MaltaToday | 13 August 2008

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NEWS | Wednesday, 13 August 2008

When the love is gone

The dilemma of a Labour prince: better to be feared or to be loved? If Muscat’s earthquake is to take place, he must start instilling fear and put love aside – for in the name of love, Jason Micallef is still secretary-general.

Upon being elected, Joseph Muscat told Labourites that he loved all of them: Jason Micallef included, one presumed.
But at the same time, Muscat promised an earthquake in his party. Many interpreted this as a sign that Jason Micallef’s head was about to roll. Perhaps the love act was just a way of making heads roll without a public bloodbath, the optimists hoped.
But by preaching love while talking about earthquakes, Muscat ignored Niccolò Machiavelli’s warning that “love and fear can hardly exist together” and that “it is far safer to be feared than loved”. For when everybody expected Muscat’s earthquake to rock the foundations of Labour’s administration, Jason Micallef emerged smiling triumphantly after soundly beating his competitors to the crucial post of party secretary-general.
And despite a plot involving close associates of Muscat, like former party president Mario Vella and veteran MP Leo Brincat to oust Micallef, Muscat’s own personal assistant David Borg was working to keep Micallef in his place.
The crossed lines in direction from Muscat have now resulted in the re-election of Micallef. Despite repeated attempts by the leader’s men to take the situation in their hands and attempt to derail Micallef’s train, they came too late in the day – prompting Joseph Muscat’s clarion call for an earthquake, as he announced so definitively on Monday morning.

Early mistakes
By washing his hands of the contest and allowing his own lieutenants to send contradictory messages to delegates on who they should vote for, Muscat forgot Machiavelli’s other maxim that “who wishes to be obeyed must know how to command.”
Writing in The Times on Monday, Muscat acknowledged that the MLP’s decision was out of synch with the high expectations he had himself raised upon being elected leader. He did so by simply noting that while “some were happy with the outcome” of the party’s general conference, “many others were disappointed”.
And since the “many” who were disappointed outnumber the “some” who were happy, the Labour leader is implicitly recognising that the party delegates have committed a mistake.
But it was a mistake which as leader he did very little to avoid, or else failed to control as best as he could have.
For Muscat, not interfering in the choice of secretary-general was a conscious decision because he doesn’t think it is a leader’s business “to impose on others.”
But faced with a fait accompli he now renews his promise of an earthquake which “many have now come to believe will never happen” – Muscat promises that these sceptics “are in for a surprise.”
On the eve of Muscat’s article, both sister paper Illum and the Sunday Times revealed that the Labour leader is already looking for a party CEO – a role proposed by the party’s 2003 defeat report which was never implemented.
Significantly Muscat wants to handpick the CEO himself rather than leaving this task to the same general conference which re-elected Micallef.
In this way Muscat seems bent on shifting the goalposts to minimise the scale of Jason Micallef’s victory.
But if he is seeking to clip Micallef’s wings by introducing a third man in an already crowded field, Muscat could be treading on dangerous ground. For the secretary-general is already in direct competition with the post of deputy leader for party affairs, a post created by Dom Mintoff as a check on the power of the other deputy leader. Appointing a third man to steer away the boat from Jason Micallef’s hands could make things even messier.
To avoid this Muscat now wants to redefine the role of secretary-general. “The elected posts within the party, including that of secretary-general, would have to be redefined. This is part of a process that will lead us to be a real, effective organisation.”
Possibly with deputy leader Toni Abela assuming the political profile previously assumed by the secretary-general, and the new CEO taking over responsibility over Labour’s business activities, Jason Micallef could be sidelined.
But as things stand, galvanised by the delegates’ vote Micallef is neither vanquished nor cajoled into submission. For Micallef does not owe his election to Muscat, just as Michael Falzon did not owe his election to Alfred Sant in 2003.
For despite not lifting a finger to stop Micallef from being elected, neither did Muscat defend him from the blows coming from Leo Brincat, Mario Vella and others from his camp. In an interview with MaltaToday Micallef himself took note that some prominent figures around Muscat had actively campaigned against him: “What’s sure is that some of the most prominent people who worked in Muscat’s personal campaign to become leader were supporting another candidate and not me. This shows that it’s not true that the party’s machinery was working for me.”

The big earthquake
To rub salt into Labour’s wounds, Micallef went as far as linking his destiny with that of his leader when asked about the negative reaction to his re-election. “Survey after survey showed that Joseph Muscat would not be able to win an election or that Muscat did not appeal to floating voters. Muscat has already proved the doubters wrong after a short time. I will do the same.”
Once again Muscat had not heeded Machiavelli’s advice that “men ought either to be indulged or utterly destroyed.”
Surely had Muscat acted before the general conference, things would have been easier. Instead he proceeds to change the goalposts after his victory in what is politically a gutsy, ballsy move to take control. But then he still risks evoking the wrath of an even stronger Micallef.
And by acting only after being overwhelmed by the media’s negative reaction, Muscat is behaving more like prisoner of destiny than a prince who shapes the course of events.
Ironically Muscat is finding his own party a harder nut to crack than the Nationalist government. For Muscat is pushing all the right buttons in confronting the government – not only was he successful in pushing the government to discuss divorce and party financing, but he even managed to foil the government’s strategy of using the dockyard as political football.
But Muscat risks giving the Nationalists more time to get away with murder as the media spotlight remains stuck firmly on the MLP, especially now that he is promising more internal earthquakes. Therefore he must act quickly to reassert his full authority in the party before taking his seat in parliament.
But Muscat now has no choice but to act and is delivering his promise of an earthquake, a promise that was his mandate when seeking the post of Labour leader.
He is going to need a tremor that won’t be less than a magnitude of 7 on the Richter scale. Anything smaller would be another disappointment.

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13 August 2008

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