If Frank Psaila is a ‘turncoat’… who the heck isn’t?

So if that makes Frank Psaila a ‘turncoat’ – even though he had no more reason to feel ‘allegiance’ to the PN, than you yourself did, to the company you ‘deserted’ when you last changed job – sorry, but doesn’t it also make ‘traitors’ of us all?

Frank Psaila
Frank Psaila

I can’t claim to be very well acquainted with former PN information secretary Frank Psaila; although we have met a few times before; I did interview him on at least a couple of occasions; and he has been a consistent presence in the Maltese political landscape for well over a decade now.

I thought I’d point all that out, because the rest of this article will no doubt be interpreted (not incorrectly) as a ‘defence’ of Frank Psaila: who – by virtue of having accepted a number of public service positions (three, I believe) under a Labour government – is now being branded a ‘turncoat’, and much worse.

But if I defend Psaila from such accusations, it has very little to do with my own personal opinion of the man himself. I don’t mind admitting, for instance, that I’ve always regarded to him as one of the more moderate, and less belligerent exponents of the Nationalist Party. And in the days when he was still a PN activist/candidate… yes, there were moments I thought he might make a half-decent future MP perhaps. Or even, why not? A possible future leadership contender (let’s face it: he couldn’t possibly do much worse than the last three, could he?)…

Having said this: ideologically speaking, we are far too many lightyears apart, for any of that to ever translate into political support. So (sorry, Frank… but I’m being ‘frank’, too…) fact of the matter is that I still wouldn’t vote for him, in any of those capacities.

All the same, though: for what it’s worth, my own reaction to his resignation from the Nationalist Party last May was that…  it’s a shame, really. For starters: because the PN can’t realistically afford to lose the last few remaining moderate voices it still retains in its choir (that is, in fact, precisely why it has been reduced to the screeching, hysterical cacophony it is today).

And besides: it tells us infinitely more about the PN’s current leadership issues, than about Frank Psaila himself. For unless I am much mistaken, it is actually the party leader’s responsibility to instil a sense of ‘belonging’ – and consequently, ‘allegiance’ – to the party. And given that Bernard Grech has manifestly failed to ever do that, since taking over two years ago… you can hardly blame so many people (Psaila was actually the umpteenth PN member to jump overboard, since 2020) for ‘losing their allegiance’, to a party which had given them so little reason to feel any such loyalty in the first place.

But that was just an aside. The real reason I feel compelled to stick up for Frank Psaila is of a more… well, ‘linguistic’ nature. Call me a boring old fart, but I belong to that tiny minority which keeps insisting (in vain) that the words we use, on a daily basis, actually have meanings, you know; and connotations, implications… and above all, CONSEQUENCES.

And with so many people out there, being so very quick to resort to such inflammatory accusations as ‘turncoat’ (and ‘traitor’, ‘Judas’, etc)… well, it would help if they actually bothered looking those words up in a dictionary first.

The precise definition may vary, of course… but it always boils down to roughly this: ‘someone who deserts one party or cause, in order to join an opposing one’ (And you should be able to work it out for yourselves anyway: to be a ‘turncoat’… you have to actually be wearing a ‘coat’, that can be ‘turned’.)

In other words: you have to be an active member of the organization you choose to defect from; and even then, your actions cannot be limited to simply ‘deserting your own side’.

No, the dictionary-definition is quite clear on this point. To qualify as a ‘turncoat’, you have to ‘join an opposing party’ - or ‘jump ship’, if you prefer - and in so doing, you must also explicitly ‘betray your own cause’ (which, by definition, cannot be the same ‘cause’ that you are in process of defecting to: but more of this later).

Now: does any of that actually apply to the case of Frank Psaila? Because it sure as hell doesn’t look like it, to me.

Let’s start with the obvious. Psaila resigned from the Nationalist Party immediately after the election, last May. In so doing, he took off the ‘coat’ that he is supposed to have somehow ‘turned’ in the meantime… and presumably, hung it alongside all the others, in the Dar Centrali’s increasingly-overcrowded ‘cloakroom’, before walking out of the front door.

