Simon Busuttil’s app­roach is seen as too soft: an accusation which is a bit overdone. However, perceptions of strength matter – especially in politics. After a full year at the helm of the Nationalist Party, people still aren’t persuaded.

The new PN leader fails the ‘blink test’ – not enough people can close their eyes and imagine him at Castille, including the staunchest of his supporters. There is still time to turn it around; many occupants of Castille do not look prime ministerial after only one year at the helm of their party. However, he needs to work on that.

For fairness’s sake, Busuttil has already implemented important changes within the party’s structure, and with the help of his secretary general Chris Said he restructured the commercial arm. That is a feather in his cap.

He is also putting in place some key policy commitments, notably the 10 policy fora to discuss new and updated political proposals for the party. And you’ve got to hand it to him; he has the makings of a brave leader. Busuttil left his Brussels job and became Lawrence Gonzi’s deputy leader only a few months before the last general election, when it was pretty obvious that the PN would suffer a defeat.

A few months later he took over a party fraught with internal infighting and flat on its back – politically and financially.

Despite a clamour for resignation from within the party after the MEP elections, he stayed on in a job nobody wants. Resignation, after only one year at the helm, would have been a defeatist approach. But the electorate, disgruntled PN supporters and his critics want, and expect, more.

Busuttil needs to demonstrate, in no uncertain terms, that he can be tough. The new PN leader needs to show boldness, not least with his own side. The Civil Unions Bill was an opportunity missed. It is said that a handful of his MPs threatened to resign had the party voted in favour of the Bill.

If that was the case, Busuttil, short of giving his MPs a free vote, should have called their bluff and let them go. Unless all Nationalist MPs and party officials understand the profound changes taking place within Maltese society and identify how to reach out to a wider segment of the population, the PN is doomed to continue failing.

The PN’s position on civil unions only served to marginalise people, further, from the party. The party needs to apologise to the people it antagonised. Busuttil would do well to admit, publicly, that the civil unions’ abstention was a mistake and announce that a future PN government does not exclude changing civil unions to read marriage.

There is, after all, no difference between the two in the new legislation. He needs to rid the PN of its ‘conservative party’ image. Perhaps it’s time to amend the party’s statute and include reference to the PN as a secular party.

Busuttil already did so in Parliament last month. He now needs to put it in writing.

Short of giving his MPs a free vote, Simon Busuttil should have called their bluff and let them go

Dialogue was always a core tenet weaved into the very fabric of the PN – the party needs to rekindle that. After the summer recess Busuttil should hit the ground running by launching a nationwide consultation process which would serve as the basis of a new manifesto.

Not stage managed events but a proper consultation process and, if need be, ‘come to Jesus’ meetings wherein disgruntled PN and middle-of the road voters vent their accumulated frustration.

It is a necessary part of the healing process. The PN badly needs to apply some soothing balm on the wounds of its disgruntled electorate, and to do that it needs to restore its image as a party that cares, listens and is not bereft of common sense when dealing with people’s everyday problems and challenges.

Busuttil is, also, criticised for lacking a ‘story’ – but the new PN leader has a story to tell. His story is nothing short of success – and failure.

In many ways he’s one of us. Busuttil is a very successful politician. In his early 30s he was selling, almost single-handedly, EU membership to a highly sceptical electorate; and he succeeded in doing so with astonishing success.

Shortly afterwards he became Malta’s first MEP garnering more than 50,000 first preference votes, and in the following election he increased his tally by more than 10,000. In Brussels he proved himself to be among the crème de la crème of European politicians.

He dedicated himself to politics and was brave enough to help the PN when defeat was a given.

But, in his personal life, he’s no different from the man and woman ‘next door’.

Are critics right about the PN leader? Partly yes. Busuttil needs to prove that he can be bold and assertive, not least with his own side. He needs to exhibit a higher degree of charisma, emotion and passion – not least in his speeches; ingredients which are necessary for any successful Mediterranean politician.

The PN leader needs to rid the PN of its conservative image and move his party to having a social-liberal agenda. And, finally, Busuttil needs to connect better with the people – by showing them that he is one of them. After the summer languor, Busuttil and his party face a crucial autumn. The PN is faced with a clear-cut choice: reform or be forgotten. It cannot afford to go into 2015 without having removed the shackles of the past and be the party that the electorate, and its leader, wants it to be: the people’s party

Busuttil has his critics, but he is the right man for the job – at the helm of the PN and as Prime Minister.

Frank Psaila presents Iswed fuq l-Abjad on NET TV.

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