Political arrogance is blinding. It prevents you from seeing what is happening around you. But let’s go step by step. On October 5, a student gave Minister Austin Gatt a piece of her mind because she could no longer suppress the frustration and the anger (in her words) “which had been boiling up for four months while waiting for many long hours on many bus stops”. She told him that “he should be ashamed of himself because of the Arriva service”.
The day after, on October 6, the minister issued a statement. Skilfully identifying himself with the aggrieved party, the minister expressed empathy with the student and, by implication, with all those that are angry and frustrated at the public bus service. He said: “I fully understand the frustration of (student’s name) with Arriva”.
Note the adverb “fully”. It is meant to disarm the sceptical. Condescending and patronising it may well be but politically effective it is. If you understand a problem “fully” there is nothing else that you need be told about it. If you understand the causes of someone’s anger and frustration fully, then she need not protest to bring the causes of her anger and frustration to your attention. Meaning: don’t bother me kid, there is nothing you can tell me that I don’t know.
The minister, an astute communicator, went further. Not only did he underscore his understanding for the aggrieved party in this situation, namely the users of the public transport system, but he also identified himself as their champion against Arriva. Quote: “I will continue hounding Arriva until they deliver the service contracted for and which the travelling public expects.”
Note the use of “hounding” to suggest that he will be a fierce and tireless champion of “the travelling public” against Arriva. Note the future progressive: “I will continue hounding.” Hitting two birds with one stone, it declares a commitment that goes further than momentary political expediency while telling us that he is not a Johnny-come-lately among critics of Arriva.
He will “continue” the fight, ergo he was already fighting and needed nobody’s prompting to challenge the dragon.
More. Having established himself as the tribune of the plebeians, he now presents himself as a student rebel at heart. He said: “I was a student once and I expect nothing less from a student but to speak her mind and publicly express her protests without fear.” How can a rebellious student identify Dr Gatt as an antagonist if the latter is himself one who unapologetically speaks his mind and protests without fear?
But what kills me is that not only does he completely ignore the student’s request that he should “apologise to the Maltese bus commuters for his disastrous attempt to reform the bus system” but that, from the dizzy Olympian heights, he practically forgives her for having spoken out. Quote: “I can assure her that there is absolutely no animosity and I consider the case as closed.”
The accused becomes the kind-hearted prosecutor who holds “absolutely no animosity” towards the student who accused him of having bungled what could have been the badly-needed public transport reform. Magnanimously he declares that “he consider(s) the case closed”. Intelligent rhetorical sleight of hand it is but a communications strategy that yields decreasing political returns.
For (to quote from the minister’s October 16 interview with The Sunday Times) “the 10,000 who are crucial to an election” the case is not at all closed. Moreover, for these, the case is not at all that of a protesting student. The case that interests them, a case that precipitates their sense of indignation, is that of a political class that is increasingly disconnected from the real country. It is the minister’s case, not the student.
This case is not, whatever the minister may say, closed. On October 15, Dr Gatt spoke to the media about the public transport system. With the same apparent straightforwardness with which he spoke about the incident at the University 10 days before, he bluntly stated that he is responsible for changes to the routes as these were designed by his ministry. But that is where the straightforwardness ends and the crookedness begins.
The real problem with the new system, he suggests, is not the new design of the routes (an interchange system as opposed to the previous hub-and-spoke one) but Maltese commuters. He is reported to have said that “maybe we were too avant-garde and too innovative and (…) we underestimated the reaction by commuters”. Oh, now I understand, if people are upset, it is their own fault because they are too backward and dumb to appreciate an avant-garde and innovative government.
It is all a matter of perception, the minister says. When, in The Sunday Times interview, he was asked about the massive traffic that we are seeing since the introduction of the new bus service, he coolly replied: “I think it’s more a perception than anything else.” When asked if he thought he should watch his words because “it’s making your (his) party sound very arrogant”, came the ice-cold, lapidary reply: “Perceptions”. If only we were to get our perceptions straight; then we would see how right the minister is.
