The Malta Independent 16 December 2017, Saturday

Goodbye EU presidency, hello election mode

Daphne Caruana Galizia Sunday, 19 March 2017, 11:00 Last update: about 10 months ago

It seems like only yesterday that the government was tying itself up in knots of excitement about the start of Malta’s stint at the EU presidency, thrilling spoof-artists with its fascinatingly off-the-wall billboard slogans about welcoming 2,500 journalists who don’t seem to have ever made it here. But two-and-a-half months in, we’ve already forgotten all about that. Nobody mentions it anymore. The government’s Department of Information seems busier issuing press statements about the Prime Minister’s pricy Easter holiday in Dubai and the Economy Minister’s extra-curricular activities than it is keeping the country informed of what exactly it is that Malta is doing in that regard.

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And over the past few days, the government’s – or is it the Labour Party’s, as the lack of boundaries is confusing – focus has shifted clearly and unequivocally from anything to do with the EU presidency and onto full-on election mode. All they wanted from the EU presidency was the initial blur of photo opportunities. Now that’s done and dusted, they’re no longer interested. There are more pressing matters to consider, like firing up the cannon of war.

The declaration of war was made yesterday at the Orpheum Theatre in Gzira, where a Labour rally was addressed by party leader Joseph ‘Panama’ Muscat and deputy leader Christian ‘FKK Acapulco’ Cardona. But this is not the time for wisecracks.

Muscat spoke about his “silent revolution” which has “transformed Malta” and his plans for the next five years which will “make Malta cosmopolitan” (translation: skyscrapers, Silvio Debono’s occupation of St George’s Bay, and bought passports). He is two-thirds of the way into his 15-year plan, he said – five years in Opposition and 10 years in government – and “the best is yet to come”. Those Panama coffers will be filled yet.

Muscat spoke enigmatically about welcoming “traditional PN figures into the Labour fold” and how “Nationalist MPs are disgruntled”, giving the impression that the entire Opposition backbench is about to cross the floor en masse, led by Mario de Marco after a nice chat with Silvio Debono and Keith Schembri. This is the latest theme: ‘the Nationalist Party is divided’, which makes a nice change for Muscat from ‘the Labour government is corrupt’.

Christian Cardona was far less subtle, coming straight to the point. The Labour Party has turned on (unfortunate turn of phrase) its electoral engine, he said, and will be ready to blast into election mode as soon as the end of June rolls by and Malta’s EU presidency ends. He made it sound as though he can’t wait for the irritation of the EU presidency to be over so that he can haul out his axe and other assorted weapons.

Earlier that morning, news had reached me that heavies at the Office of the Prime Minister are sitting down hard on those in charge of developing the Jordanian’s camel-trader’s outfit in Birgu. But Sadeen Education Investment Ltd has had to tell them with regret that it cannot have the old building restored and ready for show “by September”. If they’re being harassed for a September ‘show-and-tell’ wrap-up date, then other project promoters are being harassed for the same date too – though we shall have to draw a veil of discreet silence over the latest date for the Corruption Power Station because we can’t believe anything they tell us on that score.

The runes here are not particularly difficult to read. We’re going to have one of those summer campaigns from hell, as we did in 1996 when Alfred Sant was voted in, and in 1998 when he was voted out again, followed by a late September or October election. It couldn’t have been any other way, really, from the government’s perspective. It can’t risk going through another Budget, another Christmas season, and then a January/February campaign and a March election. Too much can happen in that time. I sense, too, that this was a snap decision. Until two weeks ago, the parties were pretty much neck-and-neck, the difference between them being within the margin of error (if you discount the ‘don’t knows’ and ‘won’t votes’, which is a big risk). Simon Busuttil was on a high, gathering momentum. There was a very real feeling that the Nationalists could be headed to victory. Then Mario de Marco sh*t on it all for a large fee. Excuse me for using the word, but I can’t think of a better one right now.

Was this a planned tactic? Of course, it was. The government knew that de Marco was Silvio Debono’s lawyer, and particularly his lawyer on the St George’s Bay affair – not just because Debono will have boasted about it, but because de Marco actually had meetings with the government’s lawyer on the deal. The Opposition leader knew too, as it turned out. But the rest of us did not, and instead we wondered why the Opposition wasn’t ripping the deal to shreds, crying foul and pointing out that it just had to be a fixed deal, given how Silvio Debono had petitioned, unsuccessfully, the previous government for the exact same piece of land.

Muscat simply waited until Busuttil was surfing on a sea of public applause, gathering loud support with campaigns for freedom of speech and an end to corruption, and then he leaked the story to the only useful tool of a newspaper left to him after Keith Schembri’s co-conspirator was kicked out of the Allied Newspapers control room. And that was that: momentum gone.

Muscat and his henchmen then leapt into the breach, hollering war. And here we are now. Expect the next Labour drop to be about how much de Marco’s office has received from Silvio Debono’s companies in professional fees since March 2013. But don’t expect that story now. They’re saving it for two or three weeks before polling day.

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