‘Fairness’ can only be achieved through social reform

In short, the PN’s vision can only be compelling if it departs from the premise of limiting the powers of a future PN-led government: something Bernard Grech has so far stopped short of doing

It is ironic that Opposition leader Bernard Grech managed to present a compelling (albeit half-baked) battle-cry, to keep his party united at the very moment when internal unity has been fractured by his own stances on abortion and cannabis: both of which are bound to alienate the party’s restless liberal minority.

Nonetheless, in his reply to the Prime Minister’s budget estimates, Grech took a distinct step forward, by identifying “fairness” as his party’s new motto.  In stark contrast to his previous public statements, this one clearly hits the nail on the head, in terms of reflecting popular anxieties.

For it is true that people, above all else, demand ‘fairness’ from their government. Grech is clearly correct in saying that people don’t want favours, but a ‘level playing field’. This emerges even from criticism of Labour’s environmental policies… which are skewed in favour of big developers, at the expense of the man-in-the-street.

But while the Opposition appears to have (finally) placed its finger squarely on the national pulse: it remains highly debatable whether it is also ideally-placed to promise a meaningful change.

For one thing, the very real divisions in the PN’s own electoral block – made all the more manifest, by Grech’s recent U-turns – only add pressure for Grech to articulate a common vision which can keep social liberals and enlightened conservatives on board.

This, it seems, is where Grech’s message may be faltering at the very outset. For a thoroughly ‘fair’ assessment of today’s situation, would also have to take the Opposition’s own behaviour into account.    

Yet in his speech, Grech’s litany of ‘unfairness’ seemed limited only to Labour politicians like Rosianne Cutajar and Edward Zammit Lewis.  While his critique of Labour’s “culture of unfairness” is mostly justified and pertinent - especially in the context of what Evarist Bartolo once called: ‘one law for the gods, and one law for the animals’ - the same critique may well apply to past PN governments: which also awarded direct orders, and rewarded party stalwarts with public appointments.

Moreover, it was systematic institutional failures, abused by past PN governments, which paved the way for the corruption scandals which characterized the Muscat era. So to make this vision truly compelling, Grech needs to beef up this vision of fairness with concrete policies in different sectors.

This would also give the Nationalist Party an opportunity to translate its anti-corruption rhetoric into a platform of wide-ranging reforms: which reward hard working and aspirational Maltese people, while also ensuring that those left behind have an opportunity to improve their life.

One also has to recognize that, while Labour failed miserably in curtailing clientelism, it also introduced social reforms which have brought about greater fairness and equality in sectors like child care, education, access to health care, welfare and civil liberties (but much less so in planning, the enjoyment of public spaces, and wage policies).

But to truly communicate with the masses, Grech also needs to address unfairness at a social, and not just institutional, level.

On an institutional level Grech is right in saying that “People are calling for politicians who are different”; but he should not forget that those who live on limited incomes also want a better life.

Fairness is also important in the labour market: because precarious working conditions end up introducing practices which erode workers’ rights across the board.  Any talk of a ‘living wage’, then, needs to be beefed up with a concrete proposal which ensures decent living conditions for everyone.  And rather than simply lashing at a bloated public sector, the PN needs to commit itself to its own digitization and modernisation along meritocratic lines.

The same fairness should also be reflected in a new political consensus against bullies who hold politicians to ransom.  This, too, is one of Labour’s major shortcomings: to the extent that the party has become identified with gun-toting hunters, trappers conducting ‘scientific research’, and zoo-keepers who act as if they had a God-given right to keep exotic animals in cages, without even securing a planning permit.

And while the PN is justified in complaining of unfairness in public broadcasting, it also needs to propose an alternative model in which PBS is directly accountable to Parliament, or the Presidency; and not towards the government of the day.

In short, the PN’s vision can only be compelling if it departs from the premise of limiting the powers of a future PN-led government: something Bernard Grech has so far stopped short of doing.

Instead, Grech seems to be banking on the electorate’s trust, so that - once in power - he would implement this vision of fairness. To get there, however, he needs to be less divisive; and to reach out to Labour voters in an inclusive but principled appeal.

That goal can only be achieved if Grech presides over a generational change, which sheds away memories of the PN as a ‘party of the establishment’. After all, it is one thing to correctly identifying ‘fairness’ as a battle-cry; but for that motto to have any real meaning, it must be accompanied by a sense of ‘fairness’ emanating from the Opposition as a whole.