Muscat’s ‘belated realization’: better late than never

Does Muscat’s view on reproductive rights plant the seed of a much-needed different perspective on the issue?

Ever noticed how, the moment they step down from office, politicians tend to be become so much more, shall we say, ‘sensible’, than they ever had been throughout their entire careers? (But only, of course, after they themselves are no longer directly responsible for all the issues they suddenly get so ‘sensible’ about…?)

Well, I imagine you probably have: after all, it’s only a classical motif that has reverberated across world culture for literally thousands of years. It is Oedipus Rex, able to perceive the ghastly truth only when he no longer has eyes to actually see it with; or King Lear, belatedly understanding the true meaning of power, but only after having willingly (and, oh! So idiotically!) relinquished it all of his own free will...

And you can see why that motif has always had such profound literally appeal, too. ‘Belated realizations’ such as these invariably raise tantalizing – sometimes staggering – possibilities about ‘what might have been’. And it is there, in the space between the possible and the actual, that all great drama is known to reside.

How different would the tragedy of King Lear have panned out, for instance, if its main protagonist really did ‘take more care’ of those ‘poor naked wretches’ when he had the chance (instead of way too late, and only after finding himself in their exact same predicament anyway)? Not only would they have had a roof over their heads, and food to eat, when that storm broke out… but so, in all probability, would King Lear himself.    

Indeed, there would have been no point in even writing the play at all. For if a king possesses enough wisdom to do what needs to be done, when it needs to be done… he would hardly also be foolish enough to divide his kingdom among those three insufferable daughters of his: and… um… that’s the entire plot of ‘King Lear’, right there. Take away that single premise, and all five acts could just as easily be whittled down to a single line: “… And they all lived happily ever after. THE END.”

See what I mean about ‘tantalising, staggering possibilities’? Just think of all the thousands – probably millions - of poor, wretched schoolchildren who have had to study ‘King Lear’ for their A-levels throughout the years. Just imagine how many of those long-suffering little sods must have been driven to the point of near-suicide – or even gouging their own eyes out, like the Duke of Gloucester… by stress, mental anguish, and the sheer, excruciating boredom of it all…

And all for what? For nothing, it seems. All of it could have been avoided, if only King Lear was slightly less of a dithering old fool in real life… and worked out what ‘being a king’ actually meant, at a time when he still happened to be one himself: and therefore, still in time to do actually something with all his newfound knowledge…

But hey, that’s King Lear for you: and in any case, I forgot to mention that he’s actually been dead for quite a while now (if, that is, he ever even existed at all). So you can just imagine how much greater the underlying dramatic irony would be, in a case where the belated realization occurs today; and involves people who could very easily have made all the difference in the world… if only they had come to their conclusions just a few months earlier.

One such case happened here quite recently; and I’d say it raises some interesting possibilities of its own.

In a recent interview, Joseph Muscat – now that I think about it, another former ‘king’ who relinquished far too much of his own power to others: and likewise suffered a ‘tragic downfall’ as a result – revealed that he has somehow changed his personal views about abortion, at some point since stepping down as Prime Minister last January.

“I’m personally not in favour of abortion; but the more time passes, the more I realise that I cannot decide for women,” he said on that occasion. “I agree with a discussion shifting towards the right of women to choose. This isn’t a black or white issue for me, it’s an evolution of thought and perhaps I’ll think differently tomorrow…”

He also gave the hypothetical example of his own teenage daughter getting pregnant: “Nowadays, If I want to respect her will, I must help her break the law,” he said. “I don’t think this is an issue that can be decided on the spot. If politicians think they can close the door on the debate, people are already talking about this.”

Anyway: as you can imagine, it was this latter declaration – ‘I would help my daughter break the law to get an abortion’ - that grabbed most headlines, and sparked by far the most heated online debate. But I don’t want to get bogged down in any of that myself: whether Muscat is (or was) right in his newfound stance; or whether, for that matter, he was even being entire sincere about the whole ‘change of heart’ itself… those are both questions that could be debated endlessly, without ever reaching any conclusion at all.

