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‘Religio at patria’ no more: from confessional to secular in just six months

Closing the PN general council, Lawrence Gonzi was set to rebrand his party for modern times. Gonzi is the confessional stance, as a more secular vision is ushered in.

Karl Stagno-Navarra
21 November 2011, 12:00am
Back to the future? PN secretary-general Paul Borg Olivier and Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi reinvent the PN roots with secular-lite values after losing the divorce referendum six months ago. (Photo: Ray Attard/Mediatoday).
Back to the future? PN secretary-general Paul Borg Olivier and Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi reinvent the PN roots with secular-lite values after losing the divorce referendum six months ago. (Photo: Ray Attard/Mediatoday).
OUR ROOTS - PN founding principles 2011


The Nationalist Party has a history of learning things the hard way.

After months of shooting itself in the foot - especially on the introduction of divorce, an issue arguably mishandled by the PN before the referendum last May - the party that has been in government for almost 25 years has finally accepted the need for review of its entire political vision.

There was never any doubt on the PN's credentials as a party inspired by Christian democratic values; but it was high time that the party made clear that it was not 'confessional', and that it recognised the need for a clear separation between Church and State.

The timing is significant. Last May, almost 53% of the electorate shunned the PN's anti-divorce stand, sending a clear message that the party was completely out of sync with social realities. Divorce was a civil rights issue, and not an 'absolute value', as the PN leadership made it to be.

At the same time, however, one must not exclude that this 'update' in political vision can be confusing for the elderly traditional PN voter, who - like it or not - has always considered the party to be close to the Catholic Church.

When addressing the PN General Council last June, philosopher Joe Friggieri pointed out to the party leadership that one cannot expect the breeze not to blow through the wide open windows.

He stressed that after seven years of EU membership, Maltese citizens' aspirations for more civil liberties were not only justified, but logically right in both thought and expectancy.

Until then, the party's fundamental guiding principles ('Fehmiet Bazici') were a red line that could not be crossed; even proposing an 'update' to the document was previously considered taboo.

Caught in a tug-of-war between liberal-leaning and conservative factions within the party, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi was forced into silence: keeping a nation guessing until July, when he finally spoke out to justify his vote against the introduction of divorce, despite the referendum result, when parliament was summoned to approve and enact a law he never wanted, especially under his watch.

That day, Gonzi stressed 'consistency' and 'credibility' as his response to an electorate which expected him to vote in favour of the bill, given his previous commitment to see the law through and respect the people's decision.

Gonzi, arguably ill-advised throughout, and was left alone to face an angry electorate that at moments even called for his resignation.

But a day is a long time in politics... let alone six months. Divorce has since become law, and Maltese courts are now issuing decrees as if nothing ever happened. Besides, people's memories are short. Who still remembers the PN's humiliating defeat in the 2009 European Parliament elections? Not even Labour, it seems. Despite 'winning' the sixth seat, MEP-in-waiting Joseph Cuschieri now says that he is having second thoughts on whether he even wants it.

For this reason, the PN could bank on national amnesia when it came to presenting 'Our Roots' to party councillors last Friday. PN secretary-general Paul Borg Olivier insisted that the document does not re-invent the party, but simply updates its policies to make them relevant to modern times: widening the party's inclusivity and working to promote legislation for non-married and homosexual couples.

Borg Olivier argued that the State "cannot be blind" to the value non-married couples place on their personal relationships, and recognised that the State "must legislate wherever necessary to establish the rights and responsibilities of such relationships for both heterosexuals and homosexuals".

The document is wide-ranging and also promotes constitutional reforms, including parliamentary autonomy: practically absorbing all that was said throughout these recent months by backbenchers Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando and Franco Debono.

In other words, the document proves Pullicino Orlando's and Debono's arguments right. Their voices from the backbench were not voices in the wilderness after all; and the rebel tags that were pinned to them have now been discarded.

But Pullicino Orlando and Debono do not feel vindicated. To the contrary, they expressed satisfaction to note that the PN has been strengthened.

"Evolving by adapting to changing circumstances is essential for survival in nature. This is also the case in politics," Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando commented. "Inflexibility is a sure recipe for extinction. The Nationalist Party came out of an admittedly difficult test, the divorce campaign, with its democratic credentials intact.I would actually go as far as to say that they were strengthened.  The resistance and the opposition from certain influential quarters was tempered by a willingness to accept the will of the people. This document is another step in the right direction when it comes to civil rights and obligations."

On his part Franco Debono said that the document proves the PN's understanding of its important role to serve as a catalyst for important reforms that are needed to guarantee democracy.

"Good governance, Constitutional reform, autonomy to parliament and strengthening of the justice system, are the reforms with a capital R," Debono said, adding that the fact that these are now part of the fundamental political vision of the party in government is excellent news for any citizen.

However, traditionally 'conservative' exponents within the PN have been cautious to pronounce themselves on the document.

While President Emeritus Eddie Fenech Adami said that he had not yet seen the document, or read the details from the papers yesterday, transport Minister Austin Gatt - who had made it amply clear that he would resign if the party had not adopted an anti-divorce stand - refused to take any questions, while MP Edwin Vassallo insisted that he would only answer his questions today (i.e., too late for publication).

"I don't have anything to say today, perhaps I will talk to you tomorrow," Vassallo said yesterday morning.

But MP Beppe Fenech Adami, though cautious, was more open to reply to questions, even though he was away from the island.

"I attended the party's executive meeting that approved the document, and it is clear that the party is keeping itself relevant to today's modern times," Fenech Adami said.

