Can it get worse? Yes, it can

Simon Busuttil forgot how important inclusion is in politics, and this has thwarted the party’s ability to reach out to others

PN leader Simon Busuttil foolishly revealed a private SMS sent to him by the CEO of the db Group
PN leader Simon Busuttil foolishly revealed a private SMS sent to him by the CEO of the db Group

There is a single and perfect analogy that illustrates the highlight of the week. It goes something like this: we all know that our parents have sex, but when you accidentally see them doing it you get this cold shiver down your spine and you freeze, shocked that it actually was true – and you cannot get what you consider a sordid scene out of your mind.

That is exactly what happened on Sunday, when PN leader Simon Busuttil foolishly revealed, live on Net TV, a private SMS sent to him by the CEO of the db Group. And what followed was a bravado declaration that egged the db Group on to reveal that they had been paying for the salaries of PN secretary-general Rosette Thake and party CEO Brian St John.

The tsunami of disbelief struck PN voters with a vengeance and Labour took a deep breath, praising the Lord that something had broken out that would wipe out some memories of the Panama scandal.

It got worse.

Simon Busuttil had earlier in the morning stated that all politicians should decide if they had a conflict of interest. He was reacting to a MaltaToday news report that reconfirmed, this time with more clarity, the extent to which his deputy leader Mario de Marco had been involved with the db Group on the ITS project, having attended several meetings at Castille about the project.

Busuttil made his solemn declaration after having read what the blogger-muckraker had to say about De Marco, a bête-noire of hers. It was not news to him. He knew what his deputy leaders were doing and he also knows that many of his MPs are involved in private practice that leads them into potential minefields of conflict of interest.

But Busuttil’s worst miscalculation was the decision to declare that he would not be dictated to by big business, when in fact he depends on big business to survive. He did not reveal, either, that it was he himself who had followed up contacts with big business to get them to help sustain the expensive running of his party. Or better still, help with the debt the party was facing.

He also did not explain that the “ftit mill-hafna” (the little from the multitude) was simply too insignificant to finance the PN’s recurrent expenditure, let alone an electoral campaign. 

And it was also indecorous of him to argue that money donated to the party came without any commitments.  

Now the db Group is not new to the Nationalist party. Its owners were well-known Nationalists and well-known activists. They were associated with the PN for decades, and never shied away from being so, until, that is, the last days of 2012 when, as was the case with most of big business, something happened and droves flocked to the other side of the border. That little something that happened was very simple – most businessmen were sick and tired of being asked to donate and then treated worse than cow dung.

Busuttil followed up his SMS cock-up with a demand that the system change, so that political parties would be funded by the State – a proposal that I remember being mooted way back in 1989 by Alternattiva Demokratika but that will be shot down by the present administration, because anyone in his right senses on the Labour side knows that the last thing they should do is introduce State aid, which would help the debt-ridden PN.

It is a very sad situation.

But what is sadder, is that the top brass of the PN are intrinsically working with big business. It has been like that for ages.

Busuttil was fully aware of what the db Group were planning at ITS – presentations had been made to him. Neither was he unaware what other groups were hoping for. There has always been a very close relationship with big groups such as Vassallo Builders and others.

Similar companies which have similar aspirations made representations and are in the same kind of soup. Just next door to the ITS, there is the Corinthia, and the Corinthia people have similar intentions to extend their site into what is also government-owned land. And they too want a mix of real estate and a hotel. And they too want to be treated fairly. Will they get the same kind of media attention?

The same holds for the project at Ħal-Ferħ and the one at White Rocks, which seems to be more of a white elephant.  

But let us get back to Simon Busuttil. He has made many fundamental mistakes. In my view his first mistake was to follow the diktat of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s prejudices to the letter. He still cannot digest the fact that she is a liability for the PN and will lose him votes. It just appears that he cherishes her instructions from her blog and does nothing to question it.

The second issue is that he has embraced her. In doing so he has contributed to giving her more credibility with party supporters, but he seems not to have realised that this association means that he must answer for her allegations.

For example when she says that Silvio Debono is corrupt, he hangs around applauding her claims. But he does not ask where the facts are which prove that Debono is corrupt and, if so, whether this would reflect on the fact that the businessman happens to employ or employed the services of his deputy leader and another parliamentarian (Francis Zammit Dimech).

To be fair, they were employed well before the ITS project.

It is so easy to call someone corrupt, and it so easy for people to believe those allegations. But no one, it seems, is willing to ask the very simple question: is it actually based on facts?

Anyhow, the big question is what happens next.

The best thing that could happen to the Nationalist Party is for a clean sweep at the top. But would it solve anything? Parliamentarians will go back to doing what they love doing best. Keeping their job as MPs on a part-time basis and getting their real income from private enterprise.  

Their political position serves them well and most people in the private sector cherish MPs on their official and unofficial payroll.

The second best thing that should happen is for Joseph Muscat to shake the system and propose a revolutionary change to politics.

(1)    Changing the electoral system which elects individuals chosen by the party, thus doing away with nepotism

(2)    Creating a salary review of ministers and junior ministers 

(3)    Making MPs full-time employees with decent wages

(4)    Introducing a mix of state funding and donations for parties

(5)    Creating mandatory registration and a code for lobbyists  

The third and last option is for a new political formation that will shake the system. The probability is that none of the three options will really get off the ground.

Today’s results of a MaltaToday survey show that the PL and Muscat are running ahead of the PN and it could very well be that the PN may even face more bad news in the coming weeks. The smaller parties are going nowhere, Marlene Farrugia has not got off the ground, and she infected her momentum by insisting that she will be a partner with the PN. Arnold Cassola and AD are stuck in a rut.

Muscat on the other hand has a goal. It is all too clear, finishing a ten-year term and then finding his place at the helm of some European institution. He wants to leave a legacy but not one which reforms the institutions – but rather one linked with an economic model that takes Malta to new highs.

And the final observation goes to Simon Busuttil, who punctured his rise by bursting this bubble about good governance. It was he who allowed this to be his one single-issue campaign, likening Malta to Somoza’s regime when it simply is not.

He showed that his style is rather similar to that of Alfred Sant, having a unique vocation of shooting themselves in the foot because of their unbending conviction and insistence not to make political compromises.

But more importantly, Busuttil forgot how important inclusion is in politics. His ability to alienate people who might not be natural supporters of the PN, his unwillingness to consider the validity of the choices of those who switched to Labour, and his refusal to do away with anti-Labour prejudices inside his party, thwarted the party’s ability to reach out to others.

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