Finally, Gonzi’s ‘new way of doing politics’ gets a chance…

Bernard Grech now has a spectacular opportunity to actually deliver – where so many of his predecessors have manifestly failed – on that immortal promise by Lawrence Gonzi in 2004: ‘A new way of doing politics’, remember?

Bernard Grech
Bernard Grech

In his column last Sunday, former Nationalist minister Michael Falzon made a number of rather perceptive observations.

He began with: “During his speech at the PN General Council, Bernard Grech did a first by revealing the extent of the Nationalist Party’s financial woes. According to what he said, the party’s debt has run up to some €32 million and its media arm is unable to make a profit. Moreover, the PN lacks the cash needed to run the campaigns for the European Parliament and local council elections.”

Then, a few lines later: “This is nothing short of using the party’s financial woes to cover up for its political shortcomings. […] He [Grech] also attempted to shift the responsibility of the PN’s staggering loss in last month’s election onto those who burdened the party with such a huge debt [etc., etc.]”

And somewhere in the middle, Michael Falzon also observed: “I do not know whether Bernard Grech did this on purpose. If he did so purposely, this was a brilliant move…”

Right: that’s as far as I’ll go with Falzon’s article itself… except to say that, if I’m quoting it at all, it’s only because it opened my eyes to a whole different perspective on the entire ‘PN debt’ saga (and one which, for a change, doesn’t even look all that abysmal for the PN, either.)

But having said that: ‘I do not know whether Michael Falzon did this on purpose,’ either. So let’s just stick to the core argument, for now.

In a nutshell, it’s that Bernard Grech may be hiding behind the PN’s staggering €32 million debt, to somehow ‘exculpate’ himself for the disastrous election result; and also, to distract public attention from all his own ‘shortcomings’, as leader.

And if so… well, I’m inclined to agree with Falzon’s assessment that it’s a rather brilliant move (in fact, it’s almost ‘TOO brilliant’… coming, as it does, from someone who displayed absolutely no such political acumen throughout the campaign itself; nor even during his entire one-and-a-half year stint as PN leader…)

Ah, but this only brings me to the most ‘brilliant’ part of all. It’s not just that this strategy – intentionally, or otherwise – gives Bernard Grech all the excuses he needs, to simply ‘pin the blame on others’; it’s also that…

Well, let’s face it: you can’t exactly say ‘he’s wrong’ either, can you? For even if Bernard Grech is simply ‘twisting the whole PN debt’ narrative, in order to save his own skin… it doesn’t change the fact that what he is saying is, for the most part, substantially TRUE.

Certainly, no one can deny that the Nationalist Party debt was accrued over long, long years – make that decades – of negligence and financial mismanagement: around 99.9% of which predates, not just Bernard Grech’s own (very brief) stint as PN leader; but also that of Adrian Delia before him… and even Simon Busuttil before that.

But no matter: if the source of all this debt wasn’t already blatantly obvious enough, by now… someone even took the trouble to spell it out for us, in no uncertain terms. This, for instance, is from a news article yesterday: “One PN official told Times of Malta the party had only started taking its debt problem seriously after 2013…”

‘Only after 2013’, huh? Gee, I wonder what might possibly have occurred that year, to force the Nationalist Party to suddenly acknowledge its own financial situation. Let’s see now… the Lance Armstrong ‘doping’ scandal, perhaps? The Boston Marathon bombing? Wait, I think I’ve got it! The death of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher! (Joking apart: it’s as good a reminder as any, of the ‘virtue of parsimony’.)

Or was it, on the other hand… doink!... the fact that the Nationalist Party suddenly found itself in Opposition, for the first time after (almost) 25 years of uninterrupted power; and that, in this new predicament, it simply no longer had its finger on all the government ‘buttons’, that had previously made its debt-mountain so easy to just… ignore?

And to be honest: it’s not as though we even needed any additional confirmation. It should have all along been fairly obvious, just by looking at the list of PN creditors (or at least, the ones we actually know about).

The Inland Revenue; The VAT Department; ARMS Limited… I mean, how else is it even possible to rack up debts of over €30 million, to those (and other) sources, if not by enjoying long decades of immunity to such things as ‘tax bills’; ‘water and electricity bills’… and, well, just ‘bills’ in general?

