Sunday, 30 December 2012

The lull before the storm

This articles was published in The Malta Independent on Sunday -  30 12 2012

The political armistice for the festive season is proving as fake as I thought it would be.   At Christmas parties and family re-unions, after the pleasantry talk about the out of season fine spring weather, the discussion inevitably falls on the coming elections.

I still can’t fathom why Prime Minister Gonzi chose March 9th as the election date when it could easily have been February 9th and could have shortened the misery of suffocating indecision by a whole month.   Since 1992 we had election campaigns of 33 days.    This time there was all the more reason why the national interest demanded the shortest possible election campaign after having wasted four weeks in this fake lull.   The country is without a budget and with a caretaker government.   Furthermore crucial EU summit discussions about budgetary allocation for the 2014 – 2020 cycle will accentuate in the first quarter probably in March so there was every sense to get the election over and done with,  in the shortest time possible.
The Italians have an approved Budget for 2013 and Monti has resigned and is carrying on simply as care-taker Prime Minister.  The Italian parliament was dissolved just before Christmas and elections will be held on 24th and 25th February.   In Malta without an approved Budget and without  the Prime Minister’s resignation even though he has been defeated in a crucial money bill in parliament, we will vote two whole weeks after the Italians when the national interest would have demanded that we vote at least 2 weeks before them.   Why we are waiting for 7th January to dissolve parliament and why we have then to endure 61 days of hard and vicious electoral campaigning beggars any decent explanation.  
The Prime Minister could only offer a half baked excuse that it would cost the country one million euro more to have separate elections for parliament and for local elections.    Apart from the fact that he was forced to admit that local elections could have been brought forward to save such an expense, even if this were not possible we are saving nothing.    A 9 week long electoral campaign will cost political parties at least one million euro more than a 5 week election campaign.   Hard campaigning does not come cheap.   Without decent legislation to control political party financing, political parties will be forced to seek donations from benefactors that are unlikely to come without strings attached given their size and timing.   I would much rather prefer that taxpayers fund one million euro more ( even though this would not have been necessary if local elections were also moved forward to February) rather than the said one million euro be spent by political parties  through strings attached funding which in the long run could cost taxpayers much more.
All this could have been avoided if government had accepted the evident reality that it had no parliamentary majority to pass the Budget and accordingly should have gone for elections in Autumn.  The Budget preparation and its presentation in parliament before the crucial vote of December 10th were an awful waste of time.
If any proof were needed we got it this week when the NSO published the government financial situation for the 11 months to November 2012.   The deficit as at end November 2012, practically just as Minister Tonio Fenech was reading his budget speech in parliament on 28th November, was EUR 64 million worse than the relative figure for 2011.   It is evident that the Minister had no proper idea of the government financial position even as he was reading the budget.    Otherwise how could he estimate that the full results of 2012 will show a budget position EUR 40 million better than 2011 when the figures up to November were EUR 64 million worse?  To hit such an end of year Budget target, during the month of December 2012 compared to December 2011 the budgetary performance would have to improve by EUR 104 million.  
December is always a cash positive month for government.  In 2010 it was cash positive by EUR 29 million.  In 2011, December was cash positive EUR 60 million.   But to hit the target included in the budget speech just a month ago, December 2012 would have to prove cash positive by EUR 164 million.    Come on Minister, be realistic and admit that you were too busy running the failed election campaign for Deputy Leadership of the PN  and had to resort to inventing figures out of thin air.    If you cannot project forward one month from end November to end December how can we rely on your figures for three year rolling forward budget till 2015?
Have we not been here before?   Was it not the same Minister when reading his first Budget for 2009 that projected that we should be in surplus by 2011 and start reducing debt?   Absolutely off target!!
Labour used the period of this fake lull productively.    The replacement of Dr. Anglu Farrugia as Deputy Leader by Louis Grech was a rare master-stroke in local politics.   Following his botched performance in the Xarabank debate   it became clear that the PN had found Labour’s weak spot and were ready to build their campaign around it.
The moment Simon was elected Deputy Leader the media cells of the power network in which the PN occupies the political nexus, instantly switched from GonziPN to SimonPN.   It was no longer a contest between Gonzi and Muscat.  It became a contest between Simon and Anglu.

Anglu Farrugia is as good a local and district politician as anyone.  He is someone any party would love to have in its delegate and parliamentary line-up.   But he does not command the necessary leadership and managerial competences to perform at national level and having him as Deputy Leader of PL was not an ideal situation.   For as long as his counter on the PN side was Dr Tonio Borg, himself not ideal for the post, the risk from his unsuitability was containable.   But the moment the PN decided to attack Labour where it was weak and switched on to SimonPN, the risk became untenable and seriously threatening to erode the lead that Labour had for long enjoyed.  
If Anglu Farrugia had become a risk that could jeopardise the Party's chances for winning the next elections Muscat's had to do what was in the interest of the Party to do no matter how painful and even unfair it may be to the individual.   

I am a firm believer that loyalty should be to the organisation not to the individual.   I was the most loyal servant Alfred Sant ever had for as long as I was convinced that he was being loyal to the Party.   When he decided to re-contest leadership after two consecutive electoral defeats then I perceived he was putting his personal ambitions above the Party's interest and my loyalty to the Party meant I could no longer remain loyal to a disloyal leader.  I quit
Thanks to the exceptional leadership skills exhibited by Muscat’s master-stroke in having Louis Grech as his first deputy,  Labour  can start the electoral campaign with full confidence that they have sent the PN to redesign their election strategy and that at whatever level, leadership or deputy leadership, they can meet fire with fire.

What remains to be seen is whether Labour will have the financial resources to match the PN in a 9 week long election campaign.   But if Labour focuses on the three main points of their campaign then quality will make up for quantity:

·                     A credible and sustainable energy policy which involves reduction in utility tariff at least to the average level of the EU
·                     Promise of a fair, inclusive and corrupt free system of government
·                     A government for the people not the other was round.

Labour turned the disaster of the Xarabank deputy leaders debate into an opportunity which changed the talk in the Christmas party circuit from giggles about Anglu to how much more electable Labour has become with Louis Grech next to Joseph Muscat.
And soon the lull will be over and the storm begins.  Elections by their own nature are divisive.  Long election campaigns are divisive for a longer period and with greater intensity.  My prayer and wishes for 2013 is that as from March 10th the country re-unites behind the people’s verdict and we can move forward as one nation.

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