Monday 19 April 2021

Snapshots from an election campaign

This article first appeared on Malta Today 

Has it really just been three weeks since the election date was announced? Does anyone else feel, like me, that it feels more like three months?

Well the good news is that we are heading for the home stretch, and just like a marathon runner who hits a “wall” just before those gruelling last few miles, I feel that voters too are fast approaching that wall and are about ready to collapse. With slightly less than two weeks to go, we can just about see the finish line in the far distance, and we keep pushing through the campaign pain, wondering whether our stamina (not to mention our fried, overloaded with too much information) brains can hold out.

A lot has happened since last Sunday, most noticeably the “Felix Busuttil incident” which I dealt with at length in my article last Thursday and which has once again raised the issue of whether it is wise to endorse a political party when one has been given work by said administration, without the endorsement smacking too much of “My Master’s Voice”. (As an aside, as it turns out Felix’s contract with the Malta Arts Council is 16k, which is a far cry from the 50k being rumoured, although the principle at stake remains the same).

What definitely has emerged from that incident is that we need to speak about the elephant in the room and acknowledge that consultancies, creatively-titled positions, political appointments and positions of trust are not something which were hatched now. Prior to 2013, we all knew of cases where canvassers of the Nationalist Party, party apparatchiks and media link employees were “awarded” handsomely once their party won the election and were chosen for their posts purely for their party loyalty and little else. In past administrations there were also those who got away very easily with churning out spin and propaganda in favour of the same administration which was giving them various lucrative contracts, while keeping everything on the down and low. Did someone say, ‘conflict of interest?’ I also wonder about all the people clamouring so loudly for a change in Government and am curious at just how many of them are really doing it for the love of the patria, rather than because there is an actual real chance that the PN will be back in power and well, you know.

So maybe what we need to decide is whether this is acceptable or not. And if we all agree that it is not acceptable to put people on the public payroll purely because they voted for you and you owe them, then it should never be acceptable, with no exceptions made. Ever.

It was also a week where we saw the really meaty issues, such as the need to strengthen our institutions and the creation of real checks and balances, get placed on the back burner while silly, petty things grabbed people’s attention instead. Granted, the very word ‘institutions’ is probably guaranteed to instill boredom, so no wonder that the trivialities are easier to grasp by the average person. The problem with this is that the political discourse not only gets side-tracked but is rendered almost as superficial as watching a reality show.

First, you had Labour supporters up in arms because of remarks made by Simon Busuttil that the Cottonera area is rife with social problems. Now while I understand that this is a sensitive issue, and Busuttil could have been much more tactful, he was not saying anything we don’t already know. I found the reaction to be over the top and only served to reinforce the belief that the people ‘in the south’ are unnecessarily touchy. Obviously, it was a remark which was milked to death by the PL to whip up anger against the PN Leader, and it worked like a charm to fire up the grassroots who are the backbone of the Labour party. But has it really allowed us to meaningfully discuss how these real social problems can be overcome and how we can treat people from dysfunctional backgrounds with dignity? You’re joking right…this is an election campaign we are talking about, who needs mature debate?

The PN had its own share of episodes where it was grasping at anything and everything without weighing whether it was worth getting all hot and bothered about. Here are just a few:

▪ Joseph Muscat’s google Ads popping up on school iPads: Marlene Farrugia was quick to claim this was a deliberate manoevure, presumably to brainwash children’s minds – but, uhm, no, google adverts are automatically generated on all devices at random and no one is controlling them, although the frequency depends on how much the advertiser has paid (having said this, Google Ads should have been blocked from school iPads).

▪ The domain name which was (you have to admit) rather cleverly bought, presumably by the PL in 2014, and which had a brief moment as a satirical site before it was taken down: fake news! impersonating someone’s identity! dangerous underhanded tactics! The accusations came thick and fast from outraged PN supporters, but were just as quickly shot down by other more level-headed people who pointed out that, you know, freedom of speech. Oh and by the way, they also pointed out, why did no one in the PN camp think of buying all the domain names?

▪ And of course, I cannot help but mention the fuss made over the voting documents themselves, which according to Beppe Fenech Adami, were printed with ink which could be removed using surgical spirit. It took me a while to lift my jaw off from the floor at this sheer absurdity. Granted, hearing that they were not laminated because the lamination machine was broken, was in itself a source of hilarity (all over Facebook dedicated teachers, self-sufficient as they are with school supplies, were generously offering the Electoral Commission a chance to use theirs). But on the other hand, the PN representatives on the Commission had given their blessing to the votes being printed in this way, so either (a) they don’t know what they are doing or (b) Beppe has no faith in them or (c) insert surreal explanation of your choice.

Playing behind all this as a sort of recurring theme, of course, is the very serious, looming shadow of what brought us to an snap election in the first place: the Panama Papers, the opening of secret offshore accounts by top Government officials and allegedly, even by the Prime Minister and his wife. As we edge closer to the election, however, we are none the wiser about the latter allegation, and from certain statements being made it is not even clear whether the findings of the magisterial inquiry will be accepted by the Opposition. Which makes me wonder why we are doing all this and whether anything will change after 3 June, irrespective of who wins.

I still feel that the inquiry should have been concluded first, prior to calling an election, but now I wonder whether even that would have sufficed to calm the waters which refuse to be calmed. Would Muscat stepping aside until the inquiry was concluded, handing the premiership over to someone else for the reminder of the legislature, have sufficed? Would the Labour administration have been able to serve its five years in relative political stability in that way, for the benefit of the country as a whole? Or was an early election inevitable no matter what?

These are all hypotheticals to which we will never know the answers, but what is clear is that whoever emerges victorious on 4 June needs to have the leadership qualities this country so badly needs right now. Someone who will be able to step up to bring the nation together and allow us to move forward, to fix what has been broken, and steer us towards hopefully regaining the trust in our institutions which has been so badly trampled upon.

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