MaltaToday | 22 June 2008 | You may say I’m a dreamer...

INTERVIEW | Sunday, 22 June 2008

You may say I’m a dreamer...

But is he the only one? Joseph Muscat has no qualms projecting himself as a born-again romantic, but before even thinking of changing the country, he must first rediscover his party’s soul, re-write its history and reinvent its position in the Maltese political spectrum. BY JAMES DEBONO

A recent vox-pop in our sister paper Illum revealed that today, rank and file Labourites in the party’s clubs are not even sure about what being a Labourite means.
Joseph Muscat candidly admits that this vox-pop was “one of the most interesting things” he read after the election. But what does being a Labourite mean, according to the MLP’s new leader?
“For me, the principles of the MLP are based on social democracy. But this is not enough. In the next week we will be setting up a permanent think-tank which will include leftist intellectuals and others who have other roles in society, to act as the party’s critical conscience.”
In a nutshell, Muscat argues that socialism means giving everyone the opportunity to succeed in life, irrespective of background, and to address the environmental, economic and social aspirations in the country.
Policy aside, being a Labourite for Muscat also has a romantic flavour. He insists that the party must recover its ability to “dream”.
“The Labour party should not just touch the minds, but also the hearts of people,” he says: ironically deriving his inspiration from Mintoff’s Old Labour, which back in its pre-1971 heyday had the ability to dream a future for Malta as a country which would no longer rely on the British military, but would attract foreign investment and develop its tourist potential.
Muscat goes through a long list of the social measures proposed by the MLP back then, like sick leave benefits and maternity leave, which were still unthinkable at that time.
“If you said these things at that time, everyone would have said you were a dreamer,” Muscat says, subconsciously echoing John Lennon as he goes along. “I imagine a country where everyone is proud to be Maltese not simply for the sake of patriotism, but because once again we will not have to wait for others at the European level to tell us what to do, but would be able to set the pace ourselves. We want to set, rather than simply follow, European trends.”
More specifically, Muscat sets out a secular vision for the Malta Labour Party. “Let’s not forget that homosexuality was only decriminalised in the 1970s, when it was still illegal in some European countries.”
In fact Malta decriminalised homosexuality before Ireland, Cyprus and many Eastern European countries.
But as he talks, a number of contradictions keep popping up. On one hand, Muscat tells Labourites how much he loves them, but on the other hand he is promising them an earthquake. Don’t people usually get hurt in earthquakes?
“I already said that where necessary… blood will be spilt.”
Muscat also promises that whoever is affected by the changes will not be dumped. As an example of the new way of doing things, he refers to the decision to keep Charles Mangion as Opposition leader until he takes his place in September.
“We took this decision during the first meeting I had with (deputy leaders) Toni Abela and Anglu Farrugia. The message we wanted to send was that although Charles is no longer part of the leadership, he will not be sidelined.”
But the ultimate consequence of this action was to deny the post to Anglu Farrugia who as deputy leader for parliamentary affairs was the natural candidate for the post in Muscat’s absence. Was he considered as too much of a militant to occupy this sensitive post?
“Anglu himself proposed that Charles Mangion should remain Opposition Leader. I simply agreed with him.”
But is not the MLP sending a mixed message by presenting a moderate leader and two deputies with a reputation for militancy?
Muscat compares his two deputies to Tony Blair’s equivalent, John Prescott: “They appealed to different sectors of society, but were united by the same ideas.”
Muscat has invited all those who felt uncomfortable with the party in the past years to come back and if they don’t come back he promised that he will go after them himself. Will he accept them without setting any condition? And will he allow them to set any conditions to accept them back?
“I will not accept any conditions from anyone and the only condition I will make is that everyone should abide to the principles of the Malta Labour Party.”
Before the election Sharon Ellul Bonici, known for her agitation in Eurosceptic movements, was not even given a reply to her request to contest the election with the MLP. Is there a place for critics of the EU like Ellul Bonici in the party?
“Sharon Ellul Bonici has made it clear that she agrees with Malta’s membership in the European Union and that as a party we should be making the best of membership. Therefore her place is in the Malta Labour Party.”
But this is clearly not the case with former MLP leader Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici.
“Karmenu firmly believes that Malta should not be part of the EU. He has a right to do so. But the position held by Karmenu and the Campaign for National Independence is different from that of the MLP. The MLP is never going to call into question Malta’s membership in the EU.”
Is there a place for an element in the party which is more critical of the EU than he is?
“On the EU issue there are people who are less enthusiastic than I, and there are also those who are more enthusiastic than I am. This is the beautiful thing about the movement I want to create.”
Taking a cue from this question, Muscat spells out his vision for a different sort of Labour party which is more akin to a movement than a rigid party.
“That’s what I mean by a movement of moderates and progressives. I want the MLP to be the solid base of this movement. But the movement goes beyond the party. There are people who define themselves as leftists, liberals or social democrats. These are people who should feel at home in the party without the need of becoming party militants. They still belong to the political spectrum which we represent in the country. We are the mainstream party representing this spectrum. Of course within this movement there is room for opinions different from that of the MLP.”
For the past decades Maltese political parties were monolithic blocks where nobody departed from the official line. Will this change?
“I want this to end. The position of the party on issues must be crystal clear… But whoever is on the progressive side, but has different ideas from those adopted by the party on certain issues, should not be kicked out.”
For the very first time Muscat even refers to the new movement as a coalition of sorts.
“In order to win the MLP has to build a coalition and a movement which is larger than the MLP. We will not succeed if the party remains obsessed with delineating borders between us and them.”
Somewhere to the left of the progressive spectrum of Maltese politics one finds Alternattiva Demokratika, whose meagre 3,000 votes were enough to deny the PN an absolute majority. Yet ironically during the past decade AD seemed closer to the PN than to the MLP.
“When I look at AD’s principles I understand that there can be a greater symbiosis between the Malta Labour Party and Alternattiva Demokratika than there can ever be between AD and the PN. Perhaps a certain friendship between AD and PN was created because of the EU issue. But when it comes to principles, in any normal country, the Labour Party and AD would be on the same side.”
In view of the election result, does Muscat see any room for collaboration between AD and the MLP?
“If I talk to Lawrence Gonzi, with whom I differ on a number of principles on social and civil rights issues, I see no reason not to talk to a leader of a party whose platform includes many issues on which there is complete convergence between my party and his.”
One of Muscat’s first commitments was to make the environment a priority for his party. He has also ditched his party’s support for golf course development. Yet Muscat is evasive when asked for his stand on the Armier boathouses.
This vociferous lobby managed to get a pre-electoral guarantee from Lawrence Gonzi that none of their illegal boathouses built before 1992 will be demolished. They were also promised that a company they own shall be given a legal title over the land they illegally occupy.
“I have to see clearly what this commitment consists of. I have to see exactly what this commitment entails.”
But what is Muscat’s stand on illegal coastal development?
“I am against all illegality but we have to start to give an example with the bigger developers.”
Still, even when asked about big developments like the 11-storey monster on the site of the former Mistra village, Muscat insists that “in a normal country”, political parties have no business in commenting on planning applications as long as the policies are observed.
One of Muscat’s first decisions was to invite former Labour ministers to come back in Labour’s fold. Former tourism minister Joe Grima was one of those who accepted his invitation. But at the same time Muscat has apologised for the mistakes committed by past Labour governments. Muscat sees no contradiction in this.
“I did not invite former Labour ministers to tell them something while saying different things to other people. My apology for the mistakes of past Labour government was made in the presence of former Labour ministers.”
Muscat has also made it clear that he wants George Abela and Michael Falzon active in the party’s structures. Yet both are saying that they will only do so if Jason Micallef does not remain general secretary. How does he seek to resolve this impasse?
“My role as a leader is to unite the party’s best elements. I am convinced that I can do this. The choice of party general secretary and the administration will be totally in the delegates’ hands and the leader will have no say.”
But does he find the veto made by Falzon and Abela on Micallef acceptable?
“I cannot remove anyone from his post. Unlike the PN, where 80 people choose the general secretary, in the MLP the choice is made by 900 people. It is up to the delegates to judge Jason’s work and which direction they want the party to take.”
Muscat is constantly harping that the MLP should be a progressive party. Apart from divorce, what makes Joseph Muscat more progressive than GonziPN?
Muscat seems taken aback by this question. “Is it not enough for me to pronounce myself in favour of divorce at such an early stage? I have already taken the flak for speaking up on this subject. It seems that in this country some people would not even tolerate a discussion on divorce. For me this is a question of putting European values into practice rather than paying lip service to them.”
