An inauspicious start

On 7 September – a week before his election – Delia said that co-option to Parliament was “no longer an issue”. Clearly, that was a lie

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

It has not, so far, been a very auspicious start to Adrian Delia’s career as newly elected Nationalist Party leader.

At the Independence Day mass last Thursday, the sight of the new leader taking a back seat to Simon Busuttil summed up the curious predicament both the party and its leader are now in. Delia won the race for the leadership of the PN... but he cannot take up the office of Opposition leader, as internal dissent keeps him from acquiring an all-important Parliamentary seat.

But while this is apparently beyond his own immediate control, Adrian Delia did not help his own cause with his inaugural speech on the Floriana Granaries last Wednesday.

READ MORE Jean Pierre Debono to resign his seat in Delia’s bid to take seat in the House

Political speeches are usually judged on two separate categories: the substance of what is said, and the manner in which the message is delivered. Delia scores significantly higher in the second category: but his otherwise textbook delivery cannot eclipse certain shortcomings with the message itself.

One major problem was Delia’s inability to conceal the extent of the (very visible) internal divisions within the PN. His claim that the Nationalist Party is ‘united’ was farcically belied by the absence of several prominent party exponents from the podium or crowd.

The most conspicuous absence, of course, was outgoing leader Simon Busuttil. But MPs like Jason Azzopardi, Karol Aquilina and others also chose to snub the occasion. Delia will need the collaboration of these officials if he is to succeed in his mission to reunite the party. So far, there has been no indication of any bridge-building attempts on either side. Nor does it help that Delia, while publicly praising past icons such as Lawrence Gonzi, failed to acknowledge either Busuttil, or even Chris Said – his defeated rival, who (unlike others) was present to give his support on the podium. This was surely a significant faux-pas on Delia’s part, as it graphically underscored the evident bitterness from the campaign.

Moreover, Delia seemed to contradict himself when he called for an end to ‘the culture of hate’... only to launch tirades against Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, with the clear aim of eliciting boos and jeers from his audience. Delia claimed he wants to instil a ‘new way’, which he also described as ‘thinking outside the box’. Such antics are however very much within that box. They are hallmarks of the politics of yesteryear.

Likewise, his entire discourse and sense of history is still somewhat pock-marked by partisan prejudice. For instance, he claimed that: “30 years ago we were fighting for liberty when they were beating us in the streets. They would not let us read our newspapers. They would not let us express our political opinion, with clear political violence...”

This is certainly true, up to a point, of Malta in the 1980s. But it would be an equally apt description of Malta in the 1960s, when the shoe was on the other foot. Labour supporters were threatened with excommunication for reading Labour newspapers, or being part of the party’s structures. The PN may not have been directly implicated, but it certainly benefitted from what can only be described as an intolerable injustice.

Yet Delia cherry-picks from Maltese history, with a clear intention to re-ignite past polemics for partisan ends.

Elsewhere, the substance of his vision – for both party and country – is highly problematic on various fronts. His conservative social outlook may resonate with various Maltese voters who are still conservative at heart... even Labour voters. After all, Muscat’s liberalism is not exactly well-articulated either, and so far only enjoys support because its otherwise negative effects have not become manifestly evident.

But for Delia to lump surrogacy, prostitution, drugs, and even abortion into one basket, paints a picture of a political novice who has much to learn about the art of politics. Regardless of personal opinions, all the above are serious issues which deserve to be debated seriously. Besides, Delia must surely be aware that his own party’s voter-base is deeply divided on such matters – more on some than others, perhaps; but divided all the same.

Nationalist voters did not subscribe to Gonzi’s diktats on divorce in 2011; Delia should know by now that he cannot rely on all PN voters sharing his own private views.

On a more positive note, Delia indicated that he is aware of certain nascent economic realities. His vocal doubts about the existence of a surplus aside, it is heartening to see a (would-be) Opposition leader promising to ensure social justice and the fair distribution of wealth, with an emphasis on the most vulnerable.

But the clearest indication of trouble ahead took the form of his failure to mention the elephant in the room. On 7 September – a week before his election – Delia said that co-option to Parliament was “no longer an issue”. Clearly, that was a lie: he has been rebuffed by most MPs elected by casual election, and Marlene Farrugia is not guaranteeing him a painless route if another casual election is triggered.

No amount of posturing on the stage can cover up these serious uncertainties. Delia also needs to unveil a clear plan of action, to avoid an otherwise certain catastrophe.