[ANALYSIS] Is there life after Gatt?

How far is Franco Debono willing to go in his bid to force Gonzi to call an election before the Budget? And can Gonzi afford to lose Austin Gatt to survive until Budget Day? We dissect the options for the Prime Minister after Labour’s procedural motion.

Transport minister Austin Gatt faces his second no-confidence motion, if it is approved for debate.
Transport minister Austin Gatt faces his second no-confidence motion, if it is approved for debate.

The name of the game in this latest parliamentary skirmish is clear for all to see: whether it suits our protagonists - Lawrence Gonzi on one side, Labour on the other, Franco Debono and Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando sniping from the sidelines - to either have an election in November before the Budget, or an election in late February or early-March after the Budget.

Franco Debono's motion of no confidence in Austin Gatt has confirmed how hell-bent the MP is on firing all his ammunition to force Gonzi to call an election in November and avoid having to bring down the government by voting against the Budget if Gatt is still minister.

Opposition leader Joseph Muscat seems to be wary of presenting a confidence vote in the government, but he is providing crucial logistical support for Debono's manoeuvres by presenting a procedural motion to bypass the government's hold on the House Business Committee and force the debate on Debono's motion.

On his part, Lawrence Gonzi seems keen on presenting the Budget some time in November, but he could also be evaluating the price he has to pay to reach that aim, especially if this means losing another senior minister like Gatt.

Less easy to decipher are the actions of Gonzi's formal coalition partner, independent MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando. While not taking a role of a protagonist by fielding motions as Debono is doing, his support for a parliamentary debate on the Opposition's car parks privatisation motion and his suggestion that Austin Gatt should resign to save the government in the Budget vote, was a stark reminder of the backbencher's unpredictability.

Surprisingly, instead of avoiding extra trouble to keep on track for the Budget, the government is facing another self-inflicted quandary after first announcing and then back-tracking from a controversial plan to privatise the public car parks, giving the Opposition an opportunity to test Gonzi's majority again and for Franco Debono to open fire on Austin Gatt.

Gonzi: Gatt or bust?

Faced with the increased likelihood of parliament discussing Franco Debono's motion of no-confidence in Austin Gatt, Gonzi has a very limited menu of options: either turn the Opposition's motion into one of collective responsibility for his government and risk not surviving until Budget day. Or let Gatt sink, and live for another day.

The other option, that of Gatt resigning out of his own free will, has been ruled out simply because such a step would humiliate both Gonzi and his minister and confirm that his government is being held to ransom by Debono and Pullicino Orlando.

Ironically, it was Gonzi who way back in January had announced that Gatt would eventually vacate his ministerial post to lead the PN's electoral campaign.

But by making Gatt's departure one of his conditions for supporting the Budget, Debono has now turned Gatt's permanence in the Cabinet into an issue of pride.  Clearly Gatt - a party stalwart for the past three decades - will never go if told to do so by Debono or Pullicino Orlando. Moreover, by suggesting that Gatt should leave to save the government and the Budget, Pullicino Orlando has simply stoked the fire, making Gatt even more belligerent and determined not to bow out.

At this stage Gonzi may well throw back the ball in the rebel backbenchers' court by turning the vote on Gatt into one of confidence in his entire government. But this could mean the government falling on the unfavourable terrain of a vote on one of its least popular ministers and the privatisation of car parks. The comparisons with the Alfred Sant and Cottonera Waterfront vote would be unmistakable.

Instead, Gonzi could well opt for the same course of action taken with regards with Carm Mifsud Bonnici and Richard Cachia Caruana, letting them sink in parliament while the government soldiers on. The consolation for Austin Gatt would be the acclamation of the grassroots to whom he will be presented as a victim of Labour's (and Debono's) thirst for vengeance and power.

But losing a second minister in the space of a few months could further undermine the PN's electoral campaign, which is being constantly overshadowed by parliamentary intrigue.

Still, even if he loses Gatt, Gonzi could be banking on the Budget as the last card he can use to stand a fighting chance in the next election. For even if he loses a confidence vote against Austin Gatt, Gonzi would not be under any constitutional obligation to go to the President to call an election. 

Gonzi will only be obliged to go to the President as soon as he loses either a confidence vote, or a money bill. Therefore he can afford to navigate his way around other parliamentary minefields and potentially face the embarrassment of losing another cabinet member (health minister Joe Cassar), to present his Budget and leave it to Debono to bring his government down.

Finance minister Tonio Fenech has already hinted that the Budget will be presented in mid-November, making 12 November the likely date. Opposition leader Joseph Muscat would then reply to the Budget a week later and a vote will be taken two days later on 21 November.

If Franco Debono votes against the budget, Gonzi would have no choice but to go to the President for advice on the dissolution of parliament. This would mean that no election can be held until 33 days later - which would mean that the earliest available date would be Christmas Eve, something which cannot even be considered. 

The maximum allowed by the Constitution for the length of the electoral campaign is three months. This would mean that the election could actually be held at the end of February.

The country would be left without a Budget while the PN would be able to turn its unapproved budget into its electoral manifesto, calling on the electorate to choose between Muscat's roadmap and a budget cast in stone.

Ultimately even Gatt could accept to pay the price for this.

Joseph Muscat: a toxic collusion?

On his part, Joseph Muscat can accelerate the government's demise and foil Gonzi's budget plans and the PN's last opportunity for an electoral comeback, by presenting a vote of no-confidence in government and force an election in November.

But Muscat is also well aware that Debono is reluctant to consign his name to history as the man responsible for the fall of a Nationalist government, and is therefore not yet ready to pull the plug. 

Still he cannot resist the temptation of playing along with Franco Debono by providing crucial logistical support for his motions. In fact, in the absence of the Opposition's procedural motions, Franco Debono's motion may well have ended stalled in the House Business Committee. 

Moreover the Opposition did not limit itself to push its own motion on car parks but has extended its support to Debono's motion of no-confidence in Gatt.

The risk of this strategy is that Muscat risks confirming the perception that he is colluding with the private agendas of the rebel MPs who are more keen on axing particular ministers and officials, than in provoking the early election which has eluded Joseph Muscat for the past year.

He also risks setting a new yardstick for future oppositions, which would be all too keen in exploiting backbench unrest against individual ministers. This could return to haunt Muscat if he gets elected even if he could escape this fate if he wins with a comfortable majority as suggested by current surveys.

Moreover, so far Muscat's strategy has paid off with the electorate. Surveys showed that support for the PL did not drop after the decapitation of the relatively popular Carm Mifsud Bonnici. The Opposition knows it has nothing to lose from backing a similar motion against the least popular cabinet minister.

But there is also a risk for Muscat in pressing a confidence vote before the actual Budget, as this would enable the PN to present the Budget which it was not allowed to approve in parliament as an electoral manifesto, without even any obligation to explain figures and to submit it to parliament's scrutiny.

This would give the PN a carte blanche to include anything they fancy in a hypothetical budget.

Franco Debono on a rampage

After the PN ratified its decision to ban him from its electoral list, Franco Debono has been determined to inflict as much damage on the government to force Gonzi to go to the polls without actually pulling the plug in a confidence vote, and thus risk the blame of bringing a Nationalist government down.

Franco Debono's agenda is now clear. Debono has already committed himself to vote against the Budget if Austin Gatt remains in government. He knows that Gonzi can never accept this condition without losing face.

But Franco Debono is nervous about the prospect of being solely responsible for the demise of the government, a step which would earn him the eternal rebuke of Nationalist Party supporters.

Therefore he wants to push Gonzi to call an election without having to vote against the Budget and bring down the government himself.

Initially Debono had chosen health minister Joe Cassar as his target, but then he could not resist exploiting the government's car park blunder, by turning an Opposition motion on this issue into a full-scale vote of no-confidence in his bête noire.

After the government backtracked from its collective decision to issue a tender for the management of car park sites, Debono could not resist the temptation of a motion that also calls for the resignation of Austin Gatt, criticising the minister over his handling of the bus service reform, the car parks privatisation and the power station extension contract.

Ironically, Gatt would already be out of office had Debono voted against him instead of abstaining on a motion calling for his resignation presented by the Opposition last year. Moreover the power station would not be burning any heavy fuel oil had Debono voted in favour of an Opposition motion presented in 2010.

Debono's predictability remains his fundamental weakness, however. If Gonzi keeps soldiering on till Budget date, Debono would be finally cornered and forced to make a choice between keeping Gonzi in government or not.

By that time Gonzi would have nothing to lose, having gained enough time for a February or March election irrespectively of how Debono votes. If the government does fall, Gonzi may well bank on a sympathy vote among pale blue voters, and anger against Debono for ruining the Christmas festivities by bringing down government days before the traditional shopping spree starts.

The unpredictable Pullicino Orlando

But while there is a pattern in Debono's actions, it might be harder for Gonzi to decipher Pullicino Orlando's moves who already managed to ambush Gonzi by voting for an opposition motion which forced Richard Cachia Caruana out of his office.

Over the past week Pullicino Orlando praised the Prime Minister for putting Gatt's car park plans on hold while still insisting that the Opposition's motion against the privatisation of car parks should take place.

Gatt reacted by revealing his plan to issue a tender for car parks had the Cabinet's full blessing and that the Cabinet decision to stop the car park tendering process, just one week after it had been announced, was a result of his own proposal.

Pullicino Orlando's second missive was his suggestion that Gatt should resign to ensure that Debono would vote for the budget.

While Pullicino Orlando's logic is impeccable, these declarations have only served to irk Austin Gatt to the extent that the enraged minister has expressed his readiness to resign from the Cabinet if Debono and Pullicino Orlando vacate their seats in parliament.

This confirms that the coalition agreement between the independent MP and the Nationalist Party is already in tethers and that Pullicino Orlando remains an unknown quality.

It may well be that it is not Franco Debono but Pullicino Orlando who holds the key to the election date.

"This would give the PN a carte blanche to include anything they fancy in a hypothetical budget." James, it would be logical to assume that any financial estimates presented by an end of life Government seeking re-election would contain as much make believe as possible. Moreover, all the "good, juicy, vote-catching parts" will evaporate and the bad parts will expand exponentially with any incoming new cabinet PN or PL. This happened in 2008. However, there is no chance in heaven or hell that the Maltese electorate would fall for that trick again. Not by a long shot!