But why is Muscat waiting to be elected Prime Minister to introduce a divorce bill instead of presenting one now?
“I do not want to kill the discussion. At this point in time there is no willingness on the PN’s part to talk about divorce. I do not want to use divorce as political football.”
He points out that if the Prime Minister does not give a free vote on this issue, divorce will not be introduced even if all Labour MPs vote in favour.
“I do not want to play games with people’s life. I prefer to wait, leaving ample time for the discussion to evolve along non partisan lines.”
Neither does Muscat want to see a conflict with the Catholic Church.
“I was immensely satisfied by a reply sent by the Archbishop to a MaltaToday editorial on divorce. I do not expect him to agree with divorce as this is a point of principle for the Church. But it is very positive that he accepts the need for a discussion.”
Last week during the TV programme Xarabank, a leading exponent of the Malta Gay Rights Movement, Gaby Calleja, expressed disappointment when Muscat declared that he does not consider gay marriages as a “natural” institution. Alternatively Muscat proposed the concept of a civil partnership which according to the new leader could apply to cohabiting heterosexual couples, siblings living under the same roof and to same-sex couples.
“I cannot understand her reaction… For a Maltese politician proposing civil partnerships is very innovative. But I think the message did not come across clearly.”
Another not very progressive stand taken by Muscat during the same programme was his declaration that he sees a lot of validity in educational streaming.
Incidentally one of the authors of the MLP’s defeat report, Carmel Borg, has repeatedly argued that streaming perpetuates class divisions and penalises the working class. Statistics also show that only 1.5% of the university’s population hails from Cottonera: an indiation that our selective educational system discriminates against the worse off in society.
“I was in no way expressing the MLP’s position on streaming. I was only expressing my personal thoughts on the matter. I am aware that there is a validity in the arguments proposed against streaming.”
But unlike leftist intellectuals who want the MLP to distinguish itself from the PN’s educational policies, Muscat insists on consensus.
“What is certain is that I do not want education to be turned in to a political football, as happened in the last elections. I do not want a situation where if one votes for Labour one is opting for a particular educational system and if one votes PN one is voting for another system.”
Joseph Muscat has expressed the willingness of the MLP to participate in a common front with the government to tackle the threats facing the shipyards and ST Microelectronics. But as of January next year the government will have to cut the dockyards’ subsidy lifeline. What’s the use of having a common front at such a late stage?
Muscat criticises the PN for procrastinating on this issue. “Since 2003 every time a contract was secured by the MDD we have only heard Austin Gatt boasting about the progress made by the dockyard. The message we got was: thanks to us, the dockyard is moving forward. But as far as I know work practices and management structures have remained the same. Now that the going is tough the government is blaming the workers. This is unfair. At this point restructuring is inevitable and at this time one cannot exclude anything.”
Not even job losses?
“Any job losses would be unacceptable. There is even a pre-electoral commitment of Lawrence Gonzi promising that nobody will lose his job.”
Muscat also expressed his disappointment that despite Labour’s offer to form a common front, the government has embarked on privatising this entity without even consulting with the Opposition and the General Workers Union.
Yet Muscat is evasive when asked about concrete solutions. “I do not want to jump the gun. I do not want to turn this into a political issue... Everyone should shoulder his responsibility.”
What is unacceptable for Muscat is to pit the taxpayer against dockyard workers.
“If we looked at the Fairmount contract we would discover how much money Malta lost. One cannot blame the welder for this loss of taxpayers’ money. It was the responsibility of a consultant who simply disappeared after the contract was signed.”
Muscat insists for a “fair deal for workers and a fair deal for taxpayers.”
The same applies for ST. “The most hypocritical thing we can do regarding ST is to make political capital of any job losses, saying ‘we told you so’. But if something happens to ST, the loser would not be the government but the whole country.”
In his first speech Muscat distinguished himself through displays of affection and warmth. Does he see a risk that in this way he is going down the road of a complete Americanisation of Maltese politics where a politician’s smile matters more than his ideas and proposals?
“The whole point is with what policies one backs one’s smile. This is the crucial point for our party. This is the earthquake I am promising. So far we did not even have a policy unit which taps into the best minds, costs proposals and conduct the necessary research.”

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