Not just 'the party of Marlene' | Marco Cremona

Marco Cremona, temporary secretary-general of the newly launched ‘Partit Demokratiku’, discusses the birth-pangs of a new political reality in Malta

raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo
12 June 2016, 10:00am
'It’s encouraging in terms of numbers; but the fact that the eggs are all in one basket may be problematic. Especially because it’s a PN basket… so the PN will see us as a threat' - Marco Cremona
'It’s encouraging in terms of numbers; but the fact that the eggs are all in one basket may be problematic. Especially because it’s a PN basket… so the PN will see us as a threat' - Marco Cremona
Malta’s political family has just experienced the live birth of its newest member: the orange-clad ‘Partit Demokratiku’. As with similar experiences among real families, it is a joyous occasion for the handful of individuals who ‘laboured’ to bring it into being… and also for the small but significant following it already seems to have attracted. 

But Maltese politics is a notoriously dysfunctional family, prone to feuds and messy separations… indeed, the Partit Demokratiku itself may almost be described as the unplanned child of one such political break-up. It is safe to say, then, that not everyone is equally enthused by Mother Stork’s latest delivery.

The Nationalists, for instance, are less than delighted to see that the new-born PD has already made inroads among its own former voter-base… the category of voter it most vitally needs to overturn Labour’s seemingly unassailable majority at the polls. Labour, on the other hand, is practically foaming at the mouth at the fact that the PD was formed directly from the ashes of one of its own parliamentary seats.

And all along, we still know very little about the fledgling party itself. Until recently its only public face was Marlene Farrugia: who comes to the role from a past involvement with both the PN and PL. Last Saturday, however the beginnings of a party administration could vaguely be seen for the first-time: giving us an ultrasound view, as it were, of the PD’s first kick in the womb. 

Marco Cremona – a well-known engineer, who is particularly vociferous on the subject of water (among various other environmentalist concerns) – is the PD’s newly appointed secretary-general. No stranger to the public eye… and no stranger to political controversy, being a frequently outspoken commentator on many political issues on the social media. 

But at the same time, he is not exactly a politician, either. This is in fact his first sortie into the nuts and bolts of politics; and it happens to be with a party that remains largely an enigma.

So why now? And why with the PD, precisely? 

“I’m not sure if it’s a case of only ‘now’. In the past, I did give a contribution to other parties… especially when it came to government policy. My area of expertise concerns water, resources and the environment; and on those areas I have often been involved in discussions… with all parties, I would say. From a political point of view, I have contributed in the past…”

But ‘political involvement’ does not necessarily mean the same thing to all people. Marco Cremona uses the word ‘politics’ to refer to the activity that gives rise to ‘policies’ – whereas most people understand affiliation with (or endorsement of) existing political parties…

He nods. “In Malta, whatever the subject, it will be political in that sense. Even a discussion on water takes place on the level of party politics. We have a tendency to pigeonhole people. If someone criticises the present government over its water management, for instance, the first question people will ask is not: ‘What is he saying?’ It’s: ‘Who is this guy? Is he red or blue?’ And if you’re neither red nor blue, you will be interpreted as one or the other anyway. Even on this level, I have been ‘involved in politics’ for a long time. All the way back to the days of Julian Manduca, in fact…”

A former colleague and pioneering environmentalist, the late Julian Manduca was certainly ‘political’ in the sense Cremona now describes. 

“I was active with him in Friends of the Earth from the beginning, in the late 1980s/early 1990s. One of our biggest successes – I remember Julian describing it as ‘the biggest’ – was in around 2001, when the government engaged British consultants for the waste sector in preparation for EU membership. This was the early days of waste management: before recycling, unless you count the recycling of glass bottles for a few cents at the shops. Almost without even coming here, the foreign consultants took one look at Malta’s stats – its size, population, etc. – and concluded that the only possible solution was an incinerator. This became government policy for a while. But we convinced the consultants to postpone the inclusion of an incinerator in their final draft, and to go for recycling instead. In fact, the incinerator still hasn’t been built to this day…”

