The Malta Independent 25 May 2020, Monday

The inevitable

Noel Grima Sunday, 10 March 2013, 09:26 Last update: about 7 years ago

What will become public knowledge at around lunchtime today is the only logical outcome of what I have long been predicting on these pages. It will be the inevitable conclusion, hopefully with no margins left for doubt or spinning.

Maybe it will be the wrong outcome; maybe (or probably) it will mean an inversion of the direction along which our country was moving. Maybe in the coming days the country may see the unfortunate re-emergence of long-past ghosts it had long thought dead and buried, such as people being beaten up, private property, including party clubs, under attack; maybe too a police force in which key people will be trying to curry favour by acting under the protection of the law to further illegal intentions.

Maybe, too, the tried and tested PN policies that have given us years of growth when all around us were succumbing to the crisis, will be jettisoned and newer policies brought in which will later turn out to be duds.

Maybe people will come to perceive that the Nationalist Party is not there to defend people but only, or mainly, to defend its vested interests and its inner group.

And maybe it will not be long before the very same people who only last Thursday sang and waved and applauded Lawrence Gonzi, Eddie Fenech Adami and Simon Busuttil on the Fossos will turn on them and tear them apart as people do after a searing defeat.

This, as I keep telling myself, is how democracy, unfortunately, works in Malta. Getting 50 per cent +1 votes means a party gets to govern. Ergo, its arguments must be right for it won the majority.

Over the years, this majority rule has become an article of faith with us. A relative majority chose EU membership: therefore, EU membership must be right. A tiny majority chose Lawrence Gonzi over Alfred Sant in 2008: therefore, Lawrence Gonzi must be right. The same will be said over the coming days, until the winner begins to believe it, just like Dr Gonzi did in 2008 and Eddie in 2003.

Were this the case, and the winner knows best, there will be no need for another election. On the contrary, however, elections do get lost and 99 per cent of the time it is the government that loses them and not the Opposition that wins them.

So winners do tend to forget the lessons learnt and time and again they get kicked out. The great lesson the PN will learn today is that there is no automatic right to govern, no self-perpetuating ruling class, no inherited right to win elections. If you learn the lessons and campaign with them, you win; if you don’t, you’re out. It’s as simple as that.

In 2008, PN had been in government for 20 years, not counting the 1996-98 hiatus. It’s absolutely not a case of parties alternating in power after a 10-year period but past history does provide some reason to argue that after two terms a party needs a spell in Opposition to recharge its batteries and regroup.

That did not happen in 2008: Lawrence Gonzi must have thought this was because of his activism (or maybe because of the many Mepa permits, and other give-aways) but perhaps the 2008 outcome had more to do with the public’s aversion to yet another government by Alfred Sant who had acted for years from 2004 to 2008 as if he should have been prime minister.

So what was delayed in 2008 has now come with an even stronger force.

It is absolutely clear now that Lawrence Gonzi learnt the completely wrong lessons from 2008 and today’s result is the direct conclusion of this fundamental mistake. The first decision he made was what he believed to be the right decision but what was actually due to his personal aversion to operating in a situation of conflict and with people he did not trust. Hence he plumped for a small Cabinet and left both experienced people and also young hopefuls fuming on the side. They never forgave him.

He soon parted ways with the man who had challenged him for the leadership, John Dalli. According to received wisdom, he offered Mr Dalli the Tourism Ministry, which Mr Dalli turned down with scorn, and then had to give him the Health Ministry for which Mr Dalli (apart from other considerations) was professionally unfit, not having had anything to do with health in his previous experience.

When it was manifestly obvious to everyone that Mr Dalli was unhappy in his role (he was only working short hours at the ministry, we were told), an opening appeared at EU Commission level and Mr Dalli was promptly packed up and sent to what he later called his “prison sentence:. Then we know what happened.

Losing Mr Dalli from around the Cabinet table may have pleased those who stood to gain but it impoverished the Cabinet.

An even worse conclusion went in the opposite direction: it allowed Austin Gatt to become the big man inside Cabinet. Now Austin Gatt embodies a very core DNA inside the PN. For Dr Gonzi he was the doer, the man who got things done, who cleaned up the dockyards issue, then the bus drivers’ issue.