There are, after all, plenty of other reasons for former prime ministers to unexpectedly force such issues onto the public agenda: because it deflects public attention from other matters, for instance; or maybe helps (with some people, anyway) to rehabilitate a hopelessly damaged public persona…

But I am more intrigued by the same question I asked earlier about King Lear. How differently would things have panned out, had Joseph Muscat experienced the same epiphany, say, at any point between 2013 and 2019: i.e., when he was still Prime Minister of this country, and therefore in a position do more than just talk about his opinions?

Unlike the earlier case, it’s hard to say with any certainty: for this is a drama that is still unfolding as we speak. Certainly, I am not naïve enough to imagine that Joseph Muscat’s stated opinion, on its own, would have been enough to actually force any change in legislation… or indeed any change in his own party’s position.

On the contrary, it would probably only have precipitated a schism within Labour… whilst also throwing an entirely gratuitous lifeline to the Nationalist Opposition: which (as we all know) has a long history of immediately weaponizing that particular issue, above all others, for political mileage.

This, incidentally, also explains why Muscat would almost certainly NOT have uttered any such thing… even if he did firmly and unequivocally believe those words at any point before last January.

But it also, in turn, points towards the irony at the very heart of the entire dilemma: there is, after all, a reason why the local discussion about abortion has been reduced the precisely the same ‘black and white’ terms Joseph Muscat now complains about: and it is the very fact that politicians like Joseph Muscat himself – and every other Maltese prime minister, before or since – are always so reluctant to ever discuss such issues ‘sensibly’, at any point when they could still conceivably backfire politically.

It is this same consistent prioritization of ‘political’ over ‘policy’ considerations, by incumbent prime ministers, that always reduces complex issues to the usual – and hopelessly Manichean - duality we have come to expect from Maltese politics: and which always places any form of meaningful discussion (and with it, any hope of eventual change) beyond reach.

Had Joseph Muscat made the same effort to challenge this taboo earlier, on the other hand… again, it’s hard to say exactly what would have happened. But something tells me it would have made a small difference: if not to the status quo itself, at least, to the way we tend to approach the discussion on a national level.

Perhaps it would be too much to expect that the debate would already be slightly less ‘black and white’ (if not ‘black, blue and bloodied’) than it undeniably is today. But even just by acknowledging that the issue is too complex to be a reduced to such simplistic terms… even such a simple observation, by an incumbent Prime Minister, at the height of his powers… it would, at minimum, have been an open invitation to the Opposition to try and respond in similarly ‘sensible’ terms. (Or at least, run the risk of coming across as ’hysterical’ or ‘antediluvian’ by refusing to taking the bait…)

And, who knows? In time, perhaps we might even get a single step closer to when people can publicly state their own personal views about reproductive rights… without being immediately subject to death-threats as a result.

But let’s not get too carried away. And let’s also not be too hasty in dismissing the possible impact of Joseph Muscat’s U-turn, either. Clearly, his recent declaration is both too little - and way, way too late - to actually divert the course of the political debate on abortion.

But outside the immediate territory of party-politics? In that vast, uncharted hinterland of public opinion, where political allegiance sometimes collides with personal belief (and where, believe it or not, some people still look up to their former, disgraced ‘king’ as “a man more sinned against than sinning”…? That is perhaps a different proposition.

On that level, at least, Muscat’s ‘belated realization’ may yet make a small difference. If nothing else, it might at least plant the seed of a much-needed different perspective on the issue. It might help diffuse the long overdue realization that… no, actually: this is not – as our governments have always portrayed it – a ‘black-and-white’ issue; and no, governments can’t just postpone all serious debate on the topic indefinitely, simply because it serves their own (temporary) political agenda to do so…

So as King Lear, I suppose, would probably have put it: “Better late than never… never…. never… never… never….”