We must set the standard, not give oxygen to this xenophobia

Robert Abela has an obligation to be a mentor to his followers, he cannot simply whet the appetite of this ugly subconscious in the Maltese psyche 

I have to ask myself why Maltese and Gozitans can be full of hate, loathing and fear when the issue of migration goes to the top of the national agenda. 

I cannot understand why they continue to believe asylum seekers are a threat, when there is nothing to confirm their jobs or livelihood is theatened by their presence. Muscat’s economic boom would not have taken off where it not for foreign workers filling the growing demand for labour, at both ends of the workforce, skilled and unskilled. 

Now this week, the NGO Repubblika launched three judicial actions: the first protest called on justice minister Edward Zammit Lewis to allow them to review proposed legislative changes to judicial reforms before he despatches them to the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission. 

The second, criminal complaint called on the police to investigate the Army and Prime Minister into an incident in which the AFM is alleged to have sabotaged a migrant boat; and which later the survivors returned to Libya with five dead and seven missing. And finally, a request to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to force Malta and Italy to rescue migrants who find themselves in difficulty at sea. 

Arguably there is nothing wrong with all these demands.  

But there is one problem. And that lies in the make-up of Repubblika, what it represents, and what it means for Labour when this civil society grouping attempts an opportunistic grab at dictating terms. 

Repubblika is made up by renegades of the Nationalist Party who resent Adrian Delia’s leadership, but whose agenda is driven by an instinctive dislike of all things Labour. Their actions this week certainly coincide with the sizeable view that Malta’s hard-line stand on migrants (surely not unique in the European sphere of things) is wrong. But with the likes of Austin Gatt’s former right-hand man Manuel Delia or one-time PN-appointed ambassador Vicki Ann Cremona, it is no surprise that their intentions come into question straight away (especially given that they are actively aided by shadow justice minister Jason Azzopardi). 

For what the pundits will ask is where their voice was made heard between 2002 and 2008 when at the height of the migrant crisis then, these two figures were conspicuously silent; when critics, in the pages of this newspaper itself, were taking on the far-right. Nobody back then seemed inclined to challenge the illegal detention of migrants embraced by the Gonzi administration. The racism at the time was such that it catalysed arson attacks on journalists’ property – the undersigned being one of them – and those who worked with migrants. 

So now that Repubblbika has refused to take on both the government or the PN on the electoral front, their presumed legitimacy to counter the present administration under the guise of a civil society group will always put them on the defensive. The Labour government instrumentalised what it perceived to be a self-serving attempt at dead-legging the administration in the time of a pandemic, on an issue which Repubblika lacks both history or legitimacy to uphold. 

That’s a pity of course, because the justified human rights issues a lot of us are deeply concern about seemed to have been hijacked by the fanatical self-righteousness of politicians like Jason Azzopardi, and of the Repubblika activists who believe that they can dictate the game-plan (the fact that in the same week they demanded to vet government judicial reforms before the Venice Commission sees them, was a case in point). 

Having said this, the Cabinet press conference on Friday night to coincide with the 8 o’clock news was a dangerous overreaction from Robert Abela. 

As the whole Cabinet stood behind the PM, with ministers not respecting the required social distancing, and, I believe, finance minister Edward Scicluna looking particularly uneasy, Abela was gaining political points while losing his moral high ground. Politically it was a walkover, because Abela spoke to the vast majority of Maltese people who given a choice would scuttle the migrant rescue boats to send back all refugees to the cruel and criminal militias in war-torn Libya. 

Abela made mincemeat of Jason Azzopardi, a favourite bête-noire of Labour, who spearheaded the judicial protests while PN leader Adrian Delia attempted to score points with the Maltese Army and the Brigadier with an unprecedented visit to army HQ. Ironically, he was accompanied by Beppe Fenech Adami, hands tucked in his pocket and uncomfortable in the presence of Brigadier Jeffrey Curmi: Fenech Adami’s first press conference in his newly-minted Opposition role in 2013 was to protest the promotion of Curmi and others to higher ranks. 

But… and a big but… in gaining visible political mileage Abela renounced on a very important moral responsibility. In 2006, the level of hatred spouted against those who stood up for migrants was unprecedented, with politicians from both sides doing nothing to quell the loathing and xenophobic comments. In 2006, the homes of journalists including mine and that of Daphne Caruana Galizia, were attacked. Those arson attacks were carried out by people who had links to the disciplined forces.  

The weak response from Tonio Borg and Lawrence Gonzi did nothing to subdue the racist attacks. 

Prime Minister Robert Abela can decide to impose a government policy that blocks Maltese ports for migrants and reactivate an illegal pushback policy.  That is his prerogative and finally government policy, but the voice of the media and many others, which is also the voice of reason and decency, has to be safeguarded.   

The thousands of ordinary citizens, workers and professionals, academics and NGOs, left-wingers, social-Christian activists and liberal minds who might not represent the masses but the voice of reason, compassion and solidarity cannot be the target of extremists and violence. 

On this Abela needs to take responsibility. 

He needs to hit out at the extremes. He cannot look the other way when people like Alfred Grixti, a political dinosaur dating back to the days of Dennis Sammut, and runs the government’s social welfare agency talk from their ass about scuttling migrant rescue boats; or when Glenn Bedingfield equates all critics of government on migration as traitors and comparing them to the Maltese fascists in WWII. 

As Europe abandons its social conscience and breaks apart, losing its soul and looking inwards, we are all alone. We have nothing to look up to.  We have to set our own standards. And by the looks of it, our non-existent standards are there for all to see. 

Surely Repubblika cannot fill the void of those who point a finger to Robert Abela. We need to come together – people of good will, conscientious journalists and activists, academics and even politicians, who have the guts to stand up to the bipartisan consensus in the name of the moral question. 

In the middle of a pandemic, the true colour and character of people surface: it’s the idea of survival, nationhood and self-preservation. But in times like these we need words of wisdom, guidance and direction. Robert Abela has an obligation to be a mentor to his followers. He cannot simply whet the appetite of this ugly subconscious in the Maltese psyche.