The Simon Busuttil era

The standards to which he tried to hold the PN in place are still there, and still in demand. It now falls to others to turn Busuttil’s worthy aspirations for the PN into reality

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

Whatever the outcome of this weekend’s PN leadership election, one result is already in. On Friday, Simon Busuttil addressed the PN council for the last time as party leader. This brought to a close a short but eventful chapter in the Nationalist Party’s recent history.

It is probably too early to make a thorough assessment of the Simon Busuttil era. Judged only on the basis of electoral results, the immediate verdict is unlikely to be positive. Busuttil inherited a party reeling from a massive knock-out blow delivered in March 2013. He led the party to a bigger defeat in June 2017... losing all other elections in between.

But this is only a partial assessment. It must also be remembered that Busuttil took over the Nationalist Party at its most difficult hour: also facing insurmountable debt, as well as an existentialist crisis that was not of Busuttil’s making.

Besides, some of the issues brought up in the last election campaign remain unresolved to this day. Though unsuccessful in political terms, Busuttil championed issues of good governance and built a campaign on the basis of a fight against corruption. He may yet be vindicated on those grounds.

Either way, he tried holding up the party to standards that it had never been held up to before. Perhaps his efforts failed because they were premature. The PN couldn’t so easily jettison the complex baggage of almost 25 uninterrupted years in government. It would, however, be unfair not to credit Busuttil with trying. And in some areas, he can claim to have registered successes.

Paradoxically, the ongoing PN leadership election is one example. It was thanks to a reform undertaken by Busuttil that the voter base for this election was extended to over 15,000 paid-up party members. This was a courageous direction to steer the party in... as evidenced by the fact that the first round was won by an ‘outsider’ candidate who is in many ways the antithesis of Busuttil.

This is perhaps the price one must pay for democratisation: you can give people more rights, but it doesn’t follow that they will use those rights in a way you yourself will approve.

Nonetheless, the outcome is bound to be more democratic, and therefore more representative. From the outset, Busuttil vowed he would bring the PN ‘closer to the people’. In this respect, he has clearly succeeded... even if at a cost to himself. Naturally, as a party leader he was not without his flaws.

Simon Busuttil could be difficult with the press, displaying little patience for probing questions about his own policies and standards. There were certain inconsistencies in his methods, too. He could pick honourable fights, for example that on the citizenship scheme; yet he failed to enforce the same line later on when the IIP became popular with promoters with close PN links.

Similarly, his drive for good governance was at times belied or undermined by his own party’s practices. The clearest example was the revelation that the PN had accepted donations by the DB group to fund its own officials’ salaries. That incident alone swept the carpet from under the PN’s feet, when it came to presenting itself as a serious (and much needed) alternative to Labour.

On the subject of Labour, Busuttil demonstrated the same tendency to underestimate Joseph Muscat that had previously proved fatal to Lawrence Gonzi. He disregarded or belittled many of the positive achievements of the Labour administration, which had brought material benefits to ordinary people: even going so far as claiming that the reduction in utility bills was a figment of the imagination.

On a more positive note, however, Simon Busuttil did much to change the country’s standard political vocabulary. He spearheaded the campaign on Panamagate, and it was partly because of his tireless campaigning that this important issue was not allowed to fall off the radar completely. Without Busuttil’s efforts – strident though they sometimes were – perhaps the offshore saga could have been subsumed by Labour’s propaganda machine. Busuttil, however, made sure it remained on top of the agenda... even after the disastrous election result.

As things stand, perhaps his only fault in this area was a touch of carelessness. It was an oversight on his part not to instantly ask for a police investigation, or in genere magisterial inquiry, back in March 2016: leaving it late in the day to file his own request for investigation.

Ultimately, however, Simon Busuttil the MEP – who, in that capacity, had broken all previous electoral records – proved not to be the PN’s aspiring prime minister: the role for which he had been groomed. His stellar career – from EU poster boy in the days of ‘MiC’, to MEP and later deputy leader – had its limits.

In Brussels, Simon was a soaring jet airliner; but in Malta, his high-flying career crashlanded: outmanoeuvred by a formidable adversary and masterful chess player with stronger rhetorical skills.

His legacy will not however be completely overlooked. The standards to which he tried to hold the PN in place are still there, and still in demand. It now falls to others to turn Busuttil’s worthy aspirations for the PN into reality.