And what better way to acquire that sort of immunity: if not than by simply occupying the seat of a government which… Bingo!.. just happens to also either OWN all the entities to which it owes money (e.g, Enemalta; the Water Services Corporation); or else can simply re-write, at will, the entire legislative framework governing all the others...

Meanwhile, as a side-note – and also, in the interest of maintaining at least the semblance of political balance, etc. – this also explains why the Labour Party’s corresponding debt, to precisely the same creditors, is still so ‘small’ by comparison.  For let’s face it: it took the Nationalist Party a good 23 years in government, to accumulate a debt of €32 million. Labour’s only been at it for seven years… and by its own admission, it already owes €10 million in unpaid tax and utility bills.

Honestly: I don’t think you need to be Alan Turing to compute all the possible permutations. The outcome always remains the same: political parties start losing sight of their own financial management, only when they’re in government: and NOT when they’re in opposition.

And why does that happen, I wonder? Well, partly because we still live in a country where disproportionate power is vested into government; and I need hardly add that, with both Labour and PN up to their eyeballs in precisely the same muck… neither party has all that much of a reason (or at least, not one that is ‘selfish’ enough) to actually try and change the status quo….

… or at least: not until now. This is, in fact, why I commented earlier that the PN’s current financial predicament ‘doesn’t even look all that abysmal, for a change’.  For even if, on the surface, Bernard Grech’s position is not exactly what you’d call ‘enviable’ … being in that position still gives him a card to play, that – quite frankly – no other PN leader had ever been dealt before.

If nothing else, Bernard Grech now has a spectacular opportunity to actually deliver – where so many of his predecessors have manifestly failed – on that immortal promise by Lawrence Gonzi in 2004: ‘A new way of doing politics’, remember?

Now: I won’t waste too much time speculating what Gonzi might have actually meant by that, himself; what I will say, however, is that those precise words did certainly chime in with a general mood, at the time (so much so, that it ironically became the driving force behind Gonzi’s own historic defeat, in 2013…)

And seeing as how nothing has really changed at all, since those words were first uttered…. well, let me put it this way. There may be very little, realistically speaking, that Bernard Grech can do to save his own party from bankruptcy; but there is quite a lot he CAN do – even right now, as we speak – to challenge the same status quo that has reduced the Nationalist Party to its current, abysmal state.

I know it might sound drastic (though it’s been suggested before: even internally)… but he could actually do the unthinkable, and ‘declare bankruptcy’ himself: if not of the entire Nationalist Party, at least of its commercial arm – namely, its media empire – that is currently haemorrhaging literally millions a year…

Not only would that halt at least a little of the financial bleeding; (whilst also sparing the PN the embarrassment of eventually going into ‘forced liquidation’, etc.), but… to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I can even predict the ramifications, of the political earthquake that would surely follow.

Starting only with how it would affect the media landscape: the collapse of just one, of our two politically-owned media houses, would instantly – just like that, in one fell swoop – ‘nullify’ the entire argument that the Broadcasting Authority has been using for years, to justify their existence in the first place: i.e., ‘because they balance each other out’.    

Well… not anymore, they wouldn’t! And as such, the BA would certainly no longer be able to keep ignoring the wholesale, flagrant defiance of its own broadcasting policies (while imposing them on everyone else).

What would happen in practice, however, I’m not entirely sure. Either the Labour Party would have to also abandon its own ownership structure… or, at minimum, it would have to somehow ‘tone down’ its blatant pro-Labour bias, in line with BA directives.

Either way, however, it would automatically do more to change ‘how politics is done’, in this country, than pretty much everything else that has ever been tried since Independence. (And it would probably be the start of a ‘domino -effect’, too: because let’s face it: we wouldn’t exactly be able to keep everything geared up ‘only for the benefit of two parties’… when those ‘two parties’ suddenly morph into ‘only one’…)

Ah yes, that reminds me. There is, I’m afraid, a small downside to this otherwise spectacularly ‘brilliant’ strategy. For it to actually succeed, Bernard Grech would have to do a ‘Bruce Willis from Armageddon’: and sacrifice himself, together with his own party, to ‘save the world’…

But, well, that’s the thing with politicians, isn’t it? They’re so… selfish. They just never think about anyone, but themselves…