Malta’s political identity crisis

The role of an Opposition party is to do more than merely dissect the country’s current problems; just as the identity of an Opposition party must be more than just 'not the party in government'

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

The Nationalist Party’s General Council came to a close on Sunday with a speech by Adrian Delia. It was an important opportunity for Delia to place his own leadership stamp on the beleaguered Nationalist Party; and in fairness, it must also be said that the task is not an easy one.

Delia has inherited a fractured, demoralised and dispirited party: and his own election to the leadership – having been so hotly contested from within – hardly helped the healing process.

But Delia has also had eight months to grapple with his party’s internal conflicts, and come up with a unifying vision that would give people a reason to support an alternative government. Instead, what we heard last Sunday was – in the main – a wish-list. He spoke of the need to unite... but without making any clear reference to any issue the party could be expected to unite over.

Likewise, he spoke of the need to counterbalance the electoral power that the Labour Party is evolving into... but exactly how he intends to achieve this objective remains unclear. What remains missing from the equation is a plausible political narrative within which those objectives could be set. It is all well and good to reaffirm the party’s shared values and principles, or to appeal to fading grassroots enthusiasm.

People do, however, need to be given something to be enthusiastic about.

To be fair on Delia, however, the problems underscored by his speech on Sunday are by no means limited to his own leadership of that party... or indeed, even to the Nationalist Party itself. They are instead a reflection of a much deeper underlying malaise that has inflicted Maltese politics since Independence (if not earlier). Simply put, it is an endemic problem of political identity.

Almost all the speakers at the weekend conference chose to premise their speeches on the need to distance themselves from Joseph Muscat’s Labour. In reference to Mothers’ Day, Delia said the PN would always be grateful to Malta – the mother that has always loved her own children – while insisting that the government led by Joseph Muscat was on the other hand determined to “sell her soul for personal gain.”

The same line was taken up by PN councillor Michael Briguglio, who stated that the party must look to be closer to the people, while the Labour Party was “turning the Maltese into a soulless society”... significantly concluding that “The government wants a small society and big government but we want the exact opposite, a big society and a small government.”

What emerges from these arguments is that the Nationalist Party is deciding its political identity on the basis of inverting its own perceptions of Labour. It can be summed up as: “We are that which they are not”... which doesn’t actually tell us very much about either ‘them’ or ‘us’.

Nor is this an approach exclusive to the PN. Labour’s own recent political history is studded with examples of the same logic in action. Alfred Sant’s opposition to EU membership is reminiscent of an equally knee-jerk impulse to adopt the ‘exact opposite’ policy from the PN in every conceivable circumstance. Joseph Muscat’s drive for ‘progressive liberalism’ was clearly a reaction to Lawrence Gonzi’s conservatism. It is a dynamic that has underpinned Maltese politics for decades.

But much else has changed over the same time period: contentious though the EU question was in its time, it also marked the last serious policy difference that existed between the two parties. Ironically, this also emerges from Adrian Delia’s speech: the concern with “national identity under threat by foreign influence” is in a sense of reworking of Muscat’s own immigration policies, coupled with his newfound sense of patriotism. While PN speakers talk of the need to counterbalance Labour’s policies on (almost) everything... they overlook the fact that most, if not all, of these policies are actually continuations of those originally drawn up by Nationalist governments.

In some case, the contradiction is too conspicuous to ignore. Delia’s criticism of the IIP scheme – or “Malta selling its own mother”, as his comment implied – overlooks the fact that many Nationalist politicians are deeply involved in the same scheme, in their separate identities as lawyers and financial services professionals.

Likewise, his defence of the environment comes across as hollow, when one considers that Labour’s environmental record – on hunting, on land-use, on construction and development, on waste management, etc. – is just a straight continuation of that of the preceding Nationalist administration, differing only in minor details.

More worryingly, there was nothing that emerged from the conference to suggest that a Nationalist government would adopt radically different approaches to the same problems. And this is of concern, because the bulk of Delia’s criticism of Labour is, in fact, correct.

But the role of an Opposition party is to do more than merely dissect the country’s current problems; just as the identity of an Opposition party must be more than just “not the party in government”. That would be unhelpful even if there were any real ideological differences between the two parties... let alone when this isn’t the case.