‘Be the change?’ You can start by paying your taxes…

Where is the ‘change’, anyway? And why should ‘we’ be expected to ‘be part of it’… when the one thing that needs changing the most, is in fact the Nationalist Party itself?

Opposition leader Bernard Grech
Opposition leader Bernard Grech

It happened to be the PN’s new secretary-general, Michael Piccinino, who told me in an interview last week that: ‘political slogans come and go’.  

And of course, he’s perfectly right… most of the time. Because recent Maltese political history is a veritable graveyard of slogans that ‘came’… and ‘went’… but never stood a chance of withstanding the test of time.

To cite but a few examples: Labour’s enigmatic 2002 Budget slogan, ‘Inizjattiva u Wens’ (which translates into English as: “Initiative, and… um… no idea, to be perfectly honest. The guy who married ‘Rozi’, perhaps…?”) 

Honestly, though. What were the Labour Party strategists even thinking? Don’t they know that a good political slogan should at least try to capture the public imagination, by – at minimum – resonating with a prevailing, popular mood? 

And this, incidentally, was why the PN’s slogan ‘Iva, Flimkien Kollox Possibli’ elicited such instant derision, when it first appeared on 2008 campaign billboards. After 20 years of uninterrupted Nationalist governments, it was practically an open invitation to satire and parody. All you had to do was extend the sentence slightly: ‘Yes, together everything is possible… except, of course, [fill in with government failure of your choice]…’

Having said all this: there were nonetheless a few historic political ‘slogans’ – in the broadest sense of the word – that really did reverberate over the years and decades to come. 

Why, for instance, was Dom Mintoff’s celebrated ‘Malta L-Ewwel U Qabel Kollox!’ – allegedly coined all the way back in the late 1940s/early 1950s – so utterly memorable, that the Labour Party has done nothing but return to variations of the same theme ever since? (‘Ic-Cittadin L-Ewwel’, ‘Ir-Rajna F’Idejna’, etc., etc?)

Part of the reason, I imagine, was that ‘Malta First and Foremost’ had injected a much-needed sense of national empowerment, in the Colonial era for which it was intended. But part of it is also because the underlying appeal – to ‘safeguard the national interest’ – remains every bit as relevant today, as it was at any time before Independence. (Or to put that slightly differently: ‘the national interest’ itself may have changed meaning, over the years; but the need to safeguard it remains a constant throughout.)

And this, naturally, brings me to the reason why I’m even writing about political slogans to begin with. The Nationalist Party has just unveiled its latest electoral slogan: ‘Kun il-Bidla’ (‘Be the change…’): and… well, what do you know? This one, too, is clearly intended to echo another memorable political soundbite from yesteryear.


Ring any bells? Does it remind you of a time – which old fogeys like myself remember only too well - when Eddie Fenech Adami’s entire vocabulary seemed to consist of just that one word: ‘Change’? 

OK, admittedly it wasn’t the Nationalist Party’s official 1987 campaign slogan – that was ‘Xoghol, Gustizzja, Liberta’ (Work, Justice, Liberty) – but there can be no doubt that 1987 was an election year dominated by one theme, and one theme alone: an urgent need for epochal change.

Not just of the ‘musical chairs’ variety, either. No: back then there was a lot more to ‘voting PN’, than a simple reshuffling of the same old political deck of cards. In 1987, it also meant subscribing to a whole different ideology… aligning with a truly different political outlook… and above all, choosing a markedly divergent political trajectory for the country as a whole.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that this ‘different trajectory’ resulted in – among countless other things - a free-market economy, after decades of State protectionism. As such, some of those changes impacted the way we did (and still do) business to this day. 

Aside from the end of the archaic ‘sole-agency’ system, it was also a prelude to the introduction of VAT (ouch!), as well as a decade’s worth of struggle to join the European Union…

And while we can, of course, have endless debates about whether any, or all, of these changes have actually been ‘beneficial’ or not… I don’t think anyone in his right mind can possibly argue that Malta did not, in fact, change beyond recognition in the 30 years since 1987.

So make no mistake: that single word - ‘Bidla’ - really did add up to a phenomenally powerful slogan, when viewed in the context of 1987. But….

