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The meaning of Metsola: an analysis of her maiden mass meeting speech

As she addressed her first-ever party mass meeting last Wednesday, the president of the European Parliament might not have been trying to position herself as the Nationalist Party’s prospective leader.

But as Roberta Metsola took the podium, the crowd’s cheers, and her speech outlining a vision for the country, were for many Nationalists a sign she could become leader and give new hope to a party struggling to make significant inroads in the polls.

The Nationalist Party held the first Independence Day mass meeting in four years on Wednesday. Photo: Chris Sant FournierThe Nationalist Party held the first Independence Day mass meeting in four years on Wednesday. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

Former PN campaign manager Christian Peregin doesn’t think the speech was her pitch for leadership. Rather, it was the start of the PN’s campaign for June’s EU parliament elections, “in which Metsola will be the main protagonist and PN is under pressure to perform better than in previous elections”.

“Her speech had a simple but powerful message: that things can be done differently to the ‘anything goes’ attitude of Labour. I think it was a hopeful message that resonated with many people of goodwill who no longer recognise their island and are feeling helpless,” he said.

“Metsola is right in saying that the first step to improvement is to visualise the Malta we want. That is what her speech did. It didn’t go into enough specifics of how to get there, except that we need to make sure we have honest, hard-working people at the top who are determined to do the right thing. But maybe it is as straightforward as that. And if so, she is well positioned to be one of those people.”

While the speech had too many platitudes for his liking, it was not a typical mass meeting speech which constantly attacked Labour for applause.

“The tone was closer to what you would expect from an EU speech. If she ever decides to try local politics, this will be a challenge she will have to overcome,” he said.

“This change of style from EU to local politics was something Joseph Muscat adapted into well but Simon Busuttil struggled with.”

Wednesday’s mass meeting was the culmination of PN’s three-day celebration. Photo: Chris Sant FournierWednesday’s mass meeting was the culmination of PN’s three-day celebration. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

‘Preamble to a manifesto’

Political analyst and public policy lecturer George Vital Zammit is confident Metsola’s speech was “a preamble to a political manifesto for the next two or three decades”.

But reading too much into it and imagining it as the beginning of her political life in Malta would be too speculative at this stage, he believes.

“She is definitely a good candidate to lead the country if she wants to, but to me, rather than being a tester to a leadership bid, her words were a very important statement from someone who would like to lay out a vision for the country, of a politician with a mission to change the country. Whether she will be in the driving seat or not is all speculation,” he said.

“I don’t see why a speech of that nature should be construed as a speech of a prospective party leader. As president of the EU Parliament, she lays out her vision for EU states wherever she goes, so why can’t she do it in Malta as well?”

For Zammit, one of the highlights of the speech was her call to eradicate, or at least address, mediocrity and set higher standards, “quite a high bar in the context of the Maltese way of doing things”.

However, her calls for meritocracy, justice and environmental safeguarding were not new. Bernard Grech and other leaders had spoken about them repeatedly.

Roberta Metsola has been non-committal about her intentions with regard to local politics but all eyes are on her to assume leadership of the PN. Photo: Chris Sant FournierRoberta Metsola has been non-committal about her intentions with regard to local politics but all eyes are on her to assume leadership of the PN. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

Also, the fact she spoke in the first-person plural – we – indicated this was not her vision but the PN’s.

“We must be careful not to look at Metsola as if she were a silver bullet that will solve all the country’s problems,” he added.

“But she’s setting admirable goals and standards, hinting at principles which have been tarnished over the past decade. Joseph Muscat had set some of them in 2013 and they were as admirable and needed back then, but he never achieved them.”

Former PN communications director Alessandro Farrugia. Photo: Alessandro FarrugiaFormer PN communications director Alessandro Farrugia. Photo: Alessandro Farrugia

‘Not too late’

Former PN communications director Alessandro Farrugia said Metsola’s views have been spelt out repeatedly on several occasions by Grech and party MPs. In her affable style, Metsola “recapped the long-standing vision for the PN as a nation which embraces the highest possible standards and excellence”, he said.

