Far quicker than any one of us must have expected, the time lapse between the election of a new leader and the General Election is closing. Fast. The new PL leader has faced targets which he set himself or which the calendar brought to him: the local councils elections, the elections for MEPs, the regrouping of the party with the inclusion of new faces and the reappearance of many valid old ones. The next challenge is also one which the PL leader set himself: the Party Congress.
If I remember right, one of the main reasons which gave birth to the idea of a Congress was the election of the Leader himself. Many party supporters were observing a lot of lobbying going on among Party delegates and there was a general feeling that the choice of the delegates may or may not reflect the general opinion of the Party members. The existence of a Congress would widen the base of consultation on major issues such as this one.
It seems that the preparations for this Congress are now well under way: meetings have been scheduled in every town and village and the opinion of Party members as to what the Congress should discuss has been requested in various ways. Today I would like to throw in my own teaspoonful, without any pretensions whatsoever to originality ... maybe even less to validity.
For me, the first choice facing the Party is one of general orientation of the Congress itself: should this be a Congress for the talkers or for the would-be doers? If Labour is presenting itself as a forum, a tolerant front comprising a wide spectrum of ideas, there may be administrative decisions ahead which not everybody will like. Unfortunately, my own impression of the Party’s Annual General Conference is that of a string of speakers each delivering a dose of rhetoric and well-known facts, laced with a varying dose of subtle or less subtle abuse hurled at the PN ... but with little real import. It is perceived by prospective and existing activists, Members of Parliament and so forth, as an opportunity to be in front of the camera, to assure Joseph Muscat of their undying loyalty (applause) and of their admiration of his leadership (applause) and acknowledgement of his accomplishments (applause). The highlight is, and has always been even since Mintoff’s times, the closing speech by the Leader (with various opportunities for applause). If you were to ask any delegate walking out of Mile End what so-and-so spoke about, I bet he wouldn’t know.
This is one option. My question : is the Congress going to be a verbal version of a fashion show, with a line-up of speakers strutting their hour (God forbid) upon the stage (my apologies to WS)? In that case, I won’t go. I’m sure One TV will cover the event quite professionally, ensuring that the public’s darlings get their share of the limelight, while I shuttle between channels and my refrigerator.
The other option would be to put the difficult cards on the table: a reaffirmation of our credo: that we are tolerant, that we are leftist, that we believe in democracy, that we aspire to offer the opportunity for social mobility, that we still want Malta to be a centre for peace, that we believe in the institutions which constitute the fibre of our society: Parliament, the Judiciary, and others. Does this sound like rhetoric? Not with our institutions as they stand today, with Parliament playing waiting games and with some of the elected showing utter contempt for the dignity of the institution. What faith does the general public have in the various Authorities, MEPA to begin with?
It should also be a moment for the Party to reaffirm its confidence in its Leader. Considering that the choice of leadership was one of the triggers of the idea of the Congress in the first place, I’m sure this is on the cards (applause included ... ).
But the Leader needs more than applause. He is going to need a strong hand and the Congress must give him this.
If the PL wins the next elections, how are we going to ensure the promised balance between redressing injustices / grievances, and ensuring that the PL government does not in turn become an agglomeration of parasitic cliques? It’s all right to know who the prospective Ministers might be. (Applause). But who will their right-hand (and left-hand) men be? That is the question. Please don’t tell me that all the misdeeds that Ministers past and present (and please note that the past does not start in 1987) were or are accused of were actually the work of the Minister . Yes, the responsibility lies with the top official, but in their defense (for once) I’m sure that there are occasions when the Minister does not know what his/her staff are (wittingly or not) drawing him into ( sort of “and even our Masters don’t know the webs we weave ...” with apologies to Pink Floyd). What mechanisms are there, or will there be, to counter these instances? Or are we going to listen to NET news to discover them, when they happen? Because in a human context they are bound to happen. The public will not condemn the Party because there has been an act of corruption, but because the Party did not take the necessary action to pre-empt or to correct what was going on.
So there must be a mechanism which ensures correct practice. It might be a strong reaffirmation of our faith in the Auditor General’s office, a specific warning that no one will be spared, or it might be something else. That’s not for me to say. That’s what discussions are for. But there must be something.
Unless this message emerges clearly from the Congress, there are still hundreds of disillusioned (especially young) voters who will simply vote with their feet because they believe that politics is a inevitably a dirty business.
So, an affirmation of principles, a vote of confidence in the Leadership, an indication of faith in the democratic institutions of the country. What else? I think the PL must also re-affirm its position vis-a-vis the European Union. We are part of the Union on a basis of equality, and we will not pander or kowtow.
It is the fabric that Labour intends to give to the people, not necessarily the finished garment, that the electorate is expecting. With the PN spinning out of control as it is, the Prime Minister must be considering the date for General Elections from one day to the next. With the PN inevitably churning out its views and propaganda during Independence celebrations, this Congress may well turn out to tbe the PL’s side of the real electoral debate.