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INTERVIEW | Sunday, 04 May 2008

Making the straightjacket fit

A free-thinking intellectual with a pugnacious sense of humour, a prolific writer and an orator of no mean thespian skill, he might have been Malta’s closest equivalent to Roberto Benigni, had he not chosen politics as his calling. But can the explosive Toni Abela fit in the straitjacket imposed by his aspiring role as deputy leader of the Malta Labour Party affairs?

Toni Abela is not a political newbie. Back in 1989 he became MLP president at the age of 32… only to promptly sacrifice a promising political career by speaking openly against the corrupt and violent elements which plagued the Labour party at that time.
This stand earned him the red card from the party delegates, whose vote he is now seeking again. And once more Abela breaks with tradition, promising delegates that if they choose him as their deputy leader he will not use this post as a launching pad for the next general election
“I will never, if elected, contest the general elections,” he says while praising work conducted by past deputy leaders who did not make the same choice. “The next five years are going to be very intensive, and will require 100% concentration on my part. I cannot spend the two years before the general election, when the party most needs the attention, doing home visits for my personal electoral campaign.”
He also thinks that by contesting the next election he could compromise his role as the coordinator of the party’s candidate section: one of the statutory roles of the MLP deputy leader.
“If I contest the election, I would enjoy a great power of incumbency because the role would give me great exposure… at least 15 candidates on the two electoral districts I could contest would see me as someone who could oust one or two of them from parliament.”
Neither does Abela see the prospect of becoming an MP as the only aim of political activism.
“This very week, in a letter I sent to Labour youths, I told them that you don’t need to be elected to parliament instantly to be a success when you’re young...”
He also cites two illustrious historical examples of people who changed the world from outside parliament.
“Two persons who changed the face of the world without ever being in parliament were Gandhi and Martin Luther King: to change the course of history, you don’t need to be an MP, even if MPs have an important role to play in politics.”
If elected Abela wants “five years of serenity” during which he would strive to avoid “sowing any seeds of tension.”
“Only in this way will I be able to nurture the self-esteem necessary in our delegates and party members. Without this self-esteem we cannot win an election.”
Abela also have very innovative ideas on how to address the party’s financial problems.
“I am proposing that the MLP can have its own commercial activities. If we have a market of 200,000 Labourites, these people dress, eat and drink like Nationalist supporters. The party can become a provider of services and commodities.”
Is Abela envisioning the party opening its own supermarkets?
“Why not? Why shouldn’t a political party fare as well as a private operator does when they open a shop? I want our supporters to become stakeholders in this operation. I am saying that what others can do, we can do it better.”
But is his reputation as a free thinker and a thorn in the side of the establishment compatible with serving in an official position in the party?
“(As a lawyer) I fight a lot for other people’s rights, but always with priority over my own rights, indiscriminately, whether we agree politically or not. Wherever I see an injustice, I seek to redress it. I see no divergence or conflict in being deputy leader for party affairs of the MLP, if elected, because this is not a matter of being a lawyer.”
Abela promises to stick to his role, that of re-organising the party to make it electable.
“It’s a question of political sense: I’ve seen what is happening in our party’s kazini and I have read the party statute, and I have presented delegates with my vision for the party.”
Abela’s character tends to be rather performative, and his oratory is very strong. Could this overpower the leader’s role?
“Not at all. I can say that each of the contenders for the leadership surely has a much better delivery than mine. And I am not in search of the limelight. I will be 56 when the next election comes along. I was also a TV presenter on political and cultural programmes, but I used to focus on my guests. I never hogged the limelight. I was just the anchorman.”
But does he risk alienating middle ground voters by his unashamedly populist brand of politics?
“Let me make it clear. I am contesting the post of deputy leader for party affairs. Surely it is important to look outside the party to convince those people we didn’t manage to convince before the election. However, we must not forget those on the inside. The people within the party must not be neglected.”
Still Abela makes it clear that he is not alien to middle-class voters.
“Look, I work everyday with middle-class people, from 9am to 10pm. I meet both Labourites and Nationalists, and I know what the aspirations of the middle class are.” But in its bid to reach outside towards categories like university students and people in business, the party should not lose sight of its core.
“Taking care of them means giving them attention. I feel we didn’t give much attention to our paid members, and we did not take sufficient care of our party clubs."
Political clubs – an experiment pioneered by Duminku Mintoff in the 1950s and 1960s to counter the Church’s influence at local level – are central to Abela’s vision for the MLP.
“The clubs and the candidates are the party’s tentacles. The clubs need more attention, financial and infrastructural support. I am basically telling delegates that the time has come for the party not just to summon the people from the clubs, but to listen to them. My aim is to have as much as possible everybody participating in the party’s decisions. I’m saying we must be closer to the people, and physically present in society, and not just for ceremonies.”
Giving a voice to the party’s rank and file is a major plank in Abela’s platform. He promises to reform the party’s statute to give delegates and members the right to contribute towards the development of party’s policy.
“One of my proposals is to have both members and delegates participating in the assemblies – the preparatory meetings the party holds ahead of its general conference – so as to ensure wide participation in the development of the party’s resolutions.”
Five years ago in an article called “What is to be done?” – an echo of Vladimir Lenin’s seminal 1902 essay of the same name – Toni Abela had himself proposed that the party leader should be chosen by both delegates and party members in a mixed electoral system which gives delegates the greater say.
“I believe the general conference should have the power to choose its own leader, much in the same way the Nationalist Party does, and as in the general election: I don’t know of any parliament of 320,000 people; the democratic theory is that the larger number is whittled to a representative, but smaller number.”
So does he agree with George Abela’s proposal to involve the membership in the election of the new leader?
“It’s not that I don’t agree. I think it needs to be studied more… I don’t want delegates to have a sense of inferiority, as though they are not capable of doing what Nationalist councillors always do when they elect their leader. It must be said that delegates are chosen by the paid members of the party, because the member delegates his authority to the person chosen to represent them within the party structures.”
Yet unlike the Nationalist Party in 2004, the MLP will be electing its new leader after three consecutive defeats.
Abela wants the party to look forward leaving the task of analysing Labour’s defeat to the commission entrusted with this task.
“I don’t wish to dwell on this autopsy, but to look ahead… The autopsy must take place, but if everyone does their own individual autopsy, things will only get more confused.”
Why didn’t the electorate respond to Labour’s campaign against corruption?
“One can say that an element of corruption is implicitly accepted by the Maltese because of our system of government and our political system. This is reflected in the Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando case, which did not knock off as many votes from the Nationalists as might have been expected.”
According to Abela, the man in the street was not irked as much by corruption as by proposals which directly affected their children.
“Things like the reception class could well have cost the MLP more votes than the PN's losses on the corruption issue. I’m not saying corruption should not be fought… but it seems the subject of corruption does not win you as many votes as one might expect.”
Abela is strictly neutral in the race between the five rival contenders for the party’s top post.
“I cannot give you my opinion because I am contesting for post of deputy leader. If I express my support for a candidate who is not elected, I would be instantly getting off on the wrong foot with the leader if I am elected to work with him as deputy.”
But Abela promises that anyone who is elected leader will have his unconditional support. “Whoever is elected leader will have me foursquare behind him.”
How does he interpret Mintoff’s support for George Abela expressed during last week’s meeting in Qormi?
“I am informed that his presence was not solicited by way of invitation… it could have been a personal initiative on Mintoff’s part,” reveals Toni Abela.
While expressing a “great respect” for Mintoff, “both in his historical and political persona,” Abela insists that “he should not be a factor in deciding who is to be leader or not.”
It is clear the PN media are giving a lot of exposure to George Abela’s candidature in this campaign. How does Toni Abela interpret this strategy?
