The PN’s ‘broad church’ coalition can no longer work

This is the one thing the Nationalist Party has conspicuously failed to do, since Eddie Fenech Adami stepped down as its leader in 2004

Claudio Grech (centre)
Claudio Grech (centre)

Remember those financial investment ads on TVM? ‘The past is no guarantee of the future, and the value of your investment may go up as well as down…’?

As I recall, that line was repeated, just before the eight o’ clock news, every single day throughout the entire 1990s. And this may explain why it is now forever burnt into my memory cells: not just the individual words, but also the tone of voice, the machine gun-fire pace of delivery, the cadences, the inflections…

My late grandfather would have called that ‘learning by dint of repetition’. And it works, too. Thanks to years of subliminal exposure to that message, even I – who have no experience of financial investments whatsoever (unless you count watching John Landis’ ‘Trading Places’ every New Year’s Eve for decades… in which case, I’m a world authority) – would know better than to bank only on the past success of any previous investment strategy.

And yet, there are still those among us who – despite having been exposed to precisely the same jingle, for just as long – just never took the general message on board. And, irony of ironies: one of them happens to be a former Finance Minister… not to mention the man entrusted with formulating the Nationalist Party’s new policy direction under Bernard Grech…

Yes, that’s right: Claudio Grech, who argued on Xtra this week that “the PN must remain a broad church party housing both liberals and conservatives” – which he even described as the “strength of the PN in the past”.

Hmm. How did that jingle go again? ‘The past is no guarantee of the future’… In other words: a political strategy that undeniably worked well in years gone by, has no guarantee of continuing to work forever;

And then, ‘The value of your investment may go up, as well as down’. Applied to party-politics, that translates roughly into: ‘When a previously-successful policy is retained beyond its sell-by date… not only may it cease to be as successful as it once was; but it could actually turn into a political liability…’

Meanwhile, in the same interview – as if to illustrate that very point himself – Grech also observed that: “The PN can’t rely on Labour’s defects to make political gains”. No, indeed. I would have thought a cursory glance at the results of the last two elections alone – and every survey in between – should make that more than obvious enough…

In any case, however: put those two arguments together, and you’ll end up with a political warning that is every bit as resonant (and relevant) as those old TVM ads were, back in the day. For it is true enough that the PN used to be a political home to both conservatives and liberals alike… and also that this ‘marriage of convenience’ worked spectacularly well to keep that party in power for almost 25 uninterrupted years.

But it is equally true that the only thing that made the coalition possible in the first place, was precisely the Labour Party’s ‘defects’ (and the successful ways the PN capitalised on them, at the time). Certainly, it was not on the strength of any liberal policies, or approaches, taken by the Nationalist Party itself under the leadership of Eddie Fenech Adami… or any of its three leaders since.

Let’s face it: back in the 1970s and 80s, liberal-leaning voters were not exactly attracted to the Nationalist Party fold by Eddie’s ‘progressive social agenda’… which is just as well, because Eddie didn’t have actually have one to entice them with anyway.

No, there were other reasons for that particular political exodus. During the Mintoff-Mifsud Bonnici era, most of those voters were driven to the PN’s welcoming arms by FEAR – which took a wide variety of forms, back then: there was fear of political discrimination; fear of unfair competition; fear of losing property or investments, through requisitions or nationalisation; and there was even fear of physical violence, or other forms of repression…

Under those circumstances, ‘liberal refugees’ were unlikely to have been too demanding of the parties they flocked to for their protection. After all, in the hierarchy of human needs, the one about ‘having your views represented In Parliament’ tends to fall by the wayside pretty darn quick… when what you are really looking for is (to quote that old PN slogan again): ‘Xoghol, Gustizzja, Libertà’.

This, too, explains why the Nationalist Party’s ‘broad church’ identity worked so well, and for such a long time. For while we can argue indefinitely about whether all (or parts) of this fear were actually justified, or merely fanned to the extreme for political mileage… or, as is likelier, a combination of the two… there can be no doubt that the sensation of fear, in and of itself, was very real.

So real, in fact, that it more or less guaranteed a steady flow of support towards the Nationalist Party: without the PN ever having to do anything at all – except, of course, present itself as a credible, ‘non-scary’ political alternative to Labour – to actually attract it.

Bizarre as it may seem today, this situation persisted deep into Alfred Sant’s tenure, too: though by the end of the 1990s, the ‘fear of Mintoff’s authoritarianism’ came to be replaced with fears of a different kind: that of losing out on EU membership, for instance (coupled with an entirely understandable reluctance to live through the 1996-98 years, ever again).

And this brings me to the first glaring problem with Claudio Grech’s assertion: none of those market conditions are still in place today. Not only has the delivery of the European project put paid to ever using that strategy again – but Labour has now been in power for eight years, and the promised economic Armageddon (Remember? Queues outside the job office, under the slogan ‘Labour Won’t Work’?) has clearly failed to materialise, as predicted.

Two major planks of the PN’s previously unbeatable strategy, then, can be seen to have disappeared without a trace. There is, quite simply, no longer the fear of ‘economic regression’ under Labour – for better or worse, Muscat did successfully eradicate that perception: and again, the electoral results are proof enough on their own.

So there is no longer the perceived need for a Nationalist government to step in and ‘correct’ the country’s flawed economic direction, either; nor is there any tantalising vision of a ‘Promised Land’ to dangle before our noses… with the ‘Big, Bad PL’ doing its utmost to derail it all for us, at the eleventh hour.

And this has a direct bearing on the success of the ‘broad church approach’ today. Under these new circumstances, those same ‘liberal refugees’ no longer feel any compelling, over-arching compulsion to continue supporting the Nationalist Party indefinitely – regardless how little it actually cares for their own political ideology.

So, in the absence of a Mintoff, Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici or Alfred Sant to frighten them all with… the only way to retain that tranche of electoral support, is to start actually listening to what those liberals have to say; and then, to somehow incorporate their concerns into some kind of workable policy-platform… without losing too much of the conservative support in the process, naturally.

Is that still possible today? In theory… yes, certainly. In practice, however, it immediately collides with a reality that has been staring us in the face for years…. but which the PN only seems to be noticing for the first time today.

Even if we accept that maintaining this ‘marriage of convenience’ should remain a policy target for the Opposition Party – and there are good reasons to do so: given Labour’s clear advantage at the polls, it makes sense to forge a broad a coalition of different (even conflicting) views… well, it’s just like any other marriage scenario, I suppose.

It cannot be a case where one side perpetually dominates, and the other is continuously side-lined and ignored. There has to be a little ‘give and take’ somewhere in the mix, too...

Applied to Claudio Grech’s own vision of the PN as a ‘rainbow of different views’: well, the success of that sort of coalition also depends on how much compromise actually takes place between the two sides. Simply put:  if the PN hopes to remain a natural political home for Malta’s small (but electorally significant) liberal, progressive minority… then it has to come up with a policy vision that a liberal, progressive voter can actually feel comfortable supporting.

This is the one thing the Nationalist Party has conspicuously failed to do, since Eddie Fenech Adami stepped down as its leader in 2004. Not for lack of trying, I’ll grant you… Simon Busuttil did attempt to tone down some of the more radical aspects of the PN’s arch-conservatism; and as recently as last week, Bernard Grech tried (unsuccessfully) to give a voice to some of the party’s more liberal exponents, in an abortive shadow Cabinet reshuffle.

But until the party does hit upon a formula to somehow unite these two, incompatible sides… well, it’s all right there, in that 1990s jingle: ‘the value of your [political strategy] can – and almost certainly will – go down…’