MaltaToday | 18 May 2008 | Putting the ‘p’ back into politics

INTERVIEW | Sunday, 18 May 2008

Putting the ‘p’ back into politics

Malta is at a crossroads, and the last thing it needs is a technocratic government. Nationalist MP Edwin Vassallo outlines his thoughts about the ‘politics of responsibility’, and the big challenges ahead

“The market economy is a thermometer with which to measure the health or sickness of a people; as from the way people spend their money, buy and sell, one can discern the direction of their priorities, the values that a nation discards or continues to embrace…”
So wrote Edwin Vassallo in his recently published book, Hsibijieti (My Thoughts), at the start of the chapter entitled “For many, conscience has gone on holiday”.
The Nationalist MP is admittedly very well-positioned to talk about the market economy, having spent 10 years as a parliamentary secretary for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) within the ministry of finance. But with “His Thoughts”, he appears to have taken a step beyond his previous portfolio, to branch out into philosophy, social anthropology… even religion. And in his speech to the Nationalist Party general council last weekend, he reiterated his basic concern that “the common good” was giving way to individual selfishness. Are we talking about a return of the politics of ideology?
Vassallo shakes his head. “No, it’s the other way around,” he tells me as he reclines in an armchair in his Mosta living room, beneath a framed tribute to Enrico Mizzi, taken from a 1950 edition of La Patria. “Ideology is no longer the domain of politics. Today, if anything, we can talk about an ideological economy. Our economy is not just an issue of numbers, of accounting. It is a mirror of our lifestyle, of changing values and priorities…”
Drawing an example from the above-mentioned chapter of his book, Vassallo explains how evolving lifestyles impact the commercial sector. “Consumption trends are constantly changing. Today, for instance, people are spending more on travel than they used to in the past. It is becoming a priority. As a result, they will spend less on retail than they might have before. This in turn has an effect on the market…”
But before exploring the ramifications of these effects, I ask him to comment about the present situation. Edwin Vassallo forms part of a government which has repeatedly promised “finanzi fis-sod”, and which now projects a surplus by 2010. He himself used to be responsible for the self-employed sector, 96% of which consists in micro-enterprises (which employ fewer than 10 people)... and yet, his own parliamentary secretariat was among the casualties of the recent government downsize. How does he feel about these changes? Are the self-employed better represented in the new structures?
“Only time will tell if they are better represented or not,” he replies enigmatically. “Certainly they are in a good ministry. But at the moment, after the election, everything is still all just starting up. It is too early to comment on performance.”
Besides, Vassallo continues, in the changing times, questions about the economy are no longer as clear-cut as they used to be.
“In general terms I could tell you that the economy is doing well. But in reality, there will always be some businesses doing badly. Truth is, we can no longer talk of things in terms of black and white, or good and bad. This is what I meant when I spoke at the general council about the need to focus on the common good.”
Apart from benefiting some industries at the expense of others, Vassallo seems to be suggesting that the changes experienced by Maltese society have also had an impact on its economic well-being as a whole. In fact, he refers to a “social earthquake”, and echoing a somewhat famous current advertising slogan, Vassallo soon talks about the “Life is Now” generation.
“We are in an era where the individual decides on the basis of his own personal exigencies. The emphasis is on the individual: on the personal good, not the collective.”
He invites me to look at the changing trends in consumerism. “Today, people might borrow from the bank to buy, say, a boat… not a house, a boat… and the bank will willingly lend. In years gone by, the mentality was different: people would work hard to meet their needs, and only then would spend on luxuries. Today, however, entertainment has become a way of life in itself, and people have evolved a tendency to not worry too much about the future, to live only for the moment...”
At this point, Vassallo admits that this is the scenario that his own government has worked so hard to achieve over the past 20 years. After all, we are talking about the benefits, dubious as they may appear to the conservative among us, of a free market economy. Removing those benefits would therefore be tantamount to removing liberty itself.
Vassallo agrees. “It is good that people are free to make their own choices. I meet many people who tell me they are ‘liberals’, and that is good, too. Everyone has that right. But are we talking about liberalism, or libertinism? We have achieved freedom, yes, but it is not enough simply to say ‘I am free’ and stop there. We have to also recognise that all free choices come at a cost…”
Politics, Vassallo adds, seems to have ignored these social changes and pressed on regardless, still being carried out in its own, outmoded style. But the situation cannot be addressed by politics alone.
“Take for example the media,” he says. “It’s not just politicians who have a duty towards the common good. How do the media portray, for instance, the family unit? Look at how marital breakdowns are presented as the focal point of certain soap operas on TV. It’s as though everything that detracts from family values has become show business… sensationalism… ”
At a glance, Vassallo’s concerns appear vindicated by figures emanating recently from the National Statistics office, and revealed in parliament this week. Among them: 2,309 recognized foreign divorces in Malta, 11,045 separated persons, one in four births registered outside marriage, 3,605 single parent households... It certainly seems as if Maltese society is indeed changing, and possibly losing a few of its erstwhile certainties along the way. But is this really within the jurisdiction of politics to interfere? Faced with these realities, how does Edwin Vassallo see politics making any difference?
“Politics has to get back in touch with the man in the street,” he replies. “Interference is not the issue. Today, you can’t spread the common good by legislating. It is no longer a time when a government sets down the parameters of what is permissible and what is not.”
