The ability of Joseph Muscat to determine and manipulate the national agenda has been proven less by his confirmation at the polls and more by how he has again managed to dip the PN’s tail in honey and watched the party spin.
The republic’s opposition is another constitutional institution designed to keep the government in check, which Joseph Muscat has undermined to the point of ineffectiveness.
The motivation has not changed.
The motivation of the prime minister is to clear out any obstacles in his way, allowing him a clear field in which to bustle in and do his thing.
With state institutions he used his fire and hire powers to threaten or to act, to intimidate or to execute. There is now in this country no police that would dare act on maladministration or corruption. There is no justice department to prosecute crime. There are no money-laundering investigators to clamp down on abuse.
Where he has no fire power, the Prime Minister handicapped the institutions by stripping them of any means of taking action. As Magistrates continue to be busy investigating greed and criminality in his government, he has denied them the autonomous cooperation of the police and therefore any executive arm to act on the judiciary’s findings.
With the press he fought a guerrilla war, gunning down the credibility of the independent press by attributing to it partisan motivations and tying it to the sinking anvil at his rivals’ feet. In order to survive, the independent media has to cut loose on any investigation of corruption out of a combination of fear of government retribution and a public pandemic of boredom.
On the political front he neutralised the government backbench by recruiting it to government proper to ensure there is no internal political scrutiny of the government’s actions.
The last bulwark standing in his way was the PN that up to a month ago has had a long list of failings we all have relished in pointing out like the true masters of hindsight we all are but had been entirely successful at the real, core constitutional reason for the opposition’s being: opposing government.
The PN brought corruption to the national agenda. It did all that is expected of it: insisted allegations are not covered up but acted upon, demanded transparency and clean public administration, pinned its electoral effort on the core value of honesty. It took control of the national discourse away from Muscat and drove home points the prime minister would rather we all ignored.
It lost the election, for reasons I’ve been into. And as a result of losing the election, it lost its leadership and consequently its ability to coherently force any form of contribution to the prevailing political discourse.
Muscat, the Ringmaster, has now whipped this tiger into jumping through hoops at its bidding. He brought it to this point by smartly throwing his wooden clogs in the creaky workings of the PN in the days after the election.
One may say that it was the PN’s choice to rush into a leadership change: that no attempt should have been made to plant a tree when so much soil had been washed away; that there were urgent matters to attend to structurally and even ideologically in the party before we rushed to change a leader. There may be merit to that point of view. It is hard to tell without the supreme benefit of hindsight.
But what can be sure is that if the PN leadership election was not happening now, neither would the marriage equality debate be happening now. Muscat had that one up his sleeve for just such a time.
The catholic caucus of the PN is comparable with the anti-EU Tories, or the tea party of the Republicans. Comparable, not in the sense that they’re a bunch of extremist loons but that on the whole they are a coherent component of their party and their views are part of the same cloth except that they’re touchy on their pet hates. Their rivals – British Labour, say, or the US Democrats — know just what buttons to push to redirect the pressure of their opponents away from the line across the political aisle and instead have them exhaust each other in internal battles.
But there is an aggravation in this current debate that no one knows how to control. This internal PN debate is not one of many fascinating ideological discussions in smoke filled rooms, where people of different views have it out and proceed to build a consensus to face the country with. That would be par for the course for the PN.
This time this debate is happening in a social media world where spectacularly obtuse inanities are being said in 10-word statements on Facebook by self-appointed, almost always anonymous, experts that seem to have no interest in bridging divides and seeking consensus. People speak like oracles, with seemingly all-knowing authority but also without a shred of compassion for individual situations or interest in alternative points of view.
This is not what any of the caucuses and cadres within the parliamentary group or the party leadership actually want to see happen. But their inability, in the eyes of the public, to coordinate an outcome for their internal debate seems to be an invitation for the autocephalous armies on Facebook to dig trenches and haul grenades.
And to mix metaphors, Muscat the Ringmaster, cracks his whip in the background and makes us all jump through his hoops.
If we go on like this until we have a new leader, the soil will have truly washed away.
I don’t want to be self-referential but I want to bring up the most significant consequence, as I see it, of this present debate if the leadership election is conflated with some titanic battle for the soul of the party on ideological grounds. If such conflation occurs losers will not only feel the temporary sting of disappointment that their favourite candidate was not chosen. They will feel they have lost the means to influence the way the party will think about certain things in the future.
Disappointed fans of a leadership candidate may fume for a week but in no time they’ll be cheering on the anointed one. Disappointed supporters of an ideological stream long-part of the complex make-up of the PN who now feel they have been excluded from its future, may very well feel they have no choice but to leave.
It is incumbent, in my view, on the outgoing leadership, on the new leadership candidates and their teams, on the retired party elders like Louis Galea, Tonio Borg, Austin Gatt, Lawrence Gonzi and others, to come together and plot a steady course for the next weeks and months.
If we leave ourselves hostages to the Ringmaster’s whip, we’ll be jumping through his hoops for years to come.