The Malta Labour Party has distanced itself from racially objectionable comments made by one its backbenchers in parliament last week, but at the same time resisted any outright condemnation of a sentiment that appears to be shared by a growing number of its own supporters.
Speaking during the adjournment last Tuesday, Labour MP Joe M. Sammut, who contests the B’Bugia and Zurrieq districts, inadvertently stirred a hornets’ nest when describing the public transport problems faced by his constituents on account of the area’s growing immigrant population.
Particularly contentious was his apparent suggestion that the government introduce a new bus route specifically for immigrants: a vision of racial segregation that was instantly pounced upon by critics for its inescapable implications of an apartheid mentality. Admittedly, however, this comment remains open to interpretation.
Faced with condemnation by the Nationalist media, the MLP’s official reaction has so far been guarded to the point of extreme caution. The first to comment was party secretary Jason Micallef, who distanced the MLP from its backbencher without openly censuring him. However, he refused to be drawn into the question of whether any disciplinary steps would be taken. MaltaToday attempted this week to elicit the same information from the party leadership, but without a great deal of success.
Contacted yesterday, leader Alfred Sant was somewhat abrupt over the phone. “Sammut was referring to problems faced by Birzebbugia residents... Are you suggesting these problems do not exist?”
Sant also skirted the issue of alleged racism, asking instead for the questions to be sent in writing. But to be fair, the Opposition leader was only reached after numerous earlier attempts, and by that time he was late for another appointment.
Deputy leader Charles Mangion echoed Sant’s view that Sammut was merely reflecting upon the problems of B’bugia residents. “Joseph Sammut has clarified his statements, and it is a general explanation of his constituents’ situation. I think it was a statement that could have been misunderstood,” Mangion said, throwing in his own views on the subject for good measure: “Personally I regard racism as a something serious, and so does the Labour Party.”
When first contacted, MLP President Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi insisted he would not comment on Sammu’s declarations before seeing the transcript of his speech. After reading the transcript, he pointed out that Sammut had only hinted at the possibility of a new bus service directed towards the open centre. Pressed to state whether he agreed with a segregated bus service for migrants, Zrinzo Azzopardi replied that “the MLP was against any form of discrimination and believes in solidarity towards immigrants.”
Zrinzo Azzopardi also shrugged off any notion that his views may have been coloured by the fact that he shares a legal office with Joe Sammut: “That is irrelevant to the matter,” he said.
Efforts to contact Michael Falzon for his views proved futile.
The jury is still out on the intentions behind Sammut’s speech in parliament last week. But even when given the benefit of the doubt, Sammut nonetheless courted accusations of incitement to racial hatred with his undisguised distaste for “dawn il-klandestini” (these immigrants), and in particular, by constantly referring to immigrants as a source of danger and hostility to the Maltese.
Parts of Marsa, the Labour MP claimed, have become “a no-go zone for Maltese”. “I refer to the area by a former school, which has become dangerous for Maltese because it is dominated by all these klandestini,” Sammut said, in clear reference to the Open Centre in Albert Town.
One thing is clear: with his ingenuous Bus 13 comment, Joe M. Sammut has clearly exposed a certain reluctance on the part of the Malta Labour Party to antagonise the growing mass of Maltese voters – particularly from the south, where the bulk of the refugee centres are located – who openly or secretly subscribe to Sammut’s avowed scepticism on multiculturalism.