MaltaToday | 13 April 2008 | My greatest loss, 353 promises later and the game of deceit

OPINION | Sunday, 13 April 2008

My greatest loss, 353 promises later and the game of deceit

Saviour Balzan

That I have an opinion column to pen my feelings is a privilege. Others cannot carry this indulgence that far. Bear me with me this once.
After weeks wondering whether I should return to this column, I feel I cannot start off before paying tribute to the woman who kept me going for 22 years. Over the years I chose to keep her out of public life, because she was not only my wife but my soul.
Ebba was the Prussian baroness who landed in Malta in 1986. Back then everything was in disarray with riots and political hooliganism at a record high, and anyone with a slight involvement in civil society or politics was seriously considering leaving the islands. Yet E fell in love with an island, its people, the Mediterranean light and the utter confusion and made me stay.
How a person with such sophistication could end up with a brazen unrefined man like myself boggled everyone’s mind, including my own. The four choices of cheese, the bad Maltese pasta and the limited choice of wines; the roads, the litter, the fireworks and hunting did nothing to dampen her love for Malta.
But beyond the great sensation that one simply describes as love, she launched into a painting spree that would take her into her world of colours, nature, cats, the human body, Neolithic art, light and the spirituality in the surroundings. The end product was remarkable and she was prolific as they could come.
In the first years, we would walk the countryside; trailing every corner, accompanied by our faithful first Kelb tal-Fenek, Otto. She would scan the ground and return with artefacts that she would use for one of her works. She would pick up the chameleons with her curious eyes as I stupidly daydreamed about my political work and tripped over the thyme shrubs. In the first years she spent long hours alone with her books, cats and dogs, as I thought that somehow I would change the world with my politics. Thankfully, the persistent refusal to democratise the electoral system took me out of politics and closer to E.
Over the years she served as a beacon for the many Germans and foreigners visiting Malta or setting up house in Malta. She would have them over treating them to her unconventional cuisine which was influenced by her desire to experiment with local produce and exotic foods. But she would also inform them of Malta and the Maltese. And when some of the visitors would badmouth Malta she would say nothing but secretively write them off her list of future guests. She disliked moaners.
Always with a Benson & Hedges in one hand and a glass of red wine in another, she would entertain endlessly. And for once I would listen –– as she discussed the extensive literature she had consumed or an art project she was planning for.
As friends broke relations or people chose new circles of friends, E remained loyal to all of them and was always at someone’s side if in need of help. She would avoid entering into the merits or the missing virtues of a person. Perhaps that was one of the reasons she was loved by so many. Away from the art world she worked for the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung: an offshoot agency of the German Socialists, and kept up regular contact with the local people in politics. But when a Labour party woman in parliament stupidly attacked her because the FES was obviously in favour of the European Union accession, she said nothing and simply sniggered.
Though she was irked by the conservatism around her, she did not confront it head on; she left that to me and she would giggle when I came back home all flustered and frustrated at the changes that never seemed to take off the ground.
In her dream to span out to new horizons, she set up another gallery, this time in Brittany. The contrast was not only conspicuous but incredible. But once again, the light and the mystification of the Breton countryside and shore gave her energy.
For 11 years we worked to build a gallery there and in the process made friends and learnt about the true nature of Breizh culture and cuisine.
Perhaps the greatest time of our life was in these three years when she was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. It did not stop her from planning for the future: from living a full life, from seeking good foods, from producing endless artistic works and of dreaming about tomorrow and joking until the very last moments.
It was a humbling experience, it proved how fragile life is, how crucial it is that we live every minute and that we live a full life. It revealed the inadequacies of the health system in Malta; of the lacunas in the system; of the overstretched services; of the next-to-absent post patient care; of the acquaintances who acted like witch doctors with their superficial assessments and advice; of my agnosticism; of true friendship and of love. But it also reconfirmed the hard work of medical staff and doctors and nurses, of the real friends and of the unwavering vigour of the Maltese family – my family.
Many pass through grief but unless one experiences it personally, the nature of the pain is incomprehensible. In the process I realised how insensitive I had been when others had passed through similar experiences. I was humbled by the outpouring of sympathy and solidarity.
I am fortunate to have a heritage of artistic work to keep the memory of E alive.
When last week I visited the town hall where we married, and sat down in the l’Orangerie were we had dined and partied, walked up the stairs to the flat where we lived together, the snow fell and my feet froze as it did 22 years ago. When I returned to Malta I was greeted by a warm, sickly wind and it was 30C. I was back to the real world, my world.
On the flight the only newspaper available – The Times – talked about the same dreary subjects. The PM adorned the front page and all the foreign news was outdated and the letters pages could have been published 22 years ago. I was not quite sure I wanted all this again.
When the claustrophobia and the boredom became unbearable E would change all this with a a joke or a witty remark, a kiss and of course the smile.
Life as I knew it will never be the same again.

Of the ambitious 353 proposals made by the Nationalist Party for the next five years, the issue of electoral reform is not listed. It should have been. We cannot go on living with an electoral system that resembles a poorly repaired dyke.
Lawrence Gonzi should have known better: he was after all the chairman of the Gonzi commission on electoral reform, another report that was shelved and filed for posterity. He once said he would give all his attention to electoral reform, but nowhere did he declare how and when.
The one-seat majority held by Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando proves beyond doubt that next time round, this nation deserves an electoral process that does not suit the interests of either the PN or the MLP. So bad is our electoral process that Gonzi was petrified of the Green vote; so much so, that every time he thought of the greens, he launched into a tirade. He even had the gall to state that no one should vote for the Greens because the electoral process was flawed. Pity no one asked him: “Then why don’t you bloody well reform the process?”
There is little doubt in my mind that the PN won by being deceitful about JPO. Yes, deceitful. That applies to all the individuals who defended JPO and accused the Labour party of being a hate machine in character assassination and of destroying people. But in reality the Labour party knew what none of us in the truly independent media knew, and they made a mess of it.
When the PN bigwigs realised what JPO had done some days before the election, they did not declare the truth about JPO. They simply shut up and hoped that no one would realise. They even moved him away from centre stage.
Well, no one realised that JPO had lied, that JPO had reneged on his environmental credentials, and that JPO may well have compromised his position. So much so that he is being investigated for possible criminal misconduct.
Before the election, Dr Gonzi and bella compagnia had hoped that JPO would be a minister. He had refused the offer when made to him earlier by Fenech Adami. Yet now, JPO had somehow come round to accepting a post.. Encouraged, I would imagine, by long time buddy and former MTA senior official Jeffrey Cutajar, himself a Labour sympathiser, JPO had hoped he would replace Francis Zammit Dimech. It did not stop here: he had also trained his sights on the environment portfolio.
Long before the Mistra saga, where he lied through his teeth, he was Dr Gonzi’s most ardent supporter and more importantly, chosen on most occasions to front the PN in those debates which were supposed to inculcate a feeling of honesty and integrity. He was in simple English an aficionado of Gonzi, and Gonzi of him.
As the leadership battle looms in the MLP no one is really caring about JPO, but really and truly this could well turn into a national issue with the probable scenario that the Gonzi government loses its single seat majority.
If the PN did not have a one-seat majority, there is little doubt in my mind that the spin doctors would have been colluding with people in the media to concoct a story that would lead to JPO’s premature departure. But in the present situation, everyone is scared of irritating JPO.
JPO is either in complete denial or else is simply not aware of the situation, but he surely knows that his political future is finished – kaput, that is.
The PM cannot ask him to leave or even suggest he leaves, because he cannot shake the boat too much. He knows that JPO unwarranted course of action could swing the life expectancy of his government. It has not been a good start for Gonzi.
But if God did exist, I have no doubt in my mind that he would be a Nationalist. Destiny is simply on their side.
When the Labour party should be feasting on JPO, they are facing an intricate internal battle which is messy and distinguished by young Turks who think they are a reincarnation of Dom Mintoff, or else candidates who wish to see the rules changed to suit their electoral chances.
The PN is so contrite that they even go as far as arguing who would be the best candidate for the Labour party, which leads one to ask: since when does the PN feel so concerned about the plight of the Labour party.
The future of the Labour party is sealed not in destiny but in the hands of stupid strategic planners with the insight of a pea pod. Instead of having a quick election, they have extended the date for the election to June. The result? The longer time it takes to elect a leader, the more dirt and muck will surface.
The JPO revelation flies in the face of all those well-known pseudo journalists and full time apologists who justified his tears for fears. It erases my last contribution where I stated that I did not believe that he had done anything correct. I am sorry for having believed that JPO was a gentleman.
JPO epitomises all that the Gonzi campaign stood for.
And yet, the approach to the matter has been typically Catholic – avoid talking about the problem, this way no one will realise what is happening.
The last election was won on a number of issues, but if the JPO affair had been revealed some three days before, the PN would today be in the same state of the Labour party: confused, disoriented, depressed, lost and above all, in Opposition.
JPO has taken the wind out of Gonzi’s sails, the start up has been slow and sloppy and the silence over JPO leaves more unanswered questions than answered ones.
In the first days of government, we have seen nothing to distinguish us from the sluggishness of the former four years of this government. As we count our days, we await earnestly the implementation of the 353 proposals. The ones detailing economic growth will be interesting, more so considering that all the world is in the doldrums and our government promised the gullible electorate that it will defy economic gravity, and grow and grow.
I am not impressed, and guess what? With the opposition in complete confusion and the Nationalist unaware of how serious the JPO soap opera is turning out to be, I have no difficulty declaring that this column will be the first and foremost thorn in the establishment’s backside... so please stay with me. A bientôt.

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