So if he ‘deserted’ the PN at all… it happened more than two months ago. Meanwhile, unless the Nationalist Party has turned into the equivalent of ‘Hotel California’ while I wasn’t looking – i.e., “You can check out any time you like; but you can never leave” – I fail to see why Frank Psaila shouldn’t have the full freedom to simply resign from that party, at any goddamn time he so chooses (and for any reason under the sun, too).

As for what other employment he decides to go for afterwards: well, that’s also his own affair, at the end of the day. But still: it does bring us to a far more important reason, why the term ‘turncoat’ is clearly misplaced in this context.

Unlike so many other Maltese politicians in the past – some of whom literally ‘crossed the floor’, from one side of the House to the other – Frank Psaila did not ‘join the Labour Party’, after resigning from the PN. Nor did he ‘jump ship’ in any other conceivable sense of the term.

All he did was accept appointments to three (3) separate government boards… a fact which may admittedly raise a few eyebrows, here and there (in the sense that: I can understand how a lawyer, with so much experience in politics, might do a good job of ‘social housing’. But that the same lawyer would also be an expert on ‘the licensing of medical products and devices’? Or ‘the granting of professional warrants to architects and civil engineers’? I mean… how’s that for ‘multi-tasking’, huh?)

But that, as far as I can see, is the only reason to even question any of those appointments. Because unless we are forced to add ‘good governance’ (and especially, ‘the rule of law’) to the list of ‘widely misunderstood and/or misapplied expressions in Malta right now’: there is (or there’s supposed to be) a distinction between ‘the government’… and the political party which happens to be administering it, at any given moment.

And there’s an even bigger difference between the internal structures of a political party… and the entire National Public Service (including all the boards, agencies, authorities, regulatory bodies, etc, which are supposed to be ‘autonomous’).

Indeed, the whole point of the ‘rule of law’ has all along been precisely this: that national institutions are kept at an arm’s-length from other branches of the State… so that they can carry out their daily operations, regardless which of two political parties happens to be in power.

Now: I admit that’s a convoluted way of saying that ‘the people calling Psaila a ‘turncoat’, clearly do not understand the mechanics of governance in any functioning democracy’. But I felt the need to spell it out, because… if we accept the argument that Frank Psaila should have rejected those appointments, out of some kind of (rather bizarre, when you think about it) ‘misplaced allegiance’ to a political ‘cause’ he had already abandoned anyway…

… well, we would also have to ask ourselves what this ‘cause’ he abandoned actually was, to begin with. (And – more pointedly – whether it is any ‘different’ from the cause he is supposed to have ‘abandoned it for’).

Then again: we don’t really have to, because the same questions are now being asked by others. Here I will resort to a Facebook comment by Prof. John Baldacchino (not only does he phrase it more succinctly than I ever could; but he also manages to make the same point, without labelling Psaila a ‘turncoat’.)

“It’s amazing how easy it is for some to spend years militating in a political party and severely criticizing the party opposite which happens to be government, and then at the drop of a hat not only leave the Party but get two or three positions in the same government […]. It’s like changing jobs. And the reason given is exactly that: I was not given the opportunity to realize my full potential, he says. So I switch company!”

Yep, folks: that’s the long and short of it, right there. For let’s face it: in a country where there is no real ‘ideological difference’ between the two main political parties - and where both adhere to exactly the same policies; and are beholden to precisely the same commercial pressures, etc. - what is there left to even base our choice on, anyway… if not their ‘managerial capabilities’?

Ultimately, it’s not just Frank Psaila who regards those two political parties as rival ‘springboards’, from which to launch a private career… everybody else does it, too. Not only because we all likewise view those parties in precisely the same terms: (i.e., as prospective ‘CEOs’, to be entrusted – or not - with ‘managing the country like a business…’)

But because we’ve all been guilty of precisely the same sort of ‘treachery’ ourselves:  every time we opted for a career move in our own (non-political) jobs and professions, for instance; by choosing one employer over another, on the basis of our own career advancement…  in other words, exactly like Frank Psaila has only just done (and got lambasted for doing).

So if that makes Frank Psaila a ‘turncoat’ – even though he had no more reason to feel ‘allegiance’ to the PN, than you yourself did, to the company you ‘deserted’ when you last changed job – sorry, but doesn’t it also make ‘traitors’ of us all?