Friday, 30 May 2008

Dawn or Doom

30th May 2008

The Malta Independent – Friday Wisdom

The report authored by the special commission tasked to prepare a critical analysis of what led to Labour’s third successive election defeat makes painful reading.

It is mostly a collection of contributory factors for the defeat without much analysis to distinguish between cause and effect. Still it is bold and deserves credit for pulling very few punches.

The publication is in stark contrast with the way things were done following the defeat of 2003. In fact the ways things were done in 2003 probably represents the single most important contributor to the defeat of 2008, even if the 2008 report does not go as far as saying it so explicitly.

Following the defeat in the election of 12 April 2003 Labour quickly proceeded to hold the election for its leader on 15 May 2003. The special commission appointed to report on the 2003 election defeat had then not even started working on its task.

The quick leader’s election in 2003 was decided at a time when the incumbent had announced his intention not to re-contest. The general thinking was that once the leader was retiring, detailed analysis of the defeat could wait until the voting in of a new leader who would then decide upon the recommendations of the special commission. When Alfred Sant decided to change his position and announced on 1 May 2003 his intention to re-contest leadership, this logic of the calendar of events was nullified.

Because I complained loudly about the re-election of the incumbent leader before the analysis report had even started, I was officially disciplined by the party’s board of vigilance, following which I just resigned. This board of vigilance was supposed to guard against abuse of the power of incumbency rather sanction those forthright enough to complain against such abuse.

The special commission 2008 report states clearly “(lack of code of ethics) led to people being disciplined unnecessarily while others were allowed (with impunity) to impose their will on the party.”

Furthermore in confirmation of the validity of my criticism, which led to my being unfairly disciplined, the special commission 2008 report says “The defeat of 2003 and the confirmation of Alfred Sant as party leader created an ambience of antipathy towards the leader. In time this developed the organisational context as one full of suspicions and paranoia. Internal piques between rival cliques threw the party’s overall vision out of focus...”

The 2008 special commission report goes further in one of the few instances where it gives a word of advice to the incoming leader, beyond policy issues. It counsels that “The new leader... has to be tough with those who think that they own the party, or even worse, those who think that the party is indebted to them. The party has to cleanse itself from such infantile cliques before its professions of inclusiveness can be taken seriously.”

Hard words indeed! But it hurts to see the glorious Labour Party humiliated so much in public. Unfortunately this is the legacy being left by 16 years of Alfred Sant’s leadership. A legacy of catastrophic election losses, unsustainable policies leading to colossal U-turns that chip away credibility, internal financial ruin and cliques opposing each other rather than their political adversary.

Labour has developed a habit of doing the right thing at the wrong time. They should have published the 2003 report when the incumbent leader sought confirmation. Not only did they not do this, but they glaringly ignored most of the recommendations made in that report. Now that the leader has irrevocably resigned, the need to publish this detailed and damning 2008 report was much less evident. Only Michael Falzon’s contesting the leadership seems to justify its publication. The party’s interests would have been served much better by his not contesting leadership. The 2008 special commission report would have survived only for internal consumption, at least until the new leader decides whether or not the party’s best interest would be best served by publication. In the face of the fact that the outgoing leadership trio would have all resigned, Labour could have been spared this humiliation.

This could well be Labour’s darkest hour before a new dawn.

If the delegates use their minds and engage with the views of the general electorate (as re-confirmed by the findings of The Malta Independent on Sunday survey last Sunday) then George Abela should be their automatic choice.

Clearly he is the candidate most evidently free of connections with internal cliques and the one who carries the moral authority and the leadership skills needed to re-build the organisation into shape to offer a real challenge to Gonzi by 2013.

If instead the delegates continue to decide in total disengagement with the views of the general electorate, then they would be sowing as of now the seeds for the next defeat just as the seeds of the 2008 defeat were sowed in 2003.

Labour has a clear choice between dawn or doom.

Friday, 23 May 2008

Breaking Monopolies

23rd May 2008
The Malta Independent - Friday Wisdom

Why is it possible for Malta International Airport to increase the parking charges to car-hire firms by 2300 per cent? How is it that taxi cabs spend most of their day waiting for business rather than actually driving clients around , but yet thrive as evidenced by the premium charged for transfer of licences? Why do banks often give their clients take it or leave it terms for their service?

