The last time Malta had an effective leader of the Opposition was 10 years ago when Joseph Muscat took over a party that had lost three elections in a row. He set about ditching all the policies that had made Labour unelectable.  He adopted market economy, social democratic policies. He embraced the EU. He cannily took full advantage of the Gonzi government’s divisions and infighting and won a landslide victory in 2013.

Simon Busuttil, who took over as leader of the Opposition, did not have the leadership qualities, the personality or the policies to rescue the Nationalist Party from defeat in 2017. He went down to an even more devastating loss at the polls than Lawrence Gonzi. Out of the rubble has emerged – perhaps staggered into view is a better description – a new leader of the Opposition, Adrian Delia.

In a thriving democracy it is vitally important that the government – especially one which has such a commanding majority as Labour – should have an effective Opposition to hold it to account. The Opposition should be seen as the government-in-waiting. Unless the electorate regards it in that way, its leader has failed in his job.

Maltese politics has dealt Delia a poor hand. His job has been made hugely more difficult by the split within his own party on becoming leader, not helped by the fact that before her tragic death Nationalist kingmaker Daphne Caruana Galizia had come out strongly against his nomination. Moreover, those in the party who felt “entitled” to select the next party leader regarded him – and still do – as an outsider who had not earned their support and, worse, did not fit their image.

Those in the Nationalist Party who have taken on Daphne’s mantle have still not reconciled themselves to the new leader. In some cases they are actively seeking to undermine him. The recent publication of tittle-tattle about the state of his marriage was an inexcusable and pointless distraction.

There are some who advocate that he should stand down as leader and make way for somebody who can command wider support in the party. But the stark reality is that dumping Delia won’t solve the PN’s problems. A new leader will not change the hand PN has been dealt.

Dumping Delia won’t solve the PN’s problems. A new leader will not change the hand PN has been dealt

Delia was elected leader by the PN membership because he seemed to offer the grassroots in the party a more genuine and vocal style of leadership. He seemed to be somebody who spoke their language and was in closer tune with current Maltese politics than the somewhat effete, middle-class leader who had just led them to a disastrous defeat.

Delia took over a demoralised and fractious party – ranging from multiple activist groups too many to count, to pro-Busuttil groupies or MEPs beating a different drum. The party is even more factional than that which brought down Gonzi in 2013.  But with just over six months before the Euro-parliamentary elections, a change of leader would make a bad situation even worse.

The job of leader of the Opposition is probably the most difficult in politics. It is not only to hold the government to account, but also – more importantly – to inspire and motivate his own party, and the increasing number of thinking “switchers”, that he has a vision for Malta which is different from the one being presented by the government. Muscat has stolen the PN’s clothes. What has Delia got to offer that is different?

Delia should focus his battle on just one objective.  He must offer inspirational leadership to a party still reeling from a historic defeat. For the PN to succeed after five years in opposition, buffeted and outsmarted by a Teflon Prime Minister, he must start rebuilding PN brick by brick. He has four years in which to do it.

The current scatter-gun approach to policy development – one week flirting with cheap racist remarks, the next pandering to ultra-conservative values, the next trying to ride a media-inspired wave on Egrant or 17 Black - must be replaced by a more considered and intelligent long-term approach.

He would do better to emulate Eddie Fenech Adami by keeping his powder dry and only making major interventions when the situation demands it – and he has something significant to say.

Delia should encourage his front bench spokesmen to tackle the routine political issues and win political points if they can. But he should focus on a concerted attempt to develop new policies to tackle the three major challenges which will face Malta in the next 20 years: the demographic deficit and dependence on foreign workers to sustain Malta’s economic model; Malta’s deteriorating urban quality of life and environment; and the increasing gap between haves and have-nots in society.

Leadership is key.

Malta’s style of politics has become increasingly presidential. But this does not mean the Opposition leader should sully his hands with every political hare that is running on our 24-hour news cycle. Scoring political debating points at weekly Sunday meetings will not turn around the deep malaise affecting the PN.

In conditions of such disarray and demoralisation, Delia’s major task is to reinvent and reinvigorate his party and win back the trust not just of its core supporters but of the country. His party-political skills must be paramount. He must be capable of inspiring the PN by re-instilling discipline and the desire for power. He must select and motivate a more dynamic parliamentary front bench of shadow ministers.

He must ensure that the party machine is there to support him organisationally in opposing the Labour administration. He should reach out to those party elders - now retired from active politics but still fiercely loyal to the PN they had shaped into an election-winning machine for 25 years – to help him build bridges with those who are currently disaffected but still yearning for a change of course in Maltese politics. 

The beginning of political leadership is a battle for the hearts and minds of men and women. Adrian Delia must find ways of healing the wounds that have divided the party not only during his short tenure, but also in the years before 2013.

Alone, he will surely fail. With a reunited party behind him, he might succeed.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece


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