To this end, Vassallo proposes a “new way of doing politics” based on making people more conscious of their responsibilities as free citizens. This, he argues, can be achieved through improving government’s communication systems. But he admits it won’t be easy.
“We don’t need new structures of government. The present structures are good enough. What we need is a new mentality, a new level of awareness.”
Keeping things (so to speak) within the family, Edwin Vassallo turns his attention briefly to the social “crisis” apparent in the above-mentioned statistics. Perhaps surprisingly, Vassallo is less dismissive about divorce than might be expected, although he clearly does not himself approve. “Divorce is something that can be discussed. But it’s not an ultimate solution,” he says. Instead, Vassallo toys with the idea of extending the marriage preparation counselling exercises, currently limited to Church weddings, also to civil marriages.
“Why not?” he says when I ask him if he is talking about a “Cana course” offered by the government. “The idea behind the course might be to ‘responsibilise’ couples before they get married…”
This appears to be a leitmotif in Vassallo’s way of thinking. The word he uses is “tirresponsabbilizza”, and try as I might I cannot find a suitable English equivalent. But the neologism “responsibilise” works well enough: if government can no longer force social changes through legislation, it can at least use the communication channels at its disposal to educate people about the choices they make themselves, and the impact these may have on others.
“As in health, prevention is better than cure,” he continues. “I can’t tell others how to live their lives, but at the same time I can draw their attention to the fact that their choices have a direct bearing on the economy: on government expenditure on welfare, for instance.”
Hence the difficulty: for part of the “social earthquake” involves a growing distance between people and political parties, as Edwin Vassallo himself pointed out when he warned of “flagging interest” in politics at his conference speech last week. Again, Vassallo talks of this culture change from his own perspective as a businessman. “Government’s role has changed, too. We are now living in a free market economy. Gone are the days when, for example, you needed to call a minister to get a TV, or to get some infrastructural works done. Things have now changed. They can now afford to be indifferent towards politics. People can live without politicians in their lives, but politicians can’t live without people…”
Apart from creating a new challenge for politicians, the signs of the times spell possible economic trouble ahead. Vassallo outlines possible scenarios if the current “Life is Now” mentality continues unchecked.
“We are not learning the lessons from the USA. There you had a situation where people were financing their lifestyle through debt, and it was not sustainable. They reached a point where the banks had to foreclose, or close down themselves…”
So is he suggesting that Malta’s economy is about to do an Enron and collapse? Vassallo shakes his head. “Today, the economy is sustainable. What I’m suggesting is that politicians have to look beyond the current situation, to project into the future.”
Coming back to government structures, he explains the need to evolve from a “civil service mentality” to a system which can effectively address the real difficulties and issues.
“As I said, the structures themselves are all in place, they all work. But from my own time as a parliamentary secretary, I found that what I was doing was filling gaps between the various ministries. And because I dealt mainly with the problems of small businesses, finding solutions quickly became imperative. When a small business encounters problems, it can’t afford to wait days for a solution. But our legislation, while good in itself, was not drawn up with all these eventualities in mind.”
What Vassallo would like to see is government pooling its resources to a common goal. One idea he bounces in my direction is that of a “Social Impact Assessment” exercise for all legislative changes. “We already do this for the environment”, he points out. “Why not extend the idea to see how changes in policy will affect people’s priorities and values, too?”
The bottom line, according to Edwin Vassallo, is that yesterday’s politics are no longer good for tomorrow’s Malta. What is needed is a sea-change, which Vassallo himself describes as a “Mission Impossible.”
Turning his attention to the party in government, he outlines the basic choice that lies ahead.
“Today, the PN can go one of two ways. It can become a technocratic party – in which, for instance, the kazini become offices, and the party becomes more or less invisible to the people; or it can return to its roots as a party of the masses, keeping in touch with its core values and at the same time advancing in step with social changes.”
Simlarly, he points out that the party’s identity need not be polarised at either the “confessional” or “secular” extremes. “There is a third way, the road in between, as Aldo Moro had once said about the Democrazia Cristiana: if the party loses its Christian roots, it will cease to be a Christian Democratic party.”
This, he argues, was the main point behind the president’s inaugural address at the opening of the 11th parliament: “Without social cohesion and concern for the common good, there can be no economic growth or sustainable development.”
Edwin Vassallo urges his government to make good on this policy model. “The President laid out the direction,” he says. “Now we have to find a way to move forward along those lines. We can take the shorter, easier path by simply becoming technocratic – but that would be the worst thing we can do as a government. I advise the longer, harder route: not e-politics, but p-politics… where ‘p’ stands for people.”

Any comments?
If you wish your comments to be published in our Letters pages please click button below.
Please write a contact number and a postal address where you may be contacted.



MaltaToday News 
18 May 2008

Unashamedly unrepentant

Say cheese: PM poses with Armier squatters

GozMuscat questions case for golf courses

Franco Debono’s ‘sitting room of democracy’

A new Constitutional order for Malta, Bartolo style

Report warns against ‘futile’ skull X-rays in hospital

Pirate tuna ships change identity in Grand Harbour

Minister gives no hints on prolonged Mistra investigation

Manchè inquiry into Azzopardi death can be toothless

No comment from Rizzo over who guarded Nicholas Azzopardi

Promoted villains

Court confirms MEPA abuse against its own chief lawyer


Copyright © MediaToday Co. Ltd, Vjal ir-Rihan, San Gwann SGN 9016, Malta, Europe
Managing editor Saviour Balzan | Tel. ++356 21382741 | Fax: ++356 21385075 | Email