The Salvu Mallia ‘problem’

Experiences with other outspoken members indicate that this is not the basis for a happy marriage of convenience

12 January 2017, 7:40am
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Generally speaking, it is good to stir the pot occasionally. It helps to prevent the mixture from getting stuck in its ways, and shakes up the ingredients so that new combinations may emerge. Above all, it wards against stagnation.

This is as true of politics as of cooking, as recent events within the Nationalist Party illustrate. Salvu Mallia, one of the PN’s newer candidates, seems to have done precisely that. In a public interview, he veered from the traditional party line on a number of issues that – while neither too pressing, nor even too topical – have always challenged a party that is struggling to cope with Labour’s drive on social issues.

In one sense, it is important and necessary for the PN (the same naturally applies to any other party) to confront internal challenges to its core values and principles. These values may come out strengthened as a result, or they may be weakened or even jettisoned. But failure to occasionally question a political party’s identity is a certain recipe for irrelevance. A party lives or dies by its centrality to the people it represents, on the issues they care about the most. One cannot stifle such discussion, and not pay a political price.

It is therefore important that the PN does not silence someone like Mallia, as some of its own members appear to be suggesting. This would be a mistake for two reasons: one, Maltese politics is already characterised by a fierce intolerance of conflicting opinions, and this is in turn results in basic prejudices being reinforced over time. If a political party refuses to tolerate, not just productive engagement with its rivals, but even dissent within its own ranks, it would find itself spiralling down an ever-narrowing circle of people who hold the same opinions. 

As such it will no longer be able to represent anything but those opinions, and that all but excludes electoral victory in any scenario.

Secondly, the PN has already haemorrhaged votes to Labour through its dogged refusal to acknowledge or support the social changes that Labour has brought. It has irritated the LGBT community by abstaining on the civil union act. It irked women by resisting over-the-counter sale of emergency contraception. It cannot realistically afford to alienate its own liberal wing further still.

Moreover, the issues raised by Salvu Mallia do need to be discussed. A debate on abortion and euthanasia cannot be postponed indefinitely. Though the issues differ vastly, they are of relevance to the community. In the case of euthanasia, there have been requests in the past. As for abortion, international media are starting to question the contradiction in a country which is at the forefront of world LGBT rights... yet refuses to acknowledge any circumstances where a woman may take a decision concerning her own body. 

This is doubly anomalous, given that Malta’s reluctance to discuss the issue has left us with archaic and outdated laws that do not even refer to ‘abortion’ at all. There were even attempts to entrench that law into the Constitution, to make sure it would remain archaic forever. Surely a 21st century country should be able to revise a 19th century law?

From this perspective, Simon Busuttil’s response was disappointing. The PN leader is entitled to defend his party’s existing policies, but not to exclude any discussion about changing them in future. Moreover, Busuttil could not resist using the PN’s old chestnut of accusing Muscat of planning to introduce abortion – when, as he well knows, there is broad pro-life consensus among all parties, including Labour. 

Salvu Mallia, then, should be thanked for forcing his party to confront certain uncomfortable truths. Having said that, it remains highly questionable whether his own anti-establishment disdain serves any worthy purpose. His outspoken and increasingly belligerent disdain for Muscat is clearly the bee in his bonnet. Viewed in the context of his other comments, it suggests that he saw fit to jump onto the PN bandwagon only because of a shared hatred for Muscat, and not out of interest as to what the PN stands for.

Experiences with other outspoken members indicate that this is not the basis for a happy marriage of convenience. The PN seems to have forgotten the price it paid, when it mishandled internal dissent on several occasions (Franco Debono, Jeffery Pullicino Orlando, etc.). Is the PN comfortable with the way Mallia deals with criticism levelled at himself from within his own party? Is Mallia free to speak out against his own party’s policies, but then refuse to engage with internal critics... even to the extent of calling them ‘assholes’ (as he did with Philip Mifsud, a former Nationalist MP)?

This is ultimately the problem Mallia poses for the PN. Is this the new breed of politician the country really needs? People with an axe to grind, and who prefer to substitute reasoned debate with insults? If so, it is a poor verdict on the standards of political discussion in our country. 

Yet it remains equally important that unpopular views are given free rein... though they could certainly be expressed with more respect. Simon Busuttil may find this a difficult balancing act to perform.