Voters don’t use identical benchmarks when judging prime ministers and Opposition leaders, let alone Labour and Nationalist Party leaders. It’s a maxim to remember when weighing the New Year’s Eve addresses made by Robert Abela and Bernard Grech.
By now most voters think they know Abela. So his performance won’t change their minds, one way or another. Just as well. Abela still can’t give a speech straight to camera without coming across as highly artificial and with a ham actor’s gestures.
But it doesn’t matter. Abela addresses large gatherings well and he can read a crowd. When the general election comes along, video footage will edit the best of these live moments. He might still appear awkward during a TV debate, but, at that point, debates won’t be decisive.
What about the shameless hyperbole?
In case you missed it, Abela wasn’t content to say that this pandemic was the greatest challenge Malta’s faced since WWII, although even that is a stretch. He told us it could even be the greatest challenge ever.
All of history, eh? Tell that to the victims of the plague of 1813-14, which killed 4,668 when the Maltese population was only 100,000; it wiped out 15% of Qormi, Abela’s father’s home town. Or tell it to the 6,000 people in Gozo who were carried off as slaves by the Ottomans in 1551. Or…
Then again, don’t bother. Abela didn’t even remember the people who died this year.
Instead, he praised his own handling of the pandemic. He said Malta came through brilliantly while other countries were ‘smashed’.
That comes very close to blaming other governments for their countries’ devastation. It suggests there is a known way of handling the pandemic properly, which some governments ignored.
The fact is, of course, the pandemic is a multi-variable crisis, which makes each country unique. Malta was not alone in avoiding lockdown but some countries with this policy had severe problems anyway. And what about us? It’s true that Abela was right to resist calls for a total lockdown, but he also got the second wave badly wrong.
Still, why insist on context when his address was a context-free zone?
Abela boasted that his government obtained twice the amount of EU funds that the Gonzi government did a decade ago. Yes, and he conveniently omitted that the EU was dishing out a lot more funding this time around.
He boasted that this economic crisis was a lot more serious than the Great Recession that began in 2008. That depends on what you’re measuring.
Abela was making a point about State aid. In this case, 10 years ago the problems were more serious. The very financial system was on the brink and economic recovery was slow across the world for several years after. This year, the financial system remained sound, the US economy came roaring back quickly, and general economic recovery is prospected to begin next year, not five years from now. Stimulus packages today don’t carry the political and economic risks of a decade ago.
Some of this hyperbole matters. It’s unlikely Abela will get people to improve their idea of his competence but he is undercutting the PN’s economic record. Abela doesn’t need the business sector to have a high opinion of him (it doesn’t). He just needs it to have a lower opinion of the Opposition.
That’s why BernardGrech’s New Year’s Eve performance mattered more than Abela’s. People are still making their mind up about him. His speeches are all they have so far in deciding whether they can see him as prime minister.
Grech spoke better than Abela but that’s a low bar. He mentioned the people Abela ignored — the victims of the pandemic — and spent much of his time showing his appreciation for the frontliners. But it was too generic, like his promise of more investment. Rote words convey rote sympathy.
More importantly, the picture he conveyed of that Malta which emerges from the pandemic was, like Abela’s, a cardboard one of simple pleasures and cuteness, where the politician congratulates the tiny nation with a big heart.
There are, it’s true, voters who care about hearing this. People who live in a world in which it is possible to feel pride but never shame; to show courage but never cowardice or bravado; to practise unity without ever smothering liberty; who think love of home is possible without home truths.
But my wager is that most voters think that world is as real as a flat earth. And they will treat a politician who speaks like a Hallmark card as though he’s a cardboard figure.
In cardboard politics, Abela wins the general election every time.