Re-introducing Simon Busuttil

It’s an uphill battle for Simon Busuttil and the PN, but Sunday’s General Convention marked what could be a turning point for the PN.

Opposition leader Simon Busuttil (Photo by Ray Attard)
Opposition leader Simon Busuttil (Photo by Ray Attard)

I had often wondered what on earth happened to Simon Busuttil, the charming, vibrant and bold EU campaigner turned successful MEP.

Admittedly, he did make some inroads in his first year as PN leader, and implemented some very important changes to the party’s structures. However, I’ve lost count of the number of people, mostly Nationalist Party supporters, who insist that the new PN leader needs to be more passionate in his approach, and bolder and more forceful with his political counterpart.

I had almost given up hope, honestly. Overnight, we witnessed a dramatic change. Perhaps the real Simon Busuttil, finally, stood up. At the PN General Convention, last Sunday, he delivered his best speech ever: bold, forceful and passionate.

Why he waited one painful year for this to happen is beyond me; but, finally, he did; at long last. In many ways, on Sunday, Busuttil re-introduced himself to the country. His girlfriend, Kristina Chetcuti and his boys were there, too. Busuttil had already introduced Ms Chetcuti during the ALS ice-bucket challenge way back in August, but at the PN General Convention she was there. Front row. Following her boyfriend’s speech.

Charming, and confident

At the San Gorg Corinthia, Busuttil oozed charm and confidence. Finally, he proved that he is able to give a human dimension to politics. Most importantly, Busuttil showed that he is willing to shift his party outside its comfort zone and able to give moral direction.

The content of his speech was good and refreshing. True, it was not so strong on vision – although he spoke at length about his vision, for Malta and the PN, at the Indipendenza mass meeting on the Floriana granaries last September. Unfortunately, that was, yet again, another good speech but badly delivered because it was devoid of passion and emotion. Unsurprisingly, it was easily forgotten. Not so his General Convention speech – it made noise for the right reasons.

Needed: Authoritative leadership

I have often suspected that Busuttil wants to change the Nationalist Party into a more liberal, people’s party – open to new ideas and diversity; but that he is, constantly, hampered by the conservative elements within the party. The abstention on the civil unions bill is a case in point: by far Busuttil’s greatest political gaffe. It is no secret that Busuttil was all for a vote in favour of the bill, but he was, vociferously, opposed by the more conservative elements within his parliamentary group. He tried to find the middle ground – which was equally wrong, if not worse than a vote against.

However, the new PN leader seems to have learnt the lesson: never again appease those who want to maintain the status quo, unless he wants to be remembered for having paved the way for a new PN leader but never stood a single chance of making it to Castille. Busuttil needs to demonstrate authoritative leadership, fast.

Break with the past

The PN General Convention was an obvious attempt by the PN leader to throw open the doors of a stuffy Nationalist Party to new ideas and diversity.  If what Busuttil had in mind was a clean break with the party’s past, his speech at the PN Convention, and the entire Convention for that matter, was a step in the right direction. Transgender Alex Mangion, sociologist Michael Briguglio and MaltaToday journalist James Debono made some very valid contributions to the Saturday morning session. There was even a suggestion, from one of the workshops, that the party should discuss abortion and euthanasia – which, as expected, rubbed Paul Vincenti of Gift of Life the wrong way, and the PN had to issue a press statement stating the obvious: that it is, and shall remain, vociferously against abortion.

Vincenti missed the point. Discussing euthanasia and abortion does not mean a change in the party’s position but an opportunity for the party to be prepared on social issues should they ever arise. Vincenti would have none of that, and the PN issued an unnecessary press statement to put his mind at rest.

Walk the walk

It is screamingly obvious that Simon Busuttil regretted the PN’s vote on civil unions. However, he seems determined to prove that the PN has learnt from its past mistakes, and is now willing to become, once again, the catalyst for further changes within our secular society. Having a transgender addressing the PN Convention was a good start, but that alone will not win him back the gay vote which following the civil unions abstention gaffe continued to desert the PN in droves. He needs to walk the walk, and never again succumb to pressure from conservative elements within the party on civil rights matters.