Having worked in close contact with him, Dr Gonzi knew Dr Gatt’s limitations only too well. Yet post-2008, he gave him the most important tasks to be tackled. With hindsight, he should have known better: Dr Gatt struggled to be re-elected in the first district.

Now if there is a minister who should be blamed for all the negative publicity that accrued to the PN government and that led to today’s result, that is Austin Gatt and none other.

The lesson of the 2013 election (which the winner would do well to take to heart and learn) is that winning is not everything and that being courageous and gung-ho cannot mask the absence of real policies.

Hence we had the BWSC saga. Now I do not subscribe to the thesis that the power station is a ‘cancer factory’ and maybe the short-term plan fashioned for Enemalta was the best that could be found. But the way BWSC was chosen, and the way Enemalta and Austin Gatt defended their choice, made an already bad situation that much worse.

I note that Tonio Fenech, who succeeded Austin Gatt, did not get as much negative publicity as his predecessor. And I warn the new government that its new plan, with reduction of tariffs etc., seems, to me at least, even worse than the BWSC jape.

It is, however, the revelations of the past weeks, coming more from a whistleblower’s charges than from the Opposition party, that shine an even worse light on Austin Gatt’s tenure as minister – his choice of people based on personal links and/or loyalty rather than on professional competence. This is all so distant from what the PN used to profess as its antidote to the bad old days of Labour management in the 1980s. The Austin Gatt fingerprint is also to be found with regard to that other exemplar of the PN Gonzi administration – Transport Malta.

So, for much of the last legislature Lawrence Gonzi reigned supreme. There were no checks and balances inside Cabinet and the small group around him laughed at and pooh-poohed everyone who dared express a different view. When three insignificant rebels appeared, they were laughed right out of the court.

With hindsight, the first indication that things were not so good should have been the repeated defeats in local council and European Parliament elections. As a misguided reaction to this, the ministers redoubled their appearance on a largely complaisant main television station where each minister made a point of appearing at least once a day. Any student of politics could have told them that this would only fuel the fire.

We should have had an inkling that things were looking bad when Lawrence Gonzi repeatedly manoeuvred around a parliament that was not supporting him, and supposedly kept going. Then, when an election could not be postponed any longer, the governing party switched from anaemically listing all the things it had done to making vicious attacks on the Opposition.

At the Broadcasting Authority press conference last week, when I asked Simon Busuttil why this switch, his reply did not persuade me or anyone else who was watching. The simple reason is that the PN swung into negative mode to try and gain traction from the fact that more of its supporters remember the bad old 1980s days than Labour supporters remember the bad old 1960s under Dr Gonzi’s doughty archbishop great-uncle.

The PN was so set in its Labour-bashing mode that it incredibly missed out on explaining its main achievement – the macro-economic management of the economy that is the envy of most and which has been repeatedly praised by the EU Commission.

Once again, it was just Dr Gonzi speaking at three, four, umpteen meetings a day until, at long last, Simon Busuttil was brought into the picture (with debatable results – such as when he told one PL candidate she had “a PN face” and another when he urged housewives to speak up at the grocer’s).

Other key ministers just stood aside. Everyone knows who I am speaking about: subtract those who are not candidates, leave out the minor figures and you get some silent figures who will no doubt be pushed forward to succeed Dr Gonzi. (Incidentally, when Dr Gonzi said he would not resign if he lost, his words were soon amended by a friendly hand to say “not immediately”).

So, yes, today’s result was the inevitable consequence of decisions taken (or not taken) long ago. There was simply no focus on how the decisions being taken were impacting on families and people and all the talk, as I once remarked, was on “projects and initiatives”.

When, in the aftermath of the immense confusion of the launch of Arriva, I expressed the opinion that perhaps the time had come for Dr Gonzi to call it a day, I wondered for a long time what had possessed me to write like that.

Then, much later, I found out that at around the same time, far more qualified people than me and at the top of the government structure had told him more or less the same thing. I am not at liberty to reveal who these persons were (and their colourful and drastic descriptions of the flaws in Dr Gonzi’s psychological make-up) but I was also told he went and asked two other people (again, sorry, no names) and they told him to soldier on.

Hence, today’s ‘inevitable’ result. Basically, however, I still believe the people’s instinct knows when it’s time for some people to leave.


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