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Strong, constructive Opposition

The conduct of the Nationalist Opposition in Parliament last week set an important precedent for the five years ahead of us.

The public and civil society must feel engaged in all stages of policy development

For the first time in recent political history, this year’s Budget was approved unanimously by both sides of the House. As promised by our party leader, Lawrence Gonzi, we supported the same Budget that had been unceremoniously rejected by the Labour Party last December.

We did this because we want to be a constructive Oppostion. Very little changed from the Budget as presented by the previous Government and, therefore, we saw no reason to disagree with it, let alone vote against it.

So, unlike the Labour Opposition of just four months ago, our vote was based on the contents of the Budget being presented to us rather than on political opportunism.

Back in December, the Labour Opposition had said that it was unheard of for a party in Opposition to vote in favour of a Budget, regardless of the fact that it agreed with the strategic policy direction and measures proposed. Well, it now turns out that the PN is proving to be the real constructive Opposition after all.

Indeed, we plan to work differently. As the party in Opposition, we have set out with the objective of fulfilling a credible, intelligent and constructive role. And I hope that this will remain the direction even after the upcoming PN party leadership contest.

I, for one, am committed to do that if I am elected next month as party leader.

This is not rhetoric. It is what the public expects of us. So we should humbly set about doing it.

My view is that, fundamentally, our role as an Opposition can be broken down into two important tasks.

Firstly, we must provide a sharp, intelligent and positive critique of the Government’s decisions and actions. We must scrutinise the work being performed by the present Administration and also ensure that it implements its 800+ electoral commitments. If it does not, we will hold it to account. And we will be there, watching over it, every step of the way.

This is why, over the past days, I highlighted the functions of an Opposition in the media and in Parliament. I argued that the Prime Minister’s attempt at offering executive roles to members of the Opposition undermines democracy because it would deviate the Opposition from performing its crucial function of democratic scrutiny. For how can the Opposition criticise the Government if it is itself performing governmental functions? This would be reminiscent of a one-party system and it flies in the face of the Opposition’s duties towards the public.

Moreover, if Prime Minister Joseph Muscat was truly keen on involving the Opposition, he could easily have considered my proposal to reintroduce the Opposition Nominees Act, a law that would grant the Opposition the right to nominate its representatives on specific government boards. This law was introduced by a Nationalist Government to enable the Opposition to be present in key public boards to conduct its role of scrutiny at close range.

But the law was abruptly repealed by Alfred Sant’s Labour Administration in 1996.

Muscat is now at the helm and he has the opportunity to re-enact this law. Yet, so far, he has not accepted this proposal. This raises doubts on whether his offer to the Opposition was just a gimmick.

Secondly, it is not enough to be vigilant. The Opposition must also endeavour to present alternatives to the ideas and proposals we choose to challenge. With this in mind, I have proposed a number of measures as part of my campaign for the PN leadership.

Among others, I believe the PN must surround each and every one of its MPs with a team of dedicated people who would provide the MP with information and research and serve as a sounding board for ideas in developing new policies.

At the same time, our political think tank – AŻAD – can continue to develop its function of conducting policy workshops, training the party’s next generation of candidates and bringing together experts and non-experts alike to update party policies on an ongoing basis.

Yet, developing new policies cannot be an academic exericse. The measure of success of the policies we propose lie in how well we address the needs of our ever-changing society.

So we must study the shifting social and economic realities in our homes, our families, shop floors and businesses.

So far, we had limited our interaction with civil society to policy scoping and consultation on policy proposals. This must continue but we must now go beyond. Today, more than ever before, the public and civil society must feel engaged in all stages of policy development.

We can set ourselves apart as an intelligent, competent and loyal Opposition that is able to articulate serious policy alternatives. This is what will distinguish us from an Opposition that is more intent on undermining the Government or playing chess games.

And it will also make us a credible alternative government.

Simon Busuttil is Nationalist Party deputy leader.

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