[ANALYSIS] Re-branding Simon or aping Joseph?

For the first time since the general election, Simon Busuttil has given his party a sense of purpose. But can he compete on the same turf where his opponent Joseph Muscat is perceived to be a natural, JAMES DEBONO asks

Most used keywords in Simon Busuttil's speech in the PN's first ever national convention
Most used keywords in Simon Busuttil's speech in the PN's first ever national convention
The message is that support for former ministers under a cloud is not unconditional
The message is that support for former ministers under a cloud is not unconditional

Apart from the triumphal choice of music (taken from Dreamworks’ ‘How to tame my Dragon’), played as he shook hands with party officials before taking the stage, Simon Busuttil’s 80-minute speech represented his best moment in his first year as PN leader.

The speech had all the ingredients of being his first one as PN leader even if he has been in office for a year and half.

The question is why make the speech now and not last year? 

The answer probably is that it was the party’s second consecutive defeat last June which finally gave Busuttil a free hand to impose his will on the party and thus turn his party more in his image. 

The conference also comes with a realisation that the party cannot ignore the evolution of Maltese democracy towards a more Americanised brand of presidentialism, pioneered by GonziPN in 2008 but taken to an extreme by Muscat’s movement in 2013.

Aping Steve Jobs or Joseph Muscat?

Busuttil’s new demeanour is reminiscent of that of US entrepreneur Steve Jobs and present Italian PM Matteo Renzi who are also known for a disregard of formal dress code and body language. By walking across the stage and taking off his jacket before taking the stage Busuttil also gave the impression that he is back in the business of winning what he described the “hearts and minds” of the Maltese.

By speaking for 80 minutes without reading any notes or using a teleprompter he exuded the confidence which his party has been lacking for months.

But the speech was also reminiscent of Muscat’s first speech as leader in which he freely moved on stage, declaring his love for his wife and the audience. Pundits dismissed this speech for Muscat’s “inhobbkom” moment.

But while Muscat faced a weak government elected by a whisker after more than 20 years in power, Busuttil is facing a leader who has just confirmed his 55% majority in MEP elections in June.

Busuttil was lucky that his speech coincided with Muscat’s first major setback; the failure to complete the new energy plant by the promised deadline. But will this be enough to erode trust in Muscat’s government?

Moreover Muscat grew from that speech, becoming more forceful and whimsical. Busuttil must do the same over a long period of time.

Like Muscat who often referred to relatives like his grandfather, Busuttil even integrated his life story into his speech, referring directly to his sons Greg and Zack and to his date Kristina Chetcuti, who accompanied him to the opera in Gozo.

One may ask, who cares? But by making one’s personal life a subject of gossip, politicians can also find their own niche in a celebrity culture.

Still the question is: can Busuttil ever compete with Muscat’s persona, which has continued to grow with the gravitas of office?

The flowing but forceful speech which ran for 80 minutes, during which Busuttil was fully at ease with himself and the audience, indicates that he may be more competitive than previously believed. It may also be the case of a well-rehearsed speech. The question is whether Busuttil can keep up with the momentum unleashed by the convention, which may well be a one off.

Moreover while Muscat counterbalances his Americanisms with Latin machismo, which resonates with his overall populist appeal, Busuttil tends to come across as a timid schoolboy sitting for an exam. On Sunday he seemed to have finally assumed the posture of a leader but he needs to be more passionate to win over people’s hearts.

Moreover when it comes to winning over minds Busuttil must be wary of sacrificing content to empty slogans like his concluding remark that it is better to be smart than cool.

Strong leader, weak party?

One notable difference between Muscat and Busuttil is that while the former regarded his party as a liability, sidelining it in favour of a “movement of moderates and progressives” and wearing a blue tie, Simon Busuttil constantly referred to the Nationalist Party with a sense of pride while sticking to his blue tie.

In fact Busuttil directly referred to the Nationalist Party 25 times in his speech.

Still, Busuttil still threads between a self-righteous defence of his party’s accomplishments in office and admitting mistakes. While this is understandable as every government leaves a mixed legacy, the scale of defeat left the PN no choice but to recant and apologise. 

In this sense Busuttil’s attempt to draw a line with the past may be crippled by his own front bench in parliament being mostly made up of former ministers.

This explains why he is so keen to associate his party with new faces. The fact that people like child care entrepreneur Rosette Thake and architect David Felice have lent their credible faces to the party, helping it formulate new policies, shows that Busuttil is making some inroads among university educated professionals. 

Surely the PN’s recovery is bound to start among this constituency of voters but can Busuttil make any inroads among other categories, such as the working class and small businesses? Moreover can he make any inroads among these groups as long as the economy continues to perform well, as Busuttil acknowledged in his own speech.

A pincer movement

Busuttil has finally succeeded in giving his party a sense of purpose: namely that of a party which protects the “common good” while respecting what he called “personal independence” in matters of personal choices, thus showing that unlike his predecessor he is more likely to associate the common good with social and environmental issues rather than the defence of morality or the traditional family.

Moreover he defined a battle cry, namely a stance against nepotism and  clientelism and a style of leadership; that of being near “the people”. 

He also identifies the strength of the Nationalist Party as a “mosaic of different people and ideas”, thus showing an inclination of turning his party into the broad stream it was under Fenech Adami.

