[ANALYSIS] Bernard Grech’s budget speech: poor pitch for new vision

An unimpressive solo act replete with clichés which however outlined a modern, albeit half-baked vision with the environment at its centre. Still, Bernard Grech has given the PN a semblance of a government-in-waiting rather than a belligerent opposition bogged down in the trenches and unable to reach out to M.O.R. voters

Bernard Grech: A framework for a new PN vision but so far, nothing exciting
Bernard Grech: A framework for a new PN vision but so far, nothing exciting

In his first major speech in parliament, Opposition leader Bernard Grech – who so far has been used to debating adversaries on Xarabank – failed in generating enthusiasm and excitement around the new vision he was trying to project for the PN.

Instead his speech came across as scripted, with his delivery being stiff. In this aspect he even fell short of the bar set by his predecessor who despite lacking in content came across an affable and fiery speaker.

Yet among those who patiently kept on following the speech, Grech did successfully perform on one crucial aspect, that of ditching the perception that he represents continuity with Simon Busuttil’s confrontational style. He managed to rip through the Labour government’s poor track record on governance, corrupt deals and handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, without sounding hysterically anti-Labour, as used to be the case with Simon Busuttil. One cannot detect any sign of the “hatred” or entitled arrogance in Grech’s speech that has marked previous PN leaders’ discourse.

The negativity factor

True to its playbook, Labour’s first reaction deriding Grech’s speech as “negative” and “penned by the party’s establishment”, can be seen as an attempt to distort reality to fit into Labour’s tried-and-tested narrative, aimed at exploiting divisions in the PN between supporters of Delia’s ‘new way’ and the old guard.

Grech did keep party unity in mind by singling out his predecessor for praise for his legal battle on the Vitals hospitals concession. He also came across as hard-hitting on the government’s refusal to hold a public inquiry on Electrogas, Vitals and the Montenegro wind farm scandal, while offering the Opposition’s cooperation on avoiding a negative Moneyval verdict.

Grech intelligently presented last week’s call for an inquiry on Electrogas as an opportunity to restore the country’s reputation.  Yet he did so without sounding out to be one-track-minded, mentioning the word ‘corruption’ only three times compared to mentioning the environment’ 57 times, the 'economy 46 times, health 25 times and the pandemic 23 times.

Recovery starts from Gozo

He performed well in outlining a vision for his party which clearly identified priorities like the environment and target groups like Gozitans, albeit one which sounded evasive and fell short of concrete proposals. His emphasis on Gozo, mentioned 51 times, betrays the strategic importance of this district for the PN. This comes across as a clear indication that winning back Gozo is essential for the PN’s attempt to reduce the gap in the next election.

For example, his stance on the Gozo tunnel – which translates into approving a master plan before taking a decision on the tunnel – comes across as contradictory and an attempt to run with the hares while chasing with the hounds. And while repeatedly referring to open spaces he lost an opportunity to denounce the transfer of Miżieb and l-Aħrax to the hunting confraternity.

A government in waiting?

MaltaToday’s word analysis, showing him mentioning the word ‘vision’ 46 times, confirms that Grech’s main aim was to steer his party away from the opposition trenches towards being perceived as an alternative government.

Significantly in line with other Christian-democratic parties in Germany and Austria, the environment, which he mentioned 57 times and more than any other issue, seems to have become the key for modernising his party. Yet while compared to Labour, Grech is more willing to address land use issues where the greatest economic pressures are felt, and in the absence of concrete proposals, he may well be accused of greenwash. For apart from committing his party not to extend development zones, neither did he commit his party to change local plans in a way which further restricts development within existing zones. Instead he repeated clichés on ‘balance’ and a ‘win-win scenario’ for both construction and the environment.

He also put greater emphasis on social issues like poverty and low wages by positively proposing a specialised independent unit made up of experts, advising government on how best to tackle poverty. Yet he was short on detail on his party’s endorsement of the living wage proposal, something first proposed in Malta by Joseph Muscat, who then failed to enact it. For the PN, beefing up the living wage proposal is a unique opportunity to strengthen the party’s appeal among working class voters. But to be credible the party can’t afford to leave it half-baked. It is also one issue which will test the ability of the party to balance business interests with workers’ right in formulating a new social pact.

Yet while Grech referred to the need for a new social pact, he evades hard choices between conflicting interests of different social classes and groups. Moreover, creating an environment where small businesses can thrive while still offering better working conditions represents a challenge for any party aspiring to govern the country.

Strong COVID response

One notable exception to the deliberate vagueness of Grech’s vision was a raft of concrete proposals on tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, including a sensible proposal for a supplementary voucher for sanitizers and masks. Grech, who intelligently praised the government’s initial handling of the crisis, was right in pouncing on Abela’s mistakes in declaring a premature victory over COVID-19 in summer. Yet Grech, who hinted that he also agreed with the lifting of restrictions after May, was unclear on what he would have done differently except in proposing that all tourists visiting Malta should be fully tested.

He also singled out Silvio Parnis, the parliamentary secretary for the elderly who emerged as the weakest link during the COVID-19 emergency, anticipating any move by Abela to replace him in a forthcoming reshuffle.


Skirting around migration

Grech managed to skirt around the migration issue, failing to recognise that talk on burden sharing is not hampered by Malta’s bad reputation but by the unwillingness of right-wing EU governments, some of which members of the European People’s Party of which the PN is a part, to take in their fair share of migrants.

In fact, despite the serious reputational issues he was facing, Joseph Muscat himself was successful in creating ad hoc coalitions between EU countries willing to share responsibility over migrants rescued at sea. Aspiring to anything more is unrealistic as long as hawkish anti-migration parties remain in power in countries like Hungary and Poland.

Grech’s limited talent pool

While failing to excite, Grech has laid the foundations for future policy updates while giving the opposition a greater semblance of being a government-in-waiting, rather than a disruptive force bent on undermining the government at all costs. Yet this would also depend on strengthening the PN’s limited pool of talent by introducing new spokespersons who are not necessarily MPs.

Grech has one big advantage over Delia: that of already being trusted by the party’s anti-corruption zealots. In this sense he does not have to prove himself and can focus on presenting an alternative vision for the country. Yet in so doing he is falling short of exciting and firing up his audience. One reason for this is that he remains over-cautious when it comes to choosing between conflicting interests, treading carefully between pandering to social and environmental concerns, while avoiding anything which offends developers, hunters and big business.

Still, by identifying the environment and quality of life as the party’s main pillar aspects, he gave his party a more solid framework in which to build an alternative vision than Delia ever did before with his rants on foreigners.

At this stage Grech appears to be more reassuring and prime-ministerial than both Busuttil and Delia, but he still lacks the gravitas of Eddue Fenech Adami or the motivational pull of a Lawrence Gonzi. Yet by going into overdrive in deriding Grech and depicting him as negative when he was clearly not, Labour pundits may well be contributing to building his public persona as someone who can give Labour a run for its money.

Ultimately it is Grech who has to prove himself worthy of the electorate’s trust, and his caution in choosing between conflicting interests and lack of boldness, may further weaken his appeal as a transformational and decisive leader.

To do this Grech needs to pick a few issues on which he can speak with authority and passion. Otherwise he risks being seen as bland and unexciting.