Friday 19 October 2018

In politics, perception is everything

This article first appeared on Malta Today 

Every time a politician or their spouse makes a clumsy gaffe and then wonders, wide-eyed, what it is that they did wrong, it occurs to me that perhaps there should be a handbook made available as soon as someone becomes a public figure. And by public figure that does not just mean those who are themselves politicians, but by association, those family members who have voluntarily stepped into the limelight.

There are things which one can do and other things which are simply just not “done” when one enters the political fray, and this goes as much for the politicians as for their significant others. If you persist in doing them anyway, then you better prepare yourself, because you will get flak for it.

You would think that everyone knows these things, but seeing as they obviously don’t, I suggest a course in The Fundamentals of Political Behaviour.

The case of Michelle Muscat who was awarded the National Volunteer of the Year Award by the Maltese Council for the Voluntary Sector is a classic case in point. There are so many thing wrong with granting this award to the wife of the Prime Minister, that I do not know where to start. This is not to diminish the work she has done in the voluntary field, far from it, but one cannot escape the fact that it was a very, very bad idea from a public relations point of view.

In politics, perception is everything. And the way it looks is that, by accepting to be nominated in the first place, Mrs Muscat showed a poor lack of judgment and awareness (she must have known about the nomination as, according to the rules, the volunteer has to declare that no financial gains have been made through volunteering). No matter how flattered she might have been at the nomination, there should have been a point when she should have stopped to think about how this would come across to the thousands who volunteer selflessly but who are not in the public eye and are never given any credit, let alone recognition or any awards. They do it in the way true charity is meant to be done – low-key and without any blowing of one’s own trumpet. While on the one hand, I can appreciate that Mrs Muscat has lent her name, time and energy to raise funds for organizations such as the Marigold Foundation, it really should not have gone any further than that. For isn’t the satisfaction of doing volunteer work enough of a reward in itself, especially in her position?

If it were me, I would have been very embarrassed at the thought of a national award and I would not have accepted to be nominated for this precise reason. And before anyone can say, “she could hardly have turned it down”, well, there is a way of graciously getting out of things if you are careful to explain your reasons without causing offence to those who nominated you, who I am sure were very well-meaning. And surely, after all these years of being at the receiving end of non-stop criticism, she should by now be savvy enough to realise that this would feed precisely into the kind of Evita Peron comparison which many like to make?

I really don’t understand how those around her do not warn her of such pitfalls, unless they too are not aware why this kind of thing is so “off”. I think this is a common malaise among those who enter the political scene: that they do not surround themselves with enough honest advisors and friends who are capable of telling them the brutal truth, but instead prefer Yes men who just go along with whatever they want.

In her position as the PM’s wife, Michelle Muscat is not an ordinary, unknown, anonymous volunteer but someone who is very high-profile, and that changes everything. Yes, it even changes the very nature of the award because it begs the question of why the Council thought it would be a good idea to award the prize to her. Didn’t anyone think to raise their hand and say, hold on a minute, this is going to result in a negative backlash? No matter how uncomfortable they might have felt because of who she is, they really should have awarded it to someone else. Frankly, it reflects badly on them as well, as it appears as if they are ingratiating themselves with the Government of the day, even though that might not have been the intention. But again, perception is everything.

More perceptions

On a completely different note, but still on the matter of perceptions, there was the footage of Marlene Farrugia and her partner Godfrey Farrugia who were stopped by reporters to answer a few questions in front of Parliament a few weeks ago. I don’t think anyone can even remember what it was about, or what was actually said, because the lasting impression in everyone’s brain is that of Godfrey’s several attempts to say something, while Marlene in her usual fashion, simply did not give him a chance to get a word in edgewise, but just kept on talking. The unfortunate image was that of Godfrey opening and closing his mouth several times like a guppy, until Marlene decided that time was up, “Come on, let’s go, it’s getting late” she snapped at him, while turning on her heel and walking firmly away.

Ouch.

Men all over Malta collectively winced at the sight of another men being so publicly humiliated by his other half, while women too berated Marlene for not letting her man talk. Now, for all we know, their relationship might be based on mutual respect, but what came across in that video clip was of a timid, henpecked man being completely dominated by a louder, more assertive woman. The clip gave rise to countless jokes and barbs across social media, further perpetuating the belief that in the Farrugia household, it is Marlene who calls the shots, while Godfrey goes along with whatever she wants, even though they are both MPs. No matter how much we talk about equality, ultimately in politics being perceived as weak is not a good look for a male politician, and is much more damaging to him than if a woman is perceived as weak. She certainly did not do him (or herself) any favours by that display of what was basically rudeness and bad manners, but simply reinforced the negative impression of them both which is already in the public consciousness.

Oh, and before I am accused of some kind of sexist attitude towards Marlene Farrugia, I would say the same thing if a male politician had to be unbelievably rude and patronizing in the same way to his wife in front of the cameras, or indeed anywhere in public. There is nothing more mortifying than to witness a couple that treats each other in such an appalling way. It does not take much to be well-mannered and polite, but when one displays a lack of basic manners and consideration towards the person one shares one’s life with, that to me, speaks volumes upon volumes.

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