Sunday 17 February 2019

The pulse of a nation

Last Monday, I overcame my natural aversion to rowdy crowds, boarded a bus and made my way with the rest of the throngs to Valletta for the swearing in ceremony of the new Prime Minister.  I was not really there to watch it (I am so short I could not see anything anyway, not even the big screen); in fact I watched it later on TV.

I was there because I wanted to experience the atmosphere for myself and to try and understand what this moment meant, especially for diehard Labour supporters.  Let’s face it, they had been waiting for this opportunity to celebrate for a very long time (for how many elections had they sat glumly and despondently at home, waiting it out until joyous PN supporters had finished carcading themselves into exhaustion?)

Now it was their turn, and as I listened to snatches of conversation while our bus joined the traffic heading into the capital city, it became apparent that the messages of this campaign had filtered through loud and clear. Dressed with fierce pride in their party colours, and some of them carrying their beloved (though now seldom seen) Torca flag,  the supporters spoke in hurt tones about being portrayed as mobs rioting in the streets as had happened in the past: “those were other times, things have changed, we are not like that!”  Others were still stunned at the sheer significance of the landslide victory, “I was hoping we would win, but I never imagined…”

We then walked as far as the roundabout near Castille until it was impossible to move forward any more – so I indulged in more people-watching.  A group of tipsy 20-somethings were making up silly songs, but kept reminding each other to keep it positive rather than nasty, “remember what Joseph told us”, they said with more than a hint of self-irony.

The older generation, their faces raw with emotion, seemed to be in awe that a Labour victory had actually happened again in their lifetime, and couldn’t stop talking about where they were and how they felt when they heard the news. “I told my son don’t you dare go out until the news is confirmed, don’t forget what happened last time!”

Even when it started raining, people stayed on, and it seemed that nothing could dampen their mood.

When Joseph Muscat was spotted, it was like a shot of electricity went through the crowd. Not being one to idolize any politician, I find it hard to relate to this, but I was there in order to try and understand it. As I watched those around me, it was clear that for the party faithful, this 39-year-old had pulled off something that, five years ago, was deemed to be impossible. He took a party which was defeated, torn apart, and laying in tatters, brought back all its former detractors, re-build it (and some say), even re-packaged it until it was virtually unrecognizable from the party he took over in 2008.

Not only did he bring back probably every single former Labour voter, he did what was considered unachievable – he persuaded thousands of people who used to vote PN to vote Labour instead. That, in Malta, is huge. It is an incredible psychological breakthrough which, I think, will change the way people vote from now on.

Of course, now comes the crunch.

Whether Muscat has simply sold people a slick, incredibly well-marketed image which he cannot back up with a solid performance, is something which we will know in due course. There are ministerial appointments which have already raised a few eyebrows and which will be under heavy scrutiny.

But the fact that we were there witnessing him take the oath as Prime Minister, is something that even now, a week later, has not quite sunk in. I still turn on the news and am startled to hear his name instead of Gonzi’s every time.

In fact, I think the only one who is not completely astounded by the result is Muscat himself. Not because he was overly sure of himself, but because he had correctly felt and interpreted the pulse of the nation.

Loyalty to whom?

A lot has been said and written about the Permanent Secretaries who were asked to hand in their resignations immediately. This is not common procedure because they are civil servants on a three year contract rather than political appointees, so this move already sent uneasy ripples throughout the civil service.

However, now it transpires from Reno Bugeja’s questions to Muscat on Dissett that none of the resignations have been accepted, because the Prime Minister has first asked them to explain the decisions which have been taken in their various ministries since December.

I do not think this is an unreasonable request because someone holding such a high office needs to be accountable. This becomes even more necessary in the context of the offices which were completely stripped bare “well before election day” according to the report in Malta Today. This mentality of showing allegiance to one’s political party rather than to the government in the wider sense of the word (i.e. to us the people who fund the civil service) has got to stop. It is pathetic that there cannot be a smooth transition from one administration to another simply because people feel the need to sabotage the incoming staff. Those who stole government property or maliciously cut telephone and internet connections should be held responsible for their actions.

Civil servants, as their name implies, are there to serve, and their loyalty is to the country. If they cannot demonstrate this loyalty perhaps they need to go work somewhere else.

And finally the record needs to be set straight about the same circular asking for resignations being sent to the Broadcasting Authority. I have learned for a fact that the circular was forwarded by existing OPM staff, and not by any of the new staff.

Let’s just call it an administrative mistake, and leave it at that.







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