The issue is no longer ‘abortion’. It’s ‘leadership’

Why is the PN leader choosing between two extremes, instead of appealing to the much broader segment of moderates in the middle?

I’m beginning to suspect that there’s a secret manual somewhere – compulsory reading for all Opposition leaders, it seems – entitled: ‘How to spectacularly shoot yourself in the foot’ (or, to give its more Biblical name: ‘How to tie a millstone around your own neck, and hurl yourself headlong into the sea…’)

Seriously, though. It can’t exactly be a coincidence that all three Opposition leaders we’ve had since 2013 – in their own separate ways – all went and did precisely that… through what can only be described (in, I believe, tennis terminology) as ‘unforced errors’.

In Simon Busuttil’s case, it was by ignoring the conclusions of a PN-commissioned electoral defeat report, and basing his entire electoral campaign on only one, ill-fated issue (and I’ll leave you to guess which, just for the sake of not digressing further).

Adrian Delia’s case was admittedly more complex – he was hardly the original architect of his own misfortunes – but he nonetheless made numerous tactical errors which only compounded the internal divisions within the PN: with results that ultimately brought about his own downfall.

And OK, those ‘errors’ may indeed be vastly different, in character and substance; but they still have a number of things in common. On both occasions, an Opposition party that was already plagued by internal divisions, somehow managed to emerge even more fragmented than before. And the resulting divisions were entirely ‘home-grown’, too: that is to say, it was the Nationalist Party that manoeuvred itself into a tight corner… without, it must be said, very much prodding from Labour.

Well, this is the part I don’t get about Bernard Grech’s latest effort to repeat the mistakes of the past. For starters, you’d think that the PN would have actually learnt a thing or two, from the disastrous experience of the past eight years; and besides… I was under the impression that the whole point of electing Bernard Grech was to ‘reunite’ the Nationalist Party: and not to create entirely new, entirely unnecessary excuses for it to just continue tearing itself to pieces…

But to compound matters further: in Bernard Grech’s case, it’s almost as though he did it on purpose. I can honestly think of no other reason why an Opposition leader – already struggling against such monumentally difficult odds – would go off on a tangent like that, and bring up the one, solitary issue that not even Labour dares criticize the PN over anymore (for reasons that should, by now, be pretty obvious).

Let’s go over what happened again, shall we? It started with a radio interview by Dione Borg on the PN’s own station, in which Bernard Grech – entirely unprompted, it seems – suddenly piped up and said (and this as close as I can get to a word-for-word translation):

“The abortion issue is a closed matter. This party was, is, will always be against abortion. It is a clear declaration I have made, that my predecessors have made before me, and it is our official position as laid down in the statute. Nobody, nobody, and I repeat nobody… as long as I am PN leader, I will not permit anybody who is in favour of abortion to remain in this party, or to represent it in any way. Not in the past, not in the present, and not in the future, either…”

Hmm. Already, I suppose, it can be seen that the issue at stake here is not really ‘abortion’ at all. Because, regardless of all our contrasting opinions on that thorny subject… there is at least one small part of that quote we can all safely agree upon.

It’s a ‘clear declaration’, all right. A very, VERY clear declaration indeed. In fact – short of being nailed to the doors of the Wittenberg Cathedral, in the 15th century – political declarations don’t often get very much clearer than that, you know…

And this brings me to the first of many problems (none of which, I might add, has anything to do with ‘female reproductive rights’). The statement itself may have been painstakingly clear… but the consequences, so far, have been anything but.

It is, of course, an open secret that many Nationalist Party supporters out there – quite possibly, the vast majority – are ‘uneasy’ with the direction their party seems to be taking, specifically on the subject of abortion: for instance, the approval of an openly pro-choice candidate, Emma Portelli Bonnici, to contest elections; and also, the fact that the PN is now proposing free contraception (including the Morning After Pill) on the National Health Service.

This same, very large segment would also have been disconcerted to hear PN MP Stephen Spiteri – shadow Health Minister, no less – calling for a ‘public debate’ on the same subject. And it cannot be overlooked that Portelli Bonnici herself (but not, strangely, Stephen Spiteri) had only just been targeted by a particularly vile, pernicious hate-speech campaign.

