Raphael Vassallo

If you can’t stand the heat...

The point is that we are now inured to a situation where to be in politics is, effectively, to be at war

Raphael Vassallo
15 August 2017, 8:17am
Adrian Delia - Rules of engagement not for himself?
Adrian Delia - Rules of engagement not for himself?
Political heat, I mean. When it comes to actual heat – i.e., of the kind that has been slowly cooking us all alive this past week or so – I’m afraid that ‘getting out of the kitchen’ isn’t exactly going to help all that much. Not when the rest of the country is equally sizzling, and you can probably fry an egg faster on tarmac than in a frying pan.

In my case, it would only make matters worse. My kitchen hasn’t seen anything you might call ‘cooking’ done in it for years. The only reason I even go there anymore is to get a cold drink from the fridge... which also means I now associate that room with ‘coolness’ more than with warmth. So if I ‘can’t stand the heat’ – and I shall have to admit that I can’t – then ‘locking myself in the kitchen until October’ actually starts looking like a viable option.

But that’s just me... and besides, you all know the sort of ‘heat’ I was referring to in that headline. As well as the sort of ‘kitchen’ that goes with it. A ‘Hell’s kitchen’, if there ever was one. For some years now, Maltese politics has been experiencing a ‘heatwave’ that makes ‘Lucifer’ seem rather tepid by comparison. Step into the glare of the midday sun, and about the worst that will happen to you is a mild case of sunstroke. Possibly fatal, true... but it still remains a breeze, compared to what will certainly happen to you if you decide to venture into that toxic, venomous wasteland called ‘politics’ instead.

For starters, you will immediately be considered a legitimate target for attacks of the most personal and vexatious nature imaginable. Not just by rival politicians from other parties (and, often as not, from rival factions within your own party)... but by absolutely everyone and his dog on the social media, too. In fact, by far the most brutal and savage form of political character assassination to take place in this country is perpetrated by (mostly anonymous) commentators on the online media... not by politicians at all. And it happens all day long, every day, with no respite whatsoever.

A couple of small examples. Last Sunday, I interviewed MP Rosianne Cutajar. At 22, she became the youngest female mayor in local council history. And from the very first day after her election to the Qormi council in 2012, she has been targeted by a sustained, concerted smear campaign all over the internet. She was accused of acting as an ‘escort’ in Sicily (that is to say, a prostitute... not to be confused with the popular Ford automobile of the same name). Needless to add, the same mantra was dutifully picked up by the PN’s official media, resulting in a very consistent and deliberate campaign of sexual harassment which literally ran for years on end.

Something very similar happened to an ex-colleague of mine: Julia Farrugia, who used to work for this newspaper. The moment she took up a career in politics, she was immediately singled out for an almost identical line of attack. For weeks on end, the same blog (you’ll never guess which) accused her of being a stripper, or a pole-dancer, or a prostitute, or all three. And these attacks only ceased when she finally won her libel suit shortly before the last election.

Julia Farrugia  - Immediate target
Julia Farrugia - Immediate target
In the interest of balance, I tried to come up with comparable examples of Nationalist politicians attacked in like fashion. I can’t say I’ve found any recent ones.  You have to go all the way back to that notorious incident when a garlanded bull was paraded up and down Victoria Avenue in Sliema – 1971, I believe – to find anything even remotely analogous.

Then again, all that really means is that Labour trolls are less overtly interested in smut than their Nationalist counterparts. They can pack a pretty mean punch, too... they just tend to focus their attacks on different areas, that’s all.

But let’s not get sidetracked by such pointless questions as ‘who gets more personal in their personal attacks’. The point is that we are now inured to a situation where to be in politics is, effectively, to be at war. There is a naked, open and undisguised hostility that permeates all proceedings in the Maltese political arena. To negotiate that minefield, you have to have a very, VERY thick skin indeed.

Which raises a few small questions about the people choosing to enter that arena precisely now... i.e., so soon after the same political ‘heatwave’ reached unprecedented ‘temperatures’ during the last election. As I write this, at least two of the contestants in the PN leadership campaign are still howling and moaning about how ‘maliciously’ they have been singled out for ‘attack’ (among others, by this newspaper).

