected to power again…