MaltaToday, 30 Jan 2008 | The only way is Sant
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NEWS ANALYSIS| Wednesday, 30 January 2008

The only way is Sant

For all the hype over his comeback from a cruel illness, Alfred Sant may not have sparkled as he usually does when he addresses parliament or when he confronts Gonzi on a one-to-one debate.
But most of the enthusiasm in the hall was created by his sheer presence rather than by his composed albeit flat delivery, which lacked the usual crescendos to attract rounds of spontaneous applause. After struggling against an “incompetent” microphone while smiling at delegates to the tune of “the only way is up”, Sant did give away a few precious minutes of emotion, when openly admitting fearing that his party would lose momentum in the final and decisive lap of the race.
From then on he was back to his managerial self – setting rigid targets and articulating a well composed yet unconvincing vision. What with constant references to families, children and education, Sant somehow manages to humanise his vision in robotic monotone.

Team player?
Unlike Lawrence Gonzi – who, in the face of popular disgruntlement with his ministerial entourage, is projecting himself as the sole reason why his party should be re-elected – Alfred Sant insists on projecting himself as part of a team.
Sant’s message in the conference was clear: despite my sudden illness the party has not lost any of its drive: “our movement for change has not only kept the same thrust (in my absence) but has gained momentum.”
While Gonzi avoids associating himself with his Cabinet colleagues, Sant does the very opposite by referring directly to his front bench. He thanked deputy leaders Charles Mangion and Michael Falzon, the party general secretary Jason Micallef, president Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi and the whole administration and parliamentary group.
Surely the MLP was lucky that Sant’s absence coincided with a lull in the political calendar during the Christmas break. Still, his short absence confirmed that the current party administration lacks anyone with better leadership qualities than Sant.
Although Sant is duty-bound to reassure his grassroots – some of whom retain a Mintoffian distrust of Sant’s New Labour politics – that he is not a one man show, he remains indispensable for his party. He surely stands out as the lone intellectual with an appeal for a category of middle class voters, in a party where intellectuals are a rare breed.
Despite the lack of charisma, nobody at the moment can project and articulate the party’s vision better than Sant himself. Therefore while it suits the MLP that Sant projects his party as an orchestra fielded against Gonzi’s solo act, there is no question as to who the Labour Party’s maestro really is.

No questions on Europe
With the prospect of the PN rekindling memories of Sant’s “Partnership” debacle on an election which might well coincide with the fifth anniversary of the March 8 2003 referendum, Sant felt compelled to dedicate a long part of his speech reaffirming his party’s European credentials.
Sant’s emphasis on the MLP’s pro-EU credentials could be a preemptive strike against any attempt by the PN to invoke the past and to single out Eurosceptics such as Sharon Ellul Bonici in Sant’s party.
With former Danish prime minister and head of the Party of European Socialists, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, calling for a change in government in Malta, the MLP has now cast its anchor firmly in the European socialist family: “Our European vision is in line with our political values and with those of the European Socialist Party.”
Sant also reminded any latent Eurosceptics in his party that the MLP had approved the aborted European constitution by a margin of 85% in a secret vote taken three years ago.
Sant made no direct reference to the ratification of the Lisbon treaty – a toned down version of the constitution rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005 – but his words leave no place for doubt. If Labour had accepted the more radical EU constitution, why not accept its toned down substitute?
This leaves Azzjoni Nazzjonali as the only party calling for a Maltese referendum on the Lisbon treaty. Still, with the prospect of victory in the next general elections, it is unlikely that Eurosceptic Labourites will defect to a far right formation led by former Nationalist stalwart Josie Muscat.
Hope of victory may also make the Eurosceptics swallow Sant’s sugary pill: his promise to remain vigilant on any European measure which applies the same yardstick on any country irrespective of its size.
Yet Sant does not throw any light on how he would fulfill his promise that a new Labour government would safeguard the interests of farmers, fishermen and dockyard workers from any Europe-wide regulations.
In the case of the dockyard, Sant does not spell out the reality that as of next year government will no longer be able to subsidise the industry.
Unlike most other European Socialists, and in line with the PN government and local trade unions, he promises to protect workers and employers from any directive limiting overtime. But with Britain, Poland and other European countries opposing any limits on overtime, Sant faces little difficulties on this front.