When asked for his opinion on the party's opening towards gay couples, Fenech Adami stopped short of acknowledging the document as an open door to gay civil marriages. Instead he stressed that both himself and the party agree that there is no discussion when it comes to guaranteeing fundamental human rights to everybody, irrespective of their sexual orientation.

MaltaToday also asked for a reaction from gay rights activist Cyrus Engerer, who defected to Labour last July. He slammed the document as "politically convenient."

But beyond individual reactions, what cannot go un-noticed is the sense of renewed enthusiasm within the party. This weekend's General Council contrasted sharply with the last one held in June. Not only was there no tension, but all were smiling and joking, and many party activists who had not been seen around for quite a while were present.

"It's time to focus on the party," former PN administrative president Victor Scerri told MaltaToday, shortly before taking the podium and delivering a short speech expressing support for the changes expressed in the document.

OUR ROOTS - the PN founding principles, updated 2011

Our inspiration - Christian inspiration, but never a confessional party as the party recognizes the separation between Church and State - a healthy separation which must be kept at all times. Neither does the party's Christian inspiration imply the imposition of values or beliefs. 'Our inspiration' is about the values of compassion, truth, justice, tolerance, and empathy.

The person and the family - The person is at the centre of the PN's political action - each individual is complete and equal like any other. The family, remains at the core of the party's political action and at the heart of our society.

Liberty - The PN secured the peoples' right to live in a democratic and pluralistic society. But liberty is not a free-for-all; its abuse leads to disintegration of social cohesion.

Responsibility - synonymous with the PN as evidenced in the past three years when, having to choose between populism and responsibility the Nationalist Party in government, naturally, opted for the latter - a decision which saved jobs, and helped our country to weather successfully the choppy waters cause by the fierce economic storm.

Solidarity - deeply entrenched in the PN's core beliefs and the bedrock of Maltese society. Time and again, the Nationalist Party has proved to be a country which does not only belief in but practices solidarity.

Subsidiarity - Not a State that interferes in everything or decides on everything, as used to happen in the past - but decisions that are taken at the lowest level and close to the people as much as possible.

Dialogue - A core tenet weaved into the very fabric of the PN - the right of the people to express ideas, ask questions and receive answers.

Trust - Never a given. It needs to be earned and maintained; not through cheap words and meaningless clichés, but through hard work; vision; direction, and for offering solutions rather than baulking at problems.

Direction - With the PN you know where you stand and you know where our politics can take you.

Identity - The PN is proud of our identity and constantly seek to enhance it - not only through the achievement of significant political milestones - Independence and EU membership - but equally important, by deepening our knowledge of our history and whilst protecting our historic and cultural environment.

The PN delivers its core principles and values through 10 priority policy areas:

1. The Maltese State and Public Administration - in order to improve, further, the quality of life, the State must have well-functioning institutions that work well, are efficient and answerable to the people.

2. A political conscience that leaves no one behind. Everything revolves around the person and his/her well being. A state that does not discriminate on the basis of sex, colour, creed, and sexual orientation. A State that should legislate to establish the rights and obligations that should govern personal relationships; both heterosexual and homosexual.

3. A strong economy and sound public finances. Work - by far, the most effective tool of solidarity. The past three years have been characterized by the worst economic crisis and financial meltdown in decades. The Nationalist Party in government invested heavily in maintaining the appropriate environment to create jobs while safeguarding thousands on new jobs.

4. Education for a talented, open-minded nation - the fundamental building block of everything; the best and most proved recipe for success.

5. The Environment, Water and Energy - by far, the second fundamental building blocks for the island's future - equally important, the unique challenge of waste and water treatment.

6. Our culture and our identity - they are what make Malta a unique and special place to live in and to visit.

7. Justice and Security - Undisputed vital ingredients for good quality of life.

8. Gozo - With its undisputed natural beauty and distinct character which gives Gozo its uniqueness - a jewel in Malta 's crown.

9. Malta's role in the European Union and the World - Malta, not just one of twenty seven member states, but a protagonist and a very valid player in shaping Europe's and its peoples' future.

10. A tribute to Young Malta- Our policies give the younger generation a vision for tomorrow but also a high quality of life today - for before living life tomorrow, we are first living it today.

Society evolves; ideas change; the peoples' aspirations becaome more demanding - as should be. The Nationalist Party does not look back but it too changes, adapts and evolves. Only by doing so can it continue to mould the future of our country - as it has done, successfully, since its inception. However, our values, and our core principles do not change. Our roots remain firmly anchored in place, at the core of our politics with the person at the centre of it all.

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Lawrence Zammit
Hypocrisy at its very best.
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roderick degiorgio
You have driven the country and the people deep into debts,that can never be paid.
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Manuel Scicluna
What a lot of bollocks. Vote for these freakin'clowns again? No way, José,
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Marcelle Agius
How will EFA react to this change? Forget your principles which you "fervently" defended up to a few weeks ago just to win afew votes in the coming election. With the standing ovation given to Austin Gatt after the public transport debacle, I thought I was watching a re-enactment of a Congress of the Communist Party of the former Soviet Union ! Tragic, the way politics has evolved in Malta!
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Samuel Falzon
Bla, bla, bla, bla. Rhetoric and more rhetoric. The proof of the pudding has always been and will always remain in the eating. The PN has now accumulated numerous issues which need to be addressed with urgency and no amount of rhetoric will put the electorates' mind at ease that the PN has learned from the mistakes that it is constantly indulging in.