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Putting on the style

The style adopted by the leaders of the political parties will be almost as important as what they propose to the electorate between now and the general election. In recent speeches the leaders of the Nationalist Party and the Labour Party have been experimenting openly. This was noted by a friend of mine, who phoned to ask me what I thought of the Independence Day speeches. He felt that a clear contrast had emerged between Lawrence Gonzi and Alfred Sant.

Dr Gonzi, my friend said, had largely avoided mentioning Dr Sant. The latter, on the other hand, had not only mentioned Gonzi repeatedly but at times had done so in the oddest of manners. The Sunday paper Malta Today commented on Dr Sant's style, not at all in a complimentary manner, yet without necessarily hitting the nail on the head. Eventually I got round to seeing a film of the part of the Labour leader's speech which had struck both my friend and Malta Today. It confirmed an impression I have built up of that politician's style.

Dr Sant is also a playwright, one of the best this island has produced. Very often his politics can best be understood in the terms of how a play is built up. This time round, unless I am mistaken, playwright-politician Dr Sant tried to project an oral caricature of his adversary, politician Dr Gonzi. I noted that the effort elicited some giggles from among the large crowd at that political meeting. But not much more than that. In fact it even created puzzlement, like that which sometimes grips part of the audience watching a play from the theatre of the Absurd.

The effort at caricature, if that's what it was, failed. It confused a fair few on the Labour side. It gave ammunition to the Nationalists, who portrayed it as part of a personal attack on Dr Gonzi. Having that ammunition in hand, the Nationalists promptly proceeded to blow it up in their own face, as they put on their style.

In mid-week the Nationalist media made much of what went on when Dr Sant went to give evidence in a libel case instituted against him. The headlines on Net TV on Wednesday and the PN's newspaper on Thursday blared the fact that the Labour leader had opted to make a solemn declaration, rather than complete the oath by kissing the cross. What they hoped to get out of that is easy to guess. Like Dr Sant's attempt at oral caricature, the effort backfired. Most people I met felt that this style of cheap subliminal attack on an opponent was taking matters over the top of the dung heap.

Under our established practice one can take an oath either by swearing to tell the truth and kissing the cross, or by making a solemn declaration to do so. It is an option. Among other things it was used in Parliament in the 70s by a member of the then Nationalist Opposition.

It is a personal choice, usually not at all fodder for political propaganda. The fact that it ended up as indirect propaganda confirms that there will be no sweet-smelling blossoms on the way to an early spring general election. The campaign is going to get more personal and dirtier than ever before.

As it happened, the British Labour Party held its general conference. Gordon Brown gave his first address to the conference as prime minister.

Having been prime-minister-in-waiting for several years the man is giving ample proof, so far at least, that he was well worth waiting for.

He doesn't have the dash and flair of Tony Blair, his predecessor. And his speaking style can be a mite dull. But his arguments penetrate like well-hammered nails. He is not interested in flim-flam, only in putting an argument in as deeply as possible.

At the Labour general conference he honed his style in a manner that struck many political reporters and commentators. Listening to the BBC's report, the first highlight to come across was that the UK Prime Minister had referred, not even once, to the Conservative and Liberal parties. Mr Brown had concentrated on issues. He stuck to the various themes he has been developing since taking the top-post to show that he did not merely take the baton from Blair - he is running his own race, in his own manner and style. He does not call it New Labour. That's old hat. Gordon Brown does not call it anything. He simply does it. And he's well ahead in the polls - even on a head-to-head consideration with the latest Conservative leader, an Oxford graduate who is considerably younger, more handsome, exudes charisma and turns in a good speech with a manful delivery.

Mr Brown has clearly concluded that he can arrive in people's hearts through the mind. No caricatures for him. No smudging of opponents. He does politics in his own personal and measured style. It works.

I wouldn't be surprised if it worked in Malta as well, for serious leaders who tried it seriously.