The immigration consensus
Sant has neither ignored the immigration issue, as he has done in the past, nor has he pandered to xenophobic sentiments.
As pointed out by this newspaper last week, Azzjoni Nazzjonali has succeeded in making the other parties talk about the issue; but judging by the way Sant spoke on Sunday they have not succeeded in pushing the other parties towards the extreme right.
Gone are the days when the Opposition Leader told this newspaper that when it comes to immigration, the national interest is more of a priority than human rights. For the first time he spoke against a “fortress Europe” isolated from the countries which surround it.
While insisting on a “fair deal” for Malta from the European Union when it comes to sharing the burden of immigration influxes, he emphasized that the process must be implemented by sense of “justice, realism, mercy and humanity towards the irregular immigrants.”
Like Harry Vassallo and Lawrence Gonzi, Sant has now shown a sense of leadership on this issue by refusing to pander to the racist rabble. One can now speak of a consensus among the three mainstream parties on the need of a fairer deal for Malta on burden sharing. On the other hand, AN remains the only party outside the political mainstream by threatening to withdraw Malta from all international obligations.
Still absent from Sant’s discourse is any reference to the need for an integration policy which accepts the reality that some migrants are here to stay, and that it is better to welcome them in the social fabric rather than exclude them in ghettoes.
Neither did Sant address the impact of migrants entering the labour market, either in sectors where they make up for a shortage of Maltese workers, or in sectors where irregular immigrants provide a resource of cheap labour.

Sant’s magic wand
Sant once again presents ambitious economic targets without explaining how he intends to achieve them. He promises that he will get 1,600,000 tourists every year after four years in government, earning the country €1,444 million. He does not even consider whether this influx of tourists is environmentally sustainable.
Sant also promises to double the investment in financial services, and to decrease waiting lists in hospital by 15%. This, he says simply, can be achieved by strong will and courage alone.
Sant’s managerialism still retains an Old Labour crudeness which glorifies basic manual functions above high-tech innovations. The contrast evoked by a teacher’s email – which lamented that while antiquated computers are being replaced, her school still lacks a photocopier – was completely unwarranted. After all a modern computer equipped with a scanner does away with the need for photocopiers altogether. So why make this contrast, at a time when the PN is constantly harping on “smart Malta”, if not to re-evoke memories of Dom Mintoff’s aversion to computers?
For all his emphasis on education, Sant dismisses the importance of one of the most important educational reforms: the introduction of colleges, a move which reduces the rigid streaming between students attending area secondaries and junior lyceums.
Sant’s recipe for economic success hinges on two commitments; a reduction of government expenditure through a clampdown on wasteful practices and corruption and a general encouragement of people to work more. By reaffirming his promise to remove income tax on overtime, Sant gives substance to this vision.
On paper, it’s a perfect measure to reconcile class interests, typical of conservative politicians like French President Nicolas Sarkozy. It benefit workers and employers alike by incentivising hard work while at the same time leaving more money in people’s pockets. Perversely, Sant even declared that this measure diminishes the temptation of people not declaring their overtime… as if there were any use of declaring overtime which is not even taxed.
Still, Sant has not in any way explained how abuses will be controlled, or how it will make up for the financial loss in government coffers. What is certain now is that Sant is willing to defy any ideological dogma in his bid to create more work.
Ominously he declared: “I make it clear… if with the passing of time, new measures are formulated which have the same effect of creating more work for everyone, a new Labour government will consider them favorably without prejudice and dogma.” It is not clear to whom he was making this warning, but his reference to “prejudice and dogma” evokes the spectre of Blairite reforms which defy traditional socialism.
Yet despite his promise to restrict the role of the state “to the encouragement and assistance of private enterprise,” Sant does not refrain from reiterating his commitment to extend current price stability agreements to reign inflation in the wake of euro adoption for an indefinite period, “until a serious mechanism is created which ensures that any increase in prices reflects the conditions of the free market.”