All this, he adds, was also interpreted as being ‘political’ at the time. “We were ‘opposing’ a government policy… and any criticism of any government is automatically considered ‘political’ on a partisan level…”

Cremona has in fact been variously labelled as both ‘red’ and ‘blue’ in this endless game of pigeon-holing… 

“Often at the same time!” he agrees with a laugh. “It’s part of a tendency I mentioned earlier. A lot of people can’t appreciate the fact that I might agree with Labour on some things, and that I would crane my neck out on Facebook to say ‘this is a good proposal’; yet at the same time agree with proposals put forward by the Nationalist opposition. Or a Nationalist government, for that matter. I will support any proposal I consider to be valid. So some people find it difficult to pigeonhole me.”

One pigeonhole he has often been placed in concerns the other colour in the political spectrum: Green.

“Traditionally, I have always voted AD,” he concurs. “I was present for one of the earliest – if not the very first – AD meeting in the late 1980s at Sa Maison. In fact, my interest in politics goes back almost to my teenage years…”

This raises the question of why he would now help found a new party, rather than militate within AD – a party which already exists, and which he has supported for decades.

“To be honest, I was not directly approached to contest with AD… except on a couple of occasions, when I was asked to contest local council elections. But that’s not the sort of involvement I wanted…”

And yet local politics is an important phase, for a small party that doesn’t represent more than 2% of the electorate. It provides exposure and the opportunity for influence at community level… not to mention direct experience in public administration.

“All the same, I consider myself more capable of offering a contribution at national policy level. I don’t want to sound elitist, or put down local councils, or anything like that. But there are so many things which need to be addressed at national level, especially with regard to the environment…, that if I had, for example, four hours a week to dedicate to ‘politics’, I would rather devote them to working towards national proposals with an NGO, than discussing whether to fix this or that street in any locality. I feel I have more to contribute within the area of my expertise....”

Why not with AD, though? Is it just that he was never asked?

“No; I wouldn’t have accepted even if I had been asked. I don’t think I would have made a significant difference at the time. Now, however, I feel the time is right to finally overcome the mental block that the election of a third party is ‘impossible’. PD has to convince voters that it is, in fact, possible… that now is the time to make it possible. This places a burden of responsibility on the party. We have to put on a good show, because if we don’t we would compromise the chances of other parties in future. I feel that responsibility on a personal level…”

This brings us to issues concerning the party’s identity. So far, a name and a colour have been identified, and also some of the people involved. There is, however, no available statute; and apart from Farrugia’s vague intimations of a ‘centre-left’ party, it remains unclear what PD actually stands for. As secretary-general, can Marco Cremona clarify any of these points?

“On paper, I am secretary-general; but at this stage, we still consider ourselves as a group of volunteers. The party itself has not been founded yet. Let’s take a step back. I was approached by Marlene towards the very beginning. There were two meetings where she brought together around 40 people… not all the same people at both meetings, but roughly the same number – and you’ll appreciate that discussion was not easy. You had a lot of people who didn’t know each other… an hour would go by just for everyone to introduce oneself, without actually discussing anything. I was among those who suggested to Marlene that, while it’s good to meet people and get different views on board, what was needed was a small core of people to start establishing the basic structures… ”

Even with this core group in place, the structures take time to work on. “We have finalised a statute, but to get everyone to agree on it requires discussion. Especially considering that more people have got involved in the last couple of months. Even choosing the name involved discussion… much more than the colour, in fact…”

Coming back to his own role, Cremona points out that the actual position is ‘temporary’. “I mean the core group, not the party as a whole. Our intention is for the party to be there for the long haul. But our own role is to pave the way for an AGM, where the formal administration will be elected. Even on an individual level, we may or may not contest for those roles. I, for instance, might decide that with the AGM happening, I would have given my contribution, and stop there. So to answer your point about the lack of policies: it is when we have elected members that the policies will be formulated…”

Fair enough, but there is a possible problem with this approach. Our polls indicate that interest in the PD comes mainly from disillusioned PN voters. And voters may be disillusioned with a party for different (and at times contradictory) reasons. I myself know individuals who no longer identify with the PN because it’s too conservative… and others because it’s not conservative enough.

