PN needs a narrative of hope

It is a tall order indeed but one that cannot continue being put aside

Bernard Grech tried his best on Monday to capture the general feeling of despondency in the country when delivering his budget reaction.

He spoke of the immense difficulties inflation is causing to families and how it is eating into their standard of living. More importantly he contrasted this with the apparent attitude of nonchalance adopted by the government in face of several abuse scandals.

Some government MPs smiled and others adopted a smirk on their face as Grech laid out the difficulties he has encountered in house visits. There is nothing funny about the difficulties families are facing, including middle income earners, as they struggle to maintain their lifestyles.

Government may have used the budget to alleviate the pressure on low income earners but remains oblivious to the problems the middle class is facing.

The Opposition leader also put forward several proposals which he believes will ease the pressure of inflation, including adjusting tax brackets to ensure the COLA is not taxed, and a fund to help importers deal with the cost of logistics and transport. He also urged the government to ensure the authorities tasked with protecting consumers and ensuring the market works well have the tools to do so.

Grech was not bold enough to propose a tax cut that would favour the middle class but he did point out an anomaly in the tax bands with the dual 25% rate.

He underscored the injustices caused by the social benefits and driving licence scandals, describing these as instances that have eroded society’s moral fibre. These scandals have angered honest hard working people who expect their government to act with decency and fairness at all times. Grech was right to bring up these scandals within the context of a budget titled A Just Malta.

There has been an evolution within the PN on how it deals with corruption, scandals and wrongdoing in government. It is a less hysterical and more nuanced approach to the crusades of yesteryear that just created a negative feeling without offering hope.

Grech also picked on the issue of overpopulation, which is a very tight rope to walk since it could easily verge onto the xenophobic or racist. Undoubtedly, the sudden and exponential growth in foreign workers over the past decade caught Maltese society unprepared. Our infrastructure – from roads to sewage and electricity to hospitals and schools – did not evolve concurrently, creating problems of capacity and integration. Understanding the backlash and addressing it is important but in doing so, Grech must be very careful not to foment hate or promise to close the door shut to foreign labour when he well knows this is not an option. To be fair, Grech was careful in his speech but the PN must have a clear vision of what it wants and how it intends to control the phenomenon to avoid the xenophobic voices riding on its platform.

And yet, the PN still has a long road to travel. Despite Grech’s attempt to offer hope, peace of mind and dignity, the PN still has no coherent narrative of how it will govern. Grech’s speech was like a jumbled jigsaw puzzle that contained some good pieces but with no overall picture to see.

How will the country be different under a PN government? How will life change? Will people still be able to earn more and live in serene communities? How will justice be ensured? Will the cronyism tinted red of today be replaced by cronyism tinted blue?

These questions will have to be answered in a practical way for people to start considering the PN as a plausible alternative government.

Unfortunately, the Opposition is also hampered by a lack of quality on its benches. There are only a handful of MPs who are of ministerial material. It may be that some require training and assistance from professionals to grasp certain concepts, while others need to be given the space to be heard and seen more. Some others are a lost cause.

And Grech, despite all his good intentions, remains unpopular. Only he holds the key to this issue.

It is not an easy situation for the Opposition and the PN to be in. They are trying hard but surveys repeatedly show it is still not enough.

The PN needs to find its raison d’etre; deal with its internal demons that prevent it from fully embracing civil liberties; rediscover its connection with the middle class and the spirit of enterprise; draft a programme that instils hope and allows people to dream of a better future; and offer a decent and enthusiastic team that is ready to govern.

It is a tall order indeed but one that cannot continue being put aside.