Politics of perception

The results of our survey about the popularity of Cabinet ministers make for interesting and occasionally surprising reading.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

But in a sense they tell us a lot more about our own perception of politics, than about the realities of life as a minister.

By far the most popular of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat's lieutenants is currently Social Policy Minister Marie Louise Coleiro Preca, followed by Energy Minister Konrad Mizzi and Education and Employment Minister Evarist Bartolo.

As expected, the top three all concern ministerial portfolios that have benefitted from considerable media exposure in recent months. Energy has been at the forefront to the national agenda since before the election, so it is no surprise to see Konrad Mizzi - helped perhaps by his media-friendly demeanour - in second place. Education has likewise benefitted from the glare of the media spotlight, with Bartolo presiding over a gradual reform of the state school system.

This seems to illustrate a truism long known to politics: that media exposure automatically augments popularity. But both energy and education are portfolios that seem to be administered with energy and gusto, and this is also clearly reflected in the results.

Elsewhere there are indications that some ministries may be inherently advantaged in approval surveys: in part because they automatically attract more media attention than others, but in part also because the nature of the ministerial work itself is one that projects the minister in a benevolent light.

Marie Louise Coleiro Preca is certainly not the first social policy minister to consistently score highly in ratings; and this is not surprising, seeing as the ministry is only ever brought to public attention in connection with seemingly philanthropic work. Other ministers are less fortunate: those handling the finance and economy portfolios are routinely blamed for price hikes and tax burdens; the environment touches on thorny issues such as development permits; justice and law enforcement are likewise sectors which inevitably leave much to be desired.

This has consistently been reflected in the ratings in all our surveys.

Perhaps the most unusual trend to emerge from the latest survey is that the fluctuations were due largely to positive appraisals by respondents who had voted PN at the last election. Some ministers lost ground with Labour voters, but were surprisingly hoisted in the charts by approval from Nationalists.

Much could be read into this phenomenon, which is consistent throughout all the ratings. At a glance it would appear that Labour voters are more dissatisfied with the government's performance than Nationalists, and this is telling. Given its sizeable majority at the last election, it is safe to say that many in the Labour categories were first-time Labour voters, and may have been led to expect more from the government after a campaign which had heavily stressed its progressive agenda. Clearly expectations were driven too high, and Labour voters are now acclimatising to the reality that the new government is also prone to teething problems, and may not deliver in full on its many promises.

The trend is also consistent with past surveys, which likewise show a gradual drop in government's popularity among its own supporters. At the extreme ends of the spectrum, this may be indicative of a culture of political nepotism, whereby segments of the electorate expect a 'return' on their electoral investment and are inevitably disappointed.

Conversely, growing approval by Nationalist voters may be indicative of how their own expectations may have been mismanaged by the party. The PN campaign had relied heavily on the politics of fear, conjuring up images of untold catastrophes that would befall the country with a Labour government at the helm. Certainly it has been no bed of roses for the Muscat administration since March 2013, but the reality falls far short of the often apocalyptic predictions. People reared to fear the worst may even have been pleasantly surprised by its failure to materialise.

But there are cases where approval may be rated according to other factors, such as the minister's standing within his own party. Health Minister Godfrey Farrugia, for instance, was the biggest loser among Labour voters, having dropped by 11 points. But conversely he improved his standing with Nationalists by 10.

Farrugia is arguably Muscat's most embattled minister, having just been overruled on a decision to erect a tent to cope with Mater Dei's overcrowding problems: an issue which also exposed serious failings in the current administration of the health sector.

More recently his wife Marlene Farrugia provoked outrage in the Labour camp by openly questioning the citizenship scheme, while gaining public expressions of support and sympathy from many Nationalists. And while she was not herself on the list, it is not inconceivable that some of these reactions may have rubbed off on her husband's performance at the polls.

The drop in Labour support, and even more tellingly the increase in PN approval, seems to indicate that Farrugia may have been punished by his own side for causing embarrassment to the prime minister; and arguably that he soared in Nationalist ratings for precisely the same reason.

If nothing else, this illustrates how much of Malta's political division is also down to a matter of perception.

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