The answer to all these questions is that we have too many segments in our economy where there is no real and fair competition. MIA is the most glaring. It is a privatised monopoly against all conventional economic wisdom.

Taxi operators remain a closed shop who prefer high prices to high business volume. Banks are the closest thing to a local cartel where operators pretend to compete but in reality they merely go through the motions while two large players continue to dominate the market and use all tricks in the book to maintain the status quo.

The economy desperately needs to be liberated from the stranglehold of such monopolies in order to preserve and enhance competitiveness. Monopolies increase expenses, reduce efficiencies and cost the country dearly in missed opportunities.

Take the sharp increase in parking fees by the airport operator to local car-hire firms. Somehow such an explosion in the operators’ costs will translate in higher car-hire fees charged to tourists who already contribute well the MIA’s ordinary revenues. Clearly something is wrong when a price goes up by 2300 per cent. Either the previous price was substantially subsidised, or the increased price is an exaggeration resulting from monopolistic powers, or both.

This shows the need for prices to be allowed to reflect market forces by elimination of unnecessary subsidies as well as by the control of monopolies in order to get prices fixed by the interplay of efficient supply and economic demand. Monopolies and undue subsidies lead respectively to inefficient supply and uneconomic and wasteful demand.

What is equally worrying is that our trait for tolerance of monopolies is being ingrained in the political sector. Following the last election results we have a PN which seem to have monopolised the government and an MLP which seem to have monopolised the opposition. It is arguable whether PN have monopolised the seats of government because MLP chose to monopolise the seats of opposition or vice-versa. I maintain that the former is more likely.

Labour almost deliberately chose to hand over government to the PN in the last three elections. They did it in 1998 by going for early elections without exploring other less drastic solutions. They did it in 2003 by forcing the electorate to vote against it when it made Labour government and EU membership mutually exclusive. And it did it again in 2008 by trying to force on the electorate a Prime Minister devoid of credibility. In all three instances the electorate would have chosen Labour in government if Labour were ably led. If the PN are monopolising the seats of government it is with courtesy of Labour.

What is doubtful is whether Labour have got so used to being in opposition that they really have lost the urge of winning government. So far we have had conflicting signals. The way the delegates defended their right to elect the leader and denied ordinary members the right for direct participation shows diabolical persistence in error.

Having been responsible for choice of the leader who led the party to three successive defeats and knowing how critical the choice of the leader is for electoral success or failure, delegates should have had a tinge of humility about their ability to elect a prime minister rather than merely a party leader.

On the positive side the decision to publish the full report of analysis regarding the last election defeat and to make it widely available to the conference delegates in good time before the leadership election, shows that there is still inner will to get unglued from its pitiful situation since opting for early election nearly 10 years ago. This optimism assumes the report will be published in its original format, in full and without censorship or editing.

While five contestants are in the contest, research among the general electorate shows basically that it is a two-horse race between Abela and Muscat. Research conducted by Media Today among a sample of conference delegates shows the same two favourites but with inverted rankings. These surveys carry a wide margin of error and the Media Today survey has been faulted for being selective in the choice of the sample (in reality when the base is as small as 900 it is more realistic to conduct a full survey rather than a sample) but they are still fairly indicative.

They are indicative of a situation where while the general electorate prefer Abela over Muscat as the new Labour leader, the hard core Labour seem to prefer Muscat over Abela. Why this is so lends itself to many conspiracy theories of inner divisions and manipulation by those resisting internal change that prefer Muscat as the candidate with the minimalist approach to it.

Will the delegates engage with the views of the wider electorate or persist in doing it in their own way? The new leader will be elected by the delegates but his success or failure will be decided by the general electorate. So the delegates have to search really deep in their conscience and decide whether they continue electing a mere party leader or do it in full engagement with the wider electorate and elect a future prime minister.

This decision will be instrumental in deciding whether the monopolies of the respective parties in government and in opposition will persist beyond 2013.

