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Further thoughts on the fear of sailing.

Posted by fcb on July 11, 2008

Snow Storm: Steamboat off a Harbour’s Mouth, J. M. W. Turner, 1842. Oil on Canvas 914 x 1219 mm, Tate Gallery, London.

Yesterday we reflected on the political perils of presenting ourselves as a party that rocks the boat and causes sea-sickness. Our reflection continues.

Can one hope to make a difference in politics and yet be accepted by an electorate that would rather have a government that did not rock the boat? This is a fundamental question, especially for a party that in 2013 will have spent twenty four of the previous twenty six years in opposition, especially in a country whose citizens have shown a marked and clear preference for political parties that let them be.

Faced with the choice between a party  that promises to resort to surgery to uproot alleged malignant growths and another that traditionally refuses to admit that there is any growth at all, resorts to palliatives and sedates the patient into numbness, our electorate ultimately chooses the party  that takes the softest approach.

In this situation, the party that has been consistently punished by a risk-averse electorate is tempted to imitate its more laid back competitor. It is tempted to avoid raising any serious issues and to smile itself into office. “We promise you we’ll do nothing to upset anyone at all. Vote for us and everything will remain exactly as it is. Vote Joseph and get GonziPN!” Will this do the trick? We don’t think so.

It is true that our electorate values continuity, stability and political tranquillity above all, perhaps as a reaction to past experiences.  In 1945, Pawlu Boffa resigned from the Council of Government to pressurise the Governor into dissolving it. In 1946 the nine Labour members of the Council of Government resigned. In 1949, after only two years in government, the Labour Party split and prime minister Boffa, now in a minority, survived for another year then resigned.

In 1958, after three years in office, Mintoff’s Labour government resigned, leading to four years of emergency colonial rule. Labour would have to wait another thirteen years – a highly conflictual period during which raged the infamous ‘political-religious war’ – before winning an election.

Then came the electoral victories of 1971 and 1976. These were ten years the experience of which we need to revisit and to reconsider. They were far from smooth but they were decisive for the country socio-economic progress, even if they have been the object of a revisionist historiography that is no less blatant and shameful than the worst examples of Stalinist rewriting of history.

Then came the ‘perverse’ result of 1981 – clearly a sign of political decline -, Mintoff’s resignation in favour of Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici in 1984 and the defeat of 1987. The closing years of the 70s and the first half of the 80s were traumatic and left wounds that have yet to heal. There is a lot that happened then that is still shrouded in mystery but the point is that in the memory (first hand or received) of tens of thousands of Maltese and Gozitans, Labour is the villain of those years.

Then came 1996, a glorious year that saw Labour – with the decisive contribution of many activists who had led the difficult struggle to renew the Party – back into government. Merely two years later, possibly in an attempt to turn back the clock of history within the Party, a crisis ensued that led prime minister Alfred Sant to decide to call an election. Need we add a reference to the EU issue? Whatever the merits and demerits of Labour’s position on that issue, it will certainly be remembered as another instance of its genetic negativism.

In all of the cases mentioned above, Labour was – to use an unfashionable phrase – on the side of history. The resignations, the split, the early elections were all the consequences of good intentions. But who cares apart from those who are already convinced that is the case? Our collective memory has retained mainly the distress of those occasions to the extent that in the minds of roughly half the population Labour has become a synonym of distress. 

We can, of course, study the distortions of history and the systematic suppression of truth that has moulded our collective memory but at the end of the day, we have the collective memory that we have and that, perhaps, we have deserved.

Which brings back to the future, to our Joseph. There is no doubt that a lot needs to be done to make of this country a decent European one, one that we need not be ashamed of. The question now is how to go about convincing a majority of fellow citizens that doing what needs to be done will cause no distress. On the contrary, that we will all be distressed unless we take action to prevent this from happening.

We think that Labour’s new approach, the ‘new political season’ inaugurated by Joseph, is the right way out of the dilemma we referred to in the first paragraph. It won’t be easy, also because not every Labourite is Joseph, but we can do it. And we will.


5 Responses to “Further thoughts on the fear of sailing.”

  1. Suldat ta' l-Azzar said

    I am going to write to the MLP Vigilance and Discipline Board. You should be ashamed! Dragging the Malta Labour Party’s glorious history through the mud like that! Shame! Shame! Shame!

    Suldat ta’ l-Azzar

  2. J. Borg said

    “who controls the past controls the future. who controls the present controls the past” – George Orwell, “1984”.

    I think that re-explaining Labour’s history to those who have “learnt” about Labour’s past from the likes of Storja ta’ Poplu could be one of the factors which might help Labour to win the majority’s trust. I think that we all heard people saying, before last election, that if Labour is elected we would have beatings, destruction and so on and so forth.

    I think that by showing that Labour’s past was not all about people being beaten and curias being ransacked would help floaters to accept Labour. Hinting at PN’s dark past wouldn’t be a bad idea neither.

    @Suldat ta’ l-azzar….say hello to the Vella sisters please.


  3. Albert Farrugia said

    This argument which you are raising, regarding the Maltese electorate’s preference for a party which does not rock the boat deserves a lot of consideration. Some argue that one of the main reasons for the MLPs defeat was its promise of a BIDU GDID. According to this argument, promising people a new beginning would make those who are not so badly off feel insecure. As if what they have acquired, through hard work and thrift, will be somehow taken away because the country would have to be built anew, as it were. Even Labour’s proposals for reforming the primary education system were shot down with the premise that they would unsettle our education system too much.

