In-fighting, contradictory statements, backtracking, debts. These are just some of the issues that have recently made headlines with regard to Malta’s party in Opposition.
The result of a voiceless, seemingly inconsequential opposition is that the government has run amok with the public purse, doing pretty much as it pleases, leaving many who are tired of, and infuriated with, the government’s wanton disregard for rules feeling like they’re fending for themselves in a system dominated by two political parties.
According to the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, the parliamentary opposition consists of those political parties that are represented in parliament, but which are not part of the government. The Venice Commission lists several functions undertaken by the opposition.
These include offering political alternatives, articulating and promoting the interests of their voters (constituents), scrutinising the legislative and budgetary proposals of the government, supervising and overseeing the government and the administration, and enhancing the stability, legitimacy, accountability and transparency of the political processes.
By virtue of its constitutional right, the PN is the official opposition, and on paper, you can say that it performs most of the functions listed above.
Nevertheless, just because the PN issues several press releases daily, it doesn’t mean that these will translate into tangible action. What’s more, the party is plagued by a host of other issues that constantly restrain its momentum and dampen its clout.
A party in opposition cannot do much opposing if it cannot agree what it’s opposing in the first place.
In the latest episode of contradictory statements, Opposition Leader Bernard Grech criticised people who pit Maltese against foreigners when discussing public order issues. This criticism came after the party’s spokesperson for internal affairs, Joe Giglio, called for foreigners who break the law to be immediately deported.
This is the second time Grech has had to intervene following comments made by Giglio.
Two months ago, Grech had to clarify that Giglio’s doubts about the credibility of Pilatus Bank whistleblower Maria Efimova do not reflect the party’s position.
Differing views within a political party are necessary, even healthy, but having to repeatedly clarify to the public your party’s official stance because of what party officials say makes it look like the party hasn’t quite settled on what position to take.
An opposition party cannot properly supervise and oversee the government if it’s constantly putting out metaphorical fires within its ranks.
Since Grech took over the leadership of the PN 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.
While the tit-for-tats continue to make headlines, as various current or former party members hurl accusations against one another, the Labour Party in government has, for the most part, kept a tight lid on its own internal divisions and does its utmost to project a united front despite obvious cracks between the old and new leadership.
The party in government may be making a hash out of most things right now, but it’s the opposition that appears to be in complete disarray.
The Opposition’s stand on big issues is a mixed bag
On thorny issues such as hunting, the PN chose to appease the hunting and trapping lobby by declaring its support for the practice despite the European Commission’s infringement proceedings against Malta over its continued defiance of European law.
Under its current leader, it also failed to take a strong position against Malta’s golden passports scheme, also facing infringement proceedings by the European Commission. Following a joint media investigation of the Passport Papers, Bernard Grech said that the findings show the need for improvements in the cash for passports scheme, not its removal. Its former leader, Adrian Delia had called for the scheme to be scrapped.
Similarly, it tried to tread the middle ground when it failed to denounce the rampant overdevelopment since the Labour Party was elected in 2013, saying that a “balance” needs to be struck between development and the environment. This led to criticism that the party was protecting the interests of developers from whom it too receives ‘donations’.
Worthy opposition should be the rule, not the exception
When the PN did oppose issues more forcefully, they had an impact.
When the opposition tabled a draft Bill in parliament that incorporated all the major recommendations made by the public inquiry board tasked with establishing the State’s role in Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination, it was the first most tangible step towards implementing the board’s proposals. It also highlighted the government’s deliberate and calculating inaction on the issue.
The judicial protest filed by the opposition against the government over the “fraudulent and corrupt” hospitals concession deal originally signed with Vitals Global Healthcare (VGH), later passed on to Steward Healthcare, put the government’s negotiations under the spotlight. The judicial protest was based on the court case opened by former Nationalist Party leader Adrian Delia in a bid to have the contracts that handed over three public hospitals to Vitals Global Healthcare rescinded, which is soon to come to a close.
Following The Shift’s revelations that the government was trying to renege on the deal signed with Air Malta employees before the general elections, the opposition called on the government to stick to its agreement and challenged the government to state the reasons behind the sudden change of mind.
In response to the government’s budget cuts for the University of Malta, the opposition asked for a clear and unequivocal answer about the reasons behind the cuts and whether there are more cuts planned for other educational institutions.
The PN pressured Culture Minister Owen Bonnici to the point where he finally had to explain why Palazzo Vilhena has been turned into an open-air restaurant without any call for tenders or expressions of interest. It was revealed by The Shift, but how often has the PN ignored major scandals revealed by the press when it can act on each of those scandals to do its job of holding the government to account?
Coordinated strategic action from the PN is the exception, not the rule, and much of the direct action in opposition to the government, whether in the form of peaceful protests on Comino or judicial protests filed in court, is being undertaken primarily by activists and NGOs.
In 1966, in his book titled ‘Political Oppositions in Western Democracies’, Robert Dahl said, “[t]he fact that a system of peaceful and legal opposition by political parties is a comparative rarity means that it must be exceedingly difficult to introduce such a system, or to maintain it, or both”.
In Europe today, many take the existence of organised political party opposition for granted, but it was not always so. Even within the old and mature democracies maintaining and perfecting a well-functioning system of political opposition is a challenging and continuous task, but someone must do it.
Malta’s party in opposition should stop taking its role for granted.