MaltaToday | 18 May 2008 | Unashamedly unrepentant

NEWS | Sunday, 18 May 2008

Unashamedly unrepentant

Expecting a ‘mea culpa’ in Sant’s last speech to parliament as Opposition Leader is as cheeky as Alfred Sant’s attempt to blame his defeat on the ‘power of incumbency’, notes James Debono

Shifting the blame for his party’s defeat on the government’s power of incumbency, and on the “web of powers” weaving GonziPN’s spins, is cheeky on the part of a caretaker opposition leader who led his party to three consecutive defeats.
But it is equally cheeky to expect Alfred Sant to kneel and recite a “mea culpa” in front of a government bench which also includes an unrepentant Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando in its fold.
Sant even anticipated media criticism that his last speech as Opposition Leader in parliament lacked any sign of repentance, thus underlining the fact that he was doing so deliberately and unashamedly.
“The propagandists of GonziPN are constantly harping that this is the season for apologies but they insist that the only one to apologise should be the MLP. They do not have anything to say sorry about… what hypocrisy!”
Perhaps Sant would have been wiser to keep his mouth shut and let things take their natural course until a new MLP leader is elected.
But his pride would not let him miss out on his last occasion to prove his worth. He rose to the occasion, delivering a pungent and hard-hitting speech in parliament which amplified the contrast with his mediocre performances in front of Labour crowds before the election.
To prove his point that the government owes its victory to the power of incumbency he tabled figures showing how Lm2.6 million in income tax were “forgiven” in amnesties granted in the first two months of 2008.
He also presented statistics already published in MaltaToday which showed how a radical increase in the permits considered by MEPA in the first week of March 2008 when compared with the previous years.
Yet Sant’s speech had one big pitfall. Surely the power of incumbency and the bias of certain media organisations could have made a difference in an election decided by a few hundred votes.
But had Labour won by a wide margin the government’s alleged use of the power of incumbency, would have served for nothing.
Had Labour built a wide consensus for its policies a few thousands of Maltese people working abroad would have made no difference to the election’s outcome. After all the PN already had this power in 1996 and it was still defeated.
With his heavy baggage of U-turns and fresh memories of the Partnership “victory”, Sant himself was an obstacle to his own party’s efforts to build a consistent majority. Conveniently, Sant keeps ignoring this point.
By harping on the power of incumbency, he also risks sending the wrong message to a party which has still to identify the causes of its defeat.
It is also useless for the MLP to cry over spilt milk, recriminating that the PN won because it played its incumbency card. After all, come 2013 the PN might still use the same card.
The same applies to Sant’s recriminations on the “web of power” which relays the PN’s spins. In his speech Sant referred to a new threat to democracy consisting of a “web of power made up of people… who have control over public and private entities whose aim is to ensure that decisions are taken in their best interest.”
This web, according to Sant, is weaved by influential people in the business word, the media and the professions.
His criticism of the web of power supporting the PN gives the impression that the MLP is virginal in its dealing with big business, forgetting that the MLP itself had given its blessing to mega developments like Portomaso and the MIDI project in Tigné.
Sant’s vocal criticism for the proposed development of 90 villas in a pristine site in Mellieha by a company owned by Albert Mizzi represents a significant break with the MLP’s past silence on developments carried out by the same property magnate.
Sant’s final warning that the MLP risks being “colonised” by the same web of power overlooks the fact that this colonisation is not a new phenomenon, especially when it comes to contractors who finance both parties.
“I do not exclude that this web of power will try to colonise the MLP to manipulate in the same way as it has colonised and manipulated the PN,” Sant warned.
Coming so close to the MLP leadership contest, Sant is inviting criticism of using the power of incumbency to block the ascendancy of George Abela, the only MLP contender who finds sympathy in those sectors of the media allegedly linked to the powers that be.
Last Monday’s edition of Bondiplus went a long way towards giving a semblance of truth to Sant’s assertion that the “web of power” wants to set the MLP’s agenda.
But Sant went well beyond his brief as the caretaker Opposition leader by alluding to the MLP’s internal troubles in a keynote speech in parliament.
Sant insinuated that his brief interlude in government between 1996 and 1998 had been sabotaged by the same “web of power”… betraying the bitterness of a man who still feels he was cheated out of power by a conspiracy.
Surely Sant defends his party’s choice to focus on the corruption issue in the past campaign, a choice which is openly questioned within his own party.
Sant even reprimanded the editor of the Malta Independent on Sunday for associating corruption with the country’s Mediterranean identity.
But he also ignored observations by MLP exponents like Anglu Farrugia who observed that the party’s “zero tolerance” policy on corruption alienated voters who consider petty corruption as a way of life.
In so doing Sant is defending the legacy of his leadership whose accomplishments include ridding the party of the corrupt and violent elements which polluted old Labour’s soul.
But his tirade against the “web of power” can risk becoming yet another invitation to cry over spilt milk. Again, come 2013, the same web of power could well be mobilised against the MLP.
Proposing a new law on party financing based on the recommendations of the Galdes Commission could be a more fruitful way of tackling the country’s democratic deficit.
Sant also absolves himself of providing the right soundbites like “reopening the EU package” to the very media which he deems hostile.
In fact Sant is also in an unrepentant mood when it comes to policies like the removal of taxation on overtime and the halving of the surcharge irrespective of the hike in international oil prices, two policies which attracted media scrutiny.
Yet he rightly pointed out that the government’s tax cutting promises were not subjected to the same scrutiny.
Surely the troubles facing ST Micro-Electronics, an industry which exports in dollars, has vindicated Sant’s call for caution on euro adoption.
Yet Sant failed to indicate a way forward for the party to break the current impasse, leaving this task to the future leader.
While not committing the party on pairing, he expressed the party’s scepticism on the offer of the office of the Speaker to the Opposition in return for accepting a pairing agreement.
Like Laocoon in the Aeneid, Sant called on his party to “fear the Greeks when they offer you a present.” After an election won by just 1,500 votes and a one-seat majority which reflects this gap, pairing is bound to have a very high price for the government of the day.
After all the PN itself did not give any pairing to Sant’s one-seat majority government in 1996, even if it enjoyed a 7,000 vote majority.
The price the MLP could ask could be a series of laws aimed at breaking the web of power described by Sant. Granting a pairing agreement in return for the enactment of a law regulating party finances, a Freedom of Information Act and a Whistleblowers Act which puts an end to the culture of “omertà” could be worth the price of a pairing agreement.
But all this depends whether the future leader will keep on crying over spilt milk rather than embarking on a parliamentary battle for these reforms.
Yet Sant could have been trying to galvanise the party loyalists and put them back in to an attacking mode before they choose the next leader.
In so doing Sant could well have given a welcome shot to a party paralysed by defeat. In so doing he has brought the government’s honeymoon to a deserved end.
But Sant has also given them a comfortable excuse for the defeat: and if they are then dissuaded from continuing the search for the real causes of their party’s defeat, he could have cast a bad omen over the party’s prospects for 2013.

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