“She adopted a prepositive narrative unadorned by ad hominem criticisms. Her address spelt out the collective vision of the PN for a better nation, the safeguarding of its values, its well-being and that of its people, the sustainable generation of its wealth and the realisation that tomorrow belongs to us all, but above all to its youth.”

“It is an undeniable fact that the several serious and despicable political circumstances which repeatedly occurred during this past decade rendered our nation vulnerable. Now, more and more people are recognising that Malta is in a dire and desperate need of rediscovering itself,” he said.

“I am on record writing in this newspaper stating that the PN is not dead and embracing its values gives us nothing to be penitent about because the PN can really be a positive catalyst for change. And this can happen, differences apart, if we all come together and strive to achieve it.”

Metsola rightly understood that it is not the size of the country that determines how much it can change but its people’s determination, and if everyone believes it, it could really happen.

“I firmly believe that the PN can return politics to being an opportunity to create meaning once again, and just as she reiterated ‘it’s not too late’. No, it is not,” he said.

Strategic communcations consultant Lou Bondi. Photo: Facebook / Lou BondiStrategic communcations consultant Lou Bondi. Photo: Facebook / Lou Bondi

Symptom not cause

For strategic communications consultant Lou Bondi, the “avid interest in Roberta Metsola is a symptom, rather than the cause, of what has been going on deep inside the Maltese body politic”.

“In the past, people acquired political views from ‘their’ political party. Sure, voters always floated but mostly between parties. Today, they seem to be floating beyond them,” he said.

“For decades. most people (certainly not all) have been acquiring more material wealth, more liberty, more communication channels, more exposure to what lies beyond the Grand Harbour, more Europe. Yet they are at a loss, fumbling to process it all, dithering about what they want out of politics.

“Ironically, despite the newly found confidence to think independently, many have become emotionally and intellectually paralysed. They struggle to think, let alone think straight.”

Bondi said the “old political signposts are gone, yet the new ones are not up yet”, and while the era of mass meetings seems to have been left behind, people are not quite sure what to do in “this new alien pjazza”.

“As Dorothy tells her dog when she arrives in the land of Oz, ‘Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore’. Tragically, even on issues of right and wrong, most turn away, bored to tears,” Bondi said.

“These circumstances have birthed an intense search for political leadership which personally, emotionally and deeply connects with people, guiding them towards new certainties. Across the political divide, I sense a deepening public craving for a national leadership which appears to make sense of it all – for the right reasons or the wrong ones. Someone who turns the bricks of the present into a legible bridge between the past and the future.”

Former PN campaign manager Christian Peregin. Photo: Christian PereginFormer PN campaign manager Christian Peregin. Photo: Christian Peregin

‘Labour’s attacks on Metsola will mount’

Peregin believes Metsola is a great asset for the country and the PN. He predicts her star will rise further over the next few months but not without more attacks against her from Labour.

“I am glad to see her working alongside Bernard Grech, with both of them showing a good, united front. I still firmly believe the country needs a fresh change of administration and the sooner PN is ready to govern, the better for us all,” he said.

“Recent surveys are showing this is a growing sentiment in Malta and after at least 10 years of Labour dominance, the tide may have started to turn.”

Farrugia was not surprised by the enthusiasm around Metsola’s appearance and her address on Wednesday. Given she has successfully carved a name for herself and for Malta internationally, and as a prominent member of the PN and leader of the EU Parliament, the reaction “was unsurprisingly widely expected”.

Political analyst and public policy lecturer George Vital Zammit. Photo: George Vital ZammitPolitical analyst and public policy lecturer George Vital Zammit. Photo: George Vital Zammit

Zammit also expected the spotlight to be on her, and why not, he said.

“Her speech addressed the apathy and frustration many people are feeling right now, and she told those people that we have the power to design a good future for ourselves rather than succumb to the helpless and hopeless idea that nothing can change,” he said.

“Roberta attracts the attention of people who want to see a change. I think most people’s hope is that she comes to Malta. It’s only natural. And she would be welcomed in Maltese politics.

“Whether she would be a success is an entirely different story. Political history is loaded with people whom nobody knew and who turned out to be a success, as much as it is loaded with big shots who failed to make it when they found themselves at the helm of political power.”