The only emerging monopoly I really would not touch is Inter’s dominance of the Seria A scudetto.



Sunday, 18 May 2008

Proud Again to be Labour

18th May 2008
The Malta Independent

“Opposition leader Alfred Sant yesterday (12 May 2008) warned that democracy in Malta was facing a new threat, claiming that a clique which was not at the forefront of the political scene had the power to take decisions in their own interest.

“He warned that these people would try to take over the Labour Party and colonise it. But he believed in the internal strength of the MLP and that it would bear witness to its commitment to real democracy and would never play servant to just a few interests.”

I am still trying to decode this message. I hate it when politicians speak in riddles. Can’t they please speak in plain and simple language? Any threat to democracy is a matter of public interest, so the Leader of the Opposition has an obligation to warn about it in the clearest possible language and to name and shame without fear or favour.

But, try as I may, even forcing myself into the most generous and objective mode possible, I can’t avoid the conclusion that in reality the decoded message is:

The government is a puppet to commercial interests.

These same commercial interests could be working a plan to infiltrate Labour as it goes about electing a new leadership.

However, provided that Labour preserves its internal status quo, as it ably did at the extraordinary general conference of 9 May 2008, then one can rest assured that under the leadership favoured by those who defend the status quo, Labour will not be colonised by such hidden interests that already control the PN.

The accusation that government is a puppet to commercial interests is disrespectful of the general electorate who, in a democratic manner, has elected the same government three times in a row. This is not to say that certain safeguards are not needed to avoid risks of undue influence from business lobbies. Chief amongst these is a transparent mechanism for party funding. I have, in the past, expressed the view that this should exclude business donations altogether. Political parties are crucial for the execution of democracy and they should be funded by the state, with adequate controls to ensure that political parties remain responsible to the general electorate and not to narrow interest groups.

Claims that these commercial interests are about to infiltrate Labour is a very serious matter. But in reality, have they not already done so? The pitiful state of party financing, and the lack of political will to force the government to put party financing at the forefront of the political agenda, means that the party regularly goes cap in hand demanding “donations” from commercial organisations. It is not simply a case of “il ftit minghand il hafna” as I did in the 1992-96 period for the funding of the CNL project.

However, the most debatable is the third argument, that the status quo gives Labour the inner strength to avoid becoming a colony of “just a few interests”. Labour’s raison d’ĂȘtre is to be in government in order to implement its doctrine of social democracy. Eternal opposition, even if free from colonisation by narrow interests, will never permit Labour to reach its objectives. Organisations that consistently miss their objective inevitably finish on the history dump.

Furthermore, by staying eternally in opposition, Labour exposes itself much more to the risk of being dominated by narrow interest groups. Running a political party is not exactly cheap, and no-strings-attached small and widespread donations are stimulated by the achievement of success. Success brings in more no-strings-attached donations, as the Obama experience shows in the US. Serial losers will not attract the necessary volume of such donations and this makes reliance on the strings-attached variety more likely.

Strings-attached donations to serial losers are high-risk, high-return investments for the donors, who would expect a great return on their investment if the unlikely were to happen.

Defending the status quo is therefore more conducive to colonisation than the prospect of change. How one can argue conversely is not quite comprehensible, unless it is a desperate attempt to preserve one’s legacy from being branded by failure, stagnation, bankruptcy, rift and division.

This smells of patriarchal interference to impose a chosen successor: a clear attempt to protect Sant’s legacy and to protect those within Labour who are well served by it. Under Sant, Labour is already colonised by the PN. It has access to internal documentation and discussions even at the highest level. It influences the election of our leaders and executives through reverse psychology. It even decides who is to be alienated from Labour by flattering him and pitching him against the Leader. Tell me!

This is not a clash between Abela and Muscat, Falzon etc. They are all are valid contenders, if they are truly allowed to plough their field without interference. It is not a clash between those who want the delegates and those who want the members to elect the leader. It is not a clash between those who were alienated and those who swallowed their pride and stayed on.

