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Interview | Sunday, 18 October 2009

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The thin Green line

It’s official: MICHAEL BRIGUGLIO will contest the post of AD chairman later this month. But how long will the Green Party remain ‘Green’, if taken over by a self-styled left-wing radical activist?

There is an old joke among conservative European politicians (recently echoed by deputy Prime Minister Tonio Borg, though he didn’t invent it himself) that compares ‘environmentalism’ to a watermelon. It’s green on the outside, yes... but on the inside, a deep shade of red.
Enter Michael Briguglio – the 34-year-old former Sliema local councillor, also the drummer and main songwriter of a Rage Against The Machine-style metal band, Norm Rejection – who seems to have positioned himself at the precise point where these two political colours meet.
He is also poised to take over at the helm of Alternattiva Demokratika: Malta’s Green Party, that has spent the better part of the past 20 years fighting for a seat in a Parliament ‘made for two’... as well as raging against an unfair political set-up, which (it has long argued) is loaded against the possibility of third party representation.
“Yes, I am interested in the post,” Briguglio readily confirms when I ask about certain rumours doing the rounds at present. “I was approached by a number of people – including AD committee members, but also people on the outside whose political judgement I respect – and encouraged to contest.”
Michael appears upbeat about the prospect of becoming the Green Party’s fourth-ever chairman, though he admits the timing is not exactly auspicious. AD is still reeling from its latest dismal result at the polls, when its current chairman Arnold Cassola (who will formally step down at the end of the month) failed to get elected to the European Parliament, or even get anywhere near his party’s own declared target.
Briguglio agrees that the mood among AD activists is slightly on the disillusioned side. “We are disappointed, no doubt about that. About the MEP elections, and also about the local council elections, where we didn’t manage to elect a single councillor. But at the same time, there is also a sense of optimism: we are attracting more new activists than before, and not just in the localities where we have always enjoyed a lot of support.”
Be that as it may, after June’s election there is also a sense, among outsiders, that the party may have finally reached the end of its elastic. Admittedly it was not the worst result AD ever obtained; but it was arguably the most excruciating, as expectations were high following Cassola’s extraordinary performance in 2004.
To make matters worse, this defeat occurred at a time when there was no particular ‘overriding issue’ at stake in the election – unlike 2003, when Malta’s EU accession hung in the balance; or even 2008, when the Labour Party under Alfred Sant was still viewed with trepidation by frightened Nationalists.
Meanwhile, voices within AD have been heard arguing in favour of avoiding general elections altogether: to concentrate only on local politics, where AD has a far better track record. So how will things pan out under Michael Briguglio’s stewardship, if he wins the leadership election? Will AD abandon its eternal challenge to Malta’s political duopoly?
He shakes his head. “No. This is a point I have been repeating consistently throughout my time in the party. AD should not even consider not contesting general elections. I said the same thing before the 2003 election, when Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami had offered us a co-opted seat, on condition that we didn’t contest. I was among those who argued that we should reject the offer...”
Nonetheless, Briguglio does not deny that the electorate has consistently snubbed his party since its inception in 1989.
“So far our political culture shows that when it comes to general elections, the ‘floating voter’ is more comfortable switching from one big party to another. In the last election, we also saw a growing number of non-voters. It seems that disgruntled Nationalists prefer not voting at all, than voting for a third party...”
Surprisingly, Briguglio is not altogether disheartened by the bleakness of this outlook.
“I believe this is what gives AD its strength,” he enigmatically asserts. “If you look at the June election, you will see that the party retained its core vote. And even if more PN voters switched sides than voted Green, the truth is that Labour’s victory was not as resounding as it was made out to be. In fact they won by a narrower margin than 2004.”
Briguglio also points towards the 2008 election – the first since Independence to deny either party an absolute majority.
“In the last election, AD’s vote could easily have prevented one of the two parties from getting elected. That gives a party an edge that the others can’t ignore...”
