Friday, 16 January 2009

By George

16th January 2009

The Malta Independent - Friday Wisdom

I have never seen such a broad acceptance on any important nomination to high office as the one that has accompanied that of Dr George Abela as the next President of the Republic. People from the right, from the left and from the centre have broadly acclaimed Dr Abela’s nomination with satisfaction and quite often with enthusiasm.

This is mostly Abela’s own merit in conducting his political, professional and private life in an exemplary manner, putting principles before convenience. His hallmarks of objectivity, calmness and patience have been consistently employed in pursuing goals which he believed in, irrespective of obstacles by quarters that often had vested interest in the status quo and consequently in resisting change.

Dr Lawrence Gonzi’s initiative is a shrewd political move exhibiting confidence of someone well in control of the party and parliamentary group and who by the strength of his character is capable of overcoming any internal resistance in the nomination process. His decision is good for the nation and, to put it mildly, does not do the PN any harm either.

The nation benefits being unified through broad acceptance of the person who will occupy the highest post in the national hierarchy carrying substantial moral suasion authority but practically no executive powers. The PN benefits also in less obvious ways.

Having won the last general election with a wafer thin relative majority, the PN needs to appear making some concessions to the opposition in the appointment of persons to positions of national status. By picking a President from the opposition’s crop, the PN can claim having settled this electoral bill without in any way impairing their space for executive manoeuvring throughout the rest of the legislature. It also lifts from the opposition ranks a growing voice of influence, a person who was the delegates’ second choice as the party leader and a source of advice and support for the new Labour leader in his mission to overcome the considerable resistance for internal change to render the party electable again after a wasted decade.

Dr Muscat’s quick acceptance is symptomatic of a person growing well and fast in his leadership position. To succeed, Dr Muscat has to take decisions which disappoint those who helped him gain leadership at such a young age. I suspect some of the party seniors that sponsored his appointment did so in expectation that they can continue to preserve influence and in the process protect their own legacy.

Muscat’s over-riding influential pockets of internal objections to Abela’s nomination, shows the man has his vision firmly on the future and is confident enough to risk alienating those who put their own personal legacy ahead of the party’s best interests. Just imagine what poor image Labour would have made of itself if it even hesitated about its support for Presidency to one of its own, especially one who was the delegates’ second choice for party leadership as recently as last June.

Rather than fighting over past legacies, Muscat needs to focus his energies on re-inventing Malta’s political left. Like many of its European peers, Malta’s PL remains prisoner of its past, obsessed with anachronistic ideology and overly reliant on trade union support. Often PL has been obsessed with protecting personal legacies rather than extending opportunities to society’s outsiders. In so doing it has allowed the PN to occupy the middle ground and to brand themselves as fresh and fashionable. The PN has stolen the PL’s clothes and have been broadening their appeal consistently for three decades.

Muscat’s PL must provide solutions for tomorrow’s problems rather than waste energy defending past ideology. Chiefly it must make it its policy to protect people not simply their jobs. It must acknowledge that the most successful economies that also protect social harmony, are the Nordic models that permit employers to hire and fire employees relatively freely but only in the context of substantial state support to those laid off and private sector contribution to retrain employees they lay off.

Muscat’s PL has to show it can succeed by rendering our economy capable of winning in the globalisation challenge, that it rejects the uglier forms of nationalism and distinguish itself by being an enthusiastic champion of the European Union contributing to shape its vision for integrating further countries into the Union even if this means more internal flexibility and opt-outs to avoid consensus sclerosis.

Muscat’s PL has to convince that it has better credentials on the environment and that it can be more effective in making the public and the private sectors work together to make a greener environment economically viable.

Finally Muscat’s PL has to make efficiency the hallmark of whatever it does. The State does not have unlimited resources so it can only socially support those who really deserve and at a degree that truly makes a difference to the under-privileged, if the State uses its resources at a high level of efficiency. This applies in education, in health, in the civil administration as much as in security, law and order.

Denied of Abela’s internal support and advice, these objectives would become harder to achieve. The country’s gain is Labour’s loss. But Muscat’s performance so far gives confidence that he can overcome internal resistance and keep his eyes clearly set on the objectives that truly make a difference; on the objectives he must achieve to re-invent Malta’s political left; on the four E’s – Employability through education, Europe, Environment and Efficiency.

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