If this is the category that will ultimately form the PD’s core, it may well inherit the same intrinsic political schizophrenia of the main two parties: the tendency to try and be all things to all people…

“It certainly makes for interesting discussions at those meetings. But that, I think, is a plus. When you only discuss with like-minded people, you almost already know where the discussion will take you. The fact that people come from different ideological backgrounds – and social backgrounds, too: not everyone is a professional; not everyone comes from Sliema, or H’Attard, or Qrendi – means that you have to also re-evaluate your own views, and have them debated. It’s a healthy breeding ground for ideas.”

Does he envisage problems, however? Is he comfortable with the fact that the party seems to be attracting former Nationalists, when its founder’s declared aims are to challenge the Labour government on social issues?

“It is curious how Marlene – because at the time I’m talking about, there was no ‘party’ as such – succeeded in attracting a high proportion of ex-Nationalist voters…. and at the same time, according to the same survey, almost no floating voters at all. That was surprising to me. If that’s how things really are, it is not an encouraging start. It’s encouraging in terms of numbers; but the fact that the eggs are all in one basket may be problematic. Especially because it’s a PN basket… so the PN will see us as a threat. I would have much preferred if there was a more even distribution of supporters. But that survey was conducted at a time when Marlene Farrugia was the only name associated with the party. It is no secret that she is unpopular with Labour supporters… she has been called ‘traitor’, and so on. Up to a point, the survey may be a reflection of that. But now that the party is more visible, and more people are publicly associated… who knows? Maybe future surveys will show different demographics… “

There is also more taking place behind the scenes than just disillusionment with the two parties. 

“The disillusionment exists, but it is not new. Frustration with the two-party system goes much further than the past few months. What makes us ‘fresh’ as a party is that, if you look at the names, there are no politicians. None of us comes to this from another political party; there is none of the political baggage associated with the other parties…”

Hang on a second: there is certainly one politician there – the leader, no less – and she undeniably comes with a certain amount of baggage…

“But Marlene was the one who kicked it off… it doesn’t start and end with her. This is important, because she has a very strong personality... so it quickly came to be known as ‘the party of Marlene’. Fair enough, at the beginning there were no other names, so it really was that. With new structures in place, however the party will acquire its own identity… which is not necessarily Marlene Farrugia. Even within our own internal discussions: she is part of the group. It’s not a case that Marlene speaks, we all take notes and then run off. This is explicit in the name: the Democratic Party. It’s not a one-person dictatorship. Absolutely not.”

This reminds me of an important question I had meant to ask earlier. PD has yet to decide whether it will be contesting the next election, but among the natural aims of any political party is to get its candidates elected. In the case of Marlene Farrugia, the PD’s leader, this has already happened. She won her seat on the Labour ticket, true; but she has since resigned from the PL and re-registered as an independent. 

This means that the Partit Demokratiku, despite not having actually been founded yet, already has an elected MP of its own. So if the prospect of a third party in parliament is supposed to bring about a new way of doing politics… why isn’t this already happening?

“If you observe Marlene’s performance in parliament, you will find she is one of the most active MPs. In the space of two weeks, she tabled two no-confidence motions, which were more focused than the one tabled by the PN… which was directed at government, instead of Konrad Mizzi or Keith Schembri. More recently, she tabled another calling for a masterplan on high-rise development. When you consider that she is one of around 70 MPs, I think she is delivering more than one seventieth of the total.

“This, mind you, is also because many MPs on both sides practically have no opinions of their own at all. They wait to see what position the leader takes, then parrot that position. Original ideas are rarely forthcoming. But bear in mind that Marlene Farrugia is doing all that, and doesn’t have the benefit of an organised party structure behind her. We are focusing on building the structure; we’re not giving any input to policy. That will come later. For now, she is on her own in Parliament. Just imagine how much more she would be able to achieve when she has the input of a team of people on matters of policy, research, ideas, etc.”