This column first appeared on Malta Today
When I was watching the press conference by the PM on Friday, it was a very different Robert Abela to the one who until recently persisted in giving us his broad smile every time he was on TV. Gone was the happy clappy smile exuding ‘positivity’, and in its place was the serious face of a man who realised that he had spoken too soon and now had to face the music.
Armed with the statistics of how much those first two clusters had spread, members of the press quite rightly threw his own words back at him: the now infamous ‘waves are in the sea’, and that, “everything is under control’. Abela did his best to keep his cool but there were moments when the tension and stress were palpable. He came across as being on the defensive and occasionally annoyed at being reminded about how he had got it so wrong.
Call me superstitious, but even when things were looking up again and many restrictions were lifted, Abela’s (and Fearne’s) triumphalism made me nervous. I could never shake the underlying misgiving that it could all change overnight, especially considering that all caution had been thrown to the wind. I am like that even on a personal level, always afraid that if I talk too much about something which is going well, I might jinx it.
So when it all went belly up these last few weeks, I could finally give in to my feeling of uneasy foreboding. I realised I was not simply being paranoid by sticking to the careful routines I had developed over these last few months. I still get most things delivered and avoid crowds and we are only going to a handful of outdoor places where social distancing is possible. The spike in cases gave credence to that old adage that if something seems too good to be true, it usually is. By now, we all know the reasons our numbers shot up, and yes it’s true that many predicted it. However, I do not agree with those claiming that the opening of the airport was to blame; the blame was a combination of incoming travellers with no testing at the very same time that many had gone back to their previous, carefree socialising. It was a perfect storm waiting to happen, and having a patient zero who attended the pool party was inevitable.
What politicians have to accept is that they are not in that role just to bask in their own glory when things go right, or to simply cut ribbons and smile for the cameras. The buck stops at the door of those making the decisions, so blame has to be placed foursquare on the shoulders of those who thought a little bravado and machismo was all that was needed to make Malta sail through the worst pandemic in our lifetimes. That is what both the PM and the Tourism Minister got wrong: you cannot just glibly talk your way through this one, as you can with other issues in politics. This is not a smooth PR handling exercise where you can do a little damage control, hold a few photo ops, throw in a few snappy sound bites and smile dazzlingly for the cameras, because the virus will pull the rug from under your feet just when you thought it was safe.
Maturity, not machismo, from our politicians is what is badly needed, and it could be the case that both Abela and Farrugia Portelli’s relatively young ages have a lot to do with their mishandling of this crisis. Having said that, I did hear a more measured tone and felt a sense of sobriety coming from Abela in his last press conference, which indicates that he is becoming more aware of how much weight his words carry. I do hope his days of careless talk are over because for some reason I still cannot fathom, many still wait to see what the PM has to say before making a decision about their behaviour. “He said the pandemic is over, let’s party, woohoo!”…uhm, no, it doesn’t quite work that way.
On the other hand, Abela should have been more willing to take the onus of responsibility for the wrong decisions taken, rather than trying to indirectly palm it off on others. It never ceases to puzzle me why politicians find it so hard to admit mistakes, and why they cannot grasp how much more respect they could earn in the eyes of the public if they would only utter the words, ‘mea culpa’.
When addressing a nation, there are times when one needs to be ‘positive’ and reassure the public that everything will be OK, and there are times when one needs to be grounded, realistic and above all, grown up. I want to see fully fledged adults at the helm of our country, and if circumstances have thrust you into a highly powerful position at too young an age, then you must either hurry up and mature, or simply admit you are out of your depth and bow out. I also want to see accountability; it’s a novel idea I agree, but for Julia Farrugia Portelli to not even have the grace to admit she was wrong about all the disastrous decisions taken to get tourism on its feet again, is galling to say the least. Is she simply keeping mum in the hope it will all go away? One of Malta’s most vital industries should never have been entrusted to someone who is inexperienced, is unable to think long-term and was obviously incapable of standing up to the powerful businessmen who always want things their way. Had she been working in the private sector she would have already been shown the door. How’s that for a mechanism?
Macho, macho man
More news on the macho front comes in the form of former PN backbencher Franco Debono who (like many before him) is of the belief that what people want from a politician is a chest-thumping tough guy. He got a bit prickly when faced by some harsh criticism on FB and apart from bizarrely reporting it to the police as hate speech, one of his rejoinders was “Hadd mhu se jintimidani. Jien mhux se nibza”. (No one is going to intimidate me. I’m not afraid).
It is a recurring theme I have seen over and over again from the likes of Jason Azzopardi and even Adrian Delia. Every time I see that phrase “I’m not afraid”, it just reminds me of little boys playing cowboys and Indians.
I don’t know what it is, but lately, everyone seems to think they are Clint Eastwood. This insistence that they are not afraid of anyone or anything makes me wonder whom they are trying to convince, whether it is us, or themselves. Meanwhile, women in politics are not exactly making any great strides either. Roberta Metsola and Therese Comodini Cachia obligingly pulled out of the race for new PN party leader, which begs the question of what it will take for any political party in Malta to break the glass ceiling.
On the other hand, I am not one of those women who want women in top posts simply as window dressing, because of their gender. Irrespective of whether it is a man or a woman, I want to see intelligence, professionalism and a willingness to be guided by experts in areas which are not their field. I want to see less nodding heads and more politicians willing to step up and be counted when they do not agree with the PM – and if that means handing in their resignation because they do not agree with policy, then so be it. We need more backbone, less yes men/women, more compassion and politicians who actually care what the people want, rather than always being guided by what is good for the Fat Cats.
What we do not need are childish antics, squabbling on FB with the public and politicians who never ever apologise or own up to their own mistakes.