Keep your seat belts on.
This article appeared yesterday, February 16, on The Times of Malta. You may access the original at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20090216/opinion/keep-your-seat-belts-on
On January 19, observing that “the alliances that this government is built on are beginning to come apart”, I suggested that we were “approaching a zone of severe turbulence”. A number of online commentators rejected my statements as “fiction and sophistry” (Joe Micallef), “only wishful thinking and dreams” (Antoine Vella), “an interpretation… devoid of real substance” (J. Cilia), “vivid imagination” (Alfred Camilleri).
On February 12, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi announced that, in agreement with Archbishop Paul Cremona, the government and Church representatives on the St John’s Co-Cathedral Foundation were directed to abandon plans for the museum extension project. Consequently, later that evening, Opposition Leader Joseph Muscat withdrew the motion calling on the government to withdraw its support for the project.
The Department of Information’s 60-word statement, no. 0212, announcing Dr Gonzi’s decision, generated more doubts than it set out to quell. To start with, it contradicted the Prime Minister’s previous assertion that the foundation was independent and the government could not, therefore, instruct it to drop the project. Also, the statement referred only to the Archbishop’s concern over the project, fuelling speculation that the Prime Minister himself had no such concern.
The author of statement 0212 could not resist the temptation to direct attention to the Prime Minister’s real concern, his inability to command a majority of seats in Parliament always and unconditionally. Rather than avoiding the notion of division altogether, the statement stupidly carried the title Il-Prim Ministru u l-Arċisqof jaqblu li l-proġett tal-Kon-Kattidral m’għandux jifred lill-poplu (The Prime Minister and the Archbishop agree that the co-cathedral project ought not to divide the people).
This was practically an invitation to the Leader of the Opposition to remark – as he in fact did – that on this issue the people were not at all divided. On the contrary, they were united against the project. If there is any division, Joseph Muscat added, it is within the PN’s parliamentary group.
Are we out of the turbulence zone? Allow me to suggest that we are not and that you ought to keep your seat belts on for the duration of the whole flight. The PN’s parliamentary group is as divided as ever. More importantly, however, is the effect of statement 0212. Dissidents sitting on backbenches and elsewhere on the government’s side in the House now know for a fact that, as dissidents, they count for something, otherwise they don’t.
No doubt, the Prime Minister will redouble efforts to contain dissent in the PN parliamentary group. No doubt, he will consider the use of a mixture of carrot and stick measures. The range of options at his disposal, however, is limited. The real problem, he knows, is not in Parliament. The real problem is outside. Dr Gonzi knows that all those that have traditionally voted PN but are now radically dissatisfied with his performance will be encouraged by his defeat last week.
The lesson that PN dissenters have learned last week is that this government can, when necessary, be prevented from doing further harm to the country’s economy, to its natural and historical heritage, to its national health, to its reputation in Europe and in the world.
They have learned that when Pietà is deaf and when their MPs are either indifferent or powerless to make a difference, there are alternative routes to restoring sanity. Should Dr Gonzi succeed in temporarily bullying or massaging dissidents in the House, he will do so at great cost in terms of grassroots support outside Parliament.
This will, in turn, make it difficult for him to maintain his authority as Kap (leader), inside and outside Parliament. Unwittingly, Dr Gonzi is putting Nationalist MPs in a position where they will have to choose between loyalty to him – and to his grey eminences in the wings – and the need to be seen not to be indifferent to the increasingly articulated and loud voices of traditionally- PN voters who are no longer prepared to bear in silence.
The Labour Party’s ongoing radical transformation into a party that is responsive to the transformations that the whole of Maltese society is itself undergoing will not make things easier for Dr Gonzi and those around him that have chosen to pretend that nothing is happening. Dr Muscat’s efforts to open the PL to all those who realise that we need to overcome old prejudices to face the challenges confronting this country are beginning to bear fruit.