MaltaToday | 15 June 2008 | Is this the Labour dream team?

EDITORIAL | Sunday, 15 June 2008

Is this the Labour dream team?

The Malta Labour Party delegates have now spoken: not once, not twice, but no fewer than four times, after both leadership and the two deputy leadership elections were forced into second rounds.
As a result, not only has a certain inescapable division become manifest within the Labour Party’s ranks; but the resulting pronouncement inevitably came across as somewhat contradictory.
In the leadership battle, the choice was ostensibly between youth and experience. But where the usual trend is for the establishment to back the older contestant, in this case the younger candidate clearly enjoyed the delegates’ blessing. So when it came to counterbalancing this role, there may well have been an underlying tendency to automatically gravitate towards the older contestants for the twin roles of deputy leader for party and parliamentary affairs respectively.
As Labour’s new deputy leader for party affairs, Toni Abela takes over from an altogether more reserved Michael Falzon. Certainly, Abela is no Johnny-come-lately. He was already president of the party in 1989, when Joseph Muscat was only 14 years old. It was the same year Abela also fell out with the administration, accusing it of failing to confront issues of violence and corruption which had marred the Labour Party’s 16-year rule over Malta.
This time round, the race was between the more seasoned Abela and the younger Gavin Gulia, who made a name for himself as a soft-spoken moderate. Age and experience were therefore clearly issues in the contest: but the main difference between the two was largely one of style.
Where Gavin Gulia was perhaps better placed to appeal to voters across the political divide, Abela brings to the role a mixture of energy and populism; both important when it comes to galvanising grassroots support.
There is a certain irony in this: for while Toni Abela is popular with the masses – a popularity owed largely to his sense of humour, as well as his onscreen charisma as presenter of numerous programmes on One TV – he is also widely acknowledged as an intellectual within the party, who can extend his appeal also to the educated middle class.
He is a distinguished public speaker, too: a marked departure from the formula set by his predecessor, who was not particularly known for his oratorical skills (as evidenced by the now notorious “Lions of Change” speech, immortalised on YouTube).
It remains to be seen, however, whether Toni Abela is blessed with his predecessor’s organisational capabilities. Falzon may not have roused emotions on a stage, but he was nonetheless a capable and committed administrator in his own right: as evidenced by the fact that he was left alone to face the music at Naxxar counting hall on March 9.
Opinions will of course be divided regarding whether Abela was a better choice than Gulia. But within the Labour Party’s convoluted structures – in which there two deputy leaders instead of only one – the role can only be seen in juxtaposition to the character of the incoming deputy leader for parliamentary affairs.
Enter Anglu Farrugia, a man similar to Abela in a number of respects. Both command a certain presence, and are known for their habit of loudly asserting their positions in a manner reminiscent of the old school politics we now associate with Dom Mintoff. Also, while Farrugia may not have as long an association with the party as Abela, he was nonetheless perceived as part of the old regime thanks to his time as a police inspector under Commissioner Lawrence Pullicino.
Significantly, Farrugia also rose to renown for his work as the chief prosecuting officer precisely in the Pullicino trial in the late 1980s. He therefore somehow manages to straddle both Old and New Labour, in the sense that while he was undeniably part of the excesses of those years, he was also perceived to part of the process of change after 1987.
The question, however, is whether it was wise of the delegates to choose such outspoken characters (some would say “loose cannons”) to flank Joseph Muscat. For Instance, Farrugia has already declared “war” on the Nationalist Party - ruling out any agreement on pairing, and embarrassing the government with his persistent allegations of vote-rigging - a time when Muscat is talking about reconciliation, forgiveness, apologies for past excesses, and an open invitation to dialogue and co-operation.
From this perspective, the choice of a deputy leadership appears to counter-balance rather than complement the previous choice of leader. Time will tell if this is a good or a bad thing in itself; but in its immediacy, it is clear that the Malta Labour Party continues to be plagued by internal divisions which it simply cannot hide.

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