Adrian Delia, for instance, took monumental offence at MaltaToday reports about his business links and undeclared financial interests. It seems this newspaper somehow ‘crossed a line’ by revealing, for instance, that a prospective PN leader is also a minority shareholder in Frankef Limited, alongside Simon Busuttil’s former brother-in-law, Eucharist Bajada Jnr. Or that Bajada and Delia are both directors in a second company, Chris, Nicholas & Associates Company Limited.

I could add a whole list of other interests that were also made public in that story – but I won’t bother, because it seems that the above, on its own,  already qualifies as some sort of instant human rights violation. Probably because the story also made reference to a very public incident involving Bajada and his ex-wife (i.e., the PN leader’s sister)... not to mention the police, the law-courts, a certain flower-pot, etc. 

Never mind that this same incident was splashed all over the papers only last year... quite understandably, as the facts had emerged in what was, after all, a very public court case.  Suddenly, it has become ‘taboo’. To so much as allude to this factual event, even in passing, is somehow to also launch a ‘malicious’ and ‘unacceptable’ attack on ‘Simon Busuttil and his family’.

Hmm. Well, if this sort of thing now constitutes a ‘malicious attack’... how would Adrian Delia describe all the smear campaigns his own party media have so lovingly indulged in over the years? I’ve already given a couple of examples, but there are plenty more to choose from. Or do these things only ever qualify as ‘malicious’, when they happen to involve Nationalist politicians and their entourage? 

But, to my mind, the bigger question is another. What on earth was Delia expecting, anyway? He did, after all, choose to step across the threshold of political activity of his own accord. And I’m assuming he wasn’t living on the planet Zog all these years, either. Surely he would have been eminently conscious of the full implications of taking that decision.

So did he seriously expect to be exempt from all the inevitable consequences... faced by all other people, across the full spectrum of political parties, who have ever done the same thing in the past? I mean, we’re more or less getting used to megalomania as a prerequisite for political involvement these days... but isn’t that taking things a little too far? Does Adrian Delia really expect everyone else to share his belief that the rules of political engagement exist only for all his rivals – in all parties, including his own – but not for himself?

If so, it is not a very auspicious start to a political career. Because there is another small factor that seems to have been overlooked here. The questions asked by this newspaper cannot, by any extent of the imagination, be defined as ‘criticism’... still less ‘malicious attacks’. On the contrary, they are precisely the sort of questions that have to be asked of someone whose ultimate goal is to eventually become Prime Minister.

What are his business interests? If that is not a perfectly legitimate question to ask in politics – and more to the point, if a possible future leader of the PN doesn’t immediately recognise the legitimacy of the question – then we really are up the proverbial excrement creek without a paddle.

Last I looked, it was failure to declare such interests that actually precipitated the whole Panama Papers scandal last year.

And if we’ve been talking about ‘transparency’ and ‘accountability’ at all this past decade or so... it was precisely because of a culture of ‘omerta’ surrounding the grey area between ‘political’ and ‘commercial’ interests.

So how on earth could it suddenly be off-limits to quiz Adrian Delia – and no one else, it seems – about his own undeclared assets?

Not to mention his undeclared liabilities. Another perfectly legitimate question to ask at this stage is: how much does he owe? And to whom? Later, if he ever becomes Prime Minister, the question will no doubt have to be rephrased slightly. Upon which invisible business interests will our future Prime Minister be dependent? To whom will he (and therefore, by extension, his government) owe a real or perceived debt... be it in the form of money, of allegiance, of political obligation, or of all three?

These are all questions that have been asked of Joseph Muscat before, you know. Admittedly, his answers may not always have been to everyone’s utmost satisfaction... but I don’t recall anyone (Labour or Nationalist, for that matter) objecting to the line of inquiry in itself. 

For the fairly obvious reason that such questions fall naturally within the realm of the permissible: they concern issues of clear and immediate public interest.

But no: I guess prospective Nationalist party leaders are subject to entirely different political ‘rules’. We all have to make a little extra effort to ensure we never offend their ultra-vulnerable sensitivities. In a word, we have to stop prying into the intricacies of their complex, secret commercial networks... and just mind our own business.

My, what a marvellous alternative option that would make... to a Labour government we criticise over precisely the same attitude.