The end of the tether

Prime Minister Gonzi should really think twice before trying to keep up the futile pretence that all these issues are merely figments of our imagination.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna.
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna.

Yesterday's vote in parliament did not only bring to an abrupt end an illustrious 30-year career behind the scenes of the Nationalist Party - a career which can only be described as remarkable by any standard, regardless of how unpopular the person himself may have always been in political circles - but it also ended, with spectacular aplomb, the illusion of a government that felt it could simply carry on shrugging off all challenges to its slender parliamentary majority indefinitely.

At face value, the subject of yesterday's parliamentary debate was whether or not Richard Cachia Caruana, as Malta's permanent representative to the European Union, had acted behind parliament's back in negotiating (some would say 'engineering') Malta's readmission to Partnership for Peace in 2008.

It is perhaps for this reason that the Opposition's motion of censure failed to strike a chord among the public at large. Both the claims made by Labour MPs, and the subsequent parliamentary discussion in the House's foreign affairs committee, turned out to be highly technical in nature: revolving around questions of protocol and procedure which, by definition, cannot be expected to excite national interest.

All along, however, there was simmering beneath the surface a latent volcano of resentment and antipathy, which all but the most observant of political observers had curiously failed to take into account.

When Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando stood up in parliament yesterday, he prefaced his contribution to this debate by claiming that he would not resort to 'personal' issues; but rather, he would limit himself only to the specifics of the motion presented by Labour.

And yet he went on to devote almost 90% of his speech to issues that, prima facie, appear to have had nothing whatsoever to do with the motion: outlining various instances in which Cachia Caruana could be seen to have orchestrated specific media attacks on persons within the Nationalist administration (himself included); and quoting a variety of public figures to illustrate his point that the permanent representative to Brussels had arrogated unto himself powers far beyond the remit of his official position.

In fact, Pullicino Orlando succinctly condensed his entire thesis with a single image - that of a government that had been hijacked by a clique of untouchable, power-hungry individuals, with Richard Cachia Caruana perched firmly at the helm of this unofficial hierarchy.

In an unusually candid delivery, Pullicino Orlando went on to single out by name a number of high-profile media personalities - Daphne Caruana Galizia, Lou Bondi, Andrew Borg Cardona and Fr Joe Borg - who he claimed form part of a coterie of strategically-placed media commentators, tasked with the specific purpose of defending that same clique's interests.

In what can only described as a wide-ranging attack on his own government - mostly for the shabby way in which Pullicino Orlando felt he had been exploited to turn around the 2008 election, and then promptly rejected the moment he was no longer of any political use - the Zebbug MP sounded precisely as if he were motivated by purely personal concerns.

At one point he even quoted a seemingly endless excerpt from an article penned by Caruana Galizia shortly after the 2008 election: an article in which Pullicino Orlando claimed the Bidnija blogger had 'confirmed' that Cachia Caruana was the man behind an organized media campaign aimed at forcing him to resign his parliamentary seat.

He went on to list numerous other instances in which Cachia Caruana had irked or antagonized his own political allies within the Nationalist Party - arguing that as many as 10 PN parliamentarians felt the same way about Malta's permanent representative to Brussels, though they would not be voting with the Opposition on this motion. 

The full list of Nationalist MPs to have borne the brunt of media attacks allegedly instigated by Cachia Caruana - mostly undertaken by Daphne Caruana Galizia - remains in fact an impressive display of a party that seems to have gone into self destruct mode in recent years.

Robert Arrigo, Jean Pierre Farrugia, Louis Galea, Ninu Zammit, Guido de Marco, John Dalli, Michael Frendo and Jesmond Mugliett were among the names of Nationalist exponents highlighted by Pullicino Orlando as 'victims' of media smear campaigns... all of which, he insinuated, could be traced directly to Cachia Caruana's door.

It was only in the last few minutes of his address that Pullicino Orlando eventually turned his attention to the Labour motion: arguing (quite convincingly, it must be said) that Cachia Caruana had unilaterally dictated Malta's policy of support for Turkey's EU membership bid, for reasons which were alien to the actual issue at hand, and without any form of discussion in the parliamentary group... still less in Parliament.

Impartial listeners would have however detected an unmistakable bias in the Zebbug MP's thrust: Pullicino Orlando has been viscerally opposed to Turkish EU accession, and came across yesterday as particularly resentful that the sensitive matter of Malta's support for this development - a support that is by no means shared by the population at large - would have been negotiated behind closed doors and without Parliamentary approval.

