Saturday 16 February 2019

Walking the tightrope

As everyone gets used to the fact that Labour is now on the government benches and the PN is now the Opposition, it is clear (to me at least) that the focus should be on the former and how they are going to deliver what they promised.

Let’s face it, until the Nationalist party sorts out its own internal strife and decides who from the four contenders will be leading the party, followed by changes in other executive posts, it will take a while.  The PN is not only facing huge debts but a complete identity crisis judging from what I can see, as different factions keep pulling it in different directions. It has commissioned an analysis of the result which won’t be ready until the end of May, and it has even asked the public to send in its comments about why the PN lost. Frankly, they could save themselves a lot of time and trouble if they simply read through the piles of opinion columns written by different political commentators.  Heck, they could even trawl through Facebook and come up with a pretty accurate analysis. Time will tell whether the PN will ever really admit and come to terms with what went wrong.

Meanwhile, as the PN is sorting out its mess, the new government has been busy appointing people here, there and everywhere and the media scrutiny has been harsh – as it should be.

One thing fervent Labour supporters need to understand is that a huge landslide victory does not mean that an administration has carte blanche to do what it likes. I would say, in fact, that this kind of momentous win makes it even more imperative for the Fourth Estate to be extra vigilant. I am getting pretty weary of reading comments such as “37,000 maggoranza, issa oqoghdu hemm, hudha pacenzja, ghax ahna fil-gvern” (loosely translated: “we have a 37,000 majority, so you have to live with it, because we are in power now”).

No, that’s not how it works. Apart from being a very dangerous way of looking at democracy, it also undermines the very concept of checks and balances.

No matter who is in government, the role of the media is to maintain a detached, critical eye in order to ensure that politicians do not ride roughshod over us, carelessly disregarding what should be correct procedure or stepping over the line when it comes to ethical behaviour.

The case of Labour MP, Marlene Farrugia, who decided that she could just step in and work side-by-side with her partner, who is now the Minister of Health, was a case in point.  Were it not for media pressure she would still be there, and that would have been very, very wrong.  I also heard on Net News that the Minister of Gozo Anton Refalo’s wife, who is a civil servant, is “allegedly” (that is the word they used) working within his private secretariat. If so, it is obviously, patently wrong, and she should be transferred somewhere else. Do these things even need to be pointed out?

Checks and balances come into play in other ways too. I agree, for example, with the argument that members of the Opposition should not accept the executive positions offered to them by the Prime Minister, because the Opposition’s role is to keep the Government on its toes. After all, PN MPs are in Parliament to represent the 43% of the electorate who did not want a Labour government.

There are plenty of other valid people (not MPs) who are PN-leaning who can be appointed to boards and authorities, so that Muscat can retain his promise of involving everyone no matter what their politics are.  This is precisely where he seems to be faltering as he tries to walk a tightrope between dishing out choice positions to those who helped the Labour party, while occasionally retaining someone who had been appointed by the PN.

It is true that this administration is still finding its feet, and we cannot really assess if it is doing a good job as yet. All we can do is observe, watch and wait, while pointing out inconsistencies in the rhetoric it used to win the election, and what is actually happening in practice.

However, there have been several key appointments which have already led to strong objections by the Opposition, most notably those of Franco Debono (Law Commissioner and Constitutional Convention), Anglu Farrugia (Speaker) and John Bencini (Chairman of MSECD) – which were described as “divisive” and “humiliating” by the PN.

I do not think Anglu Farrugia was the ideal person to be made Speaker, but not for the reasons Lawrence Gonzi spoke about in Parliament yesterday when he told Muscat “you cannot use parliament to make friends, use funds to remedy the situation with somebody who accused you of political assassination. Don’t use us and our funds to repair this situation.”

This, I found, was a bit rich coming from the party which during the campaign blithely switched from mercilessly ridiculing Farrugia to turning him into a downtrodden martyr.

The Franco Debono appointment is admittedly a risky one, not because he does not have the necessary legal background, but because of the man’s flamboyant, unpredictable personality.  If Muscat can manage to control him so that the necessary reforms are carried out with the consensus of both parties, that will be a remarkable feat in itself. If, on the other hand, the PN refuses to work with Debono not because of what he proposes, but because of who he is, then that will go completely against the spirit of their own mantra which has always been to act “for the greater good”.

Did Muscat deliberately appoint Franco in order to rub salt into the wound, knowing that the PN would object and thus make them look even more “negative”?  If so, that is a very shortsighted way of doing things, because in order to seriously implement reform you need consensus, not have someone fighting you every step of the way. If, as some are claiming, this was Muscat’s “devious” plan all along, then it is the kind of Macchiavalian scheming which will utlimately backfire, as the PN has learnt to its own detriment.

Bencini is similarly an unknown quantity and has been described as “difficult”, so again only time will tell whether this appointment was a mistake. I think Muscat’s leadership will come into the fore if he moves quickly when trouble starts brewing so that he nips things in the bud.  It is here that his strong mandate as a result of achieving such an incredible majority will come in useful; he will not have to worry so much about appeasing those who do not deliver.

But even though Muscat is in a powerful position, he must use his considerable authority wisely, for that 37,000 majority can disappear as quickly as it came. As the saying goes, the true test of a man’s character is to give him power.


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