It is a clash between those who have a legacy and private interests to preserve, even at the expense of the party continuing with its serial losses and sinking further into financial quandary, and those who are fed up of losing, fed up of seeing Labour following policies that betray its social doctrine, fed up of being considered as children of a lesser god and fed up of seeing the PN encroaching on Labour’s traditional territory as it becomes less fashionable with every new generation to be Labour.

Those resisting change have a position to defend: their earnings depend on the job they have with the Party (or its subsidiaries) or through the Party (eg full-time mayors). They want to change nothing and excel at delivering cheap oratory that warms the heart but blocks the mind. They do not even adopt the minimum of governance standards by declaring their personal interest in the preservation of the status quo.

On the contrary, those who are successful in their own private life, those who give without expecting anything in return, those who are loyal to the organisation and its principles rather than individuals, those who openly criticise because they can no longer take seeing the party suffering one humiliation after another – those are in favour of change. They want positive change, where there is space for everyone, even for those who are resisting it.

They want change that delivers success and makes Labour fashionable again with new and floating voters and with those nationalists who also believe it is time for a serious alternation of power. They want change that makes us proud again to be Labour.

Friday, 16 May 2008

Ask the Client 2

16th May 2008
The Malta Independent - Friday Wisdom
On the 11th April 2008 I published in this column the result of a scientific survey conducted in late March 2008 amongst the general electorate for its preferences about a new MLP leader. I took this initiative with one purpose. I wished to engage the delegates who would be voting for electing the new leader with the views of the general electorate.

After all, the new leader will stand or fall by whether Labour wins or loses the next election. Losing again with a narrower margin is almost impossible so the only thing which means success for the new leader would be beating the PN and gaining government by latest 2013.

The delegates know that the committed Labour voters on their own are not enough to win elections. Labour has been getting a bit more or a bit less of 48% since 1981, with the exception of 1996. So a general election can only be won if they grow their 48% base to 50% plus which means that they have to gain the majority of floating and new voters.

Simple logic therefore suggests that in choosing their leader the delegates must not ignore the view of the floating voters and for this purpose I refreshed the March 2008 survey by another one conducted between the 28th April and the 6th of May. This is a telephone based survey among a random sample of 400 respondents. The respondents are randomly chosen to provide as representative as possible sample of the general electorate. Respondents are spread almost equally among the 13 electoral districts and are chosen for age groups structures that are typical of the general electorate. It carries a margin of error of about 5%.

The survey is not adjusted for obvious biases in the gender of respondents where 65% were females. It is also not adjusted for the fact that pro-Labour voters are over-represented in the sample in that 37% declare themselves as traditional Labour voters against 24% who declare themselves as traditional PN voters. 14% declare themselves as floating voters, 3% declare themselves as voters for none of the big two parties whereas the remaining 22% refuse to disclose their political preferences.

Obviously this bias affects the overall analysis but not necessarily the segment analysis. My interpretation is that hard core PN voters refuse to participate in the survey so the participants who profess themselves as traditional PN voters are less than hard core and could potentially become floating voters as the long tenure of the PN in government accumulates fatigue. On the other hand the profile of those who refuse to disclose their political preferences are people without deep rooted political conviction but generally leaning to Labour and fearing to formally identify their political orientation for fear of perceived recrimination.

Here are the summary results of the survey:

George Abela
Evarist Bartolo
M L Coleiro Preca
Michael Falzon
Joseph Muscat
Mar 08 May 08
Mar 08 May 08
Mar 08 May 08
Mar 08 May 08
Mar 08 May 08
45% 44%
3% 9%
3% 9%
13% 9%
22% 24%
Refuse to say
23% 34%
8% 8%
6% 7%
17% 15%
43% 29%
Traditional Labour
11% 26%
4% 4%
2% 9%
9% 13%
64% 41%
Traditional PN
41% 54%
6% 6%
2% 15%
24% 21%
18% 12%
24% 37%
5% 6%
3% 10%
14% 15%
45% 29%

NB: Totals may not add up to 100% due to preferences given in small quantities to candidates who are not contesting as survey agents were not allowed to suggest names to interviewees.

The following conclusions are obvious. Abela and Muscat remain the two top contestants overall and in three out of the four segments. But overall Abela has now overtaken Muscat in the lead.

