There is such a thing as ‘foresight’, too…

No matter how popular, politicians can still piss off certain sections of their own party’s support base enough to gnaw at their own electoral foundations

I can only commend Lawrence Gonzi for acknowledging he had been wrong to tie his party to an anti-divorce position before the 2011 referendum
I can only commend Lawrence Gonzi for acknowledging he had been wrong to tie his party to an anti-divorce position before the 2011 referendum

It always takes courage to admit to one’s mistakes – and I know, because I’ve had to do it myself a few times – so I can only commend Lawrence Gonzi for acknowledging that he had been wrong to tie his party to an anti-divorce position before the 2011 referendum.

“Looking back, I should have seen the sign of the times more clearly,” he told former Scottish PM Alex Salmond in an interview. “Even my party should have seen the sign of the times more clearly. We did not and perhaps it’s one of the failures, but you know, the benefit of hindsight is a fairy tale.”

Gonzi also admitted that divorce, while ‘not without its social impacts’, was on the whole beneficial for Malta: “Divorce would have been introduced at some point in time. It had to happen. It happened in the way it did and our society had to adjust to it and it did so in a manner which I think is quite good…”

That is, admittedly, what the ‘Yes’ campaign had been trying to tell him and his party all along… but no matter. It remains important that a former Prime Minister admits to that sort of mistake… if nothing else, in the interest of others not repeating that same mistake in future.

No matter how popular, politicians can still piss off certain sections of their own party’s support base enough to gnaw at their own electoral foundations

All the same, however: while Lawrence Gonzi is perfectly right about the ‘hindsight’ part, to me it remains a mystery why both he and his party failed to come to those same conclusions eight years ago… when it might have spared the PN such a galling defeat, with such serious long-term ramifications (note: it may be a coincidence, but the divorce referendum coincided with the beginning of a downward spiral that landed the PN roughly where it is today).

True, there wasn’t the benefit of hindsight to come to his aid. But what about foresight? The ability to analyse current trends, and predict – with varying degree of accuracy – the possible ways in which they may develop in future?

Then Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi, with his wife Kate, casting his vote in the divorce referendum
Then Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi, with his wife Kate, casting his vote in the divorce referendum

Of course, there isn’t much point in sticking with the divorce example, in itself. Done and dusted, and all that. But it still does hold good for certain aspects of the PN’s predicament today; and the same lack of foresight also underpins certain mistakes the Labour government is now making, with ramifications that can also – with varying degrees of accuracy – be predicted without the benefit of any hindsight at all.

So, let’s return briefly to that controversy of eight years ago. Admittedly, I cannot blame Gonzi for not predicting a victory for the ‘Yes’ campaign – although there were indications there, too: like our own polls, which as we all know, are always (cough, cough) 100% reliable.

But it was only a few years previously that the prospect of ‘Malta voting Yes to Divorce’ really did seem about as likely as ‘Malta establishing a colony on Mars’ [note: the planet, not the chocolate bar… which, as we all know, Malta colonised in 1981]. Heck, even I remember thinking it was something that I’d never see happening in my own lifetime.

Gonzi’s mistake was not only that he failed to predict the outcome of the referendum; it was also that he failed to notice that most of the ‘Yes’ campaigners actually constituted a significant slice of his own party’s voter-base

But Gonzi’s mistake was not only that he failed to predict the outcome of the referendum; it was also that he failed to notice that most of the ‘Yes’ campaigners actually constituted a significant slice of his own party’s voter-base. And that’s not a case of failure to predict the future; that’s failure to recognise what’s taking place under one’s very nose.

Take his own personal views on divorce out of the equation – which I admit is a little unfair, but has to be done for the sake of the argument – and it becomes easy to see why that was a strategic (and self-inflicted) political blunder. Even if the ‘No’ won that referendum, the net result would have been a giant swathe of disillusioned Nationalist voters all the same.

It would have been a victory for the official ‘No’ campaign, certainly… but not for the PN, which could only ever hope to lose by charting a collision course with its own supporters.