However, in the light of the subsequent vote - in which two Nationalist MPs refused to toe the party line: Pullicino Orlando voting against, and Jesmond Mugliett abstaining - it ultimately matters little whether any of these accusations are borne out or otherwise by the facts of the case.

Ultimately, this was - as Nationalist MP Charlo Bonnici so ruefully tweeted immediately after the speech - a case of 'payback' more than of politics.

For this reason Pullicino Orlando's one-man backbencher revolt also speaks volumes about the extent to which the Nationalist Party has for years now been eaten from within by internecine squabbling: illustrating in the process the curious stamp of leadership that Lawrence Gonzi has placed on that party since he took over the helm in 2004.

Yesterday's parliamentary debacle in fact placed its finger squarely on the root cause of the now evident malaise within the PN. If Pullicino Orlando's speech yesterday can be described as personally motivated, Gonzi's defence of Richard Cachia Caruana was surprisingly weak, given the extent of the possible repercussions in the case of defeat.

In fact there was nothing that Gonzi said yesterday which he hadn't already said countless times before... mostly couched in the same inaccessible terms that makes this whole issue so uninteresting as far as the wider public is concerned.

Moreover it became painfully obvious to all who listened that Gonzi, even at this late stage, remains in denial as to what yesterday's parliamentary vote was really all about. Unlike Pullicino Orlando, he chose to stick exclusively to the arguments brought forward by the Opposition- even if these were very clearly not the real reason why at least two of his own Parliamentary colleagues would go on to ignore their Prime Minister's impassioned appeal for 'justice', and defy his calls for a No vote.

Gonzi will probably keep denying this all the way to the bitter end, but yesterday's revolt by two government MPs was not, ultimately, dictated the reactivation of PfP at all. As such: to what avail was his argument that the Attorney General had twice opined that this same reactivation did not need parliamentary ratification? And what was the point in using his half-hour intervention to endlessly bash the Opposition... when the real problem did not lie with the Opposition at all, but within his own government bench?

Even if we close an eye at the undeniable fact that Gonzi ignored the real issue at hand, his speech remained a weak and rather disappointing defence of a man who (for all his faults) was ultimately a far more valuable component of government's team than others whom Gonzi defended with greater determination.

Apart from coming across as a lukewarm and somewhat perfunctory attempt to stick up for a beleaguered ally, Gonzi's delivery yesterday managed to underscore his own image as a Prime Minister who has lost sight of where the real problems lie. His line of attack - i.e., that the Opposition had stooped to new levels of dishonesty and incompetence - was typical of what one would expect from a Nationalist leader who knows he can rely on the support of a united party behind him.

And yet, that is arguably the last thing that Gonzi can rely on at the moment. So not only did he ignore the elephant in the room... but he carried on ignoring it even after it had just trumpeted in his own ear.

In so doing, Lawrence Gonzi succeeded in illustrating the exact nature of the problem crippling his own government. It is now a government that constantly points its fingers in all directions: blaming its problems on everything except itself, even when it is now very visibly being eaten from within.

From this perspective the Nationalist Party would be well advised to take stock of the real root cause of its own discomfiture now resides. Pullicino Orlando may have opened himself up to criticism for seeking a personal vendetta... but few can realistically deny that he was spot on in his diagnosis of the PN's current disease.

His reference to the intolerable tendency of internal dissenters to be savagely torn apart by media pit-bulls was indicative of a situation that has now been exacerbated beyond any reasonable limit. Whether justified or otherwise, his exasperation at the situation was nothing if not fully understandable.

But while Gonzi has played to the usual Nationalist script by loudly decrying the tactics used by the Opposition, he has done nothing to stop the Nationalist Party from tearing itself to pieces through this same, reprehensible strategy of publicly humiliating its own members. And this has been the case now for almost five whole years.

This has all along been an untenable situation, and now that Gonzi has publicly lost the support of two of his backbenchers - not counting Franco Debono, who has similarly proved uncooperative (to say the least)- it is as though the Nationalist administration has finally come to the end of its tether.

It can no longer forge ahead regardless, pretending that it simply doesn't have a problem - as it has tried so unconvincingly to do since December. It can no longer disguise the dissent within its own ranks. These problems are now not only staring us in the face, but shouting in our ears.

With all this in mind, Prime Minister Gonzi should really think twice before trying to keep up the futile pretence that all these issues are merely figments of our imagination.

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Luke Camilleri
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