Floaters firmly continue to put Abela as their main preference but Bartolo and Coleiro added substantially whilst Muscat added moderately. Falzon reduced his share possibly through the wearing off of his appreciated concession gesture at Ta Qali.

A major revolution has occurred in the sector of those who refuse to disclose their political preferences. Muscat has seen a sharp drop in his share of this segment which was largely captured by Abela who is now in the lead of this important segment.

Among traditional labour voters Abela more than doubled his share since the previous survey whilst Muscat dropped more than a third of his former preference share. This notwithstanding Muscat remains well in command of this sector but the gap is narrowing rapidly.

Coleiro who in the March 2008 survey was considered as a late arrival has gained a lot of share in most sectors except in those who decline to state their preferences. She has now well overtaken Bartolo and is closing in on third placed Falzon.

It has to be repeated that this is a scientific survey of the whole electorate and that this does not represent the voting preferences of the voting delegates although I suggest that the latter should be influenced by it. Labour delegates more than anything else ought to want a long-awaited Labour victory at next elections, and if they understand that it is the narrow but crucial floating sector segment that decides who wins or loses elections, than they should have a clear choice.

Personally I am conducting these surveys to ensure that my endorsement goes to the candidate who gives the best prospect for a Labour victory rather than any other less important criterion like personal friendships, tastes or expectations. I had promised two of the other contestants that I would gladly switch my endorsement in their favour if these surveys were to show they command the highest favour among floating voters. This has not happened. The floating voter is the most important client for a political party. Asking the client to note their wishes is the minimum Labour should do. Disregarding them can only serve to extend its almost-there-but-not-quite-there syndrome.

Charts and further numeracy of the survey will be posted on my website.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Smugness in their DNA

8th May 2008
The Malta Independent - Friday Wisdom

Today marks the 21st anniversary since the PN gained government in 1987 following 16 years of Labour administration. They have been in power ever since, bar a short 22- month interlude, and, all things being equal, this unusual and unhealthy long tenure of power will grow to 26 years by the time the electorate is consulted again in 2013.

In delivering the result of the 2008 suffrage, the electorate gave Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi a clear message. He was elected Prime Minister without an overall majority and with a mere half-quota advantage over the opposition with a reason. The electorate wanted the PN in government not to get too comfortable with their long tenure and to treat the opposition with respect. They wanted the PN to remember that the majority of those who voted were not in favour of Gonzi becoming Prime Minister and that the renewed mandate, narrow as it may be, is only thanks to the unpopularity of Alfred Sant who forced the electorate again to vote Labour out of government rather than vote the PN back in government.

I am therefore surprised that less than two months after the election, Prime Minister Gonzi and his government seem to have forgotten the welcome sign of humility they showed in the first days and are treating the opposition with the conceit typical of governments beyond their second consecutive term.

Take the speech he delivered in a party conference organised to honour 1 May Worker’s Day celebration. The suggestion to start organising a bi-party conference to discuss the evolution of workers’ rights in a globalised world seems sensible enough and should be seriously considered by Labour. But passing disparaging remarks about Labour’s tradition of organising a May Day afternoon parade in Valletta was arrogant and conceited.

Firstly there is no reason why the proposed bi-party conference and the traditional May Day parade should be mutually exclusive. In fact they complement each other very well. In the proposed conference, Labour would be searching for a vision of its rightful place in a world which is becoming a global village, rendering labour unions and national governments less relevant than they used to be.

The May Day parade on the other hand, is a demonstration of pride for past achievements. Labour remembers the time, less than a zillion years ago, when voting was the privilege of the land-owning elite class, when women had no right to vote, when workers were not protected by any legislation regarding conditions of work and minimum wages and when social security was notable by its absence.

Even though experiencing two-and-half decades out of government, Labour has good reason to celebrate every first of May. At the very least, they celebrate the fact that they forced the PN, which was traditionally a party of the blue blood, to become a party of the mainstream and constrained to adopt left-of-centre policies in order to gain and retain government. Without such acute conversion and adoption of social democratic doctrine, the PN would not have endured in government as much as they did. Workers have ample reasons to celebrate the victory of their policies over those of traditional unbridled capitalism so dear to PN till 30 years ago.

