Evaluating Simon Busuttil’s first two years

Whether Busuttil defies the odds to be a one-term opposition remains to be seen, but there's widespread consensus that he has made a good start in rebuilding the foundations of a new, vibrant and politically relevant Nationalist Party.

'After a thorough soul searching exercise, the PN is on the way back, strategy and tactics well aligned – but there’s a long way to go'
'After a thorough soul searching exercise, the PN is on the way back, strategy and tactics well aligned – but there’s a long way to go'

Simon Busuttil does not wish to be a transitory leader. He’s doing his best not to – he’s come a long way.  Whether he manages to pull it off in 2018 is anybody’s guess. It’s an uphill for the PN. 2013 was a massive blow. A year later, at the MEP elections, the PN got another knock out. When you lose an election, and another with such a wide margin, it takes time for people to tune back in to you. 

Not a continuity leader

But Simon Busuttil has another wish – he doesn’t want to be a continuity leader. At the heart of his vision for the Nationalist Party is a desire to embark on a new way of doing politics. For him to do so, he must revitalise the PN and convince the electorate that he can be that new, much desired change. To defy the odds in 2018, he needs to combine both. If he achieves these goals, Busuttil’s leadership will be a defining moment in Malta’s political history and that of the Nationalist Party. 

The organisation

Simon Busuttil inherited a party in deep financial trouble. With the help of his leadership team, especially his former Secretary General, Chris Said, he successfully addressed the situation – although the challenge to address long standing debts takes time to be resolved. The party re-organised its structures, bringing competent people on board with a strong background in management and finance. 

Game changers

Busuttil implemented changes to the party’s statute and introduced wide ranging focus groups to help the PN re-evaluate its policies. These decisions proved to be a game changer for the PN, which had become far too nervous about reaching out to others with whom it did not agree. So was his decision to make radical changes to his shadow cabinet. Brave decisions which helped Busuttil assert himself as the undisputed leader of his party.

After the resignation of Gozitan MP Giovanna Debono from the PN Parliamentary Group, Busuttil moved Chris Said to Gozo with the specific task of re-building the PN in what once was a PN stronghold. A relatively unknown Rosette Thake was handpicked by Busuttil as the new PN Secretary General. Contrary to her predecessors, Thake assumed a behind-the scenes role, focusing her time and energy on the party’s structures and its electoral machine. She’s got a strong managerial background – essential for the post of Secretary General at a time when the PN is busy reorganising its internal structures. 

The message

Simon Busuttil constantly reminds us that he is after a new way of doing politics. He does not want to emulate Joseph Muscat, he tells us – by promising everything to all and sundry in the hope of winning the general election. Whether he succeeds depends largely on whether he manages to convince the electorate that he truly means what he says. Recently, Busuttil told us that the PN’s future is the environment. That was a bold and much needed statement, which contrasts deeply with the present government’s laissez faire attitude towards the environment. We now expect Busuttil to tell us how. 

Acknowledging past mistakes

In making an argument opposing the government’s laissez faire attitude towards the environment, Busuttil is also struggling with his own inherited legacy from previous PN administrations. That’s always a struggle for a new PN leader – which makes it absolutely important for the PN not to come across as hypocritically holier-than-thou on issues and matters on which the PN too got it wrong when in government.

The PN’s record on the environment, meritocracy, transparency and its fight against bureaucracy could have been much better – to put it mildly. Understanding its past mistakes is key to the present and the future. However, things have never been so bad, especially on the government’s handling of the environment and its lack of meritocracy and transparency. 

Acknowledging the government’s achievements’

On the other hand, the economy is doing well, and Labour is doing relatively well on bread and butter issues. Tourism is on the up and Muscat’s Labour has also delivered on income tax cuts and free child care. It would be short-sighted for the PN not to acknowledge the government’s achievements or insist that the government’s achievements are attributed, solely, to past PN administrations – that sounds too arrogant, which was one of the major downfalls of the Nationalist Party. Simon Busuttil seems to be aware of this, but unfortunately a handful of his men and women speak and act as if 2013 never happened. They are not helping his cause. 

Reaching out

Busuttil is doing his best to reach out to those who, over the years, deserted the PN in droves. From what I hear, he’s making inroads. Of course, to succeed the PN cannot afford to repeat the mistake it did a year ago when it abstained on the civil unions’ bill. By abstaining, the party further alienated liberal voters. It should have voted in favour of that bill. It did not. That was a silly mistake.

He’s come a long way

Much to Joseph Muscat’s disappointment, Simon Busuttil has come a long way since he took the helm of the Nationalist Party. His delivery is better, his body language more confident and he’s proven himself to be steely on a number of issues on which the Muscat administration is failing miserably – the environment, meritocracy and transparency. The Malta Taghna Lkoll slogan has become a joke. Reality is also catching up with the Labour Party which is now finding it hard to deliver on its promises.

The task ahead

Simon Busuttil has made his choice. He wants a Nationalist Party that does not speak to the few but a party that welcomes the many. At the word go, Simon Busuttil started off with a double disadvantage: the PN had suffered its worst defeat in its entire history and he was elected PN deputy leader in the dying days of the Gonzi administration. A year later, at the MEP elections the PN suffered another knock out. But the new PN leader showed remarkable resilience and put his heart and soul into rebuilding the Nationalist Party.

On the way back

After a thorough soul searching exercise, the PN is on the way back, strategy and tactics well aligned – but there’s a long way to go. Busuttil needs voters to trust him on the management of the economy. Perhaps, the PN leader should focus his attention on the squeezed middle – families who despite the economy being on the up, are struggling.

Admittedly, they too were struggling under the previous PN administration, which despite its remarkable economic success during one of the worst financial crisis in decades, was too focused on the macro situation. Simon Busuttil needs to show them, in no uncertain terms, that the Nationalist Party is truly on their side – for them it’s not enough that the party shows compassion, it must also reassure them that it supports their efforts and when in government it will be at their side. 

Aspirational voters

It is crucial for the PN to read well potential Nationalist voters. Those who over the years got fed up with the PN and deserted it in droves need to be convinced that the PN has truly changed and learned from its mistakes.

Others expect Busuttil to be steely on matters on which government is failing – as he did on the IIP scheme and the proposed Zonqor Point development. There is also a segment of Nationalist and middle-of the road voters which the PN needs to cater for – those that tend to be less negative in their judgement of the Labour government. Painting a completely bleak picture of the Muscat administration and acting as if the PN is always in the right does not impress these potential Nationalist voters. 

The Nationalist Party must re-establish itself as the party of aspirational voters.

Defying the odds

Whether Simon Busuttil manages to defy the odds and be a one-term opposition remains to be seen. However, there is widespread consensus that Busuttil made a good start in rebuilding the foundations of a new, vibrant and politically relevant Nationalist Party. 

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