How much hindsight do you need to see that one coming? Or, for instance, that the Labour Party would capitalise on the mass exodus of liberal voters, by re-inventing itself as a ‘movement of progressives and moderates’?

And besides: it is irrelevant whether or not Gonzi himself saw any of this with his own eyes. The rest of the party endorsed his opinion by taking up an official ‘No’ stand before the referendum; even afterwards, it continued to back Gonzi when he went on to vote against the divorce bill in Parliament.

I still find it hard to believe that not a single one of those party councillors/delegates/MPs (or whatever) was capable of seeing what was perfectly visible to so many others outside the party core. Indeed, they must have been seen it… because no one in that party (Gonzi least of all) can claim to have been ‘surprised’ by the result of the 2013 election, two years later.

I had been assigned to cover the PN campaign in that election; attending those meetings was like paying one’s respects at a funeral.

Yet that election defeat was in part also a direct consequence of the PN’s failure to ‘see the signs of the times’; so while the party could easily predict the effect, it seemed entirely oblivious to the cause.

To me, this can only mean one of two possibilities: one, that those party officials knew perfectly well that they were consigning the PN to certain defeat, but chose to do so anyway; or two, that they had so much faith in their leader, that they genuinely believed he could somehow ‘pull it off’… i.e., that the earlier slogan ‘GonziPN’ really meant what it said on the box: ‘Nationalists will always rally behind Gonzi because he’s their leader… yes, even when he deliberately pisses them off…’

OK, enough about divorce now; because these political mistakes of eight years ago also had a certain ‘impact’ of their own. They have, in fact, paved the way to precisely the sort of leadership issues that clearly still dog the PN today.

That General Council vote Adrian Delia won last week? The question could just as easily have been: ‘Do you have enough faith in your leader to believe that he can somehow ‘pull it off’?’ But without even remotely hinting at ‘how’ he would be expected to do that if he won… and, even more pertinently, what would have happened had he lost.

Delia’s victory therefore means that the 68% who voted for him, did so just because he is their party leader, and not for any other reason. It certainly can’t be because of anything Delia said he’s going to do… because let’s face it: he hasn’t said a word, beyond meaningless catchphrases such as ‘we will reach out to the electorate’, etc., etc.

It is as though the leadership cult entrenched by that ‘GonziPN’ slogan has been extended to Adrian Delia… though Gonzi had the backing of 96% of his party (and still lost in 2013), while Delia has little more than two-thirds that amount of internal support.

Erm… sorry to repeat the question, but… who needs hindsight to predict the outcome there? It’s as visible as those sixteen tower-cranes I can see from my window right now…

And it is visible everywhere else you look, too. We can now see the beginnings of the (likewise predictable) ‘one-party state’ situation we find ourselves in: with ministers still pointing towards Labour’s twin electoral victories in 2013 and 2017, to justify projects that were actually in neither of those manifestos.

Well, Ian Borg knows as much as I do that it was the ‘cult of Joseph Muscat’ (coupled with the spontaneous combustion of the PN) that engineered those victories; so he also knows that the same leadership cult will be enough to steer that project through… possibly even increasing Labour’s majority in the process.

Yet, as Gonzi discovered to his cost in 2011, ‘leadership cults’ have their limitations. No matter how popular, politicians can still piss off certain sections of their own party’s support base enough to gnaw at their own electoral foundations. So, in the case of the Central Link project, the equation becomes: how many environmentalist voters can Labour afford to lose, without denting its majority enough to actually pose a threat?

In the past, the only thing keeping the brakes on this sort of situation was the existence of a two-party system that – although unevenly balanced, at times – provided a reasonable opposition for disgruntled voters to turn to. It might sound like a fairy tale now, but… once upon a time. there was a real price to pay for overstepping the frontiers of your political authority. The resulting fall-out could conceivably cost you your grip on government.

Well, that is precisely what is missing from the equation now. And all because of an astonishing lack of foresight, across the board…

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