Why do political debates have to be turned into mass meetings?

Anyone who is directly affiliated with a political party should not be allowed to attend the University Debate in order to encourage more students who are non-committal to be present

I suppose we should have seen it coming. 

“Ormai” as the saying goes, we should be used to the fact that election campaign debates never quite live up to their name but end up being a very vocal roadshow to demonstrate partisan support for one’s favourite politician. 

It all started with the Xarabank format which, come election time, turned every debate into a gladiator-style arena, complete with roaring spectators. It continued in 2008 with the notorious University debate where Alfred Sant was ambushed and booed by a clearly one-sided audience and was perpetuated in 2013, when MCAST students did the same thing to Lawrence Gonzi. This tit-for-tat behaviour is now wearing thin with a lot of the public, and proof of this was the indifference shown towards the debate; the majority were clearly not interested, and those who tuned in, quickly switched it off again. 

Organised by the Malta University Debating Union (MUDU), attendance was limited to University of Malta and Junior College students only, and registration had to be made through the University’s eSIMS portal. 

I am told the request for seats flooded in so quickly that the site crashed. It was easy to see what had happened: those who have the greatest interest in attending these debates are the ones who are already very politically active, usually from diehard families who take up as many seats as possible to make their presence felt. It is a show of force which is encouraged by both the Labour and the Nationalist parties. Students who do not pertain to either of the two political groupings at University/Junior College, which are offshoots of the big parties, namely Studenti Demokristjani Malti (PN) and Pulse (Labour), are left out in the cold. SDM and Pulse have hijacked political discourse so thoroughly at these institutions (basically mimicking what goes on at a national level) that anyone who thinks differently is just not represented. Unfortunately, probably due to a lack of resources, the smaller alternative parties have never managed to make enough inroads with this demographic to get a substantial chunk of young people on board their respective platforms. 

The result is that many disenfranchised students steer clear of politics completely while leaving the door open for the two well-funded parties to sink their claws into yet another brainwashed generation. It still surprises me after so many years that it is taken as a given that you have to support either PL or PN. For many people that is what il-politika means, rather than politics with a small ‘p’ which are the policies that govern our daily lives. Are students taught political ideology and what it means to be right wing, left-wing and the varying degrees in between? Because if they are, this knowledge is certainly not being reflected during these debates, where one would expect a critical, questioning audience rather than one which seems content with the status quo. 

In most countries, it is students with their fresh-faced idealism who are the catalysts for change, who demand a better country and who challenge and defy the politicians. But here you either get those who have tuned politics out completely or those who just clap wildly when Abela or Grech open their mouth to announce more freebies. The voice of reason during the debate, Carmel Cacopardo, spoke sternly about distributing cash as if it were Christmas while a war is going on, but unfortunately no one in that audience was really listening. 

Some were saying that we should not blame the students for this state of affairs, as they are just a product of this politically immature society. Perhaps that is true; just as it is true that our educational system does not exactly encourage speaking up, going against the flow or (God forbid) contradicting your teacher for lecturer. 

Decades of being moulded into good little obedient students who memorise facts by heart to regurgitate them for an exam paper has squashed many a free spirit. Sometimes I think that free-thinking, creative, artistic, innovative souls which manage to flourish in Malta are nothing short of miracles, because they do so despite the rigid academic syllabus. Everything in the system seems to be geared towards making students conform, and rebellious streaks or doing differently rather than “the way we have always done them” are frowned upon. (In fact, despite trying to act like it has become oh, so liberal, Maltese society in general is still very conformist and it takes a lot of determination not to let it beat you down, forcing you to do things like everyone else, because “that is what everyone does”). 

But back to the debate. Let us hope that if MUDU decides to organise another one, it will vet the audience a bit more thoroughly. Anyone who is directly affiliated with a political party should not be allowed to attend in order to encourage more students who are non-committal to be present. We see enough political rallies as it is, where the audience just follow their leader like loyal Labradors. The pattern of how political debates are conducted needs to be broken and the only way to do that is to do things differently. 

From the immature to the downright childish When politicians are invited on talk shows, they inevitably try to score political points. However, in an effort to supposedly impress the viewers at home, they also sometimes revert to childishness with puerile digs which have no place in politics. Minister Julia Farrugia Portelli sneered at new PN candidate Julie Zahra for her inexperience, saying, “we are not singing on a stage here” (with reference to her singing background). Ironically this happened on the eve of Women’s Day – whatever happened to the idea of “lifting other women up”? 

On Facebook, former singer and PL candidate Lynn Chircop was then quick to point out that the PN had been similarly condescending towards her in a previous election campaign because she used to be a Eurovision singer. These types of retorts to tear down opposing candidates are neither funny nor witty. I just wish everyone would just grow up and stick to debating the issues. 

However, the candidate of the week (for all the wrong reasons) must surely be Ray Abela contesting on the PL ticket. He decided it was a good idea to visit a primary school in his district and distribute virtual reality headsets to children. Now let’s see if you can count how many laws/regulations governing election campaigns he may have broken in one fell swoop. He used the children’s faces in his photos for campaigning purposes, going expressly against the standards laid down by the Children’s Commissioner. 

They were wearing their school uniforms, thus also identifying the school. It is not clear whether he got their parents’ permission to post their photos on his page, so he probably also breached data protection. It is also not clear if the head of school was aware of all this going on outside the school gates. Worst of all, this candidate gave a substantial gift to each of the children which is a blatant corrupt practice according to the General Elections’ Act. On his Facebook post, he also brazenly promised to go to other schools to do the same. 

When all this was pointed out on social media, the post was taken down, but I would like to know whether the Electoral Commission has done anything about this. The question begs itself: if this candidate thinks nothing of acting so unethically when he has not yet been elected, what will he get up to if he is elected?