Battle of the billboards

Both PN and Labour campaigns seem to mirror each other in some respect.

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

If the opening salvoes of the election campaign are anything to go by, we may well be in for some entertainment in the coming months.

So far the campaign has been fought almost exclusively in terms of billboards and electoral slogans; and while there has been a welcome touch of colour and humour in the messages so far, beneath this vaguely Carnivalesque veneer there is also a marked lack of depth and substance.

Having said this, one must concede that the Labour Party's billboard strategy has so far made more of an impact: if nothing else, because its sharp, cutting humour has exposed the PN as somewhat lagging behind in the creativity department. And this alone represents a monumental transformation from the woefully mismanaged Labour campaigns of old.

Looking at today's incisive yet mischievous billboards - for instance, the 'Gonzi Bahh' specimen, that capitalised so ingeniously on the PN's apparent sluggishness in getting its own electoral machine into gear - it is hard to imagine that this is the same PL which, in elections gone by, had mystified the electorate with surreal images of ballerinas, alongside trite and utterly meaningless slogans such as 'Iniziattiva U Wens'.

Indeed there seems to have been a reversal of roles in this respect. Whereas Labour have traditionally struggled to come up with a stylish approach that might make a difference to discerning voters across the divide, the PN have in the past always been at the forefront of media technology, and as such have nearly always benefited from slicker and more compelling campaign ideas.

For this reason alone, the dismal sight of empty (and often vandalised) PN billboard frames, left to gather dust by the roadside - not to mention the sheer awkwardness of a party secretary-general suddenly asking the electorate for money, because "Labour is rich" whereas his own party is not - seemed to somehow symbolise the current rudderless state of a party that appears to be literally falling apart at the seams.

Faced with this visible embodiment of disintegration, Labour was quick on the ball to take memorable advantage of this uncharacteristic situation within the PN. And yet, for all its panache and wit, this same billboard strategy also points towards a glaring flaw in the PL's own approach. Labour's campaign appears entirely reactive to perceived 'mistakes' by the party in government... and as such, it tells us nothing whatsoever about the Opposition's own plans for the future.

If this were true only of the ingenious 'Gvern Bahh' billboards, it would perhaps be a small matter. But Labour has been busy erecting billboards all over the island for well over a year now... and all of these many and various billboards - the 'omelette in your kitchen', the stark picture of Gonzi refusing to see or listen, and the earlier billboards about the honoraria issue, etc - all, without exception, have been rooted in the same general motif.

Perhaps Labour is still conditioned by the 'GonziPN' victory of 2008, which had hinged exclusively on the prime minister's superior trust ratings as party leader. For this reason alone, Labour's strategy now seems limited to training its heavy artillery directly onto Lawrence Gonzi himself, so as to systematically dismantle the perceived advantage that had given him the cutting edge over Opposition leader Alfred Sant five years ago.

As strategies go, it does make a modicum of political sense. But past experience (for instance, the PN's 1996 campaign demonising the same Sant) illustrates that this is never enough to win elections. And yet so far, this is all the Labour Party has come up with: any number of political messages to discredit government; but not a single one to explain why voters should choose Labour on its own merits... rather than merely out of annoyance or disappointment with government policies.

Understandably enough, this inspired a belated response by the PN, which seems geared towards exposing Labour as a party bereft of any ideas of its own. For much the same reason, it was rather unfortunate that the PN strategists would choose to merely copy one of the most famous examples of successful campaign billboards of all time - namely, the slogan that won Margaret Thatcher the distant 1979 election in the UK.

At a glance, the strategy appears to stutter on a small but important detail. Thatcher's slogan worked admirably at the time, because Labour was in government; hence the affirmation that 'Labour is not working' could actually be measured against real facts and real statistics, including unemployment figures.

The PN's take on this concept is rather different. Malta's Labour Party is currently in opposition; so any claim that 'Labour won't work' cannot, at face value, be substantiated by anything more than guesswork.

In a nutshell, both PN and Labour campaigns seem to mirror each other in some respect. The former cannot seem to build a campaign out of Labour's own proposals, while the latter seems capable only of stoking ancient fears which (not unlike its borrowed electoral slogan) go back more than 30 years.

Sadly, none of this is conducive to bringing about any of the serious change that Malta is currently crying out for: i.e., a root and branch reform in the entire way we do politics in this country... and not just in the way the individual parties approach election campaigns.

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