Make up your own quotes. That’s what leaders do

The exigencies facing the newly elected PN leader are different. What is needed is not Eddie Fenech Adami all over again... but another leader who can emulate Eddie’s achievements (as opposed to just his words) in re-moulding the PN against the backdrop of the current realities

Eddie Fenech Adami, like Dom Mintoff, had a remarkable ‘gift of the gab’: i.e., an innate ability to eloquently communicate complex political messages in simple, memorable terms
Eddie Fenech Adami, like Dom Mintoff, had a remarkable ‘gift of the gab’: i.e., an innate ability to eloquently communicate complex political messages in simple, memorable terms

When you follow local politics for any length of time, you will sooner or later notice a certain sense of déjà vu that runs clean through it like a fibre-optic cable. Or to be precise, a sense of déjà-ecouté. Politicians here have this remarkable habit of always saying exactly the same thing, in exactly the same words, over and over again. They have in fact been recycling the same pre-packaged lines for decades now... lines we have all heard so often in the past that we can practically rattle them off by heart.

Recently, for instance, I came across an online interview with PN leadership hopeful Adrian Delia. Unlike most other political interviews, I followed this one right through to the end. Delia was at the time (and up to a point still is) a totally unknown quantity as far as I’m concerned. And given the enormity of the task that lies in store for whoever wins that election... I was curious to know what ideas, if any, he might happen to have.

At one point he was asked why he decided to throw his hat into the ring in the first place. Predictable as clockwork, he replied: “As [PN leader Eddie Fenech Adami] once said, ‘your country is calling you’. That shout is vibrant in my ears and in my heart.”

To be fair, Delia did say quite a few other things in that interview. But what struck me was the underlying assumption that ‘quoting a former Nationalist leader’ still had some form of automatic currency. Clearly, it is still considered a gateway

to automatic acceptance, in a party (and country) that has actually moved on quite a bit since Eddie Fenech Adami said those words about his own ‘calling’... way back in 1977.

Please note, by the way, that I am not singling
out Adrian Delia for this line of criticism. (Well, perhaps I am... but only as an example). He is hardly unique in this respect: any other Nationalist politician would have likewise seized the opportunity to quote a great relic from their party’s past. And if it happened to be a Labour politician instead, he or she would have done exactly the same thing... only quoting Dom Mintoff instead.

Dom Mintoff
Dom Mintoff

Actually, Mintoff’s verbal legacy is much more pervasive than Eddie’s. Quotes such as ‘Malta l-ewwel u qabel kollox’ [‘Malta first and before all else’] have almost come to be inscribed directly into our genetic code at birth. Even Simon Busuttil chose to end his election campaign with a resounding appeal to: ‘do what Mintoff would have done, and put Malta before everything on June 3!”

Again, it makes me wonder: do these people ever stop to consider how utterly antediluvian this makes them sound? On what basis would the leader – actual or prospective – of a supposedly forward- looking party want to project such a backward- looking image?

Elsewhere, people have found themselves quoting Mintoff for other purposes... sometimes even to twist the original quote beyond recognition. When Alfred Sant famously said ‘Min mhux kontra taghna, maghna’ [‘Who is not against us, is with us’] back in the 1990s, he was deliberately and consciously reversing the order of a well-known Mintoff quote, to signify his party’s total break with the traditional Mintoff mind-set.

But the words were still Mintoff’s, not Sant’s. So it seems we are somehow destined to keep slavishly echoing those great political eminences of the past... even when trying to subvert their legacy.

All the same, however: Alfred Sant at least employed a little ingenuity in his appropriation of the words of others. I can’t quite say the same thing about Adrian Delia; or all the others who evidently think that they can bask in the glory of their political heroes... simply by repeating a few of their memorable one-liners every so often.

And this brings me to the first of at least three problems I see with this approach to politics. (Note: I’ll admit that, as problems go, they’re not exactly earth-shattering. But they do point towards an underlying ‘inconvenient truth’).

Let’s start with the least important, and get it out of the way. By quoting former party leaders like Eddie or Mintoff, all you’re really doing is inviting comparison between those two politicos and yourself. The immediate difference this underscores is that both Eddie and Mintoff had a remarkable ‘gift of the gab’: i.e., an innate ability to eloquently communicate complex political messages in simple, memorable terms. That is, in fact, the reason we still quote those figures all these years later: they had different styles, but both were incredibly gifted orators in their own day.

This also means that today’s politicians are only putting on display their own lack of corresponding eloquence... and with it, by extension, their lack of leadership skills. If they really want to emulate the historic successes of the people they so lovingly echo... they should be coming up with those memorable one-liners themselves. That’s what leaders do, you know. Like Eddie and Mintoff, they use their own innate communications skills to inspire their followers... by appealing to the popular aspirations and concerns of the day.

And by ‘the day’, please note that I mean... TODAY. Right now, right here, in 21st century Malta. Not 40 bloody years ago, in a political context that has since evolved beyond any real comparison.

Which of course brings me to problem number two. Quotable quotes by Eddie or Mintoff meant a certain something in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s... which they may not necessarily still mean today. Eddie felt a ‘calling’, as he put it, because Malta was passing through epochal upheavals that, in his view, required serious leadership at all levels. Later, with hindsight, he could justify responding to that ‘call’ on the basis that he really did have a programme
of change to effect in the country. Regardless what

you may think of Eddie politically, there can be no doubt that he was a transformational politician. He had a very clear idea of where he wanted to go... and exactly how he needed to reinvent his own party in order to get there.

PN leadership candidate Adrian Delia
PN leadership candidate Adrian Delia

By choosing that particular Eddie Fenech Adami quote, Delia also posed the same question about his own vocation. We know why Eddie ‘felt the calling’ in 1977. But what about Adrian Delia today? Why would Malta ‘call’ him – and not, say, Chris Said, or David Thake, or anybody else for that matter – at this particular point in time?

I was half-hoping he would follow up with an answer to that question... but no. It seems that merely echoing the Eddie line, on its own, was considered answer enough.

The problem here is that it is the question that
is still relevant, not Eddie’s answer four decades ago. Ironically, this can be easily confirmed by a cursory glance at all the issues that are problematic to the PN today. Gay marriage, for instance. The ‘liberal-conservative’ divide. I shudder to think what Eddie Fenech Adami’s own personal views
on all this really are. As President of the Republic, he had qualms about signing the IVF bill into law because it ‘contradicted his Catholic beliefs’. What must he think of the fact that his own party is now supporting full marriage equality for same-sex couples?

Of course, none of that mattered when he be came party leader in 1977. There were bigger fish to fry back then. I don’t dispute that Eddie Fenech Adami was indeed a formidable politician in the context of the age that produced him. By the standards of the time, he was forward-looking on a number of issues: economy, foreign policy, etc.

But we are now living in a different age, and the exigencies facing the newly elected PN leader will likewise be different. What is needed, then, is not Eddie Fenech Adami all over again... but another leader who can emulate Eddie’s achievements (as opposed to just his words) in re-moulding the PN against the backdrop of the current realities. This can only be achieved as it had been achieved in 1977: i.e., through the implementation of a whole new political vision and direction.

Well, that is precisely what we will never get, if we continue to base our national ‘way of doing politics’ only on a blueprint designed by past political leaders, in response to past realities that simply do not fit the present context at all.