The polls show the PN needs vision

The Nationalist Party has to offer a vision, some form of hope, and an agenda that gives floating voters and also former voters that moved into Labour, a good reason to change their voting preference

Opposition leader Bernard Grech
Opposition leader Bernard Grech

I often ask myself how the MaltaToday-Polar surveys (which are Malta’s longest-running political surveys... and also the most accurate, even if I say so myself) still show Prime Minister Robert Abela flying high, or why the PN simply cannot spring back to life.

It has to be said that Labour’s entrenchment as the natural party of government has been largely sealed by unprecedented trust ratings that both Joseph Muscat, and now Abela, have constantly enjoyed. And trust for a prime minister is key to electoral victory: you could be leading an ‘unpopular’ party, but ultimately, if voters trust you as prime minister over your main rival, that is what carries the day for Maltese parties.

Let us be more than fair – with the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, the political intrigue that followed in what looks like a cover-up, the tragedy, sleaze and shattered political dreams from the disgraced Musca administration... one would have expected Labour to be in free-fall, right?

We had said the same in 1987, after years of political violence and corruption. Labour, then under the premiership of Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, only lost by 4,000 votes to the PN. By some accounts, Labour then was even attempting an internal reform just as the government is doing today (although it was stuck in the Church schools row and thugs ruled the roost among several ministerial ‘gangs’ and its Labour youth organ). Still, there was no free-fall then for Labour, and neither is there now.

Surely, there has been an important change in public perception where political parties are concerned. The outrage and the radicalisation of voters is more acute today, but nothing that can lead to a political tsunami for Maltese democracy.

Instead, my take is that, even with what has happened, there is widespread disappointment with the lacklustre PN, an opposition that lacks appeal for both new and old voters.

This might need some more repeating, but the Nationalist Party has to offer a vision, some form of hope, and an agenda that gives floating voters and also former voters that moved into Labour, with a good reason to change their voting preference. And it has to be said: that requires a political leader who inspires – whether it will be from the left or right, there must be someone whose ideas are shattering the centrist mould of the government, and promising to tip the scales in favour of common citizens.

The PN must also reckon with its unsufferable sanctimonous mindset. The more it wants people to kow-tow to its narrative that somehow things were better under the inertia of the Nationalist administrations of yore, or that anything-but-Labour should automatically demand fealty to the PN, the more it risks alienating well-meaning voters who want their vote to be meaningful.

I see it in the reactions of Nationalist MPs this week at the final appeals acquittal of Tony Debono, husband of former Gozo minister Giovanna Debono, on accusations of corruption. It was MaltaToday that broke the story in 2015, when a whistleblower claimed he had been personally paid (and also left out of pocket) for works he carried on instruction of Debono, for private constituents. Then Debono had been the head of a government works division in Gozo.

The PN (whose former leader Simon Busuttil suspended Giovanna Debono from the parliamentary group) cried victory, and demand a public apology from the Labour administration, accusing it of being instrumental in pushing for a prosecution.

Having been personally instrumental in publishing the story, I find it incredible that there are those who continue to believe that Anthony Debono was framed.

The incompetent prosecution was led by disgraced police officer Ian Abdilla, who in court was often chastised about his lack of preparation and focus. In the end, the lousy prosecution could not prove something which this newspaper had illustrated in some detail, basing itself on evidence given by a whistleblower.

The prosecution could not sift through the ‘public’ works which the minister’s husband had managed for particular constituents, even though the whistleblower said he had not been paid for them by the ministry, and that he personally had to chase down Debono for payment. So the case fell through.

Certainly enough, Giovanna Debono’s long ministerial stint in Gozo is renowned for its deep rooted tradition of dishing out favours, a tradition replicated by successive Labour ministers who have perfected the politics of patronage and nepotism on the sister islsand. No prime minister has attempted to curb such corrupt practices. It is a system the political parties have embraced, and for which constituents now expect. Even Gozo’s labour force today, is being guaranteed by contracted, self-employed arrangements with the public sector – a scandal of immense proportion.

But anyway: the PN seems to think that it’s all been a matter of light and darkness in the history of Gozitan politics. And it certainly never was that way. Indeed, Gozo is perhaps the best example to illustrate the way history has repeated itself.

Just look at the pillage of the countryside there. Go back in time to see how Mġarr, Rabat, Marsalforn and Xlendi transformed themselves in the last 30 years; how the quarries and building extensions grew in the last 10 years under different administrations; and how illegalities from villas to beach clubs were tolerated for years. Like political patronage, these are deep-rooted problems.

So is changing the guard who will be dressing the same suit, solving the problem? Doubtful, unless we understand the problem, identify the solution and have the will to make the change.

What I see today is politicians who inherited Debono’s system of treating constituents like little princes and seeing to all their needs: if Gozo ministers Clint Camilleri, Anton Refalo and Justyne Caruana were replaced by PN politicians, even though it seems remote, we would probably still be revisiting the same stories we write and read about today.

Yes, we need to change, but not necessarily in the way the traditional political parties want us to change.