Five signs of things to come after Adrian Delia’s General Council speech

Adrian Delia said Simon Busuttil is his ‘friend’… now the PN leader has realised he cannot face the 2019 election with disunity in his ranks

PN leader Adrian Delia
PN leader Adrian Delia

In an hour-long speech to the PN General Council, Opposition leader Adrian Delia gave clear signs that corruption and demographic concerns will top the party’s main issues in the run-up for next May’s MEP elections.

Delia hinted at policy updates on transport related to a mass transit transport proposal and a taxation system with the self-employed in mind.

The speech also indicates that to bolster unity, Delia will be increasing the charge on Muscat, Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi, thus taking a more confrontational line.

1. Delia is pitching for unity

Before commencing the speech Delia physically reached out to former leader Simon Busuttil holding his hand to the applause of those present.

During his speech he also singled out Simon Busuttil describing him as his “friend” when referring to Muscat’s attempt to stall an inquiry on Schembri and Mizzi resulting from a report filed by his predecessor.

This represents a considerable shift from Delia’s botched attempt to kick Busuttil out of the PN’s parliamentary group in the wake of the publication of the Egrant inquiry’s conclusions.

It also suggests that Delia has realised that he cannot afford to face next May’s election with divisions in his own ranks. But he is also aware that he can’t expect the same kind of loyalty and adulation Muscat enjoys in the Labour Party.

In his speech he also referred to “unity in diversity” and underlined the difference between debate in his party and the lack of freedom of expression in Labour.

Delia may also seek to keep his party united by emphasising the corruption issue and attacking Muscat directly. In fact Delia referred to Muscat (sometimes as Joe Muscat) 22 times.

In doing so Delia is dispelling the perception that he is weak on corruption. But it remains doubtful whether Delia’s pitch for unity will be reciprocated in an increasingly fragmented opposition, which now includes civil society movements perceived as close to the Busuttil faction but completely out of the PN’s control.

Criticism has also been shown towards Delia for a ‘selfie’ with Muscat that was uploaded before a football match in which the national team faced the Faroe Islands.

Delia also made a single reference to attempts by Owen Bonnici to muzzle civil society but his speech was devoid of any reference to Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder.

2. Corruption will remain a major issue for the PN

Delia dedicated a significant portion of his speech to ripping Muscat’s handling of the 17 Black scandal to shreds asking: Who is the real PM, Keith Schembri or Joseph Muscat?

Delia has risen to the occasion by limiting himself to the known facts, thus avoiding past mistakes of raising the stakes beyond the information, which is at hand. Yet Delia’s sensible approach to the issue has not translated into any concrete parliamentary action. In this aspect the PN was overtaken by the Partit Demokratiku, which has presented its own motion of censure on Konrad Mizzi.

Delia may also be showing signs of caution by never referring to Yorgen Fenech (the presumed owner of 17 Black) by name, something that may betray his reluctance to confront big business interests directly.

Moreover, while the corruption issue and Panamagate in particular may serve to galvanise enthusiasm among the restricted cohort of party voters, it may give the false hope that Labour can be beaten on this issue when the past clearly shows that Muscat’s popularity has not been dented by accusations of corruption.

That may explain why Delia has dedicated an equal portion of his time to his pet issue: his concern with unplanned population growth.

Delia’s discourse on population growth has been devoid of any xenophobic references to foreigners posing a threat to Maltese identity.

Delia made one generic reference to Maltese identity while making several references to the need for more integration of foreigners living in Malta. Delia’s concern with foreigners is now limited to the impact of unplanned migration on traffic, land use and quality of life.

Still it remains unclear how Delia will tackle the issue without slowing down growth in sectors of the economy like construction and tourism, which fuel the need for foreign labour.

Delia, who accuses Muscat of focusing on economic growth statistics and ignoring human beings, may well be doing the same by focusing on demographic statistics and ignoring the fact that his supporters may well see individual foreigners rather than abstract terms like population as the problem.

3. On other issues Delia’s vision remains hazy

Policy-making remains a “work in progress” with a policy document approved on Sunday being considered more as an identity marker than an agenda setter for the country.

The problem is that the party has still not managed to dominate the national agenda through concrete proposals on matters like fiscal, social and environmental policy.

Delia simply skirted on a wide variety of issues like agricultural, the gender pay gap, public transport, waste recycling and mental health without making concrete policy proposals.

On recycling he even made reference to waste to energy solution, the same term used by the government to justify incineration. Delia is right to emphasise air pollution problems, which he correctly associates with increased car use, but is yet to present a coherent policy aimed at reducing car use.

Delia also gave two guarantees in his speech: one that a PN government would ensure that everyone should have a roof under which to live and the other one to refund consumers who were overcharged when paying electricity bills. The latter promise can be more tangible than the first and bears similarity to Muscat’s pre 2013 promise to refund VAT paid on the registration of vehicles between 2004 and 2008.

4. Protecting life from conception remains a badge of the PN’s conservative identity

Under Adrian Delia not only one cannot expect any internal discussion on reproductive rights but a future PN government will also be expected to reverse legislation on embryo freezing to facilitate IVF procedures.

Delia repeatedly attacked Chris Fearne for referring to the frozen embryo as “8 cells” and defended his vote against a law on domestic violence because it omitted reference to the protection of the unborn.

In this way Delia may be sending a clear message to social conservatives that the PN is unambiguously committed to protecting life from conception but in doing so he is also sending a message to social liberals that there can be no debate on this particular issue in the PN.

5. Delia sees Chris Fearne as a future adversary

Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne was the only cabinet member singled out by Delia in his speech apart from Konrad Mizzi and Owen Bonnici. The latter was mentioned by Delia in relation to the 17 Black inquiry and his attempts to “muzzle civil society.”

Delia referred to Chris Fearne twice, first in connection to his declaration on embryo freezing and than to criticise the government’s failings in the health system, especially with regards to waiting lists. Both attacks were not related to on-going sagas on corruption but dealt specifically with values and policy.

This may suggest that Delia is eyeing a post-Muscat future where Fearne could become PL leader, and where the corruption issue will be less prominent.

The question remains whether Delia will survive as PN leader to see a new Labour leader taking over from Muscat.