Only one way out of this mess

The current situation in parliament has gone beyond farcical, and is now bordering on the perilously absurd.

Emerging from a parliamentary group meeting on Tuesday, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi unequivocally declared that the budget implementation bill would take precedence over all other matters before the House: including a motion of censure against Justice Minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici, put forward by the Opposition with the apparent backing of a government MP (Franco Debono) last December.

But later in the week, the Opposition leader presented two motions of adjournment that would force the government to do the opposite, and discuss both these motions before the budgetary implementation vote. Debono has strongly hinted he will support at least one of those two motions – the one concerning the justice ministry – and if he does so, Gonzi will find himself yet again publicly overruled and undermined by a member of his own government.

Even if Debono is somehow reined in and made to toe the government line, we would still be in a situation where government is simply no longer calling the shots.  This would be considered embarrassing and untenable even at the best of times. How much more so, then, at a time when government has been drifting rudderless since January… unable to take any decisions, or pass any legislation?

No amount of spin or denial can disguise these facts. Clearly, we are now in a full-blown political crisis; but still, the gravity of the situation appears not to have yet dawned on the Prime Minister (though the same cannot really be said for his parliamentary colleagues: one of whom, Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, rightly described the predicament as ‘humiliating’).

Dr Gonzi was even quoted as saying that he intends to press ahead regardless until the end of his term, even if the budgetary bill is carried only through the Speaker of the House’s casting vote. Technically he may even be within his legal rights to do so; but the issue has gone beyond mere technicalities alone.

When even a straightforward issue like the setting of parliamentary agenda is no longer within government’s control, the country would be justified in questioning whether the present administration will in fact be able to set its stamp on other aspects of the country’s governance also. 

Nor does it even matter how Debono actually votes on the all-important budgetary implementation measure, or whether he chooses to abstain or not. Either way, he will still remain a volatile fire-cracker, capable of spontaneously combusting at any moment. So even if Gonzi survives the immediate vote – as he probably will – the crisis will not simply disappear.

Add to the mix the uncertainty facing Gonzi from other potentially uncooperative backbenchers, and one comes away with the almost surreal impression of a dead government that is kept artificially propped up, in the semblance of life, almost like a scene from the classic 1980s comedy, Weekend At Bernie’s.

One must, at this point, also ask Dr Debono what his game really is. His most recent antics suggest that there may be a good deal more to his purpose than he has so far claimed in public.

The penny dropped when he called for the Prime Minister’s resignation last Tuesday… in response to Gonzi’s declaration that he would ignore Debono’s threats, and hold the budget vote before debating the motion on Mifsud Bonnici.

Naturally there are many reasons why the Prime Minister may indeed wish to resign. His evident inability to resolve the current impasse is by far the most pressing – in fact (though Dr Gonzi himself will naturally disagree) his own obstinacy in refusing to acknowledge reality has arguably become the nation’s single most compelling problem.

Elsewhere, the divorce referendum result last year (not to mention his own defiance of that result in parliament) is another resignation matter that readily springs to mind.

But to argue, as Debono seems to be doing, that Gonzi should resign for failing to cave into his own pressure, is to attach far too much importance to one’s own ego. ‘Disagreeing with Debono’ is not, and never will be, a resigning matter for any Prime Minister. Nor does Debono’s call make sense from any angle other than what now appears to be a purely personal grudge.

Having said that, it is also patently clear that to retain the status quo is not at all desirable… indeed, it may no longer even be possible. The most Dr Gonzi can hope to achieve is to deny reality and continue postponing the inevitable for a little while longer. But this will only cause the country more harm than good.

Clearly this is not the ‘peace of mind’ we were led to believe Dr Gonzi would bring about.

The only way to pay that debt now would be to end the present uncertainty once and for all… and this can only be done by taking the country to the polls.

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