Wardens: good guys + a proposal

The warden system is not as extensively bad as many of us, including yours truly, make it out to be. The other day I started the week on the wrong foot. Barely crawling along close to a roundabout, I was run into at the rear side by a young man who had momentarily lost concentration. He immediately came over to say it was his fault and we agreed to call the wardens, for insurance purposes.

I got through straight away on my mobile phone. The receptionist's first question was a solicitous "Was anybody hurt?" The wardens were on the spot in less than five minutes and did what they had to in as much time to unblock the artery where the accident happened. That helped clear away some of my prejudice against wardens.

What is really wrong with the system is not the company that runs it and the people who man it. It is the way the authorities want it implemented. The focus is on parking on yellow lines, or too close to a corner, using a mobile phone while driving, and such like. Similar offences should not happen, certainly. But the priority should be on prevention, rather than penalising offenders.

The warden system is not at all built on prevention. Yet there is a tremendous need for that. Speeding is a pet subject with me. But there is much more to be said. Particularly when we are claiming to be so conscious about clean air and cleaning up our act, controlling emissions should be made a priority objective.

I have a suggestion. Once a week, over a period of three weeks, deploy all the wardens in the system on spotting emissions and reporting the offenders. They will have a problem keeping up, with so many buses, trucks, older cars and even government vehicles belching away. Fine the spotted offenders a token Lm5 and give them a fortnight to effect what requires to be done to stop the emissions of their vehicles.

Repeat the exercise after a month. Subject first-time offenders to the same treatment - a token fine, a time-limit to adapt - but impose a proper fine on repeat offenders. Have the exercise carried out once a month, all the year round.

That should focus warden resources on what has become a primary problem all over the island. Let the authorities really demonstrate that the warden system has not been introduced essentially as a revenue raising measure. Emissions apart, there are other aspects that need to be addressed. I received two successive notices telling me that hearings in regard to offences by me had been held, that I was found guilty and if I didn't pay the fine by a certain date...

For one thing, such notices can be written much better. What does it take to include the time, date and place of the offence, and to word the advice more politely? That aside, in one case I had not found any ticket on my car, and in the other case I could swear that I had paid the resulting fine over the Internet. On checking, the reply was again as courteous as could be, in contrast to the template letter advising me of the tribunal's decision.

One of the replies was slightly alarming - it results paying over the Internet does not always ensure that the payment reaches the intended kitty: paying by cheque at the local council was more secure.

I was as pleased as anyone that Malta was classified second in terms of the electronic facilities being provided by the many public sector sites in operation. And, yes of course, let's aim to be first, not just second, the next time around. But being second in the EU does not mean that the systems being deployed are perfect.

A touch of humility in accepting success and a bit more critical reviewing and quality auditing would not be out of place.

Michael, Michael!

He was breathtaking, and the reaction fitting. Michael Mifsud, the Maltese footballer who signed for Coventry City, astounded Manchester United and dazzled the thousands of Maltese who were watching the match - his match - on television.

Michael's feat, three nights after it happened, is already history. A football feat that will make Maltese breasts swell with pride for many years to come. His first goal was a typical poacher's hit. A diminutive figure, he flew into the right spot at the right time. Michael then followed up with a superb flick which struck the Man Utd upright. In the second half he scored a tremendous goal. He raced from close to the half way line on the left, outpaced Man Utd's seasoned right back, dummied around him, passed to a colleague and as the latter smoothed the ball half a metre in front of him, glided in to fire a shot into the net.

The only way it could have got better was if he'd scored a third goal, a hat-trick, from a position which came to him unexpectedly, and which nerves may have helped edge away from the net. That was the game. The reaction was unexpected. Malta cheered, although the political TV media did not find it fitting to give him the first headline.

More than that, Man Utd fans cheered Michael, despite their - our, for I am one of them - passionate dedication to their favourite team. That put to right some of the bias we Maltese have for foreign teams. Great wizardry, Michael, even beyond your remarkable football talents.

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