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OPINION | Sunday, 20 January 2008

A mishandled predicament

MICHAEL FALZON

The way the Labour Party mishandled the sensitive situation that arose as a result of their leader’s unfortunate health problems is astonishing. To use Alfred Sant’s own words, albeit in another context, the way they went about it was “botched and very shaky”!
First they tried to keep under wraps the actual circumstances of the surgical intervention carried out on Alfred Sant, and then they went the whole hog with an obviously frail Alfred Sant unnecessarily facing the TV cameras prematurely, ostensibly in aid of undermining an edition of Bondíplus dedicated to the way they were behaving.
This was indirectly confirmed by MLP strategist Norman Hamilton who in his column in The Times on Thursday gloated that Sant’s press conference on Monday was “a great ‘coup de grace’ by the Leader of the Opposition and of the Labour party” – a “feat” for which he even added: “Well done.”
The way the MLP had been trying to cover up the real state of their leader’s health was not what one expects in a democracy where information about the health of political leaders should be always available to the general public. Dr Sant is not only the MLP leader. He has the very important constitutional post of Leader of the Opposition and with a general election looming on the horizon, he is Malta’s alternative Prime Minister. The cover-up was, to say the least, stupid and short-sighted.
Meanwhile, all through the period when he had to go to hospital followed by a necessary long rest convalescing at home, Alfred Sant chose, of his own will, to participate in the continuing political debate by keeping up his weekly appointments with the readers of The Times on Wednesdays and of the GWU Sunday paper. In all Sant’s contributions to the press since he had to go to hospital, there was no reference to his condition or to the unpleasant experience that he must have undergone. In fact, his weekly columns kept being published regularly and matter-of-factly, as if nothing had happened to him at all! When the news item of Sant’s return to his home was reported on One News, a video of some bygone press conference held by Alfred Sant in front of Mater Dei Hospital was screened, without any mention that the footage had been retrieved from the station’s archives.
Undoubtedly, all this was in line with the strategy that the MLP adopted to send the message of seeming normality despite Sant’s serious major surgical intervention, and in this manner reassuring the electorate that things were not so grave after all.
At one point, this led the MLP into embracing a most confusing and contradictory stance: Alfred Sant can keep on publishing articles attacking government decisions, just as if he is not convalescing at all, but no one has the right to quote him and express his or her disagreeing with him publicly… because doing so would be showing disrespect to a public person who is convalescing after a surgical intervention!
Many observers have commented that the sudden and unexpected development relating to Dr Sant’s health could serve as a catalyst to lower the pitch of the political debate, as far as personalizing issues is concerned. This new situation could have put the PN in somewhat of a quandary, as it was suddenly ‘obliged’ to treat Dr Sant with kid gloves so as to avoid the possibility of a groundswell of sympathy with Dr Sant’s predicament.
But Dr Sant himself chose to re-enter (or actually never leave) the political arena, writing in the papers, “come se non fosse mai niente”, as the Italians would put it. In his writings, he proceeded to attack anything in sight with the euro being the obvious current target and to boot, most insensitively attacking the move to Mater Dei!
As if this was not enough, it seems that Lou Bondí’s intention to dedicate an edition of his programme to the issue of the clash between Dr Sant’s right to privacy and the people’s right to be informed on the state of the health of their leaders, provoked the MLP to get Sant addressing a press conference a four hours before the programme was scheduled to be broadcast live.
This was the second major mistake on the part of the MLP. After refusing to issue a proper medical bulletin for two weeks, with the real story being published only in The Sunday Times, someone decided that Alfred Sant should personally face journalists and should himself explain all the nitty-gritty of his medical condition and of the therapy he has been advised to take.
Whoever advised Alfred Sant to hold this press conference did him a great disservice. It was obvious – notwithstanding make-up and lighting effects – that he was in no state to make a public appearance and what he said could have easily been said by his medical team so many days before.
The message that the worst is over and that Alfred Sant will soon be back in harness was belied by his appearance. It was also untimely. Labour had the best opportunity to boost Sant’s position as the party leader returning to business: delivering the closing speech of the party’s general conference next Sunday. This had already been reported in various Sunday papers and the fact that Sant was rushed to meet the press the next day was an appallingly ill thought-out move; a hasty reaction that has harmed the MLP more than anything that could have been said on Bondíplus!
Considering the circumstances of Sant’s predicament, the MLP’s clever use of the “sympathy card” was obviously a possibility. But “clever” does not seem to be part of the MLP’s repertoire and, once again, the MLP propaganda machinery has overplayed its hands. Playing the sympathy card in politics is risky business; because sympathy is a spontaneous human emotional reaction and anyone who suspects that his or her sympathy is being artificially provoked for ulterior motives is immediately put off.



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