The Malta Independent 28 June 2022, Tuesday

Different kinds of leadership

Stephen Calleja Sunday, 15 May 2022, 10:00 Last update: about 2 months ago

There is one fundamental difference between how Labour Party supporters view their leader, and the way Nationalist Party supporters consider him.

History has taught us that, for the Labour Party, the leader is one whose word and actions are never to be challenged. He is supreme, and whatever he says or does is law. The rest follow, and those who don’t are frowned upon, if not ostracised.

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For the Nationalist Party, the leader is someone who heads the organisation, but has to work hard to find a solution that pleases the different sections and trains of thought that make up the party. When decisions are taken, those who do not agree do not necessarily toe the line. Sometimes they create trouble too.

For Labour, the leader is adored, can do no wrong, and can change what his predecessors did without question. All must wait before he speaks, and it is only then that opinions are formed.

For the PN, the leader is required, but what he says can always be put in doubt. His words are not necessarily the ones to be followed.

Ironically, the way the two respective sets of supporters refer to the leader in Maltese – “mexxej” for Labour, “kap” for PN – conveys the opposite of what actually is the case. In terminological terms, a “kap” transmits a stronger presence than “mexxej”, but whereas the leader of the Labour Party holds absolute power, the leader of the Nationalist Party’s power is contained.

Differences

Let’s give a few examples.

When Joseph Muscat was PL leader, Konrad Mizzi enjoyed protection. Even though there were top PL people who no longer wanted him around, none of them dared openly attack Mizzi. The most they did was pass a few strong remarks in private, but in public they supported the position adopted by the leader.

Enter Robert Abela, and within six months Mizzi had been kicked out of the parliamentary group. The politicians who had voted in favour of Mizzi in Parliament were among those who voted against him when Abela put forward the idea of dismissing him from the parliamentary group.

If Muscat says Mizzi is ok, then the rest of Labour says it is ok. If Abela says Mizzi is not ok to be part of the PL parliamentary group, then it’s no longer ok.

The way Mizzi was perceived by Labour changed overnight, just because the new leader did not see it the way that his predecessor did. And all those who voted to keep Mizzi in when Muscat was leader then voted to kick Mizzi out when Abela took over. If you had to ask Labour exponents why they suddenly changed their position, they will not be able to explain. They see nothing wrong in this shift from one extreme to the other, so long as they follow the leader.

Another example – for many months the memorial dedicated to Daphne Caruana Galizia beneath the Great Siege Monument was regularly cleared up when Muscat was in charge. We remember the controversy as flowers and photos placed one day were removed during the night, only for fresh flowers and photos to be placed again in defiance, and be removed again.

One of the first things that Abela said soon after becoming PL leader was that the memorial to the murdered journalist should no longer be touched. And, since then, it wasn’t, and the controversy ended there.

The same people who were supporting Muscat’s action to have the memorial cleared, and giving reasons why this needed to be done, became the same people who defended the opposite action taken by Abela, and giving reasons why the new guidelines were now the ones to be followed.

Just as much as Labourites did not question Muscat’s reasoning to remove the flowers, no Labourite questioned why Abela decided to keep them there.

It’s as simple as that. Whatever the Labour leader says, goes, even if this is the opposite of what the previous leader said.

Dissimilar

It does not work like that on the PN side.

Bernard Grech decides to leave out, from his shadow Cabinet, three members of the last PN government – former ministers Mario de Marco, Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici and Chris Said.

It’s an insult to the Gonzi administration; it’s like denouncing what that government did, when this should not be the case. This was one of the phrases that came from PN quarters questioning the decision taken by Grech.

Grech is throwing away the experience of three seasoned politicians, was another interpretation, again coming from the PN side.

When it was said that Grech did this because only change can make the PN electable again, the dissenters argued that the past cannot be ignored or forgotten.

Nothing of the sort was heard on the Labour side when one of its own veteran politicians, Evarist Bartolo, was unceremoniously chucked out with a decision taken on the way candidates elected from two districts were to cede one of their seats.

It’s because we want to regenerate ourselves, was the way that Abela described the decision. Nobody, from Labour, raised an issue about it. What Abela decides, the party does.

Abela continuously harps on this. “If we stay together,” he said during the 1 May gathering to celebrate Worker’s Day, “nobody and nothing can stop progress”.

In other words: “do as I tell you, and we’ll remain in power”.

This is not a recent phenomenon. It goes back decades.

The older generations will remember how hard it was for Lawrence Gonzi to manage an administration with a one-seat majority between 2008 and 2013, as MPs from his own side continued to create issues that put the government in jeopardy, and eventually led to its collapse. More recently, the way PN rebel MPs worked to oust Adrian Delia is the perfect example of how things work at the PN.

At the other end, Alfred Sant took Labour to just one win in 1996, but it then took three election losses (apart from the EU referendum) for him to be replaced. And it was only because Sant had decided to go that this happened. Until Sant realised his time was up, nobody had dared contest him.

Exceptions

Like in anything else, there are exceptions.

Eddie Fenech Adami’s rule of the PN did not encounter the same pressures as those of his predecessor George Borg Olivier, particularly towards the end of the latter’s tenure. It could be because of the prevailing circumstances of the time, or Fenech Adami’s personality, or both, that led him to have a plain-sailing leadership until he chose to call it a day.

Dom Mintoff, then, was the one who challenged Alfred Sant, which cut the latter’s government short by three years in the second half of the 1990s. Even here, Labour supporters had shifted their reverence to Sant, and they did not like what Mintoff was doing to their new leader. For decades, Mintoff had been their “saviour”, but their adulation was now directed towards Sant.

Only Mintoff could do what Mintoff did to Sant. That’s because Mintoff was never a follower, even when he was relegated to the back bench.  When he had decided to give up the leadership in the 1980s, his “imposition” of Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici as his successor found no opposition.

Abela-Grech

To come back to present times, Abela’s grip on the PL and, by default, also of the government, is much stronger than the control Grech has on the PN.

This is also a result of the political results that both have achieved. While Abela is fresh from leading the PL to a third consecutive electoral victory, obtaining yet another record margin, Grech is at the head of a party which is still divided, coming from a series of electoral defeats and, added to this, facing a mountain of debt.

But it is the prevailing philosophy and mindset of the respective party and group of supporters that make the difference.

For Labourites, nothing works unless it has the approval of Abela or is directly coming from him. Some may describe this as authoritarian, but that’s the way it works. And it has worked well for Labour.

On the other side, what Grech says and does is not necessarily endorsed by the rest. Some see it as the free expression of ideas, but it has also come to mean disunity.

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