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Political pacts and coalitions

Not a week had passed since I had finished reading Desmond Zammit Marmarà’s well documented bio-graphy of Sir Paul Boffa, Malta’s first Labour Prime Minister, translated into English by Boffa’s own granddaughter, Anne Schranz, that the death of the other former Labour Prime Minister, Dom Mintoff, was announced, exactly 50 years and 45 days after Boffa himself had passed away.

In those countries that are used to decisive election outcomes, a hung Parliament is often viewed in an unfavourable manner
- Ivan Sammut

Two great Labour leaders who had one thing in common: they loved the worker and did everything possible to better the Maltese workers’ social position.

When I was growing up I used to look at these two personalities in awe, even though Boffa had died four years before I was born.

For most of my life, I have lived in Paola opposite the former home and adjoining office that Mintoff used when he worked as an architect, a street away from Boffa’s former residence and five streets from Mintoff’s last home in Tarxien. As a child, I used to listen to my parents and grandparents telling me stories about both Boffa and Mintoff and I used to stop and admire Boffa’s house every time I went to purchase the newspaper for my father.

What struck me most in Boffa’s biography was his endless pursuit to better the standard of living of workers. During his premiership, the Labour Government:

• introduced the old age pension, thereby allowing retiring workers a decent living, which they did not have before as their income stopped with their employment, forcing most of them to beg on the streets;

• introduced income tax, a necessary reform for the future introduction of social justice;

• introduced better conditions for workers, increasing their salaries and lowering their hours of work;

• made the greatest of efforts to eradicate illiterateness;

• diminished in a considerable manner infectious diseases and their incidence;

• demolished and reconstructed the Mandraġġ slums.

As I see it, the 1949 split in the Labour Party resulted from a clash of personalities of these two great leaders and Boffa’s change in attitude, adopting a softer stance towards both our colonial masters and the Church – maybe a sign of getting wiser with old age – a stance that did not go down well with Mintoff.

The split led to Boffa forming the Malta Workers’ Party and a coalition with the Nationalist Party after both the 1951 and 1953 elections, a most controversial move after which his popularity started to decline considerably.

Lately, Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando’s resignation from the Nationalist Party and its Parliamentary Group has been equated to a coalition between the now independent MP and the PN in government.

However, to my mind, this is not a correct definition of the prevailing situation in the Maltese Parliament. The definition of “coalition government” in Wikipedia is “a Cabinet of a parliamentary government in which several political parties cooperate”.

The 1951 Borg Olivier – Boffa coalition was a situation of a minority government, where the largest party won only a plurality of seats and bargained for support from Boffa’s Malta Workers’ Party.

This is hardly the situation today where we have a defection of a Government MP who has resigned from the party and declared himself independent.

In reality, in Malta we have today a confidence and supply agreement, which is defined as a “formal pact which falls short from creating a coalition government”.

Actually, we also have a hung Parliament. Such a situation occurs when neither of the major political parties (or bloc of allied parties) has an absolute majority of seats in Parliament.

Hung parliaments arise when slim government majorities are eroded by election defeats and defection of MPs to opposition parties or resignations.

This happened in the United Kingdom in December 1996 to the Conservative Government of John Major and in mid-1978 to the Labour Government of James Callaghan, which ended its 15-month pact with the Liberals having lost their majority in early 1977.

It has been said that in those countries that are used to decisive election outcomes, like it has mostly been the case in both the UK and Malta, a hung Parliament is often viewed in an unfavourable manner, leading to a relatively weak and unstable government.

Also, with regard to minority governments, because of no confidence motions, they are frequently short-lived or fall before their term is expired.

Westminster and British media tend to perceive a minority government as unstable and ineffective because the recent examples of the minority governments of Callaghan and Major occurred as a result of government decline.

Similarly, it is hardly undeniable that Lawrence Gonzi’s current unstable minority government, trying to pass or not to pass business in a hung Parliament, has led our beloved country into a totally unfavourable situation.

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