Editorial | Sunday, 05 July 2009
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Leadership by surveys

It is often noted that “people get the Government they deserve”; but what this truism fails to take into account is the role of any given Opposition.
That democracy breeds populism is an unfortunate reality: the inevitable consequence of a system that forces governments to cling to an often precarious majority, which in turn can be lost – as recent events have so clearly illustrated – by even a hatful of votes.
But while this dynamic often forces traditionally opposing political ideologies to converge at the centre in a bid to claim those votes – and with them, the seat of power – it is not very often that political parties cut loose from their political moorings altogether.
The question, however, remains: how far should a political leader shift his or her ideological platform in order to gain the middle ground, and win an election? How reliable a measure of leadership skills is the ability to interpret, identify and then act on subtle changes in the popular mood?
This is relevant to all political parties in all democracies, but arguably more so to the Malta Labour Party in its present form. For one thing, the PL has now been in Opposition almost uninterruptedly since 1987 - after which time, political desperation may lead to very strange and possibly even dangerous bedfellows. Besides, this same situation also creates the automatic danger of a Government which suffers from both a superiority and invincibility complex: able to be as arrogant and self-serving as it pleases, for when push comes to shove, it knows it can rely on the electorate to return it to power, if nothing else for lack of a convincing alternative.
For these and other reasons, Joseph Muscat’s handling of the European Election campaign – among other tests – deserves to be thoroughly scrutinised. And even from a cursory glance, a number of facets, some positive, but others particularly worrying, begin to swim into view.
Labour’s campaign may have been more focused and disciplined than the PN’s... but on another level it was almost purely driven by a surprisingly clinical electoral stimulus-response mechanism. On specific issues, Muscat gave the overwhelming impression that he bases his policy decisions more on polls, surveys and other measurements of public opinion, than by either ideology or even any reasoned approach to the issue at hand.
We saw this most clearly when it came to immigration: a difficult social phenomenon replete with humanitarian concerns, and in which European Socialist parties traditionally reserve the high moral ground. But with polls reporting that 68% of the population regarded immigration as a top concern, it was perhaps inevitable that Joseph Muscat would capitalise on the issue for political mileage.
His pronouncements on the subject, however, shed no light on his own party’s proposals - other than to argue that Labour MEPs would be more persuasive than their PN counterparts when it came to pushing through a mandatory burden-sharing agreement.
This remains to be seen – after all, the PL has the larger political presence in Europe, and there is still no mandatory agreement in sight. But if this is the only thing that separates Labour and PN, it doesn’t amount to much. Certainly there is no visible policy difference; which in turn makes one wonder why Muscat harped so much on an issue in which his own policy platform is indistinguishable from the present government’s.
Less discernable but equally populist was the Labour Party’s position on the utility tariffs. Muscat rightly argued that the energy tariffs revision exercise had been poorly thought out and clumsily handled, and was reasonably well-positioned, as Socialist leader, to echo popular concerns to this effect. However, the mask slipped slightly when PL secretary general Jason Micallef promised that the PL would lower these rates if returned to power: at a time when Enemalta had not even published its accounts, and there was certainly no telling what the global economic situation would be like in 2013.
Perhaps the clearest indication of a “leadership by surveys” came this week. Seven days have now elapsed since Renzo Piano unveiled his plans for a new entrance to the capital city – a national issue if there ever was one – and incredibly, the Opposition, which represents practically half the country, has not yet graced us with its opinion into the matter. The reason, it seems, is that the party is still collecting feedback... further evidence of a penchant for lying back and waiting to gauge public opinion, so that one’s policy platforms can be engineered accordingly.
This is not “Opposition”, at least not of the kind the country is crying out for. If Joseph Muscat is to really provide the credible alternative so sorely needed for a healthy democracy, he will sooner or later have to learn how to make up his own mind without any help from the polls.

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