To be ineffective, or not to be effective

Former environment minister Leo Brincat’s grilling before the European parliament this week was a classic example of Maltese politicians' double life

8 September 2016, 8:10am
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Often it appears as though Maltese politicians – and politics in general – lead a double life. There are certain ‘rules’ and ‘expectations’ to conform to while addressing a local audience… yet when speaking in an international context, those rules and expectations often seem to change.

Former environment minister Leo Brincat’s grilling before the European parliament this week was a classic case in point. As expected, a number of questions focused on the Panama Papers, and his own vote against a motion of no confidence in disgraced minister Kondrad Mizzi.

Brincat told his interlocutors that he had considered resigning when faced with the motion of no confidence… but added that he decided against it. 

“If one resigns in Malta, they would be a hero for a day, however ultimately one would end up in the wilderness. I feel that by continuing to work within the structures, limited as your contribution may be, you will still be able to exert pressure from within.”

That is already considerably more than he ever said in a local context. It seems as though politicians somehow become more frank and less bound by the shackles of local politics, when facing foreign press or institutions.

Nor is Brincat the only example. Former Commissioners such as Tonio Borg and Joe Borg were both pressed on their views regarding female reproductive rights in their respective ‘grillings’ before the European Parliament. Both sang from a significantly different hymn book from the one we were used to hearing them sing in Malta.

Brincat’s frankness is however more revealing. There is reason to believe that his assertions were not just aimed at deflecting the issue: along with other ministers, he had at various points hinted at his discomfort with the Panama Papers issue.

“This shows I had no choice,” Brincat said. “… but I will clarify one point: I made various categorical statements in the media and I publicly warned that, if these kind of mistakes take place, my government risked demolishing its success. I don’t think you can be more categorical than that.”

One way to be ‘more categorical than that’ would be to stand by one’s principles even at the cost of losing one’s seat, or popularity within the party. But with very rare exceptions - Franco Debono being a recent case in point – members of parliament are not generally ready to make any form of stand in the name of a higher principle: be it, transparency, the environment, the fight against corruption, etc.

But this only reinforces the deeper significance of Brincat’s admissions in Brussels. Leaving aside questions of his own competence for the post of European Auditor – on which score he satisfied a majority of the EP members - Brincat has also confirmed that Maltese democracy itself is in very bad shape. 

His defence of ‘powerlessness’ places its finger on the very crux of the matter. Representative democracy is failing in Malta, precisely because elected representatives feel they don’t have any power unless they toe the party line.

There is an irony in this, too. Brincat’s earlier point about becoming a ‘voice in the wilderness’ is on one level perfectly true… but its truth also depends on each individual MPs’ willingness to stand up and be counted. They, too, are part of the culture that teats internal dissent as a form of treachery.

Effectively, however, it also implies that the leader of the party has absolute control over all his party’s MPs, under the guise of ‘party collegiality’. The fact that Brincat said he had no choice graphically confirms that loyalty to the party leadership comes before loyalty to the Constitution and the people. 

All along, of course, he did have a choice - as had other ministers who likewise  thought Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri’s positions were no longer tenable: Evarist Bartolo, Louis Grech, George Vella, etc. But they all decided to put party loyalty above their principles.

This forces us to question Brincat’s second argument: i.e., that “continuing to work within the structures” somehow enables one “to exert pressure from within.”

One might reasonably ask how much ‘pressure’ Brincat and others think they ‘exerted from within’, considering that both Mizzi and Schembri are still in place to this day. Mizzi in particular remains energy minister in all but in name, following a portfolio reassignment that didn’t stop him from announcing every new development in the energy sector.

So even if Brincat is correct to state that resigning would have been ineffective… how effective was his option to acquiesce? In this sense, it is arguably true that Leo Brincat – or any other minister or MP – ‘had no choice’. By his own argument, his only options were to resign and became an object of ridicule or contempt… without affecting the issue; or to remain party of the system, and still not have any effect. It is a classic case of ‘To be ineffective, or not to be effective’. Either way, the status quo prevails.

All in all, this tells us a lot about the level of internal democracy within the parties themselves, and even more about the state of health of our parliamentary democracy as a whole.