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MW 13 September 2017

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10 maltatoday, WEDNESDAY, 13 SEPTEMBER 2017 Opinion T here's been a lot of talk in recent weeks about how 'you can't have a healthy democracy without a strong Opposition'. And if this is true – I think we can all safely agree it is – then how healthy can our democracy possibly be... if it doesn't have any Opposition at all? Last Sunday, for instance, Joseph Muscat addressed a rally on the occasion of his 'first 100 days' since the election. Exactly why he bothered is, admittedly, something of a mystery to me. So he actually survived his first three months (and a few days) in office, huh? After winning an election by a landslide, and without so much as the ghost of an Opposition party to hinder him in any way? My, what an achievement. Who on earth would have ever guessed...? Sorry about that: sometimes I intentionally let go of the brakes on my sarcasmobile. (Note: Having a sarcasmobile is a little like having a pet dog: you have to take it out for walkies every now and again, otherwise it will crap all over the floor). But in any case: personally, if I were Joseph Muscat I would have waited another 20 days, then commemorated '120 days of Sodom' instead. It would have been... oh! so much more meaningful... OK, the sarcasmobile has had enough exercise for now; it can go back in the garage. So where was I? Ah yes: last Sunday Joseph Muscat gave a speech, lasting some 45 minutes or so, in which he raised a number of key 'challenges' that his government intends to somehow tackle in the coming few years. Most of them involved highly sensitive issues such as immigration, the environment, traffic, waste management, Air Malta, rent regulation, drugs, etc. You know: the very nuts and bolts of this thing called 'politics'; the sort of issues that political parties can't possibly afford to ignore, if they ever want to in any way justify their own existence. So naturally, I sat back and waited to see how (or if) the Opposition would respond. For there was much in that speech that merited response. It is not enough to be merely aware of the existence of such 'challenges'... the precise way one intends to tackle them is kind of important, too. And Muscat's way is so rife with contradictions that it would be almost criminal for an Opposition party not to immediately seize on at least one or two of them... even if just to show us all that it is still paying attention. For instance: we were told that Malta will be looking at ways to replace all existing petrol or diesel powered vehicles with electric ones, possibly over the next 50 years. Yet at the same time, the Planning Authority is happily dishing out permits for new petrol stations in practically every nook and cranny of the islands... with a special emphasis on ODZ areas, of the kind that Muscat's government is supposedly also committed to 'protect'. Likewise, Muscat also spoke about 'integration', and the need to avoid further 'ghettoisation' of immigrants. In almost the same breath, he revealed his government's plan to close down to Marsa Open Centre, and simply move all its residents to the Hal Far barracks instead: i.e., shifting an existing ghetto from one area to another, with the declared aim of isolating its already ghettoised inhabitants even further from the rest of the community. And now that the residents of Birzebbugia have complained, he's decided to shift them all somewhere else. We don't know where yet, naturally: but if the selection criteria remain the same, it will be somewhere as far from human habitation as is humanly possible. Comino, perhaps. Or maybe Filfla. And this, from a government that tells us it believes in 'integration'... I could go on, of course... even if the job of pointing these things out (and, more pertinently, offering an alternative way of tackling the same issues) actually falls to the Opposition, not to me. It is, after all, the Opposition that has a Constitutional obligation (not to mention an electoral mandate) to keep the government in check. That – in case everyone's forgotten – is the whole point of having things called 'elections' in the first place. So like I said, I waited patiently for the Opposition to do its job... and not entirely in vain. Within a few hours, Alternattiva Demokratika came out with a formal reaction... despite not having the same Constitutional obligations as an elected parliamentary Opposition. Later, 'Partit Demokratiku' – which actually does have MPs of its own – did likewise... and a very detailed response it was, too. But the senior member of the Opposition coalition? The Nationalist Party, which keeps telling us how important it is for our democracy to have a 'strong Opposition'? What was its reaction to the prime minister's (highly questionable) vision for Malta's the next 50 or so years? Absolute zilch. Oh, there was an official PN press release, yes... featuring the grand total of five (5) measly sentences, in which not a single one of those (or any other) national issues was even fleetingly alluded to. In fact, the only aspect that remotely interested the PN was the part where the prime minister, in passing, mentioned Simon Busuttil. Muscat told us that Labour MEPs would be supporting Busuttil's nomination to some European post or other... and that – i.e., the single most mundane, inconsequential and utterly unimportant detail to emerge from the entire speech – was the only thing the Nationalist Party considered worth actually responding to. So presumably, if Muscat decided to omit that little detail altogether... the official Opposition party of Malta would not have reacted at all. Perhaps it would have been better that way, too. 'No response' is always better than a response which reveals at a glance how completely cut off your party is from its own Constitutional obligations. Meanwhile, I suppose some of you out there might be thinking... but hey, hang on a minute. The PN has a leadership election on its hands. How can it possibly function as an Opposition party under such circumstances? It would be unrealistic to expect the PN to take time out of its busy, self-effacing schedule to actually do its job... (the same job it once gave itself a pay-rise for, remember?) Hmm, yes, good point. How can any political party possibly carry out its day-to-day functions, while also conducting an entirely routine administrative procedure like electing a new leader? I don't know... in the same way as PD managed this week, perhaps? They're in the process of electing a new leader, too. Did it stop them from fulfilling the most basic of its commitments as part of a parliamentary Opposition? No, and with good reason. Leadership elections are no excuse to go AWOL. That's why political parties have internal structures... not just to backstab each other, but to actually see to it that the entire machine keeps ticking over at all times. And the PN in particular has plenty of internal structures: it has an executive council, a party president, a party secretary-general, a think-tank, a communications department, a CEO (who apparently gets paid 60 grand a year... for what, exactly, nobody knows)... etc. Etc. Are we to understand that not a single one of those entities is capable of keeping the ship afloat, without a party leader to hold its hand? If so, then the party is nothing but an extension of its own leader... which, at the present moment, also means it is an extension of absolutely nothing. Under such circumstances, I can only (reluctantly) conclude that Malta's only real Opposition right now is the microscopic PD... and yes, AD too, if we extend the definition beyond its Constitutional sense. Other than that, we are clearly living in a one-party state: not because one party usurped the country... but because the other one simply left the building of its own accord. Raphael Vassallo A one-party state 'No response' is always better than a response which reveals at a glance how completely cut off your party is from its own Constitutional obligations

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