First steps towards regeneration

The PN cannot expect to remain liberal with the liberals, and conservative with the conservatives. It must try harder to forge an identity that is both consistent and attuned to the realities of contemporary society.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

According to an ancient oriental proverb, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The Nationalist Party may have taken that first step at the weekend, with a ‘Convention of Ideas’ that seems to indicate a long overdue willingness to change.

The first and most pivotal example of this was Simon Busuttil’s controversial decision to invite and give space to unpopular critics of the PN. Some of these – such as journalist Godfey Grima, for instance – were booed when they harped (with perhaps a little too much enthusiasm) on mistakes made by the party under its former leadership.

This in itself suggests that the Nationalist Party is at a certain level still labouring under an illusion that no such mistakes were made at all. Given the extent of its crushing defeat in March 2013, it seems strange that there are still those among the party executive who refuse to acknowledge that the party can learn from such criticism.

But this only vindicates Busuttil’s decision to open up the convention also to ‘unfriendly’ voices. The PN needs to be confronted with a perspective different to the one it has grown accustomed to hearing, if it is to ever get out of its post-electoral rut. The executive would do well to start listening to such criticism. It was after all its failure to do so on previous occasions that led the Nationalist Party to its biggest ever electoral defeat.

Elsewhere, however, care was evidently taken to build bridges to those sectors of society whom the PN had (unwisely) antagonised in recent years. Following the bizarre mishandling of the Joanne Cassar case before the last election – and the more recent mistake of voting against the civil unions’ bill – the idea to invite speakers from the LGBT community is evidence that the PN is keen to put at least this aspect of its recent troubled past behind it once and for all.

On another level, the convention gave Busuttil himself some much-needed space to build up his own persona. On stage we saw a more confident and better prepared Nationalist leader than the Simon Busuttil who had made a series of gaffes during the last European election campaign: when, among other things, he urged the electorate to ‘give the government a yellow card’, days before it reconfirmed Labour’s massive majority on a national level.

Here, however, the PN leader may be running a risk. No doubt he is conscious of the need to improve his own image, and would appear to have enlisted professional help with his appearance and elocution. One is reminded of a similar strategy employed (successfully) by former labour leader Alfred Sant in 1996. Even his own speech, which was very well received, had more than a faint echo of Joseph Muscat’s maiden speech as PL leader in similar circumstances.

But there is a danger in taking the fight to Joseph Muscat on the level of personal charisma. For one thing, Busuttil is not known for being a particularly forceful personality. So by inviting the comparison on that level, he may well also be setting himself up for a contest that might not work to his advantage. Secondly, by going head to head with Muscat on this level, Busuttil risks reducing the entire political choice before the electorate to one based only on superficial, cosmetic differences.

Apart from being a possibly counter-productive strategy in its own right, there is a danger that the electorate might begin to see the two parties as consciously attempting to model themselves on each other… thus eroding any electoral advantage that arises from being different on a deeper level of policy and ideas.

In fact, the biggest drawback to the ‘Convention of Ideas’ was the paucity of ideas that actually emerged from the exercise. We are told, for instance, that among the topics of discussion were ‘abortion and euthanasia’ – yet when challenged to explain its seemingly changing attitudes to these two social taboo issues, the party sounded almost frantic in its efforts to reassure the conservative grassroots that its position on both has not changed in any way.

This raises questions as to why those topics were even discussed, if the Nationalist Party does not intend to update its policies in either area. Moreover, while it is healthy for the PN to try and evolve beyond its previous reputation as an arch-conservative party, it makes no sense to cross over to the opposite side of the spectrum. Such statements only serve to confuse and alienate its own grassroots.

The PN cannot expect to remain liberal with the liberals, and conservative with the conservatives. It must try harder to forge an identity that is both consistent and attuned to the realities of contemporary society.

Nonetheless, the overall picture is that of a party that is at least willing to listen to criticism and to face up to past mistakes. This alone represents a radical departure from the usual script at such events.

All that remains to be seen is how far-reaching any resulting change will be in practice… and, more significantly, whether the wider Nationalist electorate will be comfortable with the new political direction. 

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