Muscat’s attacks on Busuttil may end up helping the PN

Unsurprisingly, there is widespread dissatisfaction with the government on environmental and transparency issues

Wikipedia describes “It’s the economy, stupid” as a ‘slight variation of the phrase “The economy, stupid” which James Carville had coined as a campaign strategist of Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign against incumbent president George H.W. Bush’. In 2018, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat might be bitterly surprised to discover that “It’s the environment and transparency, stupid”

Unsurprisingly, the latest MaltaToday survey shows widespread dissatisfaction with the government on transparency and environmental issues and for this, the Prime Minister has only himself to blame. In the early years of the new Labour government, people have already lost count of the controversial, at times highly suspicious, deals which come to light only thanks to the media. 

The Prime Minister’s refusal to reverse his position on the proposed Zonqor Point development has caused untold harm to Labour’s much trumpeted ‘green’ credentials in the run up to the 2013 general election. Muscat’s stubbornness has united a broad church of NGOs against his government and it’s useless for the Prime Minister to cite the PN’s past mistakes in an attempt to defend the indefensible. 

Last Saturday, 3,000 people travelled to Valletta to rally against the proposed development at Zonqor Point on land lying outside the development zone. Michael Briguglio, the Front Harsien ODZ spokesperson, described the protest as ‘the largest citizens’ protest ever’. A week has passed, and by the time of writing [Thursday evening] the Prime Minister refuses to budge from his position. He has also refused to publish the Heads of Agreement that the Muscat government signed in May with Jordanian construction firm Sadeen, through which the latter aims to build a private university – we’ve been told. 

However, Saturday’s protest was more than just opposition to the proposed Zonqor Point development. It was also about growing concern about the government’s highly questionable deals with individuals and companies – not least foreign, often at the taxpayers’ expense and at the expense of our environment. 

In 2013, people voted Labour because they wanted a new way of doing politics and a clean break from the past. Two years later, many complain that the more things change the more they remain the same. 

On the other hand, peoples’ perception of the government’s economic performance is remarkably positive. It is often said that if Labour gets the economy right, it will cruise to another landslide victory in 2018 – because it is widely believed, and I’m sure Muscat is often told, that it is the economy, stupid. However, Joseph Muscat and his government don’t seem to understand that Malta cannot have a healthy economy without a healthy environment – especially in the long term. In 2018, the Prime Minister might be bitterly surprised to discover that it is the environment and transparency, stupid. 

As for the Nationalist Party, while it is right in keeping the government on its toes, especially on environmental and transparency matters, and criticising vociferously shady backroom deals and highly questionable jobs and promotions, it needs to, in parallel, come up with proposals on how, in government, it will be different and better than the current Labour government. It also needs to make sure that in its eagerness to expose the government’s shortcomings – as is its responsibility, it does not come across as being holier-than-thou, because a party fresh from two decades in government cannot and does not afford to do so. If the PN is perceived to be hypocritically holier-than-thou its strategy would backfire. 

The Prime Minister has spent the last two years hitting out at Simon Busuttil as much as he talks about his government’s achievements. Minister Konrad Mizzi follows in his master’s steps, constantly hitting out at Busuttil, describing him, during one of his recent outbursts in Parliament, as being ‘not fit for purpose’.

In the process, the PN leader has managed to make inroads especially among switchers – who elected Muscat to power in 2013. If the Prime Minister really and truly thinks that his political counterpart is a weak leader, then he should know better than to lower himself to the same level as a weak opponent by constantly hitting out and trying to ridicule the PN leader. Truth is that Busuttil has come a long way and Muscat’s attacks on Busuttil may end up helping the Nationalist Party.

The MaltaToday survey published last Sunday registered the narrowest trust gap between Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and Opposition leader Simon Busuttil since June 2013, although Muscat still enjoys a significant, strong 13-point lead over Busuttil. However, the PN has reduced its rating gap with the PL from eight to five points, with Labour losing three points over March and the PN staying put. More switchers, who voted PN in 2008 and PL in 2013 have declared their intention – barely two years after voting Labour into power, that come 2018 they will shift their allegiance to the PN. Today, Busuttil enjoys a stronger backing from core PN voters – which has not always been the case since he took over at the helm of his party. 

Whether the PN manages to pull it off in 2018 is anybody’s guess, although the gap between the PL and the PN is significantly high. Muscat still commands a stronger following than his party, while Busuttil is less popular than his own party among 2013 Nationalist voters. However, the MT survey suggests that the Nationalist Party under Simon Busuttil and the PN leader himself have come a long way since the crushing defeat at the polls in 2013. 

Thousands of people who in 2013 voted Labour are disappointed, Labourites included. However, if the PN is to win them over it needs to convince them that it has truly changed for the better. This won’t be achieved by preaching to the converted. The PN needs to reach out to switchers, disgruntled Nationalists and Labourites and pale red voters. The PN needs to convince them that it is a better alternative. In 2018, people won’t vote PN because it is the lesser of two evils, but because they are convinced that it has learned from its past mistakes and that it can be better, much better, than the Labour government.

More in Blogs