Ready, come what may
The Labour Party's leader may be recovering from a serious operation, but general secretary Jason Micallef says this has not derailed the Opposition's preparations for the election.
If there is one thing both Alfred Sant's friends and foes will agree upon in their assessment of the Labour leader, it is that he is a survivor. Events that unfolded in recent weeks only serve to underline his determination to keep going.
He was involved in a showdown for supremacy within Labour Party against the mighty Dom Mintoff, albeit at the price of a very bitter, premature electoral defeat in 1998. He remained at the helm despite losing the election on the crucial issue of EU membership in 2003. And after he fought his way through to the eve of another election, and the change to put his plan for a new beginning to the electorate, an unexpected hurdle appeared before him.
A mere 10 days after a major operation, a very frail but resolute Dr Sant faced journalists during a news conference with a 15-minute, frame-by-frame account of one of the most challenging episodes of his life. To accentuate that he is returning to the party core and to take stock of this week's general conference, he popped into work for short periods in the past week.
The party's general secretary and one of his closest aides, Jason Micallef, was abroad for a short break when medical confirmation that something was wrong first surfaced.
"I received a message saying Dr Sant wanted to speak to me. He makes it amply clear with his body language that he is not thrilled when I go on leave, but when you're away he'll make sure not to disturb you."
Mr Micallef was due back the following day and agreed to meet Dr Sant at home as soon as he arrived. "Even this aspect confirmed to me that it was serious. We meet everyday but at work, never at his home. He didn't say on the phone what it was about and I didn't ask. I know him well enough to know that he wouldn't have told me anyway."
The Labour leader greeted him at the door and went straight to the point: "We have a problem... well, I have a problem, a serious health problem."
Mr Micallef recalls: "He explained to me that he had had some tests and that the results were not positive. At that stage we didn't know what sort of treatment he would require. Eventually he underwent more tests and it was decided that he would need the operation.
"It was difficult for me on different levels. Dr Sant is a friend and I consider my friends to be an extension of my family, so to see him go through that was very difficult. There is also the other dimension, the thought that... my God, did it have to happen in the final leg of the race?"
Beyond the intimacy of it all, the political dimension featured very prominently all along. After the operation, Dr Sant's first question to Mr Micallef was about how the party and its supporters reacted to the news.
"I just told him not to think about that but he kept asking throughout his stay there," he says.
Saying that he had a major operation but without giving an indication as to the seriousness of it all is bound to open the door to a barrage of legitimate questions. Had the party also kept in mind the political implications of this episode and if it had provided more detail, last Monday's press conference could have been avoided.
Mr Micallef disagrees: "Given the circumstances and the way things developed, I stand by everything we did. Cancer is different to other conditions because it's not simply about the operation, but its potential implications. We had just sent the samples to the Royal Marsden Hospital so it would have been premature to provide further details.
"Even when you consider the matter from a political angle," he admits, when prompted, "the less you say in those circumstances, the better. If you say too much but cannot substantiate it, it's the worst thing that could happen because that fuels more uncertainty."
But it was precisely what was not said that fuelled the uncertainty, to the extent that Dr Sant subsequently felt he had to divulge every last detail of his condition personally.
Still he insists: "I am happy with the way we handled the situation because there was a lot of feedback that supported the position we took, both from Labourites and Nationalists, who felt that the line had been crossed (when details of his condition were divulged)".
He insists that the story broken by The Sunday Times on December 30 giving details of Dr Sant's operation earlier that week was "sensationalist". He makes it a point to stress repeatedly that the media had adopted a different approach when Eddie Fenech Adami, as Prime Minister, had undergone two operations - in 1999 for a triple heart bypass, and in 2000 for a growth in the lower intestines, almost identical to Dr Sant's case except that the growth turned out to be benign.
Yet, it is pointed out to him, the information about Dr Fenech Adami's condition was published in both cases and it came from official sources. Besides having the medical team give a detailed press conference about the bypass, the statement announcing that the former Prime Minister would be undergoing treatment at a US clinic specialising in cancer made it clear that he was suffering from a stricture in the intestines. Similarly, after the operation, the statement by the Government, although short, had stated that a benign growth had been removed during a two-hour operation.
He remains unconvinced: "Still, I can tell you that when Dr Fenech Adami was operated upon in the US, the decision to go to the Mayo clinic was taken because it was suspected that what he had was more serious than what he luckily turned out to have.
"He was Prime Minister then and 65 years old and yet nobody questioned the implications on his political future at the time. He was wrapped in cotton wool, unlike Dr Sant..."
Labour had little cotton wool to spare at the time. When Dr Fenech Adami was undergoing his heart bypass operation, the local council election campaign was in full force and most Labour opinion makers, including the Labour leader, kept up their critique.
"You mean to say we didn't show our solidarity with Dr Fenech Adami? Dr Sant himself was the first to give him his best wishes," he interjects.
But the point is that when In-Nazzjon charged back last week at Dr Sant's Wednesday column in The Times, which was political through and through, Labour defended itself by saying that the article was insensitive. "What we found objectionable was the sarcastic tone of the subtitle, something to the effect of 'Sant is doing very well after his operation'. There is nothing wrong with continuing the political debate, but at that stage we felt that it was grossly insensitive and the PN was very careful not to repeat that line in its reaction to our statement. In fact, I am informed that the Prime Minister was not at all happy with that comment and I think he actually intervened."
The bickering, as newspaper columnist Lino Spiteri pointed out recently, continues to confirm that business is really going on as usual. But while Dr Sant's consultants say he is likely to be fit for an election, recovering from that kind of operation and taking chemotherapy cannot be a walk in the park in the best of circumstances. Has it ever crossed the leadership's mind to ask for a postponement of the election date?
"No, of course not," he says categorically, "As if. The election is the Prime Minister's prerogative... we are ready for it come what may."
But surely Labour would prefer to have its leader fighting fit before the election?
"We are a big party and we can adapt to any situation. Had the election been called in December we would have been ready for it, if it is called now, we'll be ready too."
So is there a contingency plan in case there are complications and Dr Sant's recovery takes longer than expected? "No, we haven't been thinking of that. So far, the outlook is very good. I was worried about this, particularly before the operation, but after the medical reassurances I've been given, I'm not worried any more. If things change, we will adapt to them as we go along but so far there's nothing to suggest they will."
There is every indication that the party is firing itself up for the event. The general conference, where Dr Sant is expected to make his first political address next week, is intended to mark that.
The cavalry has been called in from Europe: a meeting of some 40 to 50 MEPs from the European Parliament's Socialist Group, including the PES president, former Danish Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, has been organised to coincide with the conference and the UK Health Minister and Labour MP Alan Johnson will address the conference.
Beyond the glitz and photo opportunities, however, the general conference will be approving three motions that reflect the process of Labour's policy adjournment and which will serve as a platform for the electoral manifesto, Mr Micallef is keen to point out.
"Particularly our regional plans - and the Grand Harbour plan takes pride of place here - not only to regenerate the area, but to finally exploit the great economic and social potential of this great harbour from Kalkara to Sliema: something which the Nationalists have been talking about for 20 years but never acted upon."
Most of the plans span over 10 years or more, a symptom, as one commentator pointed out recently, of the visionary fever that the local political class seems to have contracted. But it's time to leap forward, Mr Micallef stresses, with grand scale projects which require long-term planning which, however, is staggered into shorter term goals. This, he says, is what a new Labour government will be determined to deliver.
What happens after the storm that has hit Labour settles will determine whether the party gets a chance to prove it can do this.