OK, but this argument is beginning to sound suspiciously familiar. The last time I heard it, it came from lobbies such as the hunters’ federation, or the Armier boathouse owners. In fact such lobbies are routinely accused of using their strength in number for the purposes of arm-wrestling governments into giving them what they want. Is Michael Briguglio suggesting that AD should use its support-base to blackmail other parties?
He shrugs. “I disagree with your interpretation of it as ‘blackmail’. It only becomes blackmail when you have no principles. You can’t realistically say that about AD. We are the most credible, consistent voice on ecological matters, and I would argue on social issues as well. Besides, it’s normal in politics to use what strength you have. What choice does one have? Look at the PN. They currently have a one-seat majority in parliament – you could almost say ‘half a seat’, considering the Constitutional amendment that made it possible for them to win – and they will naturally do what it takes to retain that seat. Who can blame them? The same goes also for Labour in Opposition...”
Still, a party like AD cannot afford to continuously hover around the 2% mark come election time, no matter how much bargaining power it enjoys as a result. Surely, in considering taking over as chairman, Briguglio would have a few ideas of his own on how to boost AD’s apparently flagging support...
But before asking for his programme of change, I am curious to know how he himself interprets AD’s recent failures. What, in his view, went wrong in the MEP and local council elections?
He replies by listing out ‘internal’ as well as ‘external’ factors which may have influenced the outcome.
“One external factor which seems to have damaged Arnold was the fact that he got elected to the Italian parliament. Some people seem to have held this against him for some reason. I can’t understand why. If you ask me it’s an honour that he would be asked to contest the Italian elections, and go on to win a seat. And it’s quite normal in the context of European politics, too. The current head of the European Greens (in Parliament), Danny Cohn Bendt, has stood for election in Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere...”
Briguglio also argues that for some people, Cassola’s ‘Italian job’ was really just an excuse not to vote AD. But this doesn’t shed much light on why such voters resist the Green Party to begin with; still less on what can be done to overcome this apparent hurdle in future.
This brings us to the internal factors, and here Michael Briguglio adopts more of a ‘mea culpa’ tone.
“The problem with our European election campaign is that it was too moderate. This is partly my fault. I believed in this strategy at the time. With hindsight, however, we must accept that our campaign simply didn’t excite people enough. The message was too bland.”
This in turn provides the blueprint for AD’s reinvention in future... a future which Briguglio argues will only be guaranteed if the party “returns to its roots”.
“We must be more radical in our policies. In the past, AD has given the impression that it was reluctant to talk about certain issues. In politics, you have to have an opinion.”
But how united is the party when it comes to such issues? Briguglio admits that the recent past has been characterised by internal clashes, but adds that these were predominantly about strategy... never about policy, where he insists there is a ‘broad consensus’. However, he admits that the party’s approach to certain issues has sometimes been too convoluted.
“One example is divorce,” he begins, adding that while consensus exists on the issue itself, the party may in the past have pussyfooted for fear of losing votes. “On an issue like this there are no two ways about it. We have to face facts: people who are anti-divorce will never vote AD anyway...”
One other area where Briguglio sees room for a direction change is economic policy.
“Traditionally, the party in the past has been more liberal, in the economic sense of the word...”
Certainly, Michael Briguglio is ideally positioned to smash such a perception, if indeed it has ever existed. For apart from writing a regular column in GWU-paper L-orizzont, as well as lecturing Sociology at University, Briguglio is also active member of radical leftwing organisation Zminijietna – Voice of the Left, which constantly lambasts globalisation and economic liberalism, among other targets.
This apparent case of political schizophrenia was not lost on AD’s critics before the 2008 election; former PN minister Michael Falzon once drew attention to it in an article entitled ‘Vote AD, get Zminijietna’.
Briguglio responds by dismissing the idea that Zminijietna is some form of fledgling political party in its own right. “Zminijietna is more of a think-tank. It organises seminars, publishes a newspaper, and is open to a plurality of views.”
Furthermore, he himself sees no distinction between environmentalist politics and plain old Socialism.