The original of this post appeared on October 14, in Dr Vella’s regular column in The Times. You can access at it at
Vincent (Ċensu) Bugeja (1887-1963) is one of the more interesting but lesser known figures of the early Labour Party. A mathematician and logician by training (Cambridge) but a journalist by profession (International Herald Tribune), Maltese by birth (and, therefore, a subject of the British Empire) but Parisian (and European) by choice, cosmopolitan, broad- (very) minded and thoroughly modern in outlook but yet deeply committed to the then (as now?) stiflingly provincial Malta, he was complex and brilliant.
An admirer (and, possibly, an acquaintance) of the legendary Josephine Baker, who settled in Paris in 1925, he must have been especially touched by the words of her 1931 hit J’ai Deux Amours: “J’ai deux amours/Mon pays et Paris”.
His contribution to the development of the PL has, in my view, been underestimated. He is sometimes superficially referred to as a “leftist element” and, yet, even a light reading of his writings show that this description runs the risk of caricaturing him. Today’s PL has been occasionally depicted as the total negation of its founding fathers (by those who count him as a founding father) and, yet, even a cursory look at his work indicates how much of his seminal thought is alive and well in today’s PL. Indeed, it may well be blooming.
We will come back to Ċensu Bugeja on this column but what I am concerned with today are his views of the first half of the 1920s on Lord Strickland, which views certainly contributed in no small measure to preparing the ground for the PL’s acceptance of the idea of what then became the Compact of 1926. It is interesting to note that Mr Bugeja developed his views before Lord Strickland, in January 1924, invited the PL to consider a united front in the Legislative Assembly.
Mr Bugeja did not simply divide Maltese society into two: poor and rich, lower and upper. His analysis, already well developed by the end of 1923, distinguished between two sections of the Maltese dominant social group.
On the one hand, there was the traditional section made up of mainly landowners, importers and the professions, supported by the clergy. These tended to support the PPM and the PDN, the two political groups that then merged as the Partito Nazionalista. They also looked towards Italy for support and the Italian regime – the Fascists had seized power in 1922 – looked towards them as its supporters in Malta.
On the other hand, he believed that there was another section, a social group whose members were capable of investing in the island’s economic development and were more open-minded and innovative. It was these that, in Mr Bugeja’s view, could drive Malta’s economic modernisation, namely its industrialisation. He saw them as the working class’s potential allies inasmuch as (within this perspective) an industrial capitalism would have been a step forward in relation to what Balogh and Seers would later call a “fossilised economy” (and the society and culture that went with it) that – apart from employment with government and UK Services’ establishments – characterised the country.
This progressive fraction consisted of the more far-seeing entrepreneurs and public administrators who supported Lord Strickland’s party and who looked towards Britain and the Empire for support. Support from Britain, it must be said, was not as forthcoming as Lord Strickland would have hoped. London preferred not to interfere in Maltese politics as long as these did not endanger imperial interests, hence Lord Strickland was often perceived as a nuisance who unnecessarily rocked the boat. It was only much later, at least 15 years after his death, that Britain decided to support Malta’s bid for development by promoting productive economic activities.
As Mr Bugeja had correctly foreseen, Lord Strickland, his party and his social network understood that an alliance with the PL would have provided the right political framework for a social alliance conducive to pulling Malta out of the entrepreneurial lethargy and bigoted cultural conservativeness that it was stuck in. He argued that the quid pro quo for Labour’s support should be a commitment to the enactment of legislation aimed at the promotion of employment, public instructions and adequate social welfare. In fact, the Compact’s programme provided for, among others, a Workmen’s Compensation Act, compulsory education and the freeing of local industries from duties on raw materials and industrial equipment (a key feature of the Aids to Industries Ordinance of 1959).
The transformational potential of the progressive historic social bloc that could have grown out of the Compact evidently upset those that stood to lose from it. What was at issue was the influence of the conservative fraction over society. This influence ensured that, when necessary, they could mobilise considerable popular support, mainly from the poorest strata of society (poorest does not mean progressive) and from the rural population. Lord Strickland, supported by the working class through the PL, threatened their hegemony. That the PL had – as Mr Bugeja had advocated – freed itself from the influence of its early conservative patrons and reached out to someone (albeit not unproblematic) like Lord Strickland, was a signal to the conservatives of the popular support they stood to lose from the Compact. The switch from Gonzi to Strickland alarmed them.
The original of this post appeared on October 10, in Dr Vella’s regular column in The Times. You can access at it at: