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INTERVIEW | Sunday, 27 April 2008

Gavin and Goliath

The man who would be deputy leader for party affairs will face a gargantuan task if elected: to reform the internal structures of a massive and unwieldy institution, and transform it into a ‘party of winners’. Gavin Gulia outlines his vision for a ‘radicalisation’ of the Malta Labour Party. By Raphael Vassallo


For the typical Nationalist, Gavin Gulia has for many years offered the “presentable face” of Labour. In fact he is known in political circles to be a tough opponent for precisely this reason: for like Lawrence Gonzi himself, his genial smile and trademark good-humour make him a difficult man to demonise.
I meet him at his Zebbug home, and he immediately lives up to his reputation for politeness. This encourages me to probe him on what many party sympathisers now find a hurtful and embarrassing question. For let’s face it: the MLP has been in opposition for almost 20 years; and after its latest defeat it seems that everyone (Gavin included) wants to have a hand at running the show himself. The external impression is that of a political party rapidly disintegrating before our eyes. So what, in his opinion, is wrong with Labour?
The mild mannered lawyer deflates this vision of chaos and anarchy with a wave of his hand. “First of all I wouldn’t consider what is happening inside Labour at the moment to be a reflection of crisis,” he begins. “On the contrary: it is a reflection of the party’s inclusivity. It’s a good sign that so many valid people are coming forward with their vision for change. And if there are many contenders for the same posts, well, who am I to deny them their right to contest?”
But what does this say about the perceived “electability” of Labour? How can a party inspire confidence when it projects the image that it doesn’t know where it’s going?
“To answer that question, we have to understand what took place over the past 20 years. We can’t look only at the outcome of the last election. Labour also lost the preceding two elections, and we also have to come to terms with the reasons for these defeats, too. Why has Labour lost for the past 12 years…?”
Echoing Alfred Sant, Gulia points out that in 1998, the country was in the middle of a “financial operation”. “It was clearly the wrong time to go for an election, and we arguably lost for this reason alone. Meanwhile, in 2003, there was the issue of EU membership. At which point you might ask: but what about 2008? By then, if there was any financial surgery going on, it was being done by the Nationalists. And the EU issue was behind us …”
Gulia answers his own question by outlining what he considers to be Labour’s underlying malaise. “I think that for the past 15 to 20 years, the Labour Party has lost touch with certain elements of society. There are entire sections of the population which simply do not feel comfortable with the prospect of a Labour government: for instance, the self employed – including the professional classes – as well as youth in general.”
Gulia then gives a brief overview of the socio-economic developments of the past 20 years, hinting in the process that these may have coincidentally placed Labour at a disadvantage.
“There were two major changes going on: the liberalisation of the commercial sector, which resulted directly in a growth of private enterprise; and the removal of the numerus clausus at university, which expanded the number of graduates year in, year out, resulting in an increase in professionals such as doctors, lawyers, etc.”
In the context of this reality, the Labour party also had to adapt and change. But this, Gulia reasons, did not happen at the same pace as the socio-economic developments, with disastrous results for the party.
“Labour has to start reaching out to these people. We cannot continue focusing only on the productive sector, as we have traditionally done in the past. We have failed to touch base with those other sectors, and as a result we lost their trust.”
This brings us nicely to the most obvious question for a prospective deputy leader for party affairs. How does Gulia himself intend to change that perception? He replies by outlining his plan to “radicalize” the party’s internal structures.
“We need an overhaul of the party’s internal workings, and I would like to be the person to achieve this,” he says. “We need to make direct contact with students, academics, doctors, etc; we need to reach out to voluntary organisations, the constituted bodies.… Basically, my vision as deputy leader of party affairs would be to externalise the structures, so that the post is not only concerned with delegates, the statute and other party matters.”
Does he feel he has support within the party?
“Yes,” he replies, nodding vigorously. “Since I signalled my intention to contest for this post, I have met with a number of delegates, and also other segments of the party. I must say that when I explain my position and vision to them, they empathize a lot…”
On paper this all sounds fair enough. But in practice, much would have to depend on the identity and programme of the incoming leader on 5 June. At this point I draw Gulia’s attention to a factor which arises directly from his previous statements. By suggesting that September 1998 was the “wrong time” to go for an early election, he appears to be echoing leadership hopeful George Abela, who recently claimed that he had disagreed with this decision at the time. But his known stand on issues such as divorce also appears to place him within the faction spearheaded by Joseph Muscat. Meanwhile, there are other candidates in the equation: Michael Falzon, Evarist Bartolo and Marie-Louise Coleiro. So: who is he backing?
Gulia smiles but avoids a direct answer. “I am prepared to work with anyone as leader of the party… provided, as I said before, that they agree with the need to push forward the principle of openness. One thing’s for certain: I will not back out of the deputy leadership contest after the leader is elected, regardless who that leader is…”
But pressed for a more specific reply, the former shadow justice minister explains that as far as he is concerned, it is not the identity of the leader which stands to make any difference; it is the programme of change itself. And on this level, he sees more similarities than differences between the candidates.
“For instance, everybody agrees that the party needs to open up to new members; to become more transparent; to reinvent itself in a way which makes it more attractive to different types of voter. On this, all prospective leaders agree. There is actually a lot of common ground. I personally I feel I can make a positive contribution to this process.”
I ask Gulia what he makes of the street-level rumours that, given the evident internal divisions and the already acrimonious wrangles, the party itself appears heading towards a split. After all, stranger things have happened in the past: in 1949, a 33-year-old Mintoff challenged Prime Minister Sir Paul Boffa, effectively bringing down the government and dividing the Labour Party into two. A similar clash took place in 1997 between Alfred Sant and Mintoff, by then aged 81. Considering all this, is he concerned that the party is gearing up for another clash of personalities?
