Now Prime Minister Robert Abela has entrusted a particularly young Cabinet with the governance of Malta, the wide gap between the two major parties has never been more glaring.
Not only have young backbenchers like Byron Camilleri, Rosianne Cutajar, Alex Muscat and Clayton Bartolo all been given Cabinet positions, but the Labour Party’s next generation already seems primed to take over themselves.
“I practically only had youths behind me throughout my leadership election campaign and I could see their talent, their abilities and the work they are capable of doing,” Abela noted yesterday.
This is not something Adrian Delia has the luxury of saying. As the PN leader plans a shadow Cabinet reshuffle, there seems to be zero anticipation that this exercise could breathe fresh air into the party. Instead, there’s a sense of resignation that it will see the same tired faces recycled in different roles.
To be fair on Delia, this isn’t a problem he created but one he inherited, a problem that has been allowed to fester to the point where even PL exponents have voiced genuine concern at the possibility of a one-party state.
The PN’s problems can be traced back to the 2008 election, when then Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi, cognisant of the fact that the electorate wanted a changing of the guard, ran a campaign focused on renewing the party and the government. Six new PN MPs were elected that day but, despite the Prime Minister’s promise, only one of them (Chris Said) was given a Cabinet role.
Meanwhile, Franco Debono, who was elected to Parliament ahead of the likes of former minister Louis Galea and Helen D’Amato, was left on the backbench throughout.
During that legislature, Debono proposed a raft of reforms to Malta’s constitutional and justice system, such as the right to legal assistance for people under arrest and laws regulating party financing, but was sidelined until the bitter end.
Contrast this with Labour’s policy of constantly pushing forward new and young faces, both under Joseph Muscat and, more tellingly, under Robert Abela. It seems like aeons ago now but the likes of Ian Borg, Chris Fearne, Edward Scicluna, Konrad Mizzi and Edward Zammit Lewis had no parliamentary experience before 2013. Abela has now taken it up a notch, with his Cabinet reshuffle managing to get people excited about the future after the recent political crisis.
“Robert Abela was a backbencher, he managed to become leader and is now giving a chance to his young and new backbenchers, as he should,” Debono said in a Facebook post which appeared to be indirectly aimed at people who had accused him of stirring unrst just because he wanted to become a minister.
Yet the PN hasn’t truly changed its stance since 2008; instead, it might actually be regressing. Under former leader Simon Busuttil, the PN only managed to elect a handful of new MPs to Parliament, two of whom have since resigned, and, despite Adrian Delia’s constant cries for the party to rejuvenate itself, it’s still very much the same old faces in charge.
His right-hand man Clyde Puli has been in Parliament since 2003, his president Carm Mifsud Bonnici has been there since 1998 and the man he entrusted with leading the internal reform process is none other than Louis Galea, a politician who lost his seat when the PN was pushing new faces in its campaign 12 years ago.
The Nationalist Party needs to wake up. Internal elections are coming up shortly, which will likely decide who will lead the party into the next general election in around two years’ time.
Mutters of PN activists show that they are viewing this election very much as a storm on the horizon… and so they should.
It is already clear that the strategies of old won’t be enough for the PN to provide an alternative Opposition to Abela’s Labour. The new Prime Minister seems to be prioritising good governance, political accountability and the environment, while maintaining a pro-market stance to the economy and speaking out against cheap labour.
As he proved in his leadership election, Abela will prove a tough adversary on the ground too, a charismatic man with Joseph Muscat’s communicative talent to speak to people like equals, rather than subjects.
What can the PN challenge this new Labour on? That is a question the party will have to come to grips with in the coming weeks, months and years, but it cannot be answered by anything but a new PN. As hard as it might be, this means sidelining the incumbents and ensuring they’re replaced by people with some passion and vision.
It’s not all doom and gloom for the PN. Times of Malta reported yesterday that Opposition MP Claudio Grech has proposed a detailed strategy to regenerate the PN into a party focused on discussing and testing out ideas, a badly-needed initiative that found the praise of none other than Franco Debono.
“I’ve always believed that people who have nothing to say don’t belong to politics and that politics is about substance, ideas and serious proposal and not about empty words, boasting and meaningless posing,” Debono said. “It’s about what you can give, not about what you can take!”
Meanwhile, the PN’s youth wing MŻPN today launched an outreach programme to attract new faces and ideas into the party structure, an initiative that was praised by Mark Anthony Sammut, a young and promising PN politician who has now ended up in the political wilderness after leading last year’s unsuccessful campaign to oust Adrian Delia.
Elsewhere, Malta has witnessed an explosion of political activism that doesn’t have its roots in political parties. There are certainly several Maltese people who want their voices to make a difference but if the PN wants to attract them to its fold, it must turn into a party that truly embraces new ideas and not one which repels critical voices.
Despite the damning circumstances facing the Labour government and a list of seemingly never-ending resignations, the party still seems more capable of self-renewal and change than the Nationalist Party and it will be no surprise if it manages to pull off another colossal victory at the next election.
Time is not on the PN’s side. If it doesn’t use the upcoming internal elections to its advantage, then the party, as well as anyone who understands the importance of a healthy Opposition, could regret it forever.