In need of a game changer

The change in leadership of June 2013 has clearly not worked to reverse the political tide for the party in opposition. Unless this changes, the prospects of a turnaround in time for the 2018 election will become increasingly more remote.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

The results of our survey, published today, will make grim reading for an opposition party still reeling from its defeat in March 2013.

These statistics portray a particularly bleak picture for PN leader Simon Busuttil, who has seemingly failed to capitalise on a year that proved bruising for the Labour government. It was not, after all, a very good year for Joseph Muscat’s administration. 2014 opened with a universal condemnation of the IIP scheme by the European Parliament; it revealed shortcomings and departures from schedule in Muscat’s much-vaunted energy plans; and it ended with the Prime Minister forced onto the back foot… overtaken by the events which ultimately led to the loss of a senior Cabinet minister.

Yet according to our survey today, none of these misadventures has even dented the 15-point lead Muscat still enjoys over Busuttil in trust ratings. Though to be fair, the survey does register a small increase in Busuttil’s popularity among the category which voted Labour in the last election – suggesting that issues such as Malliagate may have helped Busuttil win back some lost ground. 

But in the context of steady losses in other categories, there can be no mistaking the overall message this survey spells out for the PN in the three years to come. The change in leadership of June 2013 has clearly not worked to reverse the political tide for the party in opposition. Unless this changes, the prospects of a turnaround in time for the 2018 election will become increasingly more remote.

More worryingly still for the party as a whole, the PN appears to have actually lost votes over the previous year. Respondents were asked to state for which party they would vote for if an election were to be held tomorrow. The result shows Labour leading by nine points: an improvement of its national standing in March 2013, when it came to power after an unprecedented margin of victory.

It must be borne in mind, however, that this survey is too recent to take into account any change in public opinion brought about by last week’s shadow Cabinet reshuffle: which saw some of the former PN administration’s most prominent protagonists taking a back seat, and some of the newcomers elevated to senior positions. 

Simon Busuttil described this as ‘only the start’ of a sorely needed rejuvenation process for the Nationalist Party. This is surely an understatement. He himself has been PN leader since June 2013. It was at that moment – the real beginning of his tenure as party leader – that a concerted effort to realign with the reality of the election result should really have been forthcoming. As things stand, the Nationalist Party spokespersons on issues such as energy and the economy remained the same as before the election for 18 months… even though those people (and their policies) had already been rejected by the electorate.

Yet at the recent ‘convention of ideas’, Busuttil still presented roughly the same policy platforms. The electorate, he argued, had been duped by the Labour party, but was realising its error only now. Implicit in this line of reasoning is that the PN had been right in its arguments all along, and that the electorate was consequently ‘wrong’ to elect a Labour government. That is a dangerously warped approach to take, and this survey illustrates precisely why. 

The PN must reconsider its approach for other reasons also. As opposition it still bears significant responsibility in matters of national governance. For all the above reasons, this survey will no doubt reassure Joseph Muscat that his national lead remains untouchable for the present, despite all the recent hiccups. And in the absence of a strong opposition to keep it on its toes, Joseph Muscat may well make the same mistake as his predecessor, and conclude that his vision is not just the preferable way forward for the country… but the only one possible. 

Moreover, a continued lead in the polls will make any government progressively less accountable to the public. Already, the present administration has a habit of simply deflecting valid questions by pointing towards the past mistakes of the PN. If it can continue to get away with this without paying any form of political price, it can only be expected to keep trying.

Still, the coming year will present many opportunities for Busuttil to set a more discernible stamp on the party leadership. By today we will know if the PN is to take a stand during the spring hunting referendum campaign: a choice which may impact Busuttil’s image as someone who usually prefers sitting on the fence. April’s local council elections will also represent a chance to re-dimension Muscat’s lead. 

Much now depends on Busuttil’s ability to belatedly convince a sceptical electorate that the PN really is a different party on his watch. And any of a number of single decisions could prove a potential game-changer. 

But to change the game you have to sometimes change not just the team, but also the entire style of play. It is ironic that a party which helped change so much of this country, now finds it so difficult to change itself.

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