Gulia acknowledges the difficulties of the past, but points out that today’s reality is not directly analogous. “The indications at present are that the party is moving forward on the consensus that change is needed. The fact that many people want to be part of that change is itself a positive thing. As things stand, there is no reason to believe that the party will split. On the contrary it will emerge strengthened.”
One issue the party appears divided on is the eternal controversy of divorce. Muscat has openly advocated a free vote on the subject in parliament; elsewhere, MP Marlene Pullicino (an outspoken supporter of Abela) has come out all against. And Gulia’s own views are…?
“Let me start by saying that I consider divorce to be a ‘facultative’ right. This means that (once legalised) the right will be there and can be applied, but only if it is needed. There seems to be a perception that the introduction of divorce will somehow ‘force’ people to go down that road even if they don’t want to. But it doesn’t work that way. Even so, however, let us assume for a minute that I myself am against divorce in principle. Well, who am I to deny others that right?”
Gulia makes no secret of the fact that he thinks the MLP should be the party to effect this social change.
“In the 1970s it was the Malta Labour Party which had the courage to introduce a number of necessary social reforms: for instance, civil annulment, as well as the decriminalisation of homosexuality and adultery. Labour had the vision and foresight to do this 30 years ago. Today, however, the issue seems to have been taken up by Alternattiva Demokratika. So why was AD so unsuccessful? If you ask me, it’s not because the issues themselves are wrong, but because of the perception that AD is not powerful enough a political force to actually bring those issues to fruition…”
Gulia argues that the time has come for the Malta Labour Party to rediscover its social democratic roots. “To be fair, we tried to do this in 1997. We did not find co-operation of civil society at the time; nor of the independent media. This was unfair. If there was one sector that could really have helped to encourage a national debate on the issue, it was the independent media. But I ask: why is it that the independent media is only capable of frank discussion under a PN administration…?”
Having said all this, Gavin Gulia acknowledges that divorce is a subject loaded with implications, and argues against any hurried legislation. “There must be discussion on the issue, which after all has serious legal and social repercussions…”
Coming back briefly to the Labour malaise, I point out that the talk to date has all been about the need to win. Isn’t there a danger that the Labour Party will become so obsessed with winning at all costs, that it might overlook its own principles and cease to be a “Labour” party in the long run?
Gulia shrugs. “Winning is important,” he answers simply. “Think about it: what would you do with all your principles if you don’t win? How can you implement your programme if you are not in government?”
At the same time he acknowledges the possible dangers: “What is politically immoral is to try and satisfy individual demands just to win votes. But one does need to cultivate a spirit of victory, and to be able to project the impression of being a winner. Besides, a party’s policies are also there to reflect the people’s wishes. I believe we have to tap into people’s aspirations and persuade them that we can deliver. BUT…” (he says this rather loudly) “…we also have to lead.”
All well and good, but I can’t help pointing out a small flaw in the argument. If the Labour party changes in order to attract traditionally Nationalist voters, wouldn’t that it make it just another Nationalist party with a different name?
“No, because there remain intrinsic differences in our way of doing things,” he replies. “For instance, in the past years the PN has concentrated on reducing the deficit… mainly by adopting a policy of increased taxation. We reason differently: the deficit had to be reduced, yes, but this could have been by stimulating the economy and increasing exports.”
Our biggest export, he insists, is tourism. “Labour’s commitment to this important industry is attested by our record between 1996 and 1998…”
Elsewhere, there have been convergences between the parties even on difficult subjects. Gulia himself was involved in one of them: namely, the overhaul of the Dangerous Drugs Ordinance in 2005, which was amended to remove the threat of mandatory prison for drug sharing.
“We had managed to strike a deal when we discussed the issue in the social affairs committee,” he recalls. “Now, the situation is fairer, in that an individual judge has discretion to apply or not a prison sentence in cases of drug sharing.”
However there are other reforms Gulia believes should be addressed in the coming legislature. “I would like to see a clearer distinction between ‘user’ and ‘trafficker’. The law as it stands doesn’t make this distinction, and there is also a mandatory minimum prison sentence of six months for all trafficking. Unfortunately, the reality on the ground is that unscrupulous traffickers often use their own clients in order to sell their drugs. In many cases, users become traffickers themselves in order to feed their own habit. The law does not make a distinction between these two different types of drug trafficking. I think it should.”
Gulia adds a personal perspective from his own experience as a lawyer. “I know some cases where a person with a drug history would have reformed himself long before his case is heard before the court. Sometimes they would have put their own past so far behind them that they would have since married and had children, and would not have taken drugs for years. Then their case comes up, and – because of how the law stands today – the judge or magistrate would have no option but to apply the minimum six month sentence.”
But though few would openly deny the need to address and other issues, it remains a fact that drugs are a hot political potato in Malta. Is Gulia convinced that his views are widespread within his own party?
“I have no doubt there is support for the above-mentioned reforms. I also think there would be support within the Nationalist party. In fact I believe that a bipartisan approach is the only viable way forward. I would be willing to work with anyone towards a solution. I don’t think that the party in government should decide to do this alone…”
Gavin Gulia adds that even in the past legislature, there were ongoing discussions and inter-party level on these and other proposed changes to the law.
“I had discussed the matter with (former home affairs minister) Tonio Borg. I found him to be very receptive and co-operative on the issue. I hope that his successor Carm Mifsud Bonnici will accept my invitation to carry on the discussions where they left off…”

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