Whatever the Prime Minister thinks, Labour should continue to celebrate the traditional May Day parade even if we all become millionaires. We should never forget where we came from, nor forget to pay homage to those that suffered on the road to getting here.

Equally smug is the government decision to appoint Louis Galea as Speaker of the House ad interim, but permanently if Labour don’t accept the two conditions the government made for giving Labour the facility to choose the Speaker.

The condition for such a facility to be linked to a pairing agreement is understandable. I am confident that with goodwill from both sides, a package could be put together which includes both the pairing agreement and Labour’s right to choose the Speaker of the House. What is offensive is the government’s insistence that Labour’s choice must be restricted among the crop of its MPs. If Labour were to agree to this condition, they would effectively be doubling the government’s majority in the House and in a sense, would be acting spiteful towards the electorate that wanted to give the PN the slimmest of majorities in the House.

But the significance of this condition for the Speaker to be chosen from among Labour MPs goes much further than that once Louis Galea, no longer an MP, has now been chosen by the government. What the Prime Minister is basically telling Labour is that he still considers Labourites as children of a lesser god and that in this country there are rules for the PN and different rules for Labour. So it is acceptable for the government to appoint a Speaker of its choice from outside the House but it is not acceptable for Labour to do the same if they are offered the right to select the Speaker.

This sets a very poor backdrop for negotiating a pairing arrangement once the new Labour leader is elected. Without such pairing arrangement, government’s parliamentary life will get so complicated that it could very well be forced to reduce the importance of parliamentary debates in the promulgation of legislation.

This does not augur well at all for democracy.

Add to this the haughtiness in keeping the electorate in the dark completely on the JPO affair and you have all the hallmarks of conceit and arrogance even before the legislature actually starts tomorrow.

And with the JPO affair I don’t mean the criminal or police investigations. I mean the clear breach of governance in having a political candidate in the government’s ranks saying bare-faced untruths about what he knew or did not know about this matter during the election campaign.

The thing I expect most from the next Labour leader is to ensure that Labourites are no longer treated as children of a lesser god.

It is happening all too frequently these days that I meet people who in all honesty, without the slightest intention to offend, tell me how they marvel that a person of my sort... (flattering adjective) could be a Labourite.

There is an ingrained perception among the PN that you have to be stupid to be Labourite.

Treating Labourites as an inferior tribe has unfortunately infiltrated the PN’s DNA and this can only be corrected by making Labour electable again.


Sunday, 4 May 2008

The Role of ex-Leaders

4th May 2008
The Malta Independent on Sunday

As the contest to elect Labour’s new leader enters its final month, the role being played by ex-leaders in the process is giving rise for concern.

To appreciate the situation one has to be familiar with the fierce sense of loyalty to the leader that exists in political organisations where he is considered as second only to God but equally infallible. Anybody who dares to disagree, externally especially but not only, is regarded as a renegade and disloyal, irrespective of the validity or robustness of the dissenter’s views which are often validated by the passage of time.

With Labour, in particular, there is the curse of the ex-leaders. Rather than make space for their successors, they somehow continue to shadow the new leader often putting obstacles in his way. Boffa left to form his own party. Mintoff aggressively kept interfering in the choice of his successors and finally voted against the only Labour government elected after he stepped down from the leadership. Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici desperately keeps trying to impose on the MLP his narrow view of the outside world. He even thought it fit to nominate his successor, who refused the appointment but always projected a shadow of moral authority on the next leader for ceding the throne. Sant did not leave after his strong anti-EU membership policies were rejected by the electorate and stayed on as leader, thrusting on the party lack of credibility for its adopted post-EU membership policies that led to its third successive electoral defeat in 2008.

Within the PN, the role of ex-leaders in the choice of their successors seems much more muted. Certainly Borg Olivier played no part in Fenech Adami’s election to leadership in 1977, and Fenech Adami’s role in the election of Gonzi was, on the surface at least, minor.

