The Nationalist Party has started a recruitment drive for young people to sign up for a life in politics. It’s going to be a tough sell. And it really shouldn’t be.
I don’t mean to suggest with what I’m about to say that it would not be desirable for us voters to have multiple political parties to choose from. Some very well-meaning people offered their services to the electorate as candidates running outside the PL-PN duopoly. Say what you will about a PD or AD candidate, they’re definitely not in it for themselves.
Some of them have quite literally given their lives to the service of others. People like Arnold Cassola and Carmel Caccopardo have been on the scene all their lives without growing jaded about an electorate that comprehensively rejected them one election after the other even as many agreed with their views. People like Godfrey and Marlene Farrugia tasted the glory and influence that being part of mainstream parties could give them and yet chose a path that they knew would quite likely be a dead end.
Other well-meaning people could set up a new party or more but in the present reality, until someone changes it, a political path in Malta crawls only through two eligible doors: the PL and the PN.
For people born after 1985 it was natural to hope that somewhere there was something better than the PN. They didn’t have anything to compare the PN to and for someone born in 1985 the killing of Raymond Caruana is about as relevant to their political choices as the killing of Rosa Luxemburg.
Alfred Sant could not win after 1996 because he was his own and his party’s worst enemy. But after him almost anyone could sway wide-eyed young people to vote for the party they never properly experienced in government. Joseph Muscat was not even 40 in 2013 and that was already an advantage for young voters contrasting him with Lawrence Gonzi. The generation gap meant the Nationalists were further than Labour from young voters on social “morality” issues. And of course, the PN in government made wrong calls as even the best government would and Joseph Muscat and Labour articulated people’s displeasure with those wrong calls.
By 2013 the PL had become what the PN had been for a quarter of a century before, the natural party of government. And as both parties learnt as the PN won one majority after another from 1981 onwards the status of a ‘natural party of government’ is hard to unseat. It is a form of cemented incumbency, a self-fulfilling prophecy that the winners win and the losers lose.
Since 2013, and particularly since 2016, and even more obviously since November 2019, the Labour Party has worked hard on losing its aura as a natural party of government.
The image of infallibility that Joseph Muscat successfully projected right up to last summer has vanished. The illusion of uncompromised cohesion in the ranks of the Labour Party is all but gone. And the widespread understanding that instead of governing the country our leaders were busy using their political power to accumulate personal wealth and plotted murder to protect lucre meant Labour damaged its relationship with young voters.
So why is the PN not reaping benefit from any of this?
Because the Labour Party is still subsisting on the afterglow from the time when it was, as they called it using rather uncool language, ‘cool to be Labour’. After the EU question was settled in 2003, public spirited young women and men looked to the Labour Party as the vehicle closer to their attitudes; the party they could be more comfortable carving a political career in. The Labour Party cultivated this. Jobs at Super 1 were upgraded to sinecures on the public purse. But not all Labour young Turks were in it for the money.
The more liberal party, the party lead by the younger leader, the party that had a better chance of taking and keeping government given that the other party had annoyed enough people in 25 years to have practically no chance of re-election in 2013 was an obvious choice for potential candidates.
I don’t want to play down the basic reality that people who contest with a political party come from the background and a long-standing personal relationship with the party of their choice rooted far deeper in their past than the day they decided to contest an election. Nationalists run with the PN. Labourites run with the PL. There aren’t many people who are still ambivalent about which party to militate in after they’ve decided to start a life in politics.
But the scenario I describe meant that from about 2008 onwards the political state of play was such that people with an inclination or temptation to take up a political career were far more likely to act on their vocation if they came from a Labour background than if they came from the PN.
This is still the case. Through this last decade Labour has cultivated a generation prepared to take over from Joseph Muscat’s own cohort that itself had taken over the party from Alfred Sant, Marie Louise Coleiro Preca, Leo Brincat and Joe Debono Grech. When Joseph Muscat and his star candidates Konrad Mizzi and Chris Cardona and Justyne Caruana (and some others still to follow like Owen Bonnici and Edward Scicluna) needed to prematurely make way, there was an entire reserve team waiting in the wings.
The PN is not just missing a reserve team. It doesn’t have the numbers to take to the field. It sits on a decade-wide generation gap and one of the reasons Adrian Delia, Robert Arrigo, David Agius and Clyde Puli can afford not to let go of their positions is because there just isn’t a younger generation that is expressing impatience with them like Louis Galea did when he had had enough of Ġorġ Borg Olivier.
Consider how Robert Abela’s first week in government has already shifted the discourse in a way that puts the PN at a disadvantage. The Labour Party right now should be on its knees. Ministers are openly briefing journalists about internal divisions. Ministers were caught unawares dissing their colleague. A minister appointed Wednesday had to resign in disgrace by Sunday. In this sort of environment, the new prime minister should be crying in the corner. This should be the worst way of starting a term as prime minister.