“Green is left, and left is Green,” he muses with a smile. “I don’t believe in the old-fashioned, 19th century style of Socialism. But the future of the Left is undeniably Green. Either that, or the ‘Third Way’, which doesn’t work for me. This is what Alfred Sant tried to do, unsuccessfully, in 1996...”
But Briguglio’s plan to reposition AD left of centre could also place the Greens in an awkward position. Traditionally, the bulk of AD’s support comes from the middle classes, especially in the 10th district. This is entirely analogous to other European countries, in the sense that environmental awareness tends to prevail among the more affluent and educated sectors of society. So by moving so radically leftwards, wouldn’t Briguglio risk alienating and ultimately eroding this support-base? And besides, why would Maltese Socialists vote AD in the first place, when there is already a Labour movement claiming to represent their interests?
Briguglio responds by seizing on an admittedly self-evident flaw in my argument. The two-party system, in Malta and elsewhere, has coerced both sides to occupy the middle ground. From this perspective, Briguglio openly challenges Joseph Muscat’s leftwing credentials. He also confirms widespread rumours that Muscat had approached him with an offer to join his “progressive coalition”: an offer he refused.
“I was flattered, but I politely declined. Labour is not my natural political home...”
Nor is he particularly enthusiastic about Muscat’s definition of “progressive” to begin with.
“There are some aspects of Muscat’s politics that I respect,” he concedes. “I applaud him for standing up for single mothers, in the face of an ugly political assault. It is always easy to pick on vulnerable categories of people, like the government is doing. But if the government wants to create more instability instead of less, all it really has to do is remove single mothers’ benefits. Why doesn’t it increase the number of accessible childcare centres? We are the laughing stock of Europe in this regard – the only member state not to have a policy on childcare centres.”
But here Briguglio’s support for Muscat’s policies comes to an emphatic end. “On other issues, what I see is not so much a progressive movement, as a party that is just trying to please everybody...”
Once again, divorce is Briguglio’s example of choice. “Joseph Muscat is asserting himself as a progressive liberal, but what is he saying exactly by giving a free vote? ‘I myself am in favour in divorce, but I want to let my MPs decide for themselves’. Again, I admire him for his own views, but at the same time he doesn’t have the courage to take a clear stand. Is this the extent of his political strength? The same is true of other issues, like gay rights. Both Labour and PN now claim to champion gay rights, but what have they done in practice?”
As for the environment, Briguglio is understandably scathing about the ‘greening’ of the PL.
“They talk a lot about green politics, yes, but have you ever heard Joseph Muscat criticise big business interests on environmental matters? Take MIDI as an example. Your paper recently reported how MEPA waived a €3 million fine for dumping construction waste at sea. Did Labour issue a statement to condemn this? No. Labour doesn’t want to hurt business interests, in an environment where political parties depend on financial contributions for their survival.”
Briguglio argues that the same pitfall applies also to social issues. Big businesses are also big employers, and for this reason alone, the Labour Party is sometimes equally reluctant to champion workers’ rights, for fear of alienating their major source of income.
In fact, if Labour has trodden on AD’s corns with its ‘progressive’ overtones, it seems that Briguglio’s plans to reinvent AD’s platform may likewise cause tremors in Mile End. Uppermost on Briguglio’s ‘to-do list’ is the repositioning of AD at the forefront of the fight for worker’s rights: something Briguglio hints Muscat has jettisoned, despite his loud noises about the cost of living.
“Precarious employment is a major concern at the moment,” he says when I ask him about labour issues ignored by Labour. “It’s becoming the order of the day: people, even in the public service, are now being hired on a contract basis. These people find it hard to get bank loans; they have no job stability...”
This creates an entirely new category of disenchanted potential voters, and also a lacuna that can easily be exploited by a radical leftwing party which is unafraid of controversy.
“This is the future of AD,” Briguglio affirms with deliberation. “In politics you have to take a position. The bigger parties are not always able to do this. Here is where we can make a difference, and become the real voice of minorities that this country lacks.”


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