Aspiration. It can make you do bad things

What does Labour stand for? The question nobody asked during Labour’s AGM.

The spectre of aspiration haunting social democracy…
The spectre of aspiration haunting social democracy…

There is no doubt Labour Party’s ideological centre is in some turmoil.

Joseph Muscat’s aspirational politics allowed it break the patina of old-school socialism and relax its hang-ups on the free market, cheering on big business as the guarantor for more jobs.

At the core, the reminders of what Labour is during Thursday’s general conference opener were vocalised by people like MP Anthony Agius Decelis, a nurse by profession, who exalted the principle of equality and equal opportunity in all spheres of life – education and health chief among them.

And at the margins, the self-interest groups that were invited to buy into Labour’s political conglomerate – hunters for example, as intensive talk of bird feed and trapping cages pricked my ears while purchasing a bottle of water from the bar in the Mile End conference hall.

It was in the shadow of the Panama Papers that Labour’s AGM convened, with outgoing deputy leader for party affairs Toni Abela delivering his customary boisterous address to delegates: the jocular party man hauling the PN over the coals, giving his nemeses some what for (David Agius, of exam-plagiarising fame, was dubbed ‘the photocopier’), and warming up the crowd for the main act, his successor Konrad Mizzi, now castrated by ‘Panamagate’.

Abela told Muscat the hardest decisions are those affecting one’s friends: it was his fleeting, veiled comment to the Prime Minister to bite the bullet as the magnitude of Panama Papers started felling political leaders abroad. Konrad Mizzi, heartfelt as ever, came across as the choir-boy owning up to a sin, telling Muscat it should be him to decide his fate.

But much was missing. Critical voices were absent. Standing ovations and ‘Konrad’ chants were easy to muster, especially after one delegate’s overture to Mizzi’s managerial skills (like shareholders whooping at the sound of the CFO reading out the dividends pay-out).

Most of all, what was missing was Konrad Mizzi failing to grasp the real problem at the heart of his political clanger: offshore, the hideout of the elite, wealthy tax-dodgers who use secrecy to carry out their business affairs. He seems to imply that aspiration, that new keyword of social-democracy, was only pushing him to make sensible decisions for his family.

But once you decide that putting money ‘elsewhere’ suits you just fine, what guarantees does a politician have that he won’t be using his political influence for illicit gains, to be hidden in a company in Panama with a bank account in Dubai? Offshore just places you on the wrong side of common decency.

This is not aspiration. This is not honesty, or hard work. Paying tax wherever you are in the world is a mark of civility and in our country, our right to participate in a fully-functioning democracy. We are no Gulf state drowning in oil (they don’t need taxes there, so they don’t need votes either…); we abide by a social contract that requires every one to contribute according to their wealth, in return for the state’s welfare and rule of law.

And this is the simple principle that is at the heart of the progressive politics that Labour claims to espouse.

But to harness such a principle implies embracing a totally different set of values. A warning shot was fired during the Café Premier saga: the way the Prime Minister and his staff had acted all throughout that €4.2 million nosh-up showed that they viewed state administration as just another business – manage aspirations, solve problems, seal deals – that they had no time for bureaucratic checks and balances.

And three years later, Mizzi and the PM’s chief of staff Keith Schembri seem to be unaware of the wider meaning of the “aspiration” Labour has peddled. Sure, you can have more if you wish, but how much more and at whose expense?

If you are ignorant of the effect your private affairs have on the greater political project you espouse, your political career cannot be more important than the greater good, the national enfranchising solidarity we must form part of.

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