Delia needs to outline a vision

'Beyond the drummed-up feel-good factor at Sunday’s conference opening, there has so far been little to indicate how Delia proposes to turn his party’s fortunes around'

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

The Nationalist Party’s annual general conference opened on Sunday, amid much fanfare about Opposition leader Adrian Delia’s ‘new way’, and emphasis on the fact that the PN has set up a party arm for youths aged 14 to 17.

So far, so good. While this newspaper’s latest survey must have made depressing reading to party supporters, there was nonetheless a small silver lining: though the PN still lags far behind Labour electorally, Delia’s own trust ratings have registered a clear upward spike (and, perhaps more importantly, there has been the first inkling of loss of trust in Prime Minister Joseph Muscat).

This in itself does little to dispel the other findings: namely, that Labour outperforms the PN across practically all categories and demographic groups... but it did provide enough of a foothold to build up a feeling of genuine hope.

After all, the next general election is scheduled for 2022. A lot can happen before then. From this perspective, this indication of a possible turn-around – however small – comes literally in the nick of time.

Adrian Delia still has four years to build on those meagre foundations. Though seemingly distant, there is a flicker of light at the end of the tunnel. But this is all the more reason for the PN to start the job of rebuilding in earnest.

Beyond the drummed-up feel-good factor at Sunday’s conference opening, there has so far been little to indicate how Delia proposes to turn his party’s fortunes around.

The PN should use this general conference as a launch-pad for a clear vision and mission, that can unite the fragmented Opposition party as an effective and functional team. Yet the party still appears divided.

Unaccountably, Adrian Delia used his opening speech to draw attention to this very division himself: calling for unity, and saying that ‘now is the time for the internal dissent to stop, and for everyone to work together.’

Delia may be the elected party leader; but that position doesn’t give him the power to simply end dissent through his own will-power.

Exhortations are clearly not enough: Delia needs to map out a strategy that can keep his seditious lieutenants on board. He has the luxury of his own party’s history to fall back on: former PN leaders such as Eddie Fenech Adami and Lawrence Gonzi also had internal dissenters to deal with.

Their successes and failures are there, as historical examples to be learnt from. Separately, however, Delia’s words seem to be belied by the context in which they were spoken. In the meantime, Opposition MP Jason Azzopardi stood up in parliament and delivered a speech which many have described as the worst example of abuse of parliamentary privilege in history.

Was the party leadership informed of what would be said in that speech? Or the party whip, for that matter?

Elsewhere, one cannot fail to observe how it is never Delia to take the forefront in the fight against corruption; instead, the limelight is shared by MEP David Casa and his own predecessor Simon Busuttil.

This may well be a planned strategy on the PN’s part... but it comes across to the public as further evidence of an internal split.

The allegiances of those PN officials is widely known; it could easily be interpreted as a deliberate attempt to sap Delia’s aura of leadership. But the biggest lacuna by far is the lack of political direction.

Delia has so far failed to set out a clear vision – a raison d’etre – for the PN under his leadership. No one within or outside the party seems to know as yet what Delia stands for, beyond vague allusions to the wording of the party’s archaic anthem.

By extension, the ordinary voter has been given no clear indication of what the PN itself currently stands for. And on top of that, the party appears to have failed to regroup after the last election loss... even though almost a year has since elapsed. This creates an entirely avoidable miasma of grassroots confusion.

If Edwin Vassallo speaks out against embryo freezing, people believe he is voicing the belief of the party as a whole... because there is simply no central coherent message coming out of the Stamperija, on that or on any other issue.

Instead, we get conflicting messages. One day Delia says he is giving MPs a free vote on IVF, because he recognises the moral dilemma the matter poses. But then, some days later, he says that a new PN government could rescind and repeal any of the amendments currently being discussed in parliament, forgetting that he would thus be nullifying the vote of his own MPs, should they vote in favour.

This is, however, the first PN general conference under its new leadership, and it is to be hoped that Delia and his team have worked out a strategy on how to take the party’s reins fully in their own hands.

One hopes that when the conference is over, the PN will emerge as one united party, with a clear vision, mission and narrative: if not for its own good, at least for that of Maltese democracy as a whole.