A blessing in disguise

Joseph Muscat understands electors’ psyche, the Nationalist Party does not: this is what the Simon Busuttil’s PN is up against and unless it changes the way it thinks, it will stay in Opposition for a long time.

Simon Busuttil casts his vote in the 2014 European elections - Photo: Ray Attard
Simon Busuttil casts his vote in the 2014 European elections - Photo: Ray Attard

The solution, following the EP election result, is not for Simon Busuttil to quit. Busuttil, and his leadership team have what it takes to return the Nationalist Party to power – but unless they consider the MEP election result as a blessing in disguise, an excellent opportunity to force their hand to bring much needed radical changes within the party, they are doomed to fail. It’s really the case of “change or be damned” for the Nationalist Party.

The MEP election result was, in my opinion due to five main factors: 

1.A huge electoral majority does not peter out in fourteen months – the fact that the PN managed to win the third seat, despite all the odds against it, is already a significant achievement;

2.The Nationalist Party’s opposition to government decisions is definitely not negative but, undoubtedly, far from assertive;

3.Muscat understands electors’ psyche, the Nationalist Party does not;

4.The ‘live-and-let live’ approach, which characterised most of Nationalist-led governments prior to 2004, is no longer associated with the PN;

5.Unless the PN becomes the broad coalition it once was under the Fenech Adami administrations, it stands little chance of being returned to power anytime soon.

The ‘live-and-let live’ approach is no longer associated with the PN

Muscat managed to fuel the perception that the PN is negative in its approach. Of course, the launching of a Panini sticker album by one of its deputy leaders should have never been – but nothing beats Muscat’s mother-of-all PR gaffes, when he called a press conference at Castille to announce a two-cent decrease in the price of petrol.

The PN would be very naïve to play into the Prime Minister’s hands. It suits Muscat well to say that the PN is ‘negative’ – he wants to silence the Opposition. What is needed is an assertive Opposition which is hard-hitting in its criticism of government decisions. Busuttil has it in him to be assertive and persuasive – as head of the MIC he persuaded the Maltese electorate that Malta’s place was in the EU; but as Opposition leader he needs to pull up his socks and become much more assertive and persuasive.

Muscat understands the elector-psyche, but the PN does not. The party was right in criticising government over the berthing of an LNG tanker at the Marsaxlokk Bay – but it failed to understand the elector-psyche, including that of the Marsaxlokk and Birzebbuga residents who, choosing between an LNG tanker a few metres away from their residences and a 25% decrease in their electricity bills, opted for the latter. People who bought cars for the price of an apartment changed their party allegiance over a €100 tax rebate.

This is what the Busuttil’s PN is up against and unless it changes the way it thinks, including its style, it will remain in opposition for a long time. The solution is not for the Opposition to fail from criticising government decisions – but to keep in mind that the elector-psyche thinks micro rather than macro, and that one approach does not exclude the other. Busuttil’s party needs to find a better balance between the two.

It’s really the case of change or be damned for the PN

The ‘live-and-let live’ approach, which characterised most of Nationalist-led governments, is no longer associated with the PN. Unfortunately, this statement is prone to be met with the usual ‘the PN should not abandon its values’ excuse – which is wrong because in no way does this approach conflict with the core values of the party, namely  the individual and his freedom at the centre of its policies.

The abstention over the civil unions’ bill was a case in point. It was a short-sighted decision which continued to disappoint the very people who at the last general election switched to Labour because they perceived the PN to be too ‘conservative’. The least the party could have done was to grant a free vote to its MPs; perhaps it’s time for the PN to enshrine in its statute that decisions of a moral nature should not have the party whip, but to allow its MPs a free vote according to their conscience. That would help enable the PN to better represent the whole of Maltese society.

The party needs to decide what it stands for and who it represents. Under Eddie Fenech Adami, it was a broad coalition with people of different backgrounds, and with diverse vested interests rallying around it because it was in synch with the elector-psyche and gauged the mood of the people successfully. Since Malta joined the EU, the Nationalist Party failed to remain this broad coalition and has been reduced to a party which preaches solely to the converted.

The MEP election result should be a blessing in disguise for Busuttil and the new PN leadership – after only 14 months at the helm of a party which is still flat on its back. Busuttil laid the foundations for the PN to reinvent itself – but his is a five-year, not a one-year programme. He should be given the chance to implement the necessary changes, and the MEP election result is an excellent opportunity for this to happen.

Those whose interests lie elsewhere should either quit or be sacked. Busuttil, contrary to Lawrence Gonzi, does not have a one-seat government majority to worry about. He can afford to be ruthless and, contrary to Muscat, do it with dignity and style. Malta deserves a strong opposition

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