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Power and the Cornucopia

Our two major political leaders blew their horn mightily this past week and also turned it into a cornucopia. The Opposition leader evidently decided not to engage in a Budget debate with the Prime Minister, who doubles as Minister of Finance. Replying to the Budget speech on Monday, he set out to explain why the electorate should return a serious Labour government the next time around. In response to Alfred Sant on Wednesday, Lawrence Gonzi thundered away at why the electorate should leave power in his safe hands for another five years. In the process, both accused each other of panic.

I disagree with both of them. Each knew exactly what he was doing. They exploited the occasion purely for their partisan political end, rather than to debate finance and economics, which is what the annual Budget should be all about. If anybody is pushed to a feeling of panic it is likely to be the voters, who would not be blamed if they wondered what they have done to deserve all this.

The two leaders carried out the task of political animals locking political horns with calculated abandon. There was nothing reckless in the Opposition leader's style. He weighed his every written word and rolled it out with poise. Gozni did the same with his introduction and then went off on a high note to counter his opponent and berate him vigorously. At one point, the Prime Minister even made the wicked suggestion that somebody had written the Labour leader's speech for him. That was absurd. The words and delivery were pure Alfred Sant. From the way he chose to refer to Dr Gonzi only as "the current prime minister" to the manner whereby he scripted the speech on the basis of a consistent attack on the Government's incompetence paralleled with a honeyed exposition of Labour's plans as the alternative government, it was an outright solo performance from conception to delivery.

I suspect that was largely the case, too, with Lawrence Gonzi's reply. He too had inputs from research carried out for him, no doubt. But the way he strung together an opening touch of aloofness from partisanship along with scathing, slashing attack, reflected a Dr Gonzi moulded into a fighting machine by 40 months of power and determined to pull out all the stops to win the coming general election. He did not even pause to take a much-needed sip of water.

All in all Dr Sant's was the smoother delivery, though the content was marred by the absence of any reference to the disabled, unless it came when I was away from my TV, and by his typical repetition of the slogan he had chosen for the 2008 Budget well before the Prime Minister delivered it. On his part, Dr Gonzi marred his aggressive delivery by speeding through it to an extent that many listeners would have understood little of what he was saying. His rollicking style was suited to rouse the faithful troops, who don't care about the message, but was not at all the manner to convince waverers and the undecided.

For all the political and personal distance between them, the two men had one thing in common. Each seemed to believe he had access to the Cornucopia, the mythical horn of plenty. According to Greek mythology, the master god Zeus gave the horn to a woman, Amalthea, who had raised him on the milk of a goat. The horn, Wikipedia summarises, had the power to give the person in possession of it whatever he or she wished for. It is also known as the Harvest Cone, which fits in well with the Prime Minister's vocabulary and symbols. He was hot about having sewn these past three years, to reach the time of harvest in the Budget for 2008. He stressed it was prudent. Yet various economists, this one included, feel he is taking a big risk with public finances. He did not give too little, as argued by Dr Sant, though it's an open question whether he sought to buy votes too late.

On his part Dr Sant didn't have any crop to harvest. But his remarkable throwaway promises to make overtime non-taxable, his implied promises to give a much better deal on children's allowances and taxation, and his reiterated commitment to slash the fuel surcharge by half, suggest he believes he has his very own cornucopia.

In Wikipedia I read something I hadn't known of before - the cornucopia has now become associated with Thanksgiving. The people will wish they had one of their own to blow when our politics return to the inescapable realm of realism.

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