The Malta Independent 19 September 2020, Saturday

Nationalist Party: The inability to regenerate

Stephen Calleja Sunday, 13 September 2020, 09:30 Last update: about 3 days ago

The Nationalist Party has been unable to regenerate itself in the same way that the Labour Party has been able to do in the past decade or so.

Last week, The Malta Independent on Sunday reported that only three ministers appointed by Joseph Muscat in his first Cabinet in 2013 still retain a post in the new Robert Abela Cabinet, which he picked in January this year. It is likely that they will not get a ministerial appointment after the next election. Another six parliamentary secretaries under Muscat are now ministers, part of the young generation of politicians cultivated by Labour.

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It is a different story at the other end of the political spectrum because, apart from the internal strife that has hit the party since the last election in 2017, the PN has been unable to undergo a process of renewal. Normally, a party in opposition manages to renovate itself better than a party in government, as it does not have the onus of public administration. But, in this case, the PN has failed to make use of its time in opposition to give itself a fresh look.

There have been changes to the line-up, but these have been few and many of the more recent inclusions have not increased the party’s value by much, if at all.

Two defeats

The PN lost the last two general elections in 2013 and 2017. Both were heavy defeats, and to these one must add successive losses at local council and European Parliament level too. The last general election the PN won was in 2008, by a mere 1,500 votes, and then Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi had chosen a very small group of ministers, just eight, along with six parliamentary secretaries, to form his Cabinet.

This was possibly the start of so much dissatisfaction in the PN parliamentary group, forcing Gonzi to revise his decision later and appoint a small group of parliamentary assistants who, although with less power than parliamentary secretaries, became part of the administration.

Towards the end of the legislature, during which Gonzi had to face so much turbulence from within his own ranks, he carried out a Cabinet reshuffle to give a ministerial portfolio to a few of the parliamentary secretaries so as to be able to distribute the workload in a better way.  But the shortage of valid options at his disposal was recognised by Gonzi himself.

Midway through what turned out to be the last term in office so far for the PN, a leaked US embassy cable had revealed that Gonzi had admitted to US officials of having “a limited talent pool” from which he could pick ministers. He had been quoted as saying that he wished he could choose people from outside his parliamentary group to serve as ministers, but in Malta this is not possible.

The way Gonzi judged his colleagues was probably the reason why he chose to initially appoint a very small Cabinet, only to partially revise his position later. But the damage had probably already been done to the way Gonzi was perceived by his group, which led to some of them causing havoc.

Still struggling

And now, seven years after Gonzi’s departure from the post of prime minister, the Nationalist Party is still struggling to come up with people who can be of inspiration and who can be influential in the political landscape. The recent internal fights may have also kept valid people away from joining, but the generational crisis had started before the 2013 defeat.

Going back to the list of ministers and parliamentary secretaries in Gonzi’s last Cabinet, the one he appointed in January 2012 for the last year of his term as Prime Minister, one notices that four of the ministers and two of the parliamentary secretaries are still very much active in the PN, meaning that they are likely to be aspiring to have a ministerial portfolio again if and when the PN is elected to government (and if they get a seat in Parliament).

One must add to these three parliamentary assistants who are also still main spokespersons in the PN parliamentary group. Another MP did not serve in the last Gonzi government, but had previously been parliamentary secretary for 10 years. Again, they will be among those who aspire to become ministers as they seek re-election.

Two scenarios

So let us take two scenarios, one more likely than the other, although as we all know things can change quickly.

In case of a Labour victory in 2022, as written last week, the three Labour ministers still standing in the Robert Abela Cabinet when compared to the Joseph Muscat Cabinet of 2013 will most likely not find a place in a new set-up. This would mean that the new Robert Abela team of ministers will be completely different from the one appointed by Muscat nine years earlier.

