The wisdom not to speak

This week, Busuttil lashed out at a ‘Mafia in Castille’, and dubbed the NAO audit into the Gaffarena expropriation order as ‘a Mafia story’. 

In a recent interview with MaltaToday, theologian Rev Prof. Rene Camilleri pointed out that “Wisdom is first and foremost needed to discern when to speak, and when not to.”

He was answering a question on whether the Catholic Church should get involved in political controversies – but his argument applies to other spheres as well.

It certainly applies to politics, where imprudent outspokenness can often backfire. Nationalist Party leader Dr Simon Busuttil ought to be especially mindful of this advice. As leader of the Opposition he has both a right and a duty to speak up on national issues. It remains debatable, however, whether the latest, ongoing barrage of poorly-thought out criticism is really serving either his own, or the nation’s interest.

This week, Busuttil lashed out at a ‘Mafia in Castille’, and dubbed the NAO audit into the Gaffarena expropriation order as ‘a Mafia story’. This is a classic example of a case where wisdom would have decreed a considerably different response.

The choice of allusion was at best unfortunate, given that the Nationalist Party has in its time been similarly saddled with accusations of cronyism, nepotism and old-boy networking. The ‘Mafia’ charge, however, adds a different dimension. It does not connote mere ‘corruption’; it also denotes organised crime. 

If Busuttil has evidence to back allegations of collusion between Muscat’s government and organised crime networks, it is incumbent on him as Opposition leader to make it public. 

It seems that the Opposition leader needs reminding that he is on thin ice here. This is not the first time he has cast wild aspersions that would come back to haunt him. Before the last election – when Busuttil was deputy leader, manifesto author and campaign frontman – he had predicted that Malta would need a bail-out after two years under Labour. Two years and more have now elapsed, and Malta currently enjoys one of the fastest rates of economic growth in the EU.

Busuttil’s campaign also predicted lengthy queues outside the job office, and tried to equate the Nationalist Party with ‘jobs’ and Labour with ‘unemployment’. The reality today is that Malta is as close to full employment as it has ever been, and international credit ratings agencies have consistently reconfirmed Malta’s positive outlook for the future.

Naturally this does not mean there is nothing to criticise. Muscat seems to be using the momentum of Malta’s positive economic performance to steamroll controversial administrative changes, especially concerning environmental protection. Moreover, Michael Falzon’s resignation is the second ministerial casualty in half a term… and also the second scandal to emanate from Muscat’s office, following that of the Café Premier.

Clearly, there is a very serious administrative problem here. But to fulfill the role of Opposition leader properly in such circumstances requires more than just name-calling. Busuttil may not realise it, but the aggressive, confrontational style of politics he has unaccountably chosen to embrace jars discordantly with the aspirations (confirmed by several MT surveys) of his own support-base. The party faithful may relish such Punch and Judy antics, but Busuttil knows (or should know) that it is the more discerning floating voter he must convince if he is to turn around his party’s electoral fortunes.

This is the least category that is likely to be impressed with such broad, sweeping unsubstantiated accusations. Along with the demand for more accountability and better governance, there is also a yearning for a more mature, less schoolyard way of doing politics.

Therefore, Busuttil should perhaps spend more time explaining the PN’s commendable proposals concerning ‘good governance’ rather than engage in theatrical politics which have dominated the political scene of late. 

On a strategic political level, Busuttil’s belligerence may not only cost him support – but it also has the converse effect of galvanising support for the Labour Party, and unifying its internal ranks. This at a time when there was evidence that the show of unity Muscat had worked so hard to secure after 2008 was beginning to crumble. It is hardly a coincidence that Marlene Farrugia would come out in Falzon’s defence.

Busuttil must also be wary of the charge of hypocrisy. His own party’s track record is not much better than Labour’s when it comes to favouring entrepreneurs in return for party support. Suffice it to say that the details of the Fekruna expropriation in St Paul’s Bay – which took place in the last days of the PN administration – have elements bearing some form of similarity to the Gaffarena case. Indeed, if Muscat is to be criticised, it is for continuing Nationalist malpractices.

The same reality underpins all Busuttil’s criticism. His complaint about the price of petrol – which he calls ‘the price of corruption’ – is particularly irksome. It was only three years ago that the Enemalta oil procurement scandal broke. Busuttil seems to have forgotten that the consumer paid 25% more for water and electricity, to finance a corruption racket that took place on his party’s watch, and under his party’s nose.

If Malta deserves better governance from Muscat – and it certainly does – it also deserves better Opposition from Busuttil: not least, a more moderate and less hysterical approach. 

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