So once again he gave a mish-mash of anti socialism, culminating in Busuttil’s remark that socialists all over the world are good in one thing; spending other people’s money, with a warning that the most vulnerable will suffer if pension reform is restricted to an optional third pillar.

He also derided the 58 cents wage increase which is “equivalent to the price of an SMS sent during a ONE TV programme”. Still some entrepreneurs may argue that through COLA the state is spending their money to make up for inflation. It would have been more interesting had Busuttil come up with his own views on whether the COLA mechanism should be reformed, and how.

Surely Labour’s shift to more pro business positions on a number of issues, has left the PN in a state of ideological disarray.

Busuttil’s speech indicates that his strategy may consist of a pincer movement; attacking the government from both left and right, depending on the issue at stake. The strategy worked perfectly for Fenech Adami in the 1980s and in the 1996-1998 interlude. But can it work against a government and a Prime Minister who is able to change the goalposts whenever its popularity is under threat?

A Social liberal party

What seems genuine is Busuttil’s transformation of the PN into a more social liberal party. Busuttil came very close to admitting that abstaining on civil unions was a mistake, saying that this stance “hurt” a lot of people.

Busuttil referred to a newly separated woman whose “new family” consists of herself, her son and the son’s same-sex partner.

Still the very question asked by Busuttil on whether the party is courageous enough to accept diversity, is in itself an admission of how retrograde the party was over the past years. 

For the party still finds itself discussing acceptance rather than defining new rights and obligations.

For example Busuttil positively referred to Naomi Bugre as the “black girl” who expressed her pride in being Maltese.

Still Busuttil did not go one step further by defining citizenship rights for the children of immigrants who have spent all or most of their life in Malta. 

Busuttil also has the habit of identifying popular concerns like traffic and the drop in retail sales. 

But it is not fair to blame the decline in retail on the government when a major cause of this is the shift to Internet shopping.  Moreover traffic problems have been accumulated over decades.  In these instances, the PN’s test will be that of coming out with new innovative policies rather than riding the wave of disgruntlement. 

No place for the dishonest?

Busuttil has chosen his party’s battle cry: namely opposing nepotism. Busuttil admits that his party’s record on such matters was not perfect but he accuses the new government of taking matters to an extreme. He substantiates his accusation with examples like the appointment of Sai Mizzi as a trade envoy to China, Michelle Muscat’s friend as the Malta Tourism Authority’s New York representative, and Joe Mizzi’s sister-in-law as a cleaner in a department that falls under his political responsibility.

In his speech Busuttil referred to nepotism and clientelism 24 times. He also referred to truth and honesty 10 times.

Busuttil also lambasted with gusto the Taghna lkoll promise.

“Malta Taghna Lkoll sidelined someone of the calibre of David Felice to appoint Jason Micallef”

But it may well be too early for the PN to turn honesty and rectitude as its battle cry. For the PN in government was never that strong when it come to meritocracy.  Moreover cases of high-level corruption like the oil scandal still dwarf Labour’s vulgar appointments.

Busuttil also walks like an acrobat between defending his party’s legacy and admitting the mistakes of the past. But his mea culpa still comes across as half baked.

Moreover Simon Busuttil still has to face Labour’s deliberate strategy of diverting opposition criticism by exposing another “scandal” under the previous administration.

One clear example of this strategy was Konrad Mizzi’s deflection of criticism on the government’s missed deadline on the completion of the new power station, by pointing a finger against former Energy Minister George Pullicino in relation to a €35 million contract awarded to the Alberta Photovoltaic Consortium just before the March 2013 elections.

In the conference Busuttil said that he will take the ‘necessary steps’ against Nationalist MP and former resources minister George Pullicino if the Police Commissioner finds a case against him. He also declared that there is no place in his party for those who are dishonest.

This may indicate a new approach by the PN leader towards accusations of misconduct by members of his front bench. By hinting that he may take steps against Pullicino if the commissioner finds a case against Pullicino, Busuttil is hinting that he won’t wait for the conclusion of court proceedings before taking action if the police initiate proceedings against the former minister. 

He is also sending a message that his support for former ministers facing allegations of corruption or abuse of office is not unconditional.

Yet at the same time Busuttil seems to be making a clear distinction between criminal responsibility and accusations of impropriety and bad administration. In this sense the fact that the police commissioner does not find any grounds to proceed does not automatically mean that there were no administrative shortcomings.  

Moreover Busuttil may have also exposed himself and his party to a situation where he will have no choice but to act against Pullicino even if charges against the former minister are politically motivated.

But Busuttil has also left himself some space for manoeuvre by turning the tables on Mizzi and Muscat, arguing that if the police cannot build a case against Pullicino, it should be they who should “shoulder the political responsibility”.

Another problem for Busuttil is that when promising that he will be close to the people he may well end up facing expectations by some to be well taken care of when the PN is re-elected to office. Busutttil did make it clear that the PN cannot compete with Labour and that being close to the people also means telling no to people who make illegitimate demands and to have the courage to explain to them directly why their demands cannot be met.

Busuttil also referred to the vintage slogan coined by Michael Frendo in the 1980s: drittijiet mhux pjaciri (rights not favours).

Still one risk of embarking on a crusade against nepotism at this stage is that of appearing self righteous at a time when people have still not forgotten the PN’s recent past.

One may say that through his speech and last weekend’s convention Busuttil may have consolidated his leadership and endeared himself with the Nationalist leaning segment of the population but he has a long way in front of him to attract switchers back to the PN.

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