Moral direction

Equally important was his emphasis on moral direction. Only two years after he took office, people can no longer look to Prime Minister Joseph Muscat for moral direction. Busuttil is up against ‘mass Clientelism’ from a government which has absolutely no problem in inviting the press to inaugurate an illegal mobile police station and which provides illegal boathouse owners with smart meters. It is up to the PN – which although light years away from sainthood it did allow for some very immoral decisions in the past, not least in its appeasement for illegal boathouses to mushroom on public land – to provide moral direction. Later this week, following media reports that the UK will not support an EU mission to cope with migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea, and that Renzi’s Italy wants to scale back its national rescue operation, I expected the PN leader to show moral direction – lambast Cameron and Renzi for their shameful populism, and put forward humane solutions that respect the human dignity of migrants. I also expected Simon Busuttil to step up the pressure for an investigation on the enslavement of Chinese workers at Leisure Clothing which, according to reports, took place over a number of years – under both Nationalist and Labour administrations.

Whoever is responsible for colluding in this enslavement [according to media reports, their silence has been bought in exchange for high-end clothing manufactured by the company] should be brought to justice, named and shamed, and heads roll – whoever they are. This is a real scandal.

Bolder and more forceful

Lack of forcefulness, when lashing out at his political opponent’s shortcomings, has always been a marked characteristic of the new PN leader. He often lets, even if unintentionally, Muscat get away with murder. At the PN Convention, Busuttil lashed out, brilliantly, at Muscat on a number of shortcomings which have characterised Muscat’s first two years in office – not least lawlessness and unkept promises. He also showed that he could be forceful with his own side, although he needs to be aware of Labour’s diversionary tactics to save itself from having the media focus on its wrongdoings.

A clear stand on bread and butter issues

Simon Busuttil’s speech at the Convention should serve as a much needed turning point for the Nationalist Party. I trust that  to ooze charm and be passionate in his speeches. I trust that he continues to squeeze the stuffiness out of the PN, and open its doors wider to lure back liberal voters. I hope that he is bolder and more forceful when criticising his political opponent.

However, I hope that he never loses sight of bread and butter issues, namely: employment, work, education, a sustainable health sector, a cleaner environment and zero tolerance to illegal development. On most issues, the PN does not need to re-invent the wheel; it is a given that successive Nationalist administrations had the right economic and educational policies – it is thanks to the Nationalist Party, under Eddie Fenech Adami and Lawrence Gonzi – that today we have a vibrant economy and strong niche sectors, namely financial, IT and gaming. What Busuttil’s PN needs to do is to enhance those policies which yielded positive results and make them relevant to today’s economic and social realities.

On Sunday, Busuttil showed empathy with people’s concerns, but empathy alone is of no use – it needs to be coupled with the right polices on bread and butter issues.

What does the PN stand for?

Ask any Nationalist Party supporter what the PN stands for, and you are most likely to get blank faces. Many have no idea what their party represents. I don’t blame them. Simon Busuttil needs to flesh out what the PN represents and how it is different from the Labour Party. What is the PN’s identity today? What exactly are its values? How is it different from the Nationalist Party under Eddie Fenech Adami and Lawrence Gonzi? What is its vision for Malta’s next decade in the EU? Equality, fairness, social justice – what do they mean for the PN? The electorate needs to know what the PN stands for and where they stand with the PN. Busuttil cannot afford to keep his cards close to his chest. In 2018, if you elect a Nationalist party, will your life be better or worse? Busuttil needs to provide the answers, and he needs to do so now.

No turning back

Sunday’s speech showed that Simon Busuttil is aware of the urgent need for his party to act fast. He now needs to keep the momentum gained at the PN General Convention and project himself as an assertive, bold and visionary leader and his party as a strong political force.

There is no turning back. Busuttil now needs to make sure that those around him are on board – ready to embrace this much needed change for the party. If not, if they are reluctant to endorse diversity within the party, if they want to maintain the status quo, they have to go, and go now.

It’s an uphill for Busuttil and the PN, but Sunday’s General Convention marked what could be a turning point for the PN. This week the Nationalist Party had the buzz of a party confident of re-inventing itself, and re-introducing its leader. If this fails, Busuttil would have only himself to blame.

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