Let us then take the unlikely, but remotely possible, scenario that the PN will win the next election. When it comes to the Nationalist Party, there are 10 PN MPs serving in the House at present – more than one-third of the whole group – who have already served in a government, before 2013.

None of them has said that he (they are all men) will not contest the next election, so there is a chance that they will be elected. If they will be, and the PN wins, they will expect to be considered for a ministerial post. We might therefore have PN ministers in 2022 who served in pre-2013 governments; with Labour we will have no ministers from 2013.

Who they are

The four Nationalist MPs still in Parliament and who served as ministers are Mario de Marco, Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici, Jason Azzopardi and Chris Said.

Mifsud Bonnici spent five years as parliamentary secretary in the Ministry of Justice and Home Affairs between 2003 and 2008, and held the post of minister with the same portfolio for another five years between 2008 and 2013.

Azzopardi, de Marco and Said all started off as parliamentary secretaries in the 2008 Gonzi Cabinet, but in 2012 they were promoted to minister.

De Marco was PS for tourism first, and later Minister of Tourism, Culture and the Environment.

Said was PS for public dialogue and information before being promoted to Minister of Justice, Dialogue and the Family.

Azzopardi was PS for revenues and land before he made it to Minister of Fair Competition, Small Business and Consumers.

In the same Gonzi 2008-2013 government, Clyde Puli was PS for youth and sport while Mario Galea was PS for the elderly and community care.

Among the parliamentary assistants appointed by Gonzi in 2010, one found Stephen Spiteri (education), Beppe Fenech Adami (justice and home affairs) and Robert Arrigo (finance).

Then there is Edwin Vassallo, who was not part of the Gonzi 2008-2013 Cabinet, but had served as parliamentary secretary for two legislatures, between 1998 and 2008, in different functions, including economic services and small businesses.

Some of these 10 have been and still are highly influential in the party. Fenech Adami and de Marco both were deputy leaders under the leadership of Simon Busuttil, while Arrigo is deputy leader now.

Azzopardi and Said have been at the forefront in the internal issues which have characterised the Adrian Delia leadership, which will now lead to an election between Delia and Bernard Grech to see who of the two will take the party to the 2022 election. Puli, for a time, was secretary general of the party.

One may argue that some of these 10 MPs are still relatively young. Granted, but their presence in the top tiers of the PN hierarchy after so many years of defeats exposes how the PN has failed to bring in new blood.

The Lawrence Gonzi 2008-2013 government

Ministers

Lawrence Gonzi, Prime Minister, Tourism and Environment

Tonio Borg, Foreign Affairs and parliamentary affairs

John Dalli, Social policy

Dolores Cristina, Education and culture

Giovanna Debono, Gozo

Austin Gatt, Infrastructure, Communications and Transport

Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici, Justice and Home Affairs

George Pullicino, Resources and Rural Affairs

Tonio Fenech, Finance, Economy and Investment

Parliamentary Secretaries

Mario de Marco, Tourism (promoted to Minister of Tourism, Culture and Environment in 2012)

Chris Said, Public dialogue and information (promoted to Minister for Justice, Dialogue and the Family in 2012)

Jason Azzopardi, Revenues and Land (promoted to Minister of Fair Competition, Small Business and Consumers in 2012)

Joseph Cassar, Health (promoted to Minister for Health, Elderly and Community care in 2010)

Mario Galea, Elderly and community care

Clyde Puli, youth and sport

Parliamentary assistants

Franco Debono at the Office of Prime Minister

Frederick Azzopardi at the Ministry of Gozo

Charlo Bonnici at the Ministry of the Infrastructure

Philip Mifsud at the Ministry of Resources and Rural Affairs

Stephen Spiteri at the Ministry of Education

Robert Arrigo at the Ministry of Finance

Beppe Fenech Adami at the Ministry of Justice and Home Affairs

Peter Micallef at the Ministry of Health

Note: Edwin Vassallo was not part of the 2008-2013 Cabinet, but served in previous legislatures.

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