Parties need to update their message

Instead of substance, viewers were treated to a near-constant exchange of barbs and digs in the last Xarabank debate between the two leaders

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

The recent leaders’ debate on Xarabank provided ample confirmation that Malta’s culture of political antagonism has hit a snag, and now struggles to maintain flagging public interest.

Televised debates may not be an accurate way of measuring popular mood on such issues; but there are separate indications that the wider public may be experiencing electoral fatigue. Our survey about the imminent European elections suggests that 5.3% of the electoral may abstain, with a further 35% refusing to reveal their intentions. Naturally these statistics will change as the election approaches, but it is unusual for the declared non-voter segment to already be so high at such an early stage in the campaign.

An even less reliable method is to gauge reactions to the debate on the social media and comments boards. In this case, what emerges from a cursory glance is that the leadership debate generated feedback only (or mostly) from people who are vociferous public commentators on political issues anyway, and who are often connected in one way or another to the political scene. Elsewhere, the event passed mostly unnoticed or unremarked.

If correct, this assessment should serve as a cautionary eye-opener to both Joseph Muscat and Simon Busuttil, coming a few months before an election that will be interpreted (rightly or wrongly) as an indication of wider electoral support. As Prime Minister, Muscat’s concern is to appease a segment of his own support base that has already grown visibly disenchanted by the new government. Busuttil’s job is arguably harder, as he must also rebuild a party that is still reeling from its electoral wounds, and which had been inevitably fragmented in the course its lengthy time at the helm of government.

Given how much is at stake for both leaders, one would have expected them to seize the opportunity of this debate to convince viewers that they have learnt the lessons from last year’s electoral campaign (which was ultimately won by a promise of change from the traditional ‘Punch and Judy’ approach to politics), and tailor their performances accordingly.

Yet they both approached the debate from the opposite angle. As if to underscore the impression of a political boxing match (devoid, as most such contests are, of any real intellectual engagement) the Broadcasting Authority took the absurd decision to ban any form of applause from the live audience. The idea was presumably to avoid descending into a purely gladiatorial spectacle, whereby the most clapped and cheered emerges as the ‘winner’ of the debate. And yet it arguably achieved the opposite goal: stripped of audience participation, the viewer’s attention was forced onto the substance of what was said by both party leaders. And it quickly became inescapable that their rhetoric has not changed in any real detail since last year’s election; nor has either of their positions of any of the issues discussed.

As is only to be expected, a sizeable portion of the programme was dedicated to energy, in the wake of the MOU with China. Yet most of what was said came across as an echo of heated debates held just over 12 months ago. With small variations – the Marsaxlokk LNG gas tanker is no longer the ‘size of Mosta dome’, but has grown to accommodate ‘three football pitches’ – Simon Busuttil merely repeated the same arguments from the election campaign. On his part Muscat took gleeful pleasure in reminding the audience of the PN’s lack of credibility on the energy sector as a whole.

Elsewhere, the same tired slogans were repeated almost verbatim from the campaign, and even on more recent issues – such as the citizenship scheme – the impression was one of two sides deeply entrenched in their respective positions, with the electorate looking on as an uninvolved bystander whose opinion hardly matters.

Instead of substance, viewers were treated to a near-constant exchange of barbs and digs, some of which were revealing. At one point, Busuttil reminded Muscat that he was used to meeting “dictators like Yanukovich”... even though Yanukovich was actually Ukraine’s democratically elected President until the recent crisis. Meanwhile, the many meetings between Gaddafi and the government he once formed part of – albeit briefly – must have slipped his mind.

On his part Muscat gave no better than he received: returning fire with a personal attack concerning contracts awarded directly to Busuttil’s law firm in 2002. (Two days later, he would call Busuttil a ‘liar’ over his claims in connection with the same case.)

Nearly all this exchange was backward-looking, sometimes digging up events which were already old at the last election campaign. Worse still, they serve as a timely reminder of how the two parties often tend behave like self-serving institutions, which overlook the expectations and aspirations of the wider public which they ostensibly exist to serve.

From this perspective, it would be unsurprising if the electorate returns the compliment by disregarding the political parties’ expectations in future, starting with its turnout at the European election next May. Perhaps it is therefore in the party leaders’ own respective interest to live up to their own promises of change, and to update their political message for the benefit of the less militant and more discerning voter.

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