Opposition Leader Bernard Grech said on Sunday, without a hint of irony, that his Party is the only opposition to the Labour government.
Grech said this during a fundraising telethon asking for donations from the public to address the massive debts the PN faces despite owing millions in taxes to the public purse.
He said it a day after an NGO reclaimed public land in Comino, a protest that garnered wide support from the public on an issue that has plagued the country for years and on which neither political party has acted.
Grech’s belief that the PN is the only thing standing between the government and an absolute lack of accountability, follows MP Joe Giglio’s comments on a radio programme interpreted as belittling the efforts of civil society – efforts that led to the downfall of the seemingly-invincible Joseph Muscat.
The grandstanding over the PN’s role as the only counter to the Labour government continues to isolate the Party from potential supporter bases keen on an effective political alternative to the rampant corruption and the resulting impact on people’s quality of life. Civil society groups have had to fend for themselves, mounting challenges to the current government while the opposition has spent the last few years lost in its own problems.
Since Grech took over the Party in August 2020, following Adrian Delia’s ousting, the Party’s bitter internal divisions have evidently not been resolved, with several Party activists and candidates handing in resignations before, during and after the 2022 general elections.
Besides the Party’s lack of internal unity, it also failed to build a real alternative to the Labour Party, a fact mirrored in the way in which the population shifted away from the major parties during the last general elections.
The Shift’s analysis of the results obtained by the traditional parties shows that the Labour Party’s voter base shrank by 8,000 since 2017, while the Nationalist Party’s voter base shrank by more than 12,000. Abstentions nearly doubled, from 31,191 to 59,727.
Crucially, the PN has chosen the path of the Labour Party, aligning itself with big business and lobby groups while failing to acknowledge or address the increasing frustrations expressed by NGOs representing citizens’ concerns and committed to anti-corruption and pro-environment campaigns.
A key moment in which the Opposition’s vulnerability to ties with big business was exposed was the fact that Ray Bezzina, Grech’s former right-hand man and key Party strategist during the 2022 general elections, went straight to DB Group right after he resigned from his position.
The Party’s closeness with DB Group was called out when the Party failed to condemn the €274 million Saint Vincent de Paule contract. Following a damning National Audit Office (NAO) report saying the contract was downright “illegal”, neither of the two major parties committed to cancel it altogether.
The fallout from the spat between former PN MP Jason Azzopardi and Grech did little to further the Party’s credibility among voters since Azzopardi, known for his anti-corruption crusading, alleged that the PN had taken hush money meant to ensure that a pardon for Daphne Caruana Galizia murder suspect Yorgen Fenech would be considered favourably by a future PN government.
Grech has denied the claims, but the lack of transparency on political party funding makes it close to impossible to verify. Grech refused to answer specific questions from The Shift on the matter.
While the PN in opposition has had its shining moments, in particular its multiple attempts at passing legislation lifted directly from the recommendations of the Daphne Caruana Galizia public inquiry and the multiple judicial proceedings started at the opposition’s behest in relation to major corruption cases, it has been evidently unable to successfully carry causes forward.
Instead, the PN, under Grech’s leadership, insists on distancing itself from government critics and civil society movements successfully highlighting corruption and abuse, adopting the Labour Party’s narrative, as though the actions of civil society to hold the government to account were an inconvenient truth for an opposition that wants to get elected rather than a cause it should take up in the public interest.
One of the best examples of the PN’s failure to align with civil society was the PN’s decision to appease the hunting and trapping lobby by declaring its support for the practice in spite of European Commission infringement proceedings against Malta over its continued defiance of European law.
The PN failed to take a strong position against Malta’s golden passports scheme, also facing infringement proceedings by the European Commission.
Similarly, the Opposition unconvincingly attempted to sit on the fence when it failed to slam the opening of the floodgates of over-development since the Labour Party was elected in 2013, saying at most that a balance needs to be struck between development and the environment.
On a multitude of issues, the PN’s position has been weak, at best. On crucial issues, it has been silent, preferring to focus on its own survival than carry forward the demands of civil society. The increasing popularity of civil society movements and the public support they enjoy should serve as a lesson to the PN. Instead, it complains it’s no longer in the limelight.