“I take everything the PN does with a pinch of salt, because certainly it is not a party that can give Labour any lessons on how to manage its internal affairs. I remember that during the PN leadership election, nobody from Labour went on TV asking who was going to be its next leader. Back then the PN leadership contenders were not even allowed to air their views on TV. I appeal to the PN to let Labour choose its next leader with the serenity required, as Labour did when the PN chose its leader in 2004.”
The MLP’s leadership race has provided Labour with the chance of rediscovering its soul. What does it mean to be a Labourite today? Abela cites the party’s more secular orientation as a mark that distinguishes it from the confessional Nationalist Party.
“Democracy does not just mean that the will of the majority triumphs. We should talk of a wider democracy in which minorities enjoy civil rights. And I think it’s here that we find an ideological distinction. Conservatives whose political reasoning is therefore based on extreme religious values tend to exclude certain people from participating in society. There are issues, like divorce, gay rights, and the rights cohabiting couples, which are part of the values of one party, and not the other.”
He also expresses his admiration for Spain’s social democratic Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.
“There are various countries in which democratic socialism has been weakened, but in others it is being strengthened. A classic example is Spain where Prime Minister Zapatero wasn’t unfazed to talk about certain issues, which irrespective of Spain’s Catholic make-up, still got him into government.”
The welfare state is another feature distinguishing the MLP from the PN.
“I opt for the Scandinavian social democratic model, where they do not view education as some tin of peas you pick from the grocery shelf: it’s a sacrosanct right to which everyone is entitled, and where state education is of the same quality as that provided by private schools.”
Five years ago like the rest of his colleague on the Labour side Toni Abela was completely opposed to EU membership. Back than it was yes against no issue – but has Labour no gone to the other extreme by saying an unconditional yes to everything emanating from Brussels?
Abela insists that the issue of whether Malta should remain a member of EU is as sealed as a grave: “It’s an irrevocable decision.”
He promises to tell any eurosceptic who comes forward to propose Malta’s withdrawal from the Union, “You don’t know what you are talking about.”
But he still thinks that Eurosceptics have a place in the MLP. “However, it is possible that for as long as the European Union exists, the eurosceptics within the socialist movement can help us achieve the best benefits possible from the EU. The EU package is certainly closed, but you can keep on insisting in the European institutions that Malta deserves to be treated favourably by the EU, being as it is its smallest member. A case in point is illegal immigration. Another would be structural funds, which I think we have not yet discovered fully how to tap into as well as we should.”
Toni Abela agrees with Joseph Muscat that while the PN should apologise for the pain caused to Labourites in the 1960s, the MLP should apologise for what happened in the 1980s.
“I agree that we cannot keep on with a situation where the Nationalist Party mentions only the worst of the Labour Party, and vice-versa. We have to stop invoking each other’s worst times. I also believe that we need a historical expiation, but it takes two to tango. I am ready to admit my mistakes, but for a national reconciliation to take place, the others need to admit to their mistakes as well.”
According to Abela “the time has come for us as well to start from a tabula rasa. I see it akin to an amnesty to the Maltese people to start anew with a clean slate. It would be a historical and political amnesty.”
What does Abela make of the PN’s offer of Speaker of the House for the MLP in exchange for a pairing agreement in parliament?
“Every story has its moral. Maybe some people in the Nationalist Party now understand how having three more MPs than the other side does not mean it should grant you the right to do anything you want to do in parliament.”
He insists that pairing is not obligatory. “It’s a concession, and it is not necessary to grant a pairing agreement. For example, pairing in the UK hasn’t been granted since 12 December 1997.”
He also recalls that between 1996 and 1998, when Labour had just a one-seat majority, the Nationalist opposition did not grant it a pairing agreement.
“Now I am not saying we shouldn’t consider granting pairing, but we have arrived at a unique historical moment where no party got a 50% plus majority, so this could be an occasion for the government to show more respect for the opposition despite being a minority in parliament.”

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