At the BA... The united colours of Maltese politics

AD steals the show as main parties seem incapable of addressing voters instead of each other

Given the theme chosen for yesterday night's PBS debate by the Labour Party - sadly impossible to translate without sounding hopelessly like an Enid Blyton novel ('Ucuh Maltin - Poplu wiehed') - it was inevitable that the ensuing discussion would be dominated by barbs and counter-barbs on the subject of which of the two main political parties were more 'partisan' in this election.

Pediatrician Chris Fearne, representing Labour, was first off the block: and while his might not have been the most exciting opening salvo of the campaign to date, he did manage place the chosen theme into a clear historical narrative that we can all more or less appreciate.

Recalling an isolated memory from his own childhood, Fearne remembered (as a St Aloysius student) attending the Freedom Day ceremony at Birgu on 31 March 1979.

He was not old enough to also remember Independence 15 years earlier; but there too, the people had felt pride in seeing the Maltese flag rise to replace the British one.

Fearne used this twin historical analogy to underscore the general drift that the Labour Party of today is ready and willing to work with anyone who holds the national interest to heart.

Two examples: Joseph Muscat used his maiden speech as party leader in 2004 to assure the (Nationalist) Prime Minister that he stood foursquare behind the government in is efforts to safeguard jobs at ST Microelectronics.

The PL had also supported the nomination of Tonio Borg, a former PN deputy leader, to replace John Dalli as EU Commissioner last November... and Borg himself thanked Labour for this support.

Moving onto the PL's electoral programme he singled out a number of proposals aimed at further developing the concept of greater inclusivity in politics: culminating in his most memorable line of the evening (which I paraphrase):

"This country can't overcome hurdles if we keep excluding half the population [on the basis of political colour]"

Over to Simon Busuttil.... whose choice of tie, it must be said, seemed to single-handedly rebut the entire vision of the PN as a 'one-colour' party.

Contrary to Fearne's claims, the MEP began, the PN had often worked with the PL. The one example that would expose Labour's entire argument as 'empty rhetoric', he said, was Gonzi's controversial choice of George Abela (formerly a leadership aspirant in the PL) as President of the Republic.

Where does the PL see all this division, Busuttil asked, when it was a Nationalist Prime Minister who had chosen a Labourite as head of state? And doesn't this mean that Malta already belongs 'to us all'?

Indulging in a smart little re-invention of the Labour motif, Busuttil went on to suggest (by simply moving one all-important word out of position) that what it really meant was that "all Malta is ours'... or in other words, that the PL regarded this country as its own private property.

As for political colour, he had a smart answer to that, too. When people go to vote, they will mark their votes on a ballot sheet - and (here turning directly to Fearne) the boxes they must tick off do have a colour, whether Labour likes that or not.

This exchange set the blueprint for what seemed to be a reversal of roles from the last debate: this time round Labour's two exponents chose to almost religiously address the voter directly... referring to their antagonists only indirectly or obliquely... whereas Simon Busuttil - and even more so Beppe Fenech Adami - chose to aim their comments at their Labour counterparts... sometimes right over Ruth Amaira's head.

But back to Busuttil's actual intervention. Having got off to much a better start than past attempts, the PN deputy leader immediately reverted back to his party's comfort zone: reiterating the same promises as were made in the last debate... and in almost exactly the same order, too.

So out came the usual 25,000 jobs; the usual comparisons to Cyprus and France; and above all, the usual assumption that because a socialist government had caused unemployment in Spain, a socialist government in Malta will unerringly do the same.

This is not scaremongering, he insisted. And subliminally underscoring just how much political capital the PN has invested in 'political colour', he culminated with the usual line that "a guarantee of work can ONLY be given by the Nationalist Party".

AD's Mario Mallia spoke next... but I shall return to his three-part intervention towards the end, because so much of the rest took the form of a direct tit-for-tat, that the AD candidate seemed at moments to be something of an interruption (and quite a welcome one at that).

Luciano Busuttil took the floor for Labour, and immediately also took the opportunity to rebut the earlier Abela reference.

Gonzi had appointed a Labour President, this much was true. But the PN went on to attack the same President's son for addressing a Labour conference... trying to deny him his freedom of expression for political reasons.

So did Gonzi really appoint Abela to the Presidency as a token of national unity, he asked? Or was he trying to buy his son's silence?

Still addressing the PN representatives without actually looking at them, Luciano Busuttil said he would like to hear their reaction to Gonzi's announcement, at a debate the previous night, that he would stay on as party leader even if he lost the election (neither Simon Busuttil nor Fenech Adami would take up this challenge).

