What an ending

Busuttil was unrepentant till the end, together with a band of sycophants who toasted him without being able to admit that the party had suffered a humiliating trashing because something was also very wrong with the PN.

Former Nationalist Party leader Simon Busuttil
Former Nationalist Party leader Simon Busuttil

There was this nagging visual in my mind watching Net TV on Friday. A teenage moment where a fixation with a girl just doesn’t let you see the writing on the wall. Despite being rejected once, twice and thrice over, you continue believing that you can make it and win her over.

For my sins, even though on holiday, I had to listen to Simon Busuttil’s last speech as leader of the PN. The PN’s General Convention, that political congregation that is supposed to serve as a grand incubator of policy talk and blue-sky nonsense, turned out to be a big powwow in honour of the outgoing leader. It was as if some Soviet leader had passed away, only that the PN’s leader here was still alive and kicking.

As he took to the stage, but not before immersing himself in the adulation and tearful commotion of those present, Simon Busuttil belted out a speech that was, in most respects, a reminder of that thinking process and arrogance that the PN is now expected to jettison.

In reminiscing on the fervour of that Floriana mass meeting, where – it would have seemed – everything was possible on election eve (although it was not), Busuttil was quick to bemoan ”populism” as the single reason for the PN’s failure in the 2017 election.

Of course, populism enjoys a bad reputation. In the EU, illiberal governments like Viktor Orban’s (an EPP member) are problematic partners; Putin’s Russia and Erdogan’s Turkey are slaves to their leader’s personality cult; and of course, there’s Donald Trump.

So, what about Maltese populism? Perhaps the first success-story was Eddie Fenech Adami, when the PN of the 1980s was a broad church that welcomed all those fighting Mintoffian authoritarianism. We called them neither liberals nor conservatives, for all shared the same goal of getting rid of Labour and bringing some form of normality to the country.

But then again, the nepotism of the late 1980s was indeed refined in the 1990s under the Fenech Adami administrations. Meritocracy was certainly not the name of the game. Entrepreneurs learned that you needed to wave the party flag to get to places and win big contracts.

Today, Joseph Muscat’s populism – unabashedly neoliberal – does not seem to distinguish too much between businessmen’s political leanings. Money is the same colour for all. And while Labour has softened the sharp edges of the PN’s austerity – by reducing energy rates for example; or those of its own doing, with a gradual increase in minimum wage, Busuttil would still like to call this populism. To Busuttil, the material benefits promptly delivered to Malta’s business community and the citizenry at large, would be simply some egregious form of ‘populism’.

But even though Busuttil believes the Granaries mass meeting was a show of force against the “immoral”, it was as usual the display of a party hard-core at any mass meeting. Their size and enthusiasm does not necessarily translate into votes at the polling booth. Maybe he has not heard those individuals who told me personally how shocked they were at his weak delivery and speech on that night. Or how the impact of Marlene Farrugia and Godfrey Farrugia was to take away votes from PN veterans without even winning the middle ground or the Labour vote.

Busuttil was unrepentant till the end, together with a band of sycophants who toasted him without being able to admit that the party had suffered a humiliating trashing because something was also very wrong with the PN.

For I do have to point out that in this very moment, there has been some very unfair treatment meted out to one of the leadership candidates. I have no brief for Adrian Delia. But to precede an election for party leader with eulogies for Busuttil – with Busuttil himself recounting self-congratulatory anecdotes of being “inside people’s hearts” – is simply not on. It is damn wrong. Talk about populists and illiberal strongmen…

Here was a man, Busuttil, who opposes Adrian Delia (as we know he suggested he would have resigned had he been Delia after the ethics inquiry held by the PN); but democracy is not determined by Busuttil’s whims. Neither is it served by preventing Said and Delia from facing each other off on PBS, but then allowing them to do so on party station Net.

Busuttil should have left the day he resigned, together with Mario de Marco and Beppe Fenech Adami and his other brownnosers. The eulogies should have been left to the historians, not for some farewell party with special guests.

It gave the election an unfair edge being held just a day before, with the old guard of Lawrence Gonzi and Joe Borg in full view.

It’s about time that someone says it as it is: Busuttil’s most corrosive defect was his self-conceit and arrogance, assuming that the moral high ground was his by rights, believing the excess of previous Nationalist administrations was something everyone should forget for here was the Messiah to set things straight.

I sensed this from the very first reactions when meeting him. He looked at me with eyes trained upon me as if he had seen a ghost; with no quick-fire comments to make as I spoke to him on the moral high ground I felt he had no right to occupy. His opposition to the golden passport was weak and hypocritical – droves of PN lawyers, including senior PN MPs and candidates, were benefitting from the scheme.

His opposition to Zonqor’s university campus, with his army of former Nationalist MPs who had nothing to say when they obliterated the island’s ODZ countryside, was unconvincing. Even in Panamagate, Busuttil would not venture beyond a line that called into question the financial services sector and its role in global tax avoidance. Sure enough, there’s a hundred and one things that are not right in Muscat’s government and one of them is governance. And surely, favouritism is also rife but businesses feel the colour of your eyes does not prevent you from moving forward.

Busuttil exited his party on Friday without listing 10 reasons for the PN’s own failure. Which is why I have listed them here for him to read out:

1. I have no charisma and I lack the communication skills to reach out to my audience.

2. I fail to appreciate that the Nationalist Party had failed many people and had committed grave errors and saying sorry is not enough.

3. I used the hate blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia as my propagandist, failing to appreciate how many people, including Nationalists, actually despised her.

4. I took ownership of the Egrant allegations without even verifying or doubting the veracity of the source. And then abandoned it in the middle of the election campaign.

5. I made the election campaign a one-issue campaign based on the Panama scandal.

6. I acted as an autocrat in the party, surrounding myself by yes-people who would not point out my weaknesses.  And I was not inclusive.

7. I thought that by having two lap dogs in the English-language press I would have won the middleground and new voters.

8. I aligned myself to the unpredictable Marlene Farrugia without informing my parliamentary group. And failed to realise that she would not rope in the Labour vote.

9. I did not believe the surveys that pointed to a PL victory.

10. I gave the impression that if elected I would remove certain individuals in the administration, and sent a wave of fear in some sections of the electorate who found my ”Labour proof” talk, frankly shocking.

And, post-scriptum, a bonus point.

“I am smug and big-headed, and fail to see the bigger picture. Now, I cannot fathom the simple truth that Adrian Delia, so different from what I am, is about to make it because I was such a failure.”

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