The desired unity | Mark Said

Unity means not advancing policies that are opposed by the other side. This has been a repeated mantra on Net News, but it is not limited to conservative media

The message that politics has become toxic resonates with Maltese voters across the political spectrum. It is no wonder, then, that both parties have, on more than one occasion, appealed to unity as a central political goal. From his inauguration speech as Labour leader to winning the last general election, unity has been a theme of Robert Abela's administration. On the Nationalist side, Bernard Grech emphasised unity upon election as leader.

Unity talk is potent, but talk is cheap. Unity’s value is not clear until those promoting it identify what it is and why it is valuable. Neither side appears eager to precisely define unity. However, there appear to be two distinct ideas of unity at work. It is worth clarifying them because, although both kinds of unity are valuable, neither is a worthy political objective.

When Grech calls for unity, he is talking broadly about bipartisan cooperation and the easing of partisan animosity. As he sees it, our democracy is floundering because political partisans see those on the other side as enemies to be defeated rather than merely opponents with whom they can work with across the aisle to enact sound policies. The thought driving Grech’s appeal to unity is that democracy requires that our political divisions be contained within a broader commitment to the basic ideals of a self-governing republic. In his view, we can still play politics to win, but we must do so in accordance with a shared set of rules and values. Winning in politics is, therefore, a lot like winning in sports or board games. There can be a winner only when everyone is playing the same game.

In accepting his role as the Labour Party’s leader, Abela articulated a different concept of unity. In his view, unity means accord within a political party rather than between political parties. Incidentally, this was also Grech’s concept of unity on both occasions that he took over the reins of his party. As a result, Abela affirmed his role as the successor to his predecessor, Joseph Muscat.

But unity has many interpretations, both in a political context and more broadly. The version of unity advocated by Abela appears to be one that generally suggests that his administration itself demands public support. "It is time for all of us to remember that we are all on the same team," Abela has often stated. "We are all Maltese, and we all believe right now in Malta first and foremost." The team we are all on is Abela’s ‘Team Malta’, like it or lump it.

In the meantime, however, the idea that unity demands coalescing around the government has flipped to the polar opposite. Unity means not advancing policies that are opposed by the other side. This has been a repeated mantra on Net News, but it is not limited to conservative media. Why should it be that winners make policy and losers go home? Why should we continue with our puerile politics, where the goal of both parties is to advance their policy outcomes no matter what?

True unity, I believe, is not about reaching a uniform consensus but, instead, about resolving disagreements. This unity is yet another card to be played in the game of politics here. Unity in Maltese politics is an illusion in search of a definition, but it is a concept that is being weaponized in a verbal war of bombs hurled by both parties. What may look like unity in one sense can be disunity in another. Labour is putting forth a unified, partisan effort that is out of step with public opinion by any measure. That kind of disunity is not the ultimate winner in the larger picture of who gets the most votes in the next election.

The other game of disunity in Maltese politics is taking pleasure in the other side’s split among its ranks. Labour points to many traditional nationalists leaving the PN and re-registering as independents.

Unity is a noble goal, one that has the potential to heal. Unfortunately, it is in the eye of the beholder. Some officeholders seek advantage by wielding unity as a weapon against the other side. Their pitch is, ‘If you do not wholeheartedly accept my views, then your claim to desire unity is false." "So let's cut to the chase, shall we?"

Given how painfully divided we are, let us be realistic about what unity could mean. An inspirational one, is simply to reduce polarisation in our public spaces. Our party and your party may disagree, but neither is evil. We each have a common goal of wanting a better life for our children, and we share a desire to see our home communities flourish.

If we get along better, we might just be better off.