And introducing one of the only 'gimmicks' of the evening he produced yet another copy of the PN's face-painting billboards and - describing it as an illustration of Gonzi's 'philosophy of the clique', proceeded to tear it into two (or at least to tear off only a small corner - personally I was quite surprised no one seized on his inability to even destroy a small piece of paper as an example of the 'spectacular inefficiency of Labour').

But though his performance exuded confidence, both PL speakers (like their Nationalist counterparts) seemed simply unable to resist the temptation to fall back on all the old electoral chestnuts. This time it was the honoraria decision, the utility hike, the failed promise of 11,000 jobs at Smart City...a litany we will all soon be able to rattle off by heart.

All this provided plenty of ammo for Beppe Fenech Adami - who began by stating that Fearne's allusions to both St Aloysius and Freedom Day, 1979, brought back different memories to him. He recalled the day Labour thugs and ransacked his father's house, when he was a boy. He also recalled how St Aloysius had to close, and many students leave the country, because of the PL's policies at the time.

Turning to Luciano Busuttil he produced a letter, sent to constituents, in which the Labour MP appeared to be pre-emptively thanking them for their 'help'. This, Fenech Adami intoned, was the philosophy of Labour: you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours.

The Birkirkara lawyer was by far the more animated of the five... which at moments worked against him (such as when he was heard interrupting Luciano Busuttil's response, in a throwback to an almost forgotten age when speakers struggled to get a word in edgewise).

But to be fair, he also made a few very incisive incursions deep into enemy territory. At one point he read out a number of proposals from the PL manifesto which sounded much like: "We will study the situation"... "we will appoint a working group"... "we will talk to the experts", etc

Fenech Adami's translation for all these proposals? They don't actually have a clue...

It was an effective stratagem, though it may not have compensated for the otherwise dearth of counter-proposals in his own party's programme. But by coming across so aggressively, the PN heavyweight couldn't help but emphasise the sheer divisiveness of his own party's approach to this election (which, given the theme, was perhaps unwise).

All this was thrown into very sharp focus by the calm, measured and above all eloquent contribution of AD's Mario Mallia: by far the most accomplished and enjoyable of tonight's speakers.

Completely absent was the 'he said, she said' finger-pointing we have now come to expect from the main parties. Consistently referring to AD as 'the voice of reason in this campaign", Mallia went on to add considerable substance to that reason, too.

AD, he began, is the real party of freedom. It is 'free' in the sense that is not held hostage by the arcane interests of businesses that finance the two big parties. It is likewise free from the blackmail of unscrupulous lobby groups which first break the law then threaten the parties with their vote.

Admittedly some of his examples were old hat - namely spring hunting and Armier - but Mallia did not stop at merely stating the obvious. He also dwelt at length on the giant elephant in the room in this election campaign: the fact that both parties had lost all sense of political responsibility, and were now engaged in a no-holds-barred 'auction' of special offers which flew in the face of the global economic crisis.

 "First they tell us - rightly - that the world is going through the worst economic storm in the last 80 years... then an election comes along, and suddenly they both start acting like Fr Christmas: offering heaven and earth without telling us how they intend to this bonanza of goodies."

Bluntly pointing out that this attitude will only bankrupt the country in the long term, Mallia went on to produce by far the most memorable mental image of the evening: in a real storm, he said, you dress up for the cold. But the way the two parties are behaving was the equivalent of going out in a storm wearing only your shorts....

On its own, this would have merely an amusing little quip. But the observation was sandwiched between an impressive array of AD's own proposals, mostly on issues which (as Mallia pointed out with considerable pride) were simply not even mentioned snywhere on the other parties' programmes.

Bearing in mind that these topics include some  of the most basic mainstays of any political party's agenda - drugs policy, housing (special emphasis on the 70,000 vacant residences), minimum wage, introducing second-pillar pensions, and seemingly dozens more -  the fact that they are only currently addressed by the smallest party contesting this election is truly staggering.

As Mallia threw one forgotten issue after another onto the table, the impression he created was that the other two parties - now completely lost in their own private war of insults and accusations - had simply overlooked 90% of the popular concerns of ordinary people in the street.

This, he said, is what makes AD a credible option.

All in all it was a virtuoso performance, which should (in an ideal world) teach the bigger boys a thing or two about how to make an electoral pitch.

But of course, it remains to be seen how much any of this will help boost the Green Party's chances of actually 'making history' on March 9.

Prosit Mario, AD representative. Your performance, both in form and in substance,stood out head and shoulders above the rest. I appeal to those voters who believe in social justice, human rights, honest governance, and environmental sustainability to pluck courage and vote AD, thereby making a quantum leap in the local political landscape. Make you voice heard where it counts most, in Parliament.