    The argument was raised that the Maltese electorate does not like issues. In fact, one thing which most commentators were agred upon regarding the last general elections was the “lack of issues”. In the first Xarabank after the elections, former PN Secretary Joe Saliba gave a reason for this and said that “The PN has killed all issues”. Presumably he meant that the PN has governed so wisely that there is really nothing one can make an issue of. Perhaps. But I myself found this utterance by Saliba simply shocking and fearful. For, how can it be that a country has no issues ahead of it? Has our history stopped? Have our clocks stopped ticking? There are issues even in the smallest community imaginable, that is two friends together, or a couple. Let alone in a community of 400,000 individuals!

    Of course there are issues around us. Since the elections we talked about Partnership for Peace, environment permits, public transport, the Dockyard, the influx of illegal immigrants and of course energy and food costs. The problem is that these issues were simply given a fleeting mention during the electoral campagin, and little else. So what is happening is that in Malta a very strange phenomenon has developed: GENERAL ELECTORAL CAMPAIGNS ARE NO LONGER LINKED TO THE NORMAL EVERYDAY LIFE OF CITIZENS. Electoral campaigns have become street parties, facebook entries, flag waving events, which have nothing to do with our daily life which resumes after the result is announced. During the electoral campagin, this country enters into a state of altered consciousness, so to say, where all that matters is partisanship. We have seen people who spent 5 years talking against all that the government was doing, yet ended up waving PN flags and voting PN after all.

    We have had someone like Frank Portelli, who of his own free will and on PUBLIC TELEVISION, declared that there was something rotten about Mater Dei Hospital. Yet this very same person goes in full campagining mode for the PN a few days before the elections! Actually claiming to feeling “sorry” that his strong words had been “misued”!!

    This development, this total split between elections and the real daily life of citizens is very worrying. It means that the population at large seems to have forgotten that in an elections IT CAN ACTUALLY REMOVE THE INCUBMENT if it feels he is doing a lousy job.

    If we conclude that the Maltese electorate prefers the status quo anyway, and would shy away from any change, we can might as well terminate all political activity in Malta, join the Nationalist Party, and to hell with it all. Then Malta would have become the first ever country to have turned itself into a one-party state according to the free will of the citizens!

    Albert Farrugia

  4. danny attard said

    Well done for a concise and ‘precise’ summary of labour’s voyage.

    Quote: The question now is how to go about convincing a majority of fellow citizens that doing what needs to be done will cause no distress.

    How? By becoming reliable surgeons. We can take small steps at a time. Have local Party Clubs/Offices flourish in multi-structured social and political activity, supporting MPs and Candidates in a coordinated activity to reach, on an on-going basis, all members of a community.

    To encourage the setting up of independent voices that shadow various aspects of Government activity. It is much more effective if the NP incompetence is affirmed by independent sources. ‘Our’ TV we have discussed already, etc etc.

    ‘No distress’ may need some qualification.

    Take the current transport issue. Our transport system is so decrepit that a radical approach to reform by Government will be very well received by the public. A Dunkirk spirit seems to prevail and such reforms will actually excite the public even if they entail strike action/discomfort. Why? Because the public is bored, tired of a stone-age transport system, and because it believes that at the end of the exercise Government can produce cheaper taxis, and a more robust bus schedule.

    If Gatt hesitates on immediate further reform post hearse issue, he will lose momentum, and confirm PNs conservatism. Labour will be able to walk in with a spirit of progressive reform, dealing confidently with a status-quo lobby that floats in and out of the party at key strategic moments.

    A simple transport strategy, that clearly spells the benefits to commuters, that identifies opportunities to providers of transport services, conveyed through a corporate sense of technical competence and moral rectitude, even in the face of some internal opposition, will spell Government material.

    Present day labour seems to want to portray itself in a casual buddy buddy informal frame (that seems to lead to a culture whereby capable persons get promoted (or promote themselves) to their level of incompetence).

    I often gaze on photographs of Labour Party Committees of the 40s and 50s, all impeccably dressed in their Sunday best portraying a sense of corporate confidence knowledge and vision. We have been there already.

    For in the final analysis, it is also a matter of mood and circumstance…The British preferred a reconciliatory Chamberlain as an answer to Hitler, yet when Adolph went beyond the line drawn in the sand, they ditched him for bulldog Churchill, who gained for them a unique victory. At the very absolute pinnacle of aggressive, victorious Churchill glory,… they voted him out…;) People do take the rough ride but only when they (not us) believe that it has becomes unavoidable…

    Danny Attard

  5. Andrew Sciberras said

    I think that the Opposition needs to take a tougher stance on the issue of Social Dialogue which this present Government has done away with completely. I speak about the surcharge, increased fuel prices, privatization of the dry docks and the latest national saga involving the liberalization of public transport which have been introduced like a bolt from the blue with a my way or the highway attitude. So far Joseph Muscat has been accused of sitting on the fence and of hypocrisy when he has made calls for effective consultation with all the parties involved. As if social dialogue is an evil thing. The government has also twisted his words and turned him into somewhat of a Communist who is a defender of monopolies, against a free-market society and against consumer rights!

    If there is a party that is rocking the boat at the moment it is surely the NP with its bulldozing attitude. But on the other hand JM needs to be more assertive and re-convince the people of the benefits of social dialogue. By neglecting social dialogue the government is successfully turning one sector of society against the other as was the case with the MDD where the government is turning the so-called middle class tax-payers against the dock workers by placing all fault on the dock’s financial demise on the latter.

    Andrew Sciberras

    With proper European-style social dialogue you will no longer have a situation of unilateral decisions but solutions which all parties agree too. Isn’t that the calmest boat of all?

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