There can only be one immigration policy: Robert Abela’s

Speaking only for myself… that is not something on which there should be any ‘national consensus’

Ever noticed how Maltese prime ministers always seem to expect everyone else to put aside all their political differences – no matter how briefly - and unanimously rally around them in a show of unconditional, patriotic support…  but only when it comes to one particular ‘national cause’ (of their own choice, naturally)?

As a rule, the argument usually starts something like: ‘If there’s [drums rolling] ONE THING that absolutely everyone in this country should agree on, regardless of their own political beliefs… it is: [insert chosen issue here]”.

Needless to add, the inserted ‘chosen issue’ will invariably take the form of… yep, you guessed it… ‘whichever of his own personal opinions the same prime minister intends to shovel down our collective throats at that particular moment,’ of course. (Why, what were you expecting? ‘World peace’?)

So in Lawrence Gonzi’s day, for instance, the ‘ONE THING’ we were all called upon to unanimously agree with was… ‘the protection of the unborn’. Hence the ill-fated 2005 campaign to entrench Malta’s abortion ban into the Constitution, and all the rest of it.

Conversely, in Joseph Muscat’s era it was support for his own ‘progressive agenda’: and in particular, its emphasis on ‘equality’, with specific reference to LGBTiQ rights.

Never mind that, in this particular case, there were all along certain underlying contradictions (I seem to remember the same Muscat arguing against ‘full marriage equality for gays’, just a few years earlier…); what both those scenarios have in common – apart, of course, from the sheer audacity of prime ministers who presume to dictate public opinion on a national level - is also an ulterior (and, in both cases, rather thinly-disguised) political motive.

By re-inventing himself as a champion of gay rights, for instance, Joseph Muscat tried (and very clearly succeeded) to exploit the Nationalist Party’s widely-known internal divisions on such matters: with devastating consequences that can still be felt to this day (as attested, inter alia, by the controversies surrounding the Equality Act, currently being discussed in parliament.)

As for the 2005 ‘entrenchment’ proposal: without even questioning Gonzi’s own personal convictions, it was all along rather obviously part of a wider (and ongoing) strategy to weaponise the country’s overwhelming pro-life majority for political gain: in this case, by forcing the PN’s opponents – including Labour, naturally, but also AD – into the tight corner of having to justify positions that could easily have been interpreted as ‘pro-choice’ (with all the electoral fall-out that implies).

In any case: I could go on, for there is no shortage of other historical examples... but I don’t really have to, because Robert Abela has just provided what can only be described as text-book case... if not a blueprint for the entire workings of this particular ploy.

In an interview with (as usual) One TV this week, he ‘challenged’ newly-elected Opposition leader Bernard Grech – and also the rest of the country – to, um, ‘put aside their differences, and rally around him in a show of unconditional, patriotic support’.

This time, the chosen issue happens to be ‘immigration’ – you know, that impossibly contentious and hopelessly divisive national problem of ours, on which no two individuals (still less the entire country) are likely to ever agree – and even then, just one aspect of Robert Abela’s own personal (and entirely subjective) opinion on that particular topic.

In his own words: “I appeal to Bernard Grech to declare whether he will agree to a common position on immigration. There has to be one, clear message; and that message has to be, ‘Malta is full-up’. And if we aren’t sending out this message, then we have failed. The country is full up and cannot stand any more pressure from migration…”

Already you can see that the general approach is more or less identical - in true Highlander fashion, today’s prime minister also believes ‘there can only be one’ national policy on immigration: i.e., his own – and, unsurprisingly, so are the inherent logical fallacies.

For starters: it is to say the least debatable whether the premise of Abela’s entire argument – i.e, that ‘Malta is full-up’ - is even true to begin with (still less, whether we should all simply accept it without question, as he evidently expects).

Ok, I’ll keep this part brief, as these are all arguments that have been made before (including in other sections of this newspaper), but… if Malta is so very ‘full-up’ that – according to Abela, anyway - we don’t even have any space left for the grand total of 38 asylum-seekers brought in last Monday… why is Abela’s own government also estimating that we need to attract 13,000 more foreign workers by the end of the year, just to keep the Maltese economy afloat?

And by the same token: why is so much of our current economic model based so exclusively on a construction boom aimed at creating residential units – with the PA approving a staggering 50,000 permits between 2013 and 2018, and over 12,000 just last year alone – if not to cater for an exponential population growth that was caused directly by (irony of ironies) the Maltese government’s own immigration policies…?

