What a disappointment Bernard Grech is turning out to be. Fence-sitting, wishy-washy and unremarkable, he’s starting to look as questionable as his predecessor was. Neglecting to take the hard decisions needed to get the PN back on track, his bleating about unity and waiting for proof are beginning to make him seem as spineless and innocuous as the fried egg jellyfish in our September seas.
One of the reasons Simon Busuttil was such a superb leader for the PN is that having actively participated in political forums throughout his adult life, he was fully aware of the imperative to do things correctly from his earliest days as a law student. That, together with his innate honesty and integrity, meant he was one of the very few current Maltese politicians with no skeletons in their closets.
Losing Busuttil to the baying of the crowds was the PN’s biggest and most crucial mistake. In selling itself to the lowest common denominator in search of the cheap, populist vote, the PN rendered itself unelectable. Under Delia’s leadership, it was a mess of scandal and controversy, ripped apart by internecine squabbling that highlighted the deep divide within. The vote to oust Delia was long overdue when it happened, but at least it gave some a glimmer of hope that all was not yet lost.
That is, until Bernard Grech was elected leader. Once again, a man with no background in politics, a lawyer with what should have been a disqualifying history of tax irregularities.
Grech’s supporters were quick to attack Robert Abela for having shopped him to the tax authorities. But frankly, that perfectly in-character and predictable act of spite, possibly even fueled by machinations from within the PN itself, was completely irrelevant. Wrongdoing remains wrongdoing, regardless of who blows the whistle on it. The attitude of Grech’s supporters to this was akin to schoolyard bullies chanting “tell-tale-tit” at a child who’s reported the bullying to a teacher.
While many in Malta seem to view tax issues as unimportant, maybe because they themselves have had run-ins with the tax department, or have done their share of fudging over the years, when it’s a political party leader who could become prime minister, it’s a major problem. How can a man who spent 12 years in default with the tax authorities suddenly turn around and order everyone else to pay their taxes or else? This was an issue with Delia and is just as great an issue with Grech.
It’s also one of the major flaws in the idea of having an “outsider” take over the leadership of a political party. What may be seen as minor peccadillos in your average man-in-the-street become the benchmarks for public behaviour when political leaders are not held accountable for them.
And some issues are simply too pivotal to be brushed aside, too momentous to be waved off dismissively. Pierre Portelli, sidekick to ousted former PN leader Adrian Delia and already under pressure for his alleged connections to the owner of 17 Black, Yorgen Fenech, this week resigned his position on the PN executive committee after reports emerged that he planted stories attacking his own party in the Labour media.
According to The Times, when asked what he would do about these reports, Grech said he admired Portelli for having resigned for the sake of the Party. He admires him. He admires a man accused of actively working to sabotage his own Party. A man with so many dark clouds hanging over his head that both his faces are hidden deep in their shadow.
While two-faced backstabbers are a dime a dozen in Malta, it doesn’t make that kind of behaviour any less despicable. And we are entitled to ask why on earth the current leader of the PN feels comfortable about publicly expressing admiration for a person accused of such frankly astonishing treachery.
Asked about whether the PN would be holding an internal investigation into Portelli’s, and Delia’s, misdeeds, Grech fell back on the old favourite of truth-dodging politicians: these are allegations, and he has to wait for the facts before acting. Translation: I’m trying to find a way of wriggling out of doing anything, so as not to enrage Delia’s remaining supporters and to ensure they stick around to vote for me when it counts.
The PN has truly lost its way. Its officials, its MPs, its leaders since 2017 have forgotten what the Party was supposed to stand for. The 2017 election result literally ripped the paper-thin veneer of integrity off the face of the Party and many of its supporters. If dishonesty and corruption was a winning game for PL, then let’s all join in, seemed to be the mantra.
But erasing that surface of honesty and decency has led to catastrophe, at least for those of us to whom it meant anything. It’s becoming harder and harder to see how the PN can ever extricate itself from the moral quagmire it’s plunged itself into.