Do I need to go on? We’re not exactly in 1987 anymore, you know. And some of the things which worked so very well, all those decades ago, are hardly likely to have the same impact today: when the political landscape has changed beyond recognition.

Starting with the general public’s appetite for change. In 1987, for instance, the Nationalist Party could really back up its claims to represent a groundswell, national movement in that direction; it had, after all, already ‘won’ the 1981 election with a wafer-thin, 51% majority… even if it had to wait another six years (for reasons that are too laborious to go into here) to form a government of its own.

This means that there are two factors, not just one, missing from today’s scenario. For today, polls once again show that a sizeable majority in this country would actually much rather retain the status quo, than alter it… and unlike the 1980s, the PN in 2021 has no claim whatsoever to be at the helm of any national drive towards ‘change’.

Quite the contrary in fact: it lost the last two elections by incremental, record-breaking margins; and the same polls still indicate a 33,000-vote gap between the two parties right now.

And this is not exactly a coincidence, either. There is, after all, a reason why today’s Opposition party struggles so visibly to convince the electorate that: a) this ‘change’ is even necessary in the first place, and; b) that the Nationalist Party is itself the only political force capable of bringing it about.

To put it as simply as I possibly can: they never told us what it is, specifically, that needs to ‘change’; nor how they intend to actually ‘change’ things, if they ever have the power to do so.

And it doesn’t help much that the Nationalist Party itself simply hasn’t changed one iota, either; despite having gone through three different leaders since 2013. Not only have all the main players, involved in both those electoral defeats, remained or less the same ever since… but even on a structural level, the PN has very clearly failed to reinvent itself; as it promised to do after 2017.

Consider, for instance, the recent revelation that the Inland Revenue department is now – but only now: i.e., after Malta’s grey-listing by the FTAT - pursuing around E5 million, in unpaid taxes, from both Labour and Nationalist Parties. 

It is, of course, equally embarrassing for both those parties… but last I looked, the Labour Party was in government – where it has a natural interest in defending the status quo – while the PN is not only the party which should, by rights, be opposing that status quo… but it is also publicly committed to the global fight against (ahem!) ‘tax evasion’.

Bernard Grech even went as far as to claim that ‘only a Nationalist government has the credibility to remove Malta from the grey-list’. Um… how, exactly? By racking up a E2.5 million bill in unpaid VAT? Or, for that matter, by never actually filing his own VAT returns, until he eventually decided to go into politics himself…?

Besides: this turn of events does more than merely cement the public perception that both parties are ultimately benefitting from the same old ‘culture of impunity’. 

It also illustrates that, when push comes to shove, there is no real difference between those two parties at all: not in ideology; not in political direction… and not even when it comes to managing their own affairs.

It cannot be a coincidence that both parties reacted to this revelation in exactly the same way: i.e., by trying (successfully, to date) to wriggle their failed commercial enterprises out of bankruptcy; only to eventually turn to the tax-payer, and request a ‘bail-out’…

Because that, ultimately, is what Bernard Grech hinted at, when he floated the idea of ‘State funding for political parties’. Don’t get me wrong: in principle, the idea itself is not exactly to be sneezed at; but as long as those political parties also own TV and radio stations of their own… sorry, but no. 

They are, through their own choice, in competition with the private sector; so from both a legal and a moral perspective… the same rules and regulations must surely apply to both equally.

But when a private commercial entity goes bankrupt, it can hardly claim a refund from the tax-payer, can it? (And with good reason: it’s owners are usually far too busy trying to avoid ending up in jail…)

But never mind that Grech’s solution would automatically create ‘two tiers’ of businessmen in Malta: one to whom the rules apply, and another to whom they quite frankly don’t…. the real problem is that it doesn’t actually ‘change’ anything at all, does it? 

No, it simply foreshadows a continuation of the present status quo – whereby both parties are equally up to their eyeballs in debt; both equally in possession of ill-gotten commercial companies; both equally benefitting from the same old loopholes, and operating on the same old, non-level playing field…

So… where is this ‘change’, anyway? And why should ‘we’ be expected to ‘be part of it’… when the one thing that needs changing the most, is in fact the Nationalist Party itself?