Interview | Sunday, 17 May 2009
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Marlene on the wall

She went to war with Austin Gatt over the fate of Sea Malta, but insists her candidature with Labour has nothing to do with it. Instead, MARLENE MIZZI talks about her war on political discrimination, scaremongering and Nationalist arrogance

“I haven’t seen the billboard yet, but I think I might have screwed up part of the Nationalist campaign,” Marlene Mizzi tells me with a twinkle in her eye.
We are seated around the kitchen table in her Tal-Virtù home, discussing the ongoing MEP election campaign as the overfriendly family cat makes constant attempts to claw its way up my trouser-leg.
Unlike Marlene, I happened to have just driven past the billboard in question on my way up Saqqaja hill. It portrays a black tree against a blood-red backdrop, in what would have been a very effective poster for a 1970s horror film. The Labour Party’s past four leaders – Mintoff, Mifsud Bonnici, Sant and Muscat – make up the tree-trunk, and the “branches” end in snapshots of each Labour MEP candidate... including, naturally, Marlene Mizzi.
On closer inspection, it turns out that the “leaves” are made up of the word ‘Le’ (‘No’), as if to suggest that they had all opposed EU membership.
“But I’ve just gone and revealed that I actually voted ‘Yes’ in the referendum,” Marlene says, referring to a recent letter she wrote to the Times. “So technically, there should be at least one ‘Iva’ on that tree...”
Joking apart: by publicly admitting to have voted “Yes” in the referendum, and then voting Labour in the general election, she has up to a point opened herself to criticism of inconsistency. After all, Labour under Alfred Sant was vehemently opposed to EU membership, so a vote for one would automatically cancel out her vote for the other. How does she counter this criticism? And what sense does it make to vote in favour of something one moment, and then – barely three months later – vote for a party which offered the very opposite?
“Where’s the inconsistency?” she instantly replies. “Bear in mind at the time I was a private citizen, not a public figure, and really and truly how I voted is my own affair. In any case, I used my vote to get what I felt was the best for my country. Five years ago, I wanted Malta to join the EU, but I also wanted a change in government...”
But aren’t the two things mutually exclusive, considering the ferocity of Labour’s anti-Europe campaign at the time? Not according to Marlene Mizzi, who reasons that both these objectives – joining Europe and electing Labour – were equally important for the nation at the time. But she also acknowledges that the PL mishandled the issue back then: particularly, in its reaction to the referendum result.
“They mistook the strategy, no doubt about that,” she concedes. “If the Labour Party had accepted the referendum result, it would have won the election by a landslide.”
Either way, she is convinced that the PN spin machine would have made a meal of whatever answer she gave to the EU referendum question.
“If I said I voted ‘No’, they would have spun it anyway,” she points out. “This is how the entire PN campaign strategy is geared up to work...”
But for Marlene Mizzi there is an altogether more sinister angle to the current criticism of how she voted five years ago. “Whoever attacks people for exercising their right to vote, is indirectly attacking the right to vote in itself,” she asserts. “Voting is an expression of a political opinion, and to question that right is also to undermine freedom of expression.”
Coming back to the billboard and its significance, Marlene Mizzi argues that like all negative campaigns, this one says infinitely more about the PN than about Labour.
“Apply the same general concept to the Nationalist Party instead,” she suggests. “For the tree-trunk, I personally would put Malta’s ‘three Prime Ministers’: Eddie Fenech Adami, Lawrence Gonzi and Austin Gatt. And what would the branches be? There is a whole list to choose from: broken promises... arrogance... mismanagement of funds... taxes... political discrimination... mishandling of the economy...”
But Marlene Mizzi also argues that there is a fundamental difference between the attitudes of the two main parties to these elections.
“I myself would never try and advance my own political career by rubbishing others,” she says. “And Labour doesn’t do it, either. But as usual, the PN has built its campaign strategy only on demonising opponents. Even individual candidates are trying to score points by rubbishing their rivals...”
She illustrates this with a reference to a recent article by PN candidate Roberta Metsola Tedesco Triccas, which took her to task for suggesting that she would use her MEP seat to ‘keep an eye’ on the Nationalist government. The same accusation was later repeated on TV by Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi.
“They do this to hide their own defects,” she says when asked for her interpretation of the strategy. “Look at the attacks coming from the Nationalist apologists: you will find they never criticize me on actual issues. They’re not saying, ‘how stupid I am for the things I am proposing’... Instead, they attack me on a purely personal level. Why? Is it because they have nothing else to criticise? Is it is because they are trying to deflect attention from their own shortcomings...?”
Apart from personal attacks, Marlene Mizzi is also concerned about the use of our national television station to bolster some candidates at the expense of others.
“It’s happening all the time,” she explains. “I don’t always watch the news, but the other day I did and I happened to notice that a clip had been manipulated so that I wouldn’t show in television coverage of an event. The only reason I know about it because I remembered exactly where I was standing when the cameras were filming. But they systematically stopped the footage the moment I was about to come on the screen...”
Marlene describes this as “subliminal undermining” of any opposition to the ruling party: something the Nationalists have become rather good at over the past two decades: “After being in power for 22 years, I would say they are in complete control, certainly as far as PBS is concerned. They manipulate the news, pictures, video clips... it would be bad enough on a privately-owned station, but this is the publicly-funded national broadcaster we’re talking about here...”
Somewhat reluctantly, Marlene agrees that negative campaigning, though it failed abjectly in the 2004 MEP election, has a long track record of success.
“Yes, it has worked in the past. It certainly worked in the last national election, which the PN won on the strength of a constant demonisation of Alfred Sant. But I don’t think it will work this time round. People are fed up. And they’re not stupid, either. They can see through these things...”
Television coverage is not the only territory affected by political manipulation. On her recent rounds of home visits, Marlene tells me she was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of people claiming to have been discriminated against because of their political views.
“Home visits are essential to forming an accurate picture of the real state of affairs. That’s where you get an idea of the real pulse of the nation.”
But the picture she has come away with is one of an entire substratum of Maltese society which has been denied the possibility of career advancement because of their political convictions.
“The first time I heard someone complain about not getting a job, I privately thought to myself: yes, but what if it had nothing to do with politics? What if there were other, better-qualified applicants, and the job was rightly given to someone else? The same thought occurred to me the second time. And the third. But when I started hearing the same complaint over and over and over again, I thought: is it really possible that they are all cases of sour grapes?”
After her initial scepticism, Marlene Mizzi now firmly believes that political discrimination is rampant in this country. “It begins at the top and filters all the way down the chain: from the Dockyard, to the Civil Service, etc.”
This in turn forms part of a strategy to hammer home the same message, which can be summed up in one sentence: “If you’re not a Nationalist, then you’re no good.”
In spite of herself, she also admits that the strategy has to date been effective.
“When I meet people I am often been told things like: ‘I would vote for you if only you contested with the PN’...”
Exposure to political discrimination has also helped shape Marlene Mizzi’s own campaign strategy, which she insists is based on individual issues and policies, and not simply criticism of other candidates. Foremost among her policy platforms is the fight for citizens’ (and animals’) rights – including the right to work, to health, education, information, gender equality, gay rights... and naturally the fight against discrimination.
“Discrimination is the automatic annihilation of a right,” she says... adding that the right to information is itself the key to understanding the culture of discrimination she claims the PN have brought about in their 21 years at the helm.
“Information is power,” she points out. “And while it is true that information does filter down, you will find that it doesn’t filter down to everybody alike. Look, for example, at how many Laburisti are employed in Brussels...”
Apart from civil rights, Marlene places immigration high on her list of campaign priorities.
“First of all, I would certainly stand by the government whenever it acts in the interests of the country,” she explains – possibly reacting to the above-mentioned criticism of seeking to use her parliamentary seat to undermine the Maltese government. “For instance, I agree completely with the stand the government took in the recent Pinar case (when Italy tried to force Malta to assume responsibility for over 200 migrants rescued 40 miles from Lampedusa) and would support a similar stand in future. On the other hand, I can’t support measures that go against the national interest. Like when the government signed the Immigration Pact, with its farcical ‘voluntary burden sharing’ agreement...”
At this point I interject with a question that could apply to all MEP candidates equally. We’ve all heard grand designs to solve the immigration issue from a political point of view. But how, in practical terms, does Marlene Mizzi propose to address the issue as an MEP?
“There are quite a few things that can be done,” she answers without hesitation. “As an immediate priority, I would invest my energies in securing a compulsory agreement on burden sharing – as opposed to the voluntary agreement which is clearly not working. This would help relieve some of the immediate pressures on Malta, even if it doesn’t solve the entire problem. Secondly, Frontex needs to provide effective surveillance, instead of the joke it is today. There has to be more European participation, as this is after all a European issue. Lastly, the EU has to tackle the problem at its source. This involves more investment to improve the economies of the migrants’ countries of origin. I am aware that the EU already pumps a lot of money into these countries, but I don’t believe it is being channelled towards the right places. Some of it is diverted by corrupt governments. With more effort, and investment in education, we can work on a long-term strategy to create favourable conditions so people don’t feel the need to leave in the first place.”
Still, even if she does get elected, Marlene Mizzi will only be one out of 765 MEPs. In realistic terms, what difference does she think she can make at EP level?
“There is no changing the fact that I will only be one MEP, but I won’t let that stop me from trying to make a difference. At the end of the day, however, the strength of an MEP is not in numbers but in influence. That’s why it is important to elect quality MEPs, making quality interventions...”
For all her claims to be working in the national interest, many people find it difficult to shake off the impression that Marlene Mizzi’s incursion into politics was dictated by her very public spat with Austin Gatt a few years ago. Mizzi was chairperson of Sea Malta, and argued vociferously against the Investment Minister’s plans to privatise the state-owned company. So the question arises as a matter of course: is Marlene Mizzi contesting this election out of a sense of personal pique against the Nationalist Party for the way she was treated by Austin Gatt?
She dismisses the entire notion with a wave of her hand.
“Me? A grudge? Hardly,” she replies with a laugh. “If I had a chip on my shoulder I would have contested in March 2008, not now. But it would have been silly to do something like that merely out of spite or because of a grudge...”
Marlene Mizzi also sets the record straight on a few popular misconceptions regarding what actually happened in the sale of Sea Malta to Grimaldi.
“I was not asked to resign,” she points out. “Nor was I dismissed. I handed in my resignation when and how I wanted to, and Lawrence Gonzi himself did not want to accept it. He even persuaded me that I enjoyed the full backing of Cabinet. So why should I bear a grudge? I left the company making a profit. And I have been proved right even by the investigation opened by Austin Gatt himself. I was criticised for claiming that the Maltese Falcon had been undervalued, and the courts afterwards proved me right on that, too. I argued that Sea Malta provided an essential strategic service, and that its sale to a foreign company denied Malta control over this vital asset. I still believe that to be true. So no, I am not contesting this election just to prove a point. These points have after all already been proven.”

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