Beyond Good and Evil

All we’ve heard so far is nonsense about good versus evil, and the explosive diatribes of Salvu Mallia

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

Maltese politics seems to be going through an uncertain phase. On one level, a party elected on the promise of accountability, transparency and meritocracy has manifestly failed to deliver on those three crucial fronts. As a result, those sections of the electorate that voted Labour on that basis are likely to feel frustrated and betrayed.

On the other hand, the Opposition party is still clearly struggling to forge a consistent identity following its 2013 defeat. On Sunday, PN leader Simon Busuttil said that the upcoming elections will be “a fight between good and evil”; adding that “the fight is not between red and blue but between good and evil, the truth and the false… we must recognise that we may have erred in the past, but today we have learnt our lessons.”

It is however debatable whether those lessons have been learnt. One mistake the PN seems to be repeating is to allow itself to be used by anyone with an axe to grind against the Labour government. Busuttil went on to say that the PN should welcome people of different beliefs – even, it seems, if those beliefs run counter to its most basic principles – and more ominously that: “what unites us is a common cause: a coalition against corruption opening the doors to anyone who wants to join us. Our challenge is to clean the country from the corruption of Joseph Muscat’s government.”

This is problematic for a number of reasons. As opposition leader, Busuttil is expected to do more than merely criticise the government. Criticism is, of course, an essential part of the political process. In this case, it is justified and necessary – the bourgeoning economy and Labour’s record in civil rights should be lauded, but not used as a smokescreen for the same government’s many failures.

But criticism is not the be-all and end-all of opposition. Busuttil must also provide an alternative to Muscat’s style of governance. Anyone can pinpoint flaws in the current administration... but not everyone who criticises can automatically be trusted to govern better. If it were otherwise, Il-Partit Tal-Ajkla would have to be taken just as seriously as the PN.

Yet while Busuttil has been very effective at undermining Muscat’s credibility, he has done little to bolster his own. His rallying call for an anti-Muscat coalition can admittedly unite an otherwise fragmented opposition; but it is a very short-sighted gamble. How long can such a coalition be expected to last? Having a common enemy might bring diverse people together, but once that enemy is defeated... what will keep this ‘coalition’ together?

Another problem with this strategy is that is flings the doors of the PN open to precisely the sort of political maverick that does more harm than good to his own party. Busuttil does not have to look too far for an example of this: Muscat himself had emulated a similar strategy against the embattled Gonzi, who faced an uprising from one or two rebel backbenchers. Labour’s broad church of ‘progressives and moderates’ ultimately came together only to kick the PN government – which Franco Debono memorably called an ‘evil clique’ – out of power, and take its place. 

The end result was a gargantuan victory at the polls for Muscat... but despite all the promises of a new dawn for transparency and accountability, the Labour government has had to play a delicate balancing act in which people of all hues are being allowed to pursue their own narrow interests. This has not only led to the resignation of Marlene Farrugia from among Labour’s parliamentary ranks, but it has also been a cause of disgruntlement among traditional Labour voters and switchers. 

In brief, the same strategy proved costly for both former Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi – whose parliamentary majority was cut short by internal dissent – as well as present Prime Minister Joseph Muscat who however has a comfortable eight seat majority. If Simon Busuttil becomes Prime Minister in his turn, he will likewise find himself saddled with internal dissidents whose only reason for joining the PN was to get rid of Muscat for their own personal reasons... and not because they identified with any real policies. That is not a solid foundation on which to build a serious and credible alternative government.

There are party-political considerations also. The ‘anti-Muscat’ coalition idea may attract support among disillusioned Labour voters, but this will probably not be enough to beat Muscat at the polls. An opposition party must also stand for something. Being anti-corruption and pro good governance is commendable, but so was Labour pre-2013. Actions speak louder than words.

Lastly, it must be said that the choice of terminology – ‘good versus evil’ – is an open invitation to satire and ridicule. That Labour has disappointed is undeniable... but attempts to liken it with an ‘Axis of Evil’ smack of absurdity. Moreover, the PN itself is no virgin either. It is still made up of people linked or involved in past scandals. This should not deny the PN the right to criticise; but if it is to be taken seriously the PN must clean up its act, pursue a genuine generational change and push forward candidates and ideas which offer an alternative administration that governs in the interests of the many, not the few.

So far, all we’ve heard is nonsense about good versus evil, and the explosive diatribes of Salvu Mallia. That, too, is disappointing.