It is difficult to understand the popularity of the five Labour contestants within the narrow segment of the eight hundred or so delegates of the general conference, but on the wider national platform the race seems to have come down to two front runners who are being supported by ex-leaders. Joseph Muscat (JM) has the open endorsement of George Vella and the silent one of Alfred Sant who, by putting his weight against George Abela (GA), automatically favours JM. Dom Mintoff has officially endorsed GA.

Considering that Vella and Sant still walk the corridors at Hamrun and still command the reverential respect of the “party machinery”, their endorsement carries much more weight than that of Mintoff who is still a persona non grata at Hamrun. In fact, while Vella’s (and by implication Sant’s) endorsement of JM has been sought and cherished by the candidate it is doubtful whether GA has actively sought Mintoff’s endorsement and whether this will be a help or a hindrance for GA’s bid. Certainly JM stands to benefit much more than GA from the endorsements of these ex-leaders.

Personally, I feel the role of ex-leaders in the leadership should be zero, especially when the change of leadership is instigated by lack of success rather than too much of it. Whether intended or not, their involvement influences, positively or negatively, the leadership race and could lead to an undesirable situation where the new leader will have moral obligations to the elders that endorsed him rather than to the grass roots that elected him.

In Mintoff’s case this risk is minimal if at all. At 91 Mintoff has no strings to pull and in any case GA’s personality at age 60 can withstand any such attempts, however unlikely they may be. In fact, GA declared as much emphatically in Mintoff’s presence.

I have always maintained that there are two versions of Mintoff, the one before 1979 and the one after it (refer to my article ‘Mintoff vs. Mintoff’ published on 9 July 2000 in Il-KULLHADD – available through the search facility on my personal website). It is human nature to be kind in old age and remain thankful for the great things he did before 1979 and forgiving for the shocking things he did after. Whether in the remaining last years of his life or after his death, Mintoff will be rehabilitated by Labour. So the most Mintoff can gain from endorsing a future leader is rehabilitation in his lifetime, which is small fry for Labour but understandably a big thing for Mintoff.

However, in Sant’s and Vella’s case there is much more to gain or to lose from their endorsement of JM and obstruction of GA. Can you imagine the situation if GA becomes the new Labour leader and wins the next election? How would this impinge on the legacy of Sant and Vella? It would seem that during their tenure Labour only won the 1996 election when GA was in the leadership trio. They lost the next three elections on their own when Sant was leader in all three and Vella was deputy in two and a major spokesman in the third. If GA wins the 2013 election as leader, the legacy of Sant and Vella will be miniaturized. If GA loses the next election their legacy survives but it is too big a risk to pin their political legacy on the failure of a successor.

If JM is elected Sant and Vella stand to win, whether JM wins or loses. If JM wins they share the glory for having anointed him. If JM loses, their legacy of losses is shared by their successor.

It has always been quite unorthodox that after Vella declined the leadership offered to him on a silver platter by Mifsud Bonnici in 1992 he accepted the position of senior Deputy Leader. In so doing he kept Sant’s leadership under the shadow of Vella’s moral authority for having ceded him the throne. It was difficult for Sant to go against Vella’s views and this was particularly evident and damaging in the evolution of Labour’s policy against EU membership, which morphed from partnership better than membership to one defining membership as a sure road to hell (Allaharesqatt!).

It is highly undesirable that yet again the new Labour leader would appear morally indebted for his post to ex-leaders who need to protect their place in history. If it were up to me ex-leaders would be just that. They have already written their place in history and nothing can change that. They should let the party move forward under new leadership that is not obliged to anyone or anything except Labour’s own principles.

Friday, 2 May 2008

The Boardroom Solution

2nd May 2008

The Malta Independent - Friday Wisdom

Last Sunday, the newspaper Illum published a strictly “for your eyes only memo” dated 10 July 1998 I had sent to then Prime Minister Alfred Sant. Given that this was a “from me to you” document the source of its leakage as well as that of the accompanying minutes of an internal MLP executive meeting is very narrow indeed. Does this explain why under Sant’s leadership leakages of internal information were the order of the day?