Family friendly
Intelligently, Sant panders to the centrality of the family and the upbringing of children in the Maltese way of life, while at the same time injecting a dose of European secular values by giving a wider definition of the family.
He circumnavigates a landmass of moral hypocrisy by arriving at the recognition of different family forms by speaking about children’s rights. In so doing, he gives a progressive twist to his promise of “social, cultural and spiritual” renewal.
Since nobody in his right mind would attack Labour for favouring the rights of children born in different families, if elected Sant would have an electoral mandate to recognise cohabiting couples. “The most important thing for us are children, whoever they are… and the protection of their rights.”
Surely the presence in the audience of Sant’s ex-wife Mary Darmanin – a progressive and secular intellectual in her own right – underlined the fact that Alfred Sant is himself a member of a non-traditional family where mother and father still respect and support each other despite the breakdown of their marriage.
Still, by restricting his discourse to families with children, Sant risks alienating childless family units like cohabiting heterosexual or same sex couples.
Sant also offers no hope to couples who want to build a new life by remarrying. Divorce remains one of Sant’s unmentionables.

After neglecting the environment completely in the past months, except to propose a yacht marina and a golf course in Gozo, Sant has finally dedicated a few words in his speech to a theme dear to pale blue voters.
On the positive side, Sant promised that as Prime Minister he would be personally be responsible for the creation of alternative sources of energy like photovoltaic cells. Still, this proposal lacks beef and we do not know to what extent a Labour government will subsidise solar energy to make it affordable. All we know is that a Labour government will halve the surcharge, a measure which in itself discourages energy conservation.
He also made a passing reference to need to protect what’s left of the countryside. Sant’s silence on hunting is a recognition that the MLP will not take advantage of hunters’ disgruntlement.

Zero tolerance, minus one
Sant’s promise to show zero tolerance against corruption contrasted with the warm welcome the party reserved for Michael Woods: the brother of a Nationalist activist accused of accepting bribes to help people get an invalidity pension.
“Today’s Prime Minister forgot what his predecessor said; that who does not fight corruption, is himself corrupt,” declared Sant.
And yet, in one of the few instances where the present government arraigned a Nationalist activist for bribery, the MLP had no qualms in accepting his brother in their fold. Unlike Carmel Cacopardo and Ray Bondin, Michael Woods’ main complaint was the way his brother was treated by the party. But in his speech Sant, lumped Michael Woods and little known Jo Said in the same league as Bondin and Cacopardo: the two former PN officials who defected to Alternattiva Demokratika, after falling out with the PN on points of principle.
Sant also reaffirmed his commitment towards meritocracy and while committing himself to redress discrimination, he made clear that a Labour government will not be a vindictive one. In contrast with Dom Mintoff’s (and earlier, Jesus Christ’s) dictum “he who is not with us is against us”, he reaffirmed that “Whoever is not against us is with us” to tremendous applause.
Sant also ably reconciled meritocracy with social justice: “In this country we have to reward success and merit. In this country we have to guarantee that nobody is disposable.”

Surreal humour
One thing that has definitely improved in Sant is his ability to tell a joke. After his “Goooonzi” fiasco in Birzebbugia, Sant seems to have worked on his sense of humour which now presents an elegant, surreal twist.
“How can you explain what the BOV ATM did on New Year when the Prime Minister tried to make a cash withdrawal? The ATM must have asked itself: ‘why should I give my service in time, when he (Gonzi) and his colleagues are unable to do likewise? I have a right to be incompetent too’… It’s no wonder that CNN did not understand anything, and broadcast to the whole world the image of an incompetent Prime Minister struggling against an incompetent ATM.”
Surely, if Sant uses his literary streak to deliver similar jokes in the coming weeks and months, we are guaranteed a very entertaining campaign.
But Sant is still able to show his quirky side. His longwinded comment to Lou Bondì, shown on Monday night, and his ability to jump from topic to topic while leaving a baffled Bondì unable to ask any question, was hilarious but odd.


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