Business as usual?

Bernard Grech has sent out a strong overall signal of inclusion and renewal: even if this is happening in the absence of a much-needed debate on the party’s future direction and priorities

After losing an election by a record 40,000 vote margin, it is understandable that PN leader Bernard Grech would try to put on a brave face.

But by appointing a shadow cabinet before he is even reconfirmed as leader, Grech risks sending out a message of ‘business as usual’: which – given the current state of the Nationalist party – is clearly discordant with the reality facing that party to begin with.

At this stage, these appointments suggest an unwillingness to confront the existential problems facing the Nationalist Party: problems which go beyond the leader and his team; tracing their roots to the party’s inability to strike a chord with the electorate, in a changed political landscape which has seen Labour - warts and all - transforming itself into the ‘natural party of government’.

One could argue, however, that the country urgently needs a functional opposition; and that Grech cannot afford to go back to Parliament after the recess, without giving his parliamentary group - which now includes 17 new MPs - a sense of purpose, and direction.

Besides: by assigning a portfolio to every member, minus three political veterans, Grech has adopted an inclusive formula, which puts party unity before everything else. Moreover, Grech has also been emboldened by the generational change which he succeeded in bringing about within his party.

In brief, Grech seems to be banking on the perception that the PN can only start recovering, when people start identifying with a new generation untainted by past association with previous PN-led administrations. By building a new team of competent spokespersons, Grech could well be sowing the seeds of a future PN-led government.

Many of the new candidates, showcased during the campaign, have indeed been promoted to key roles: among them, Jerome Caruana Cilia, who has now replaced veteran Mario de Marco as spokesperson for Finance.

It is noteworthy, too, that Grech promoted his former leadership rival Adrian Delia to a highly visible portfolio: Transport and Capital Projects. This suggests that, to survive as leader, Grech strongly feels the need to stop the blood-letting in his party. Hence, this new spirit of inclusion cuts across the party’s factional divides.

For example, while Chris Said - one of the MPs backing Grech’s election to leader - has been side-lined, Alex Borg - who was openly critical of NGO Repubblika - has been appointed Gozo spokesperson.

And by giving him a portfolio, Grech has exonerated Adrian Delia from any wrongdoing attributed to him by his internal critics. (But this, in itself, raises questions about Grech’s own election in 2020: which had been triggered by a rebellion against the former leader, by MPs who questioned Delia’s governance credentials.)

At the same time, however, Grech has given the justice portfolio to Karol Aquilina: a Delia critic associated with the Justice for Daphne campaign, albeit one who was more measured in his words than Jason Azzopardi (who was not even elected to parliament, having been sidelined during the election campaign).

Yet, while leaving out three veteran MPs - namely Mario de Marco, Chris Said and Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici - Grech still reappointed heavyweight Beppe Fenech Adami as the party’s Foreign Affairs spokesperson: even if this looks like a demotion, considering that the son of the former PN leader was previously entrusted with Home Affairs (now awarded to lawyer Joe Giglio).

While the yardstick used was clearly to exclude those who had served as Ministers under Gonzi - like De Marco and Mifsud Bonnici (Beppe Fenech Adami did not serve in that role) - Fenech Adami is also heir to a political dynasty which has dominated the PN since the 1970s.

This may account for the difference in treatment; but the choice is still a reflection of realpolitik, in the sense that Grech was unable to promote Delia, while excluding his district rival from the shadow cabinet. (Moreover, Fenech Adami actually got more votes than Delia in the eight district.)

On a less commendable level, the new configuration also suggests that Grech is keen on emulating Labour’s ‘successes’ in reaching out to controversial lobbies. For example: the PN now has a spokesperson for ‘hobbies’, including hunting and trapping: cementing the view that, on environmental matters, there is no real difference between the two parties at all.

Some of the assigned portfolios are also disjointed and unclear. Charles Azzopardi, for instance, is spokesperson for inflation: also alongside ‘hunting and trapping’; while Ryan Callus’ infrastructure portfolio is very similar to Delia’s capital expenditure one.

More surprisingly still, Grech has failed to appoint a spokesperson on employment: which sends the wrong message to those concerned with precarious labour conditions.

Nonetheless, Bernard Grech has sent out a strong overall signal of inclusion and renewal: even if this is happening in the absence of a much-needed debate on the party’s future direction and priorities.

To address this lacuna, Grech could present a political programme before being reconfirmed as leader: as he has already done, with his shadow cabinet.

For while it is crucial for the party to rejuvenate itself, it is also crucial for the party leader to indicate a clear political direction, before expecting to be simply reappointed to that role.