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Tracking bait and switch

‘EU leaders hold our Prime Minister in very high esteem’ - Glenn Bedingfield. Photo: Jeremy Wonnacott/DOI

‘EU leaders hold our Prime Minister in very high esteem’ - Glenn Bedingfield. Photo: Jeremy Wonnacott/DOI

For those of you who missed it, the blog run by Glenn Bedingfield, the Prime Minister’s communications aide, has this week carried a post identifying ‘the most corrupt government Malta ever endured’. Yes, the 25 years of Nationalist government from 1987 to 2013.

You’d think it was one government, not five separate administrations, five times chosen by the electorate over the Labour alternative. And, unless you knew already, you wouldn’t know that 22 months in that period featured a Labour government that began to implode and haemorrhage voters’ support within a few months of being elected. But who’s counting?

As Bedingfield informed us in another post, the important thing is that we now have a prime minister, Joseph Muscat, who is “respected by both sides in the highest echelons of the EU”.

Those pedants wondering since when the EU has only two sides – when the Council has multiple alliances and the European Parliament a wide range of political parties – are missing the crucial point:

“The EU leaders hold our Prime Minister in very high esteem. His wisdom and sound judgement is [sic] respected and his opinion is sought after.”

An equal of Angela Merkel? Nothing as pedestrian. Reminiscent of Helmut Kohl and François Mitterand? Think best in Europe. Surely not a successor of De Gaulle, De Gasperi and Adenauer?

Well, actually: “Malta’s PM is the most respected PM ever on the European stage.”

Perhaps Bedingfield really meant the most respected Maltese PM ever, even if that’s not what he wrote. And he has a right to discount Eddie Fenech Adami winning the European of the Year Award in 2003. That was only given by the Brussels-based newspaper European Voice. (Admittedly, an influential paper but can we really exclude that it was part of a pro-Nationalist media bias?)

However, there’s a limit to how many adjustments one can make for overexcited, unedited prose. Words have weight, especially when written by the Prime Minister’s communications aide.

Should we not take Bedingfield at his word when he reiterates (in another post) that the Nationalist Party ‘definitely’ ran the most corrupt government Malta ever had? And adds: “...who robbed billions from us all.”

Billions? We’ve had four years of Labour government and another 22 months between 1996-98. Where are the arrests? The police investigations?

Now, if I had to exemplify the concept of clean, accountable, transparent government to an anthropologist from Mars, I wouldn’t begin with any of the Nationalist administrations we’ve had. But ‘definitely’ the most corrupt?

How come everyone missed this? Including successive Labour oppositions from 1987-2008? Their leaders and deputy leaders might, and did, speak of the influence of (robber) barons and of Malta being treated like the feudal estate of a clique.

But they were careful not to say the ‘most corrupt ever’. It would have lost them the next general election. Fresh in everyone’s mind then was the fact that the Nationalist administrations succeeded 16 years of Labour governments, the last 10 characterised by increasing thug rule and corrupt administration. Even official Labour documentaries lauding the achievements of Labour governments tended to pass over in silence the years 1979-87.

And, of course, during his five years as Opposition leader, even Muscat stayed away from talking that way.

On the contrary, trying to woo middle-of-the-road voters, he spoke of his admiration and respect for Fenech Adami’s governments. He went out of his way to draw a distinction between Fenech Adami and his successor, Lawrence Gonzi, who was blamed for departing from the former’s standards.

It’s only once he captured government that he begin to talk of all Nationalist adminstrations as one rotten regime, with a legacy of lethargy and corruption as their distinguishing features.

It’s a classic example of what the Americans call bait-and-switch. You dangle bait for your target audience – tell them you’re not really a partisan man and can recognise the good your opponents have done. Once you’ve captured their sympathy, you switch the story and push the most partisan spin – that your opponent was the most corrupt ever and robbed you blind of billions.

The same bait-and-switch is being used with respect to Muscat’s political persona. We started off with him only being the leader of a movement. His stump speech was that the real ‘protagonist of history’ was us.

That was then – in the Obama era. Now, in the age of Trump, it’s about him, the strongman, the most respected prime minister ever on the European stage.

The point here is not to give the Nationalists a pass. They need to earn our vote.

Nor is it just to lean back and snigger at carelessly edited blog-posts. To read “his wisdom and sound judgement is respected” and ask where, in all of this, is the European Parliament? It has excoriated him on passport sales and the Panama Papers and voted against two of his nominees to the Court of Auditors.

The point isn’t even Bedingfield, who is simply pushing his leader’s line.

The point is noticing the bait-and-switch, so that we can notice it when it happens again. Whoever tries it.

When politicians give cagey half-apologies for their political party’s past, we should insist on a full explicit one. Otherwise, there’s no guaranteeing that they won’t try to rewrite the past as soon as they think they can afford it.

Let’s keep the past safe for those who suffered it. And let’s remember that wholesale deterioration of a political system begins with bait and can be tracked with each switch.

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