This column first appeared in Malta Today
The instructions given by Prime Minister Abela that the makeshift memorial to Daphne Caruana Galizia at the Great Siege monument was not to be cleared after the vigil (as has been happening for the last two years), was more than just a gesture.
He has only been in office for less than a week, but he has seemed to have already grasped something which was apparently elusive to his predecessor: that sometimes in life, you have to give an inch in order to gain much more. I never quite understood how (former Justice Minister) Owen Bonnici could not see that ordering the shrine to be cleared of the candles and flowers was reflecting very badly on the administration. Even though Muscat may not have been personally involved in this decision, he could have put a stop to it if he had really wanted to. Month after month it became a childish tit-for-tat, what in Maltese we refer to as “pika” (pique) to see who would get their way.
Granted, the Great Siege monument has its own historic significance, but we all know that this was not what the constant removal of photos, slogans, flowers and candles was really all about.
It was about the Government wanting to show that it would not be dictated to by a bunch of protestors. It was about seeing who would ‘win’ this battle of wills. It was about not bowing down to pressure because it feared appearing weak: a common enough mistake made by politicians whose pride often comes before their common sense. Many hate admitting they were wrong; many hate backing down. Like warring spouses who end up bickering over the most trivial things in a separation case, the flowers and candles came to signify and symbolise something which went much deeper.
However, this approach was not only petty and distasteful considering the circumstances, but also foolhardy and short-sighted. Paradoxically, with each clean sweep and replacement of the flowers and candles, the vigil and its symbolism was back in the news like clockwork, giving it even more publicity. As inevitably happens when you try to prevent people from doing something, you end up simply reinforcing their determination and strengthening their resolve to do it even more.
Month after month, each time the monument was cleared, everything was replaced with even more embellishment, including symbolic padlocks which are now permanently affixed to the surrounding wrought iron railing. Not only that, but those who diligently attended the vigils were seen as being the victims of a heavy-handed Government.
Why should these flowers and candles have been such a big deal? Who were they hurting? If one was not a fan of Daphne’s writing, one could have simply kept on walking by. In the end, what did the Muscat administration gain from all this? As far as I can tell, nothing but bad PR both here and abroad, and it only has itself to blame for that.
By taking the bull by the horns and putting a stop to the nonsense of “cleaning” the memorial, Abela has demonstrated that he is willing to do the right thing because he can see the bigger picture. It has also given less fuel to the diehards who still persist in making online comment boards so toxic. They might not agree with his decision, but the PM of a country is not there to pander to his partisan supporters but to act statesmanlike.
Although I was sceptical about Abela prior to his election, I must say that so far he has taken decisions which will go a long way towards bringing back a degree of measured leadership to this island. He seems to have a clear plan of what needed to be done and in just a few days he has made several important changes. On the whole, most people prefer to get along with one another rather than these constant rifts which are exhausting and often futile in such a small country where so many friendships and family relationships cross party lines.
Having said that, this is not to say that the hand which Robert Abela has extended in reconciliation will automatically be reciprocated.
As for the Opposition…
For a while now I have held back about commenting on the state of the PN because every time I cast my glance in that direction all I see is confusion. It makes it very difficult to write about a party which is so disjointed and all over the place, because it feels like kicking someone when they are down.
But with a change of Prime Minister, now is a good a time as any to try and understand what it is the Opposition is offering.
First of all, one has to establish what we mean by ‘the Opposition’. Speak to most PN supporters and they will flatly tell you, “there is none.” This state of affairs has been prevailing since Adrian Delia was elected in the turbulent PN leadership campaign held in 2017. His candidature was poisoned from the get go because of certain revelations which came out at the time about his financial affairs and dubious past business dealings.
It also must be said that Daphne Caruana Galizia’s scathing denunciation of him had an undeniable influence on PN voters (both on those who didn’t like him and those who supported him). I have always felt that if she had not been so relentlessly vociferous against Delia, he might not have won, because human nature being what it is, people tend to support someone whom they see as being victimised.
The unspoken split became a chasm and ever since then, Delia has been unable to regain any real lost ground. To this day, the Nationalist party remains a mere shadow of its former self, and it is often quite hard to believe that this once indestructible party has been reduced to this. There are those who have always yearned for Simon to take back the reigns but this possibility has flown out the window now that he has been appointed to an administrative post with the European People’s Party. Maybe he has seen the writing on the wall and given up on the idea that the PN can really present itself as a viable alternative in the foreseeable future, especially now that Labour has been revitalised and re-energised with the election of a new leader.
Busuttil’s departure does not necessarily mean PN supporters will now rally around Delia – on the contrary new names are being mentioned for the leadership, most noticeably that of Joe Giglio. That means, however, that he would have to challenge Adrian Delia now if he wants to be at the helm and gather enough support in time for the next elections.
Civil society groups, namely Occupy Justice and Repubblika, and the small parties, Partit Demokratiku and Alternattiva Demokratika, make up the other fragmented factions of what can be loosely termed as ‘the Opposition”. The one thing which seemed to have united them was getting rid of Muscat, but now that he has resigned, there are some who still won’t be happy unless Muscat is behind bars. But wishful thinking does not magically translate into concrete evidence which would incriminate him without a shadow of a doubt for obstruction of justice, or worse. There was also a lot of clamouring for the Police Commissioner’s resignation and this finally happened on Friday in another of Abela’s decisive moves (I think it is pretty obvious that Lawrence Cutajar was made to resign). So now that he is gone – what?
While calling for resignations where needed is all well and good, there comes a point when the Opposition has to tell us what it stands for as a possible Government-in-waiting. What will it do to restore the damage to the environment? How will it stop the rampant construction and ensure that planning and development permits are not handed out like candy? What plans does it have to improve our quality of life in real terms on the issues which we face daily: public transport, air pollution, over-crowdedness, exploitation of workers, and a more just society overall?
The PN has to give people a real reason to vote for it again rather than abstract themes, and that reason cannot simply be because they hate Muscat (who is not there any more) or Labour (which is still as strong and possibly as popular as ever).