Coming so soon after my article ‘Joking apart’ of last week, where I criticised Sant of double speak and undue interference in the selection process for his successor, I can only conclude that when some people cannot win by arguments they try other means.

The whole thrust of my advice to Prime Minister Sant at the time was the old Roman dictum “if you want peace you have to be prepared for war”. My advice was that as survival of the then Labour government depended on Mr Mintoff’s resignation, this was more likely to be procured if the general conference gives a resounding mandate for early elections. I saw better likelihood of Mintoff consenting to a reasonable compromise once such general conference backing would have been secured.

I was also depressed at the time that George Abela did not stay to follow this strategy and I had taken badly his sudden departure from the leadership team after six years of very fruitful collaboration. Ten years and three successive election defeats later, and having tasted firsthand how Sant quashes all criticism, I am entitled to revise my 1998 judgement.

It is the sign of consistency to change one’s mind in the face of changing circumstances and I have no hesitation therefore in endorsing George Abela’s bid for leadership as in him I see the person most likely to build a majority around Labour to achieve success come next elections. In doing so I am being consistent in putting Labour’s interest foremost.

In fact it is just as well to reveal the whole advice I was giving to the Prime Minister during those turbulent days of 1997/1998. Exposing only a small part distorts the picture. While suggesting to do whatever it takes to get a resounding backing for early elections from the general conference, I was simultaneously advising to use such mandate strictly as a lever with which to negotiate Mintoff’s resignation. It is this last bit which was conveniently left out of the documents leaked.

In 1998 not enough effort was made to explore other options to preserve the mandate and render it effective without the need to call fresh pre-mature general elections. Somebody seemed to have ants in his pants to pull the early election trigger without exploring other options, as someone could not take the heat in the political kitchen. In fact in the private memo that was leaked I had stated as follows:

“As a last resort (you should) consider the boardroom solution I had proposed. It is a sure winner and will checkmate all your opponents. I reproduce graphically on attachment”.

The attachment was conveniently not leaked to the newspaper. So I have to explain what the boardroom solution was.

It started in a memo dated 25 November 1997, a copy of this memo can be found on the home page of my website. From the first hints that Mintoff’s vote in parliament could not be taken for granted I started painting alternatives to Prime Minister Sant, expounding the various strategies he could choose from. But I made it clear that the option to go for early elections was “a big gamble” and that it was not fair “that we have to re-play a game we have already won only after one year and at a point when we administered the bitter medicine”.

The last resort solution I proposed was not early elections. Certainly it was not publicly calling Mintoff a traitor, which basically put paid to all chances of calm negotiations. It was going to the opposition benches while keeping intact the election victory mandate of 1996. It was offering the PN to form a government while neutralising for them Mintoff’s parliamentary vote. This was meant to remove Mintoff’s strength in parliament and without such strength it was more likely that Mintoff would accept an honourable compromise for his resignation. The moment that Mintoff would have agreed to resign from parliament, Labour would immediately have gone back in government on the strength of the 1996 mandate.

Some would argue that the PN would not have agreed to form such a government. Who knows? If we tried we would have known and in the process we would have sent a further message to Mintoff that it was in his interest to negotiate an honourable resignation. Even if in the worst circumstances this so called “boardroom solution” proved ineffective at least one could say that we would have tried all that was conceivable before rushing to the drastic and irreversible solution of early elections.

When I wrote what I wrote on 10 July 1998 I was more than convinced that Sant would not go for early elections and that he would use the general conference mandate as leverage to negotiate Mintoff’s resignation. I was wrong. With hindsight I think Abela knew that Sant, rather than use it to negotiate with, was bent on executing it. Surely the electorate has never again trusted Sant to occupy the top post even though they preferred Labour in each and every election where Sant becoming again prime minister was not in the equation.

A revolver is often more effective when brandished in its holster rather than when actually fired killing the opponent whom you were trying to persuade over to your point of view. It is even much less effective if you use it to blow a hole in your brain as Sant did in that awful summer of 1998. Clearly Abela knew Sant better than I did in 1998 and his judgement was better than mine. It is never too late to learn as I did through first hand experience during the course of the last 10 years.