Which battles should the PN fight?

Nationalist leader Bernard Grech currently finds himself in an unenviable predicament where he must strike a balancing act between ‘putting on a brave face’, in the face of such dire poll results, and acknowledging that his own strategies, so far, have clearly backfired

Undeniably, the recent emergence of scientific methods of media polling has had a profound impact on the local political landscape.

Until around 2008, there was never any reliable, tried-and-tested way of accurately gauging public opinion. The same cannot be said for today, however.

While there are admittedly differences in the projected outcomes, many media surveys and polls now provide a far more accurate glimpse of the public’s voting intentions: having correctly – within reasonable margins – predicted the outcome of the last three or four elections in succession.

Naturally, this does not mean that polls and surveys are always 100% accurate; it does, however, mean that a political party can no longer afford to ignore the warnings they convey.

And yet, that is precisely what the Opposition party seems to be doing right now. To be fair, PN leader Bernard Grech currently finds himself in an unenviable predicament. Somehow, he must strike a balancing act between ‘putting on a brave face’, in the face of such dire poll results… and also acknowledging that his own strategies, so far, have clearly backfired.

It is a choice of evils; but it is no different from Simon Busuttil’s situation in 2017; or Lawrence Gonzi’s in 2013. Like both those predecessors, Bernard Grech has to simultaneously confront two, major questions: How can such intimidating electoral odds possibly be overturned? And why is it that the Nationalist Party has so far failed to turn around its abysmal electoral prospects, since 2013?

So far, Bernard Grech’s answers have been evasive, at best. Regarding our latest poll – which registered a four-point drop in PN support – he said: “True, the surveys don’t indicate that we are progressing forward; but there are 80,000 people who are not speaking out in these surveys. […] They will have their say on election day.”

It is, of course, correct that all polls contain an element of ‘unknowns’ or ‘no answers’… but it is to say the least unrealistic, to expect a majority of uncommitted voters (Grech would need at least 50,000, just to draw level) to really end up ‘voting PN on election day’.

But there is another level at which the PN leader seems to be disregarding the significance of surveys. The same poll Bernard Grech so casually dismissed, also gauged the popular mood on a number of pivotal electoral issues.

Unsurprisingly, the issue of most direct concern to voters is ‘the economy’ (39.5%); followed by ‘disposable income’ (29.4%) – and on both those issues, Labour gets a positive rating.

Significantly, however, one area where Labour scores markedly lower is ‘the environment’ (21%); and yet, the Nationalist opposition has clearly failed to capitalise on this weakness; perhaps because it cannot so easily escape the ghosts of its own environmental blemishes (in particular, the 2006 ODZ extension: which is the cause of so much ongoing development today).

Even where the Opposition correctly identifies the terrain of battle, however, it somehow still seems to put its worst foot forward. One of the PN’s criticisms of the Budget, for instance, focused on the government’s increased reliance on public borrowing, to finance its spending programme. 

The claim, reiterated on countless billboards and social media posts, only betrays the PN’s fiscal conservatism: if not its hypocrisy, given its long-term struggle with public debt, and high government spending when in power. 

Besides: the PN’s history in government is replete with criticism from Labour of its profligate spending ways; but it was Eddie Fenech Adami himself who defended his administration’s ambitious capital spending programmes.

When the PN’s billboards on debt are seen side-by-side by Infrastructure Malta and social housing billboards – showing where all this government spending is going to – one can only wonder where all the PN’s economic experts are today. 

On the other hand, Labour’s forecast might seem optimistic; but it also provides a strategy to justify its higher borrowing, which by 2024 will still put public debt at a manageable 62% of GDP.

Crucially, it is counting on growth and increased tax collection to half its 11% deficit to under 6% in 2022, and then downwards to under 3% by 2024. It is a far cry from the PN’s Maastricht-busting years.

But what that means is that while public debt will increase, total revenues will climb from €5 billion to €6.2 billion in 2024, and while spending will remain relatively high, economic growth and higher tax revenues will take the current €1.5 billion deficit to €490 million. 

Placed in the context of the COVID pandemic – which made more government borrowing inevitable - that appears to be a reasonable compromise.

So it is disappointing, ultimately, to hear the Opposition leader dismissing such realities, almost as casually as he had previously dismissed unfavourable poll results; and the irony will certainly not be lost on Adrian Delia’s supporters, either. 

Naturally, the Opposition remains well within its rights to criticise, where and how it deems fit: but it does seem to have a habit of choosing the wrong battles; and even then, choosing the wrong strategy to fight them.

And this may even answer at least one of the two questions, above: why the Opposition has so far failed to turn around its electoral fortunes.