If you’re going to ‘walk out’... you may as well stay out

What advantage is there in having an Opposition that is all-but permanently in absentia? 

  • 1 October, 2013: ‘Opposition walks out of House, says Government trying to gag it’ – The Malta Independent.
  • 25 July, 2014: ‘Nationalist MPs walk out of Parliament after Speaker refuses to suspend sitting’ – MaltaToday.
  • 15 June, 2016: ‘Opposition MPs walk out of Chamber refusing to participate in debate with [Konrad] Mizzi’ – MaltaToday.
  • 11 October, 2016: Opposition walks out of Parliament as it did not want Konrad Mizzi to answer its questions’ – TVM headline.
  • 28 October, 2016. ‘Opposition walks out of Parliament as minister Konrad Mizzi takes the floor’ – The Malta Independent.
  • 7 February, 2017: ‘Opposition in yet another Parliament walkout as Konrad Mizzi rises to speak’ –The Malta Independent
  • 16 November, 2017: ‘Opposition walks out of Parliament’ – The Times.

Well, I’ll hand one thing to the current Opposition party. It’s sure getting a lot of exercise. Walking is, after all, very good for your health. So much so, that modern gymnasiums even provide their clients with complex machinery that emulates the precise physical activity of ‘standing up and walking’.

(Note: exactly why people have to go to a gym for that – instead of just getting off their arses and going for a stroll – is a bit of a mystery to me. But then again, I’m not exactly ‘Mr Fitness’ myself, so...)

There is even a recent study that suggests that ‘walking for 20 minutes a day’ might add ‘three to seven years to your life’. At this rate, I wouldn’t be surprised if Maltese Opposition MPs end up living till 150.

Heck, it could even be an elaborate political strategy in its own right: having failed to oust the Government MPs through the usual channels – i.e., general elections - they are now hoping to just outlive them all. And all this regular ‘walkout’ activity is really a planned physical fitness programme, designed for that very purpose...

If so, at least there would be some sense to it. For while so much walking undeniably does wonders for one’s physical wellbeing... its effect on a country’s democratic process is just a tiny bit less healthy.  

Let’s face it, folks. What advantage is there in having an Opposition that is all-but permanently in absentia? That constantly storms out in a huff, in a very evident bid to disguise the fact that it doesn’t have any real arguments to make in that Chamber anyway?

Unless you take the (rather unkind) view that ‘a bunch of empty green chairs would probably do a better job of opposing the government anyway’ – and I’m afraid I can’t really refute that at the moment - there is simply nothing to be gained from parliamentary walkouts at all.

Especially when the Opposition makes them such a commonplace occurrence, that newspapers like the Malta Independent – which was never exactly the Labour government’s greatest media ally – start resorting to terms like ‘yet again’ to describe it... in a headline that was most likely written while stifling a yawn...

And OK, in the interest of fairness, I’ll grant you that this tedious practice is not exactly a Nationalist invention. In the above examples, I only went back four years. The Labour Opposition – especially under Alfred Sant – was equally prompt to simply march out the House in a body, the moment it disagreed with something or other, or felt it couldn’t win an argument any other way. 

But then again... just look how that strategy worked out for Labour in practice. After his brief stint as Prime Minister in 1996-98, Sant never got back into government again. All those monotonously regular Parliamentary walk-outs between then and 2008? To no avail. And – speaking just for myself – it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest, either.

What were they even expecting? How can the electorate possibly trust a political party that constantly behaves like the typical spoilt brat on the school football pitch: ‘I won’t play unless I get precisely what I want’?

All I can say to that is: if you choose not to play the game, you can’t expect to win it.  ‘Walking out of Parliament’ is just another word for ‘running away from an inconvenient reality’. The only possible outcome is failure, because the very act in itself represents a total dereliction of Parliamentary duty. In politics, you don’t win political battles by running away from them. You win by standing your ground and fighting.

For much the same reason, we shouldn’t really be too surprised (for those of you who were) by the 2017 election result. Simon Busuttil led his Opposition party out of Parliament no fewer than six times in just three years.

I imagine he probably thought – as Sant did before him – that he was making some kind of grand political ‘statement’ in each of those cases. In actual fact, however, we could all see that he was simply running away from the battlefield.

The ‘statement’ he was actually making – though he clearly never realised it – was nothing more than: ‘I am out of my depth in this environment... better get the hell out here, before it becomes obvious to everyone else.’ 

And, judging by the election result last June – it did become obvious. That was the message the Opposition imparted, and – unsurprisingly – that was the message the electorate took on board.  

Turning to the latest example, and the irony becomes more poignant still. Alfred Sant and Simon Busuttil may not have much else in common (apart from a knack for avoiding Parliamentary debates whenever possible)... but at least, both won their Parliamentary seats through general elections. That is a claim today’s Opposition leader simply can’t make.

Not only did Adrian Delia not get elected to Parliament – which technically means he doesn’t really represent anyone by means of that seat anyway - but he didn’t even bother contesting the election at all. Not just the last one: Adrian Delia has never contested a single general election in his life before.

Perhaps for this reason, he clearly doesn’t understand the significance of the seat he never really won. People do not elect political parties to the House, just for the pleasure of watching them engage in some physical exercise every few weeks or so. They elect representatives in the House to be represented by them: so that their own views, thoughts and concerns are reflected in the country’s legislative process.

How many voters were represented by those few rows of empty chairs last Wednesday? Well, the answer is a bit awkward: exactly as many as voted for Adrian Delia in June 2017... or, for that matter, as are represented by the pigeons which roost all over Renzo Piano’s dovecot design. 

But that’s just an aside. Fact remains that - no matter which way you cut it - there was only one political party representing its constituents that day... and on all the other days the Opposition (Labour or PN) failed to respond to its call of duty.

Small wonder Muscat’s Government would look and feel so unassailable at the moment. There is nothing even trying to put up any ‘Opposition’ to it at all... except a bunch of empty chairs.

And again, the latest instance only underscores this reality. On paper, the reason Adrian Delia decided to resort to such a boringly predictable strategy – and one so reminiscent of his predecessor, too - was that Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Abela refused to make a ministerial statement about the European parliamentary ‘Rule of Law’ resolution, approved that same day.   

Oddly enough, I tend to agree with Delia on, at least, the reason: yes, Abela should certainly have made a statement in the House. If nothing else, he should have said something in defence of his own country – and in particular his own Government – after practically every MEP in Brussels took turns to vomit all over it.

But by failing to make any such statement, Abela – and the Government he is part of – only gave the Opposition a perfect opportunity to fill the gap. That, too, is part of the Opposition’s raison d’etre: it has to play the part of an alternative government; it has to give the electorate an idea of how it would act itself, if the shoe were on the other foot. 

So how would a future government led by Adrian Delia act when confronted with inconvenient realities in its turn? Going only on what we’ve seen so far: my guess is that it will run away from them, like it ran away last Wednesday.

What other impression can one get? And what impression did they think they were giving, anyway... by just going AWOL like that?

But in any case: if it’s exercise they want, they’re welcome to as much of it as they can handle. And next time they walk out of Parliament, as far as I’m concerned they may as well just carry on walking till Kingdom Come.

That way, at least they’ll make room for an Opposition party that is ready and eager to actually take on its parliamentary responsibilities: to stand its ground, and fight... which is what we generally elect Opposition parties to do in the first place.

There is, of course, the danger that we will be left without any Opposition at all: unless a new party emerges to fill the niche (and I’m seeing no such thing happening right now). But then again, what’s the difference between ‘no opposition at all’... and an Opposition that is just never there when needed? Precious little, that I can see...

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