A question of self respect

With Monday’s vote in Parliament, the previously invisible battle lines of the Nationalist Party’s civil war have now been dragged into the open for all to see.

Cartoon for MaltaToday on Sunday by Mark Scicluna.
Cartoon for MaltaToday on Sunday by Mark Scicluna.

With Monday's vote in Parliament, the previously invisible battle lines of the Nationalist Party's civil war have now been dragged into the open for all to see.

The resulting panorama is by any standard an ugly sight to behold - and while comparisons with the titanic 1998 clash between Alfred Sant and Dom Mintoff readily spring to mind, what lies at the heart of the PN's ongoing power struggle remains quite unlike anything we have seen since Independence.

In 1998, the dynamics behind Labour's internecine split may also have been couched in personal and often spiteful terms... but the division itself could be traced directly to ideological tensions between 'Old' and 'New' Labour; with similar struggles separately taking place also in UK under Tony Blair, and even (remotely) in the USA under Bill Clinton.

No such underlying motive can however be discerned in the Nationalist Party's apparent spontaneous combustion; on the contrary, it appears to be little more than a naked power struggle, in which a coterie of disgruntled MPs have finally turned the tables on a so-called 'oligarchy' that had annexed the seat of government's power to itself.

So while Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando's revolt last Monday undeniably came across as personal in nature, lurking behind his accusations was the spectral image of a concerted, systematic media machine which can be demonstrated to have ruthlessly crushed anyone who posed a threat (no matter how remote) either to Lawrence Gonzi himself, or more often still to the 'inner sanctum' of privileged party insiders that surrounds him.

All this is now visible even from a distance... and what emerges from a closer analysis is the image of a party that at various levels has lost all sense of self-respect.

For one thing, no self-respecting Prime Minister would ever accept to be held so blatantly to ransom by rebel MPs, as Gonzi is doing at the moment.

Incredibly, a week since his one-seat majority in parliament transformed before our eyes into a two-seat deficit, Lawrence Gonzi still publicly insists that he himself sees no intrinsic problem in forging ahead without a clear parliamentary majority.

One has to ask oneself at which point Gonzi will concede he has a problem. How many parliamentary votes can he conceivably lose, before admitting to himself and to the nation that he has, in fact, lost control of the country?

Apart from his stolid refusal to acknowledge the extent of his own governability crisis, it must be pointed out that Gonzi's loss of reliance on an automatic parliamentary majority has also hamstrung his ability to take decisions as Prime Minister.

One such decision concerns the home affairs ministry, vacated just under a month ago by Carm Mifsud Bonnici's forced resignation.

More than three weeks later this vacancy has not been filled. Gonzi is currently playing the part of caretaker minister... but when Malta met with Italy to discuss immigration last Friday - a home affairs matter if there ever was one - Gonzi himself was inexplicably absent. This is clearly a dangerous state of affairs, which - if allowed to fester for too long - can seriously jeopardise national security.

Nor is it just the Prime Minister himself who seems unable to bring the situation under control. His party executive, too, has gone to extraordinary lengths in its desperate attempts to keep its own head above water.

Its decision this week to issue a formal 'condemnation' of the three wayward MPs was not only unprecedented in Maltese political history - it was also one step short of suicidal.

To this day, the condemnation of Pullicino Orlando, Jesmond Mugliett and Franco Debono can be seen to embody an utterly irreconcilable contradiction. If the Nationalist Party feels compelled to 'condemn' these party officials for their (real or perceived) disloyalty, it must also justify its decision to retain those members within its ranks.

Otherwise, its own condemnation will perforce ring hollow: what institution resorts to condemning its own members, when it also has the option of expelling them?

In the case of Debono - who claims to have unsuccessfully tried to resign from the party on more than one occasion - the situation is even more bizarre. How can the PN possibly justify condemning an MP, while at the same holding that same MP a prisoner against his will?

This is clearly an incongruous and untenable position for a government to be in, and can only be attributed to a sudden panic that has gripped the party's internal decision-making processes.

Even more incongruous, however, was the PN's subsequent strategy of forcing its own parliamentary group to sign a 'declaration' of their voting intentions... after the vote was actually taken.

This is a preposterous initiative, and smacks of a medieval attitude towards party discipline which threatens to also tarnish the Nationalist Party's liberal credentials, as the party that struggled so hard and so successfully against precisely this form of primitive autocracy in the past.

One must also ask the individual MPs who signed this collective declaration what happened to their own sense of self-respect. Given that even Franco Debono subjected himself to this indignity, one can only wonder if there is any Nationalist MP at all who still has even a single shred of dignity left.

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Luke Camilleri
Franco must be regreting his vote by now.....he is just an anti-climax, and no turning back after embracing the GonziPN oligarch with his vote!