Sunday 17 February 2019

So far, so popular

I was rather surprised to read that Muscat’s approval rating is still riding high at 59%.

Surprised, not only because it’s normal for a PM to start losing popularity once reality bites and tough decisions need to be made, but also because some of the news emanating from Castille has been met with considerable criticism.

That is why I find it so curious that while many are voicing their concerns about the Labour government’s decisions which will impact the environment (the pandering to hunters and the land reclamation idea to name just two) it seems that, on the whole, most people seem quite comfortable – so far – with the change of administration.

There could be many reasons for this, of course, the most obvious being that when people have voted for a political party they will continue to defend their choice if only to justify their voting preference to themselves and convince themselves that they made the right decision. This is especially the case with voters who have made the radical (and probably very emotionally difficult) switch from PN to Labour.

Traditional Labour voters will obviously claim that Muscat can do no wrong, no matter what (much like there are those who, to this day, still claim that Gonzi did a fantastic job as PM even though all evidence points otherwise).

What I find especially interesting in the MT survey though is that 33% of PN voters still described Muscat’s performance to date as ‘fair’.

It is interesting because, let’s face it, Muscat from day one was literally like a turbo broom sweeping through every single governmental department and authority, replacing people so swiftly no one had time to catch their breath. While there were howls of protest and objections from certain quarters (and while I too have my doubts about certain appointments and what seemed like unnecessarily rash decisions) I also began to notice something else.

There seemed to be a kind of quiet satisfaction permeating public opinion; a tacit approval that yes, certain heads really had to roll. “I voted for change” was the phrase I kept reading over and over again online. It may just be my impression, but it seems that even some members of the electorate who voted PN are not that unhappy that people in top posts have been replaced. This has nothing to do with envy, but more to do with fairness. One of the accusations levied at the Gonzi administration time and again was that a small, tightly knit group of insiders had literally taken over the country, living off the fat of the land, gobbling everything in sight and earning obscene amounts of money, while everyone else slogged away.

Some will argue that one set of Big Guns has simply been replaced by another, but the test will come when someone does not deliver. Will Muscat have the gumption to hold him/her accountable?

What I’ve also noticed is that (apart from the usual, predictable pundits) most people are quite willing to give Muscat a chance to prove himself, holding back from being unduly critical as they sit back and watch how he handles things. There have been a number of good moves such as the surprise visits to government entities to catch slackness which have been met with general approval. Evarist Bartolo’s recent statement that teachers need to have full support to re-assert their authority in schools and his decision to use his budget to improve existing state schools, have also been widely applauded.

This willingness to give Muscat’s government the benefit of the doubt is a very significant shift in the mood of the country, which has not happened in a very long time. This points to three things:

Muscat, as a person, is quite likeable, and no amount of attempts to portray him as some kind of scheming, ruthless, Machiavellian monster have worked so far. He is like the Teflon King; no accusation really sticks.

The second reason for this benevolent mood is that it brings into sharp relief yet again just how thoroughly sick and tired voters were of the PN administration.  This has been acknowledged in every single interview I’ve read or listened to with the four men who are now contesting the PN leadership. Too long is too long, and the PN’s time was up. Continuing to vote for the same party due to an irrational fear of change is a recipe for disaster: change is crucial in a healthy, functioning democracy.

Finally, there is a third reason. In his frank interview in The Sunday Times Gonzi himself has conceded that the problems began from his first day in office after the 2008 elections which he won by the skin of his teeth.  He has laid the blame on his inability to govern with the full backing of his MPs squarely on Franco Debono’s incessant and relentless SMS messages (leading me to wonder whether backbenchers get their mobile bills paid for by the taxpayer). However, I do believe that he left out one very crucial nugget of information.

The PN strategy to win in 2008 was built on deceit; deceit which was unmasked when Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando finally came clean about the entire Mistra mise en scene. The truth always comes out eventually, and when it does, it bites. There were feeble, often outrageous attempts to re-create similar scenarios this time round but as we know they fell dismally (and towards the end, hilariously) flat. To put it in a nutshell, the electorate has wised up.

I hope this lesson has been well and truly learned not only by the PN but more importantly for all of us, by the current Labour administration.

The fact that Muscat enjoys a high ranking in popularity after the first month is all well and good, but complacency on our part would be the worst possible thing that could happen. Politicians need to be kept on their toes otherwise the slide downhill will come quick and fast, as we have found out in the past to our own detriment.





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