But like I said, that is how the debate is unfolding elsewhere. So for the rest of this article, I’ll focus on the ‘ulterior political motive’ instead.

At a glance, it seems that Abela learnt a trick or two from both Gonzi and Muscat. Like abortion, immigration is one of those issues that instantly provokes heated (if not downright violent) emotional responses… and this in turn makes it a demonstrably hot potato for any party (let alone one as already viscerally divided as the PN) to actually handle.

Like Muscat before him, then, Abela is trying to force Bernard Grech into taking up a position that – one way or the other – will not go down too well with sizeable chunks of his own party’s supporters. (And fair enough, I suppose: after all, Opposition leaders are expected to come up with their own policy visions: with or without any prodding from the Prime Minister).

The problem in this instance, however, is that – like Gonzi in 2005 –Abela is making the mistake of assuming that his opponents’ loss will automatically translate into his own party’s gain.

And while that may even be true, in certain cases (as it undeniably was for Muscat’s ‘liberal/progressive’ makeover)… with immigration in particular, the dynamics on the ground are somewhat different.

Just as the issue itself tends, by its own nature, to transgress all the usual political barriers – in the sense that partisan allegiance, in and of itself, doesn’t seem to be much of a factor when it comes to forming an opinion about it – the real underlying political divide no longer has anything to with ‘Labour’ or the ‘PN’ at all.

In this scenario, a new (well, new-ish) political demographic has to taken into account: the vast, unnumbered and impossibly diverse multitude of people who – regardless of their own political preferences – are now manifestly dissatisfied: both by the immigration situation itself, as well as by the emphatic failure of any recent government’s attempts to tackle it (or even make a single jot of practical difference).

These people – and they run the full gamut from ‘mildly-(and-justifiably)-concerned-on-a-purely-logistical-level’, all the way to ‘as-outspokenly-racist-as the-Ku-Klux-Klan’, with everything in between – are the ones who are likeliest to actually base their voting intentions on this one issue; and just as their past experience under Nationalist governments has taught them to be disillusioned by ‘loud promises of action’ (while nothing ever really changed in practice)…

.. well, it is pretty much the same experience that carried on under both Muscat’s and Abela’s administrations, too. Indeed, it is visible even from Abela’s own challenge to Bernard Grech: rooted, as it is, in the premise that Abela himself represents the ‘tougher’ of the two approaches to immigration.

Quite frankly, this is every bit as questionable as his other observation about Malta being ‘full-up’. What we have witnessed over the last 12 months, time and again, can in fact be described as the clean opposite. It was more a case of ‘one Robert Abela capitulation after another’… with some U-turns only marginally more embarrassing than others.

This is, after all, the same Robert Abela whose idea of a ‘tough’ stance was to hold migrants as hostages on Captain Morgan ferries for weeks on end… until, in the space of a couple of hours, the hostages managed to overpower the crew, hijack all three vessels, and negotiate the terms of Abela’s surrender over the radio…

And on two separate occasions after that, Abela’s government likewise had to concede defeat after extended stand-offs involving migrants rescued at sea… eventually accepting to disembark the stranded passengers in Malta, after weeks of stamping their feet in defiance…

Just as all this was perfectly visible to you, me and everyone else (including, it must be said, the international press)… so too will it have been visible to that all-important demographic I fleetingly described above. And they are likely to be every bit as impressed by Abela’s ‘tough talk’ on immigration, as they are by Bernard Grech’s evident pussy-footing on the same issue.

This is, in fact, the problem in a nutshell: by ‘challenging’ Grech to commit to a ‘common position on immigration’ – when we can all see, with our own two eyes, has government’s immigration policies have been an outright, abject failure… what has Abela actually convinced those people to believe, if not the sheer futility of ever expecting any real solution from mainstream politics?

No, no, make no mistake: Abela’s strategy may even work, to a degree, when it comes to further weakening an already destabilised Opposition party… but it will not strengthen his own party in the long run.

On the contrary, the only political parties likely to derive any advantage from this tactic, are the three (possibly four) new ones that have been formed over the past couple of years – as well as the established ones like Imperium Europa, which can already claim to represent 10,000 votes at the last MEP election - all patiently waiting the opportunity to finally eat into that massive contingent of disillusioned, and politically ‘homeless’, voters.

And, speaking only for myself… that is not something on which there should be any ‘national consensus’.