And this brings me back to that imaginary ‘manual’ I mentioned early. Clearly, it must contain a chapter that can be summarised roughly as follows: ‘When your party is divided along two, irreconcilable lines (no matter how unevenly)… make sure you do, or say, something that will somehow manage to piss off both sides equally.’ (Oh, and also that: ‘When a young, inexperienced member of your own party is under attack… throw her under the bus’…)

Now: I don’t think I need to explain why the (probably microscopic) ‘pro-choice’ segment of PN supporters would have been profoundly dismayed to hear their party leader say that; but what about the ‘pro-life’ segment? How did it sit with them?

Suffice it to say that – very predictably – their collective reaction sounded a whole lot like… this:

“Great! That’s just what we wanted to hear!” [One of them even added: ‘And about bloody time, too!’]. “So… um… when does the witch-hunt begin? When do the likes of Emma Portelli Bonnici and Stephen Spiteri (and we could add Jamie Vella and Christian Peregin, too) finally get hauled up by the scruff of their necks, and unceremoniously booted out of the Nationalist Party, once and for all?” (which, after all, is exactly what Bernard Grech has only just, very clearly, promised to do?)

Do I even need to go on? Two days have elapsed since Grech’s declaration (four, by the time you read this)…. and not only are the above pro-choice candidates/members all still active within the PN, in their respective former roles… but at least two of them (Portelli Bonnici and Jamie Vella: but not, at the time of writing, Christian Peregin) have since made ‘very clear’ public declarations of their own.

Reading between the (many) lines of the Portelli-Bonnici’s reaction… and disregarding how she herself may have intended it to mean – there is only one plausible interpretation, really.

“Actually… I’m not going anywhere at all, thank you very much. I’m staying right here, where I am – without, please note, even changing my own position on the subject of abortion, either…”.

About the closest she came to anything resembling a ‘concession’, was a promise that she ‘would not work towards introducing abortion’ as a PN candidate. (And let’s face it: it’s kind of meaningless, really… seeing as it was never even on the cards to begin with.)

So as far as I can see – and to stick to that unnecessary tennis analogy I started with – that not only ‘returns Bernard Grech’s serve’ with spectacular ease; it also makes it ‘advantage to Portelli Bonnici’… and, quite possibly, a ‘match-point’, too.

What options does it even leave Bernard Grech with, I wonder? Is he going to convene an extraordinary meeting of the PN’s Executive Council (you never know; it’s happened before) to get rid of her? Or is he going to turn to the very people he was trying to please, with that ill-advised comment of his… and say: “Sorry, folks, but… I was only kidding …”

And that’s just the start. Already, one Nationalist candidate – Hermann Farrugia – has publicly called for a repeal of the ‘free contraception’ promise (for reasons which are, to boot, logical, natural extensions of Grech’s own argument). So it seems that the ‘pro-life’ brigade – for want of a better expression – are also making themselves abundantly clear: Bernard Grech has ‘talked the talk’, yes; but now, they also expect him to… um… ‘walk the plank’.

But one other question that a lot of Nationalists I know (and trust me: a know a LOT) are currently asking is: why is the PN leader even trying to pander to that particularl lobby in the first place? Why is he choosing between two ‘extremes’ (though to be honest: the adjective only really applies to one side), instead of doing what any forward-looking, 21st century leader would do, in these circumstances… and appeal to the much broader segment of ‘moderates’ in the middle?

For what it’s worth, my own answer to that is… ‘Gee, who knows? I haven’t the foggiest idea…’ But whatever my own opinion in the matter: one thing is certain. ‘Abortion’ has already fallen far, far beneath the radar of national discussion; after this extraordinary turn of events, the real number one issue of concern is… ‘leadership’.

And if you ask me: we’ve seen a lot more of that coming from a young, inexperienced politician over the last few days alone… than from the real Opposition leader, over the past 14 months. ‘Nuff said.