And yet there he was this morning being praised by people who voted PN all their lives just because he wiped up some of all the shit his own party has strewn in our kitchen. There he was this morning speaking in praise of himself contrasting himself with Adrian Delia.
And this, indeed, is the rub. Adrian Delia is a dead man walking. All Robert Abela needs to do to look like a better prospect is be ‘normal’ and act on the basis of common sense. He’ll be a million points better than Joseph Muscat and enough points better than Adrian Delia to stay safe.
Why is that? Because Robert Abela has enough unfamiliar faces in his cabinet to almost look like he’s won a general election and replaced Joseph Muscat with a new political party altogether. This is of course a front. It is important that this front is exposed. I don’t need to go into detail here about the fact that Robert Abela supported and ‘advised’ Joseph Muscat throughout his worst months and days of government. This is not what this post is about.
This post is trying to understand why Robert Abela rightly thinks he can get away this.
The problem is not just Adrian Delia but it starts with him. While he’s heading the party wide eyed young people who could be the fresh crop of politicians offered by the PN as an alternative to Labour will continue to stay away from the PN. Adrian Delia does not inspire hope in a politics that adequately contrasts with what has been disgusting us for the last few years. While people see Robert Abela as fresh rain in a parched desert, Adrian Delia is in relative terms an even drier prospect than he was when he was confronting the disgraced and corrupt Joseph Muscat.
But it’s not just Adrian Delia. It’s not even just the fact that he stuck by Kristy Debono and Herman Schiavone when they were caught lying about soliciting “support” from Yorgen Fenech known then to be the owner of 17 Black. It is that but it is not just that.
It’s also Robert Arrigo and David Agius: well meaning, loyal to party, and by now without any personal ambitions to speak of, paralysed as they now are by a deep-seated lethargy that punishes them for flying so close to the knowledge that the highest point in their political careers is behind them.
Deputy leaders of an opposition party at a time when the government they oppose is in the gravest political catastrophe in history should be transparently power-hungry, foaming at the bit, sweating righteous indignation and projecting the heat and light of frustrated energy that can only find release in government.
They should be inspiring the next generation of future ministers chasing every argument, securing every possible political win at the expense of the government party. They should be winning every day. And yet they’re nowhere to be seen or heard.
It’s not just Adrian Delia or his deputies. It’s also Clyde Puli whose grasp on reality has now become comical. He’s not alone in refusing to accept that this is his last job in politics unless he wants to become his party’s undertaker. The fact that people like Kristy Debono, Herman Schiavone, Stephen Spiteri, Edwin Vassallo, Mario Galea, Toni Bezzina, Robert Cutajar and Maria Deguara can imagine there is a universe somewhere which has a possible future where they can ever be government ministers should explain why their replacements stay away.
The PN cannot make up for the fact that for ten years it alienated an entire generation from politics.
Its leaders, however, if they are still concerned not merely with their party’s survival but with the moral obligation to ensure that the country has an option which is better than the corrupt amoral prospect of several more decades of a PL hegemony, need to create the circumstances that will make the PN a potential government party again. They need to skip a generation and start working on the next.
Such a change will ideally have the ideas and the energy of the generation that will implement it. But young people are not likely to look forward to the prospect of entering the PN to fight a war with the incumbents to prize the party from their shrivelled grasp as they squat on the PN’s heritage. Young people must wonder why they need to go through the effort of starting afresh within the PN when a new party could be set up without having to clear out the clutter and debt that has accumulated over time in Herbert Ganado Street.
The fact of the matter is, unlucky as the Herman Schiavones and the Kristy Debonos and the Stephen Spiteris – and the Clyde Pulis and the Adrian Delias – of the PN might feel because they came of age when the PN had no plausible prospect of election to government, the responsibility to regenerate the party remains theirs.
And it is a responsibility that comes without reward. You can see why Adrian Delia was never forced out by the PN group. Too many of them thought a rebellion would cost them their seat at the next general election. What do they need with that seat, even if we were to allow for their rather aimless hope that the shrinking size of the PN vote would not hand their seat over to Labour? They hope to be ministers and they seem to be the only ones alive that think that’s anywhere near the realm of possibility.
The PN administration in the last year lost David Stellini and Mark Anthony Sammut and retained Robert Arrigo, David Agius, Clyde Puli and Adrian Delia. The average age of the leadership went further away from the average age of those voters who are as yet uncommitted to either party and who could now, angry and disillusioned as they are with the Labour Party, be looking elsewhere for inspiration and leadership.
The PN might wish to catch younger politicians and younger voters. But zombies struggle on the dating scene.