Are we two tribes?

Claudio Grech’s comments were a breath of fresh air: Are we two tribes? No, we aren’t. And it’s about time we stop acting as if we were.

Claudio Grech's comment that
Claudio Grech's comment that "a tribal debate, using 'us' and 'them' terms.. is puerile and banal in 2016" was a breath of fresh air

I was struck by a comment made by Nationalist MP Claudio Grech in the House of Representatives during the 13-hour marathon debate last Monday on the motion of no confidence in the current administration moved by the opposition in the wake of the Panama papers revelations.

Nobody expected the motion to be approved, but many expected a higher level of political dialogue. Instead we had government MPs harping on the economic success of the current administration and opposition MPs harping on the failure of the administration to observe the basic tenets of good governance and accountability.

Claudio Grech was one notable exception. His comment that “a tribal debate, using ‘us’ and ‘them’ terms, considering political debate as a zero-sum game, is puerile and banal in 2016” made it to the front page of ‘The Times’ on Tuesday. It seems that the sad reality is that we are back to the politics of old with the politics of the two tribes again rearing its ugly head.

Many have been writing about this sad turn of events in the press. In a contribution on a news website John Baldacchino put it this way: ‘There are moments when I start doubting whether people really consider themselves to be free individuals before they are Nationalists or Labourites. Have we forgotten the 1960s and 1980s when Malta looked and felt like a tribal battlefield?’

This ‘tribal’ situation is peculiar in that there are no ethnic or religious differences between the so-called two tribes. I remember Ugo Mifsud Bonnici in the 1980s saying that our tribal system would never lead to a fully fledged civil war because every Labourite family somehow includes some Nationalist supporter within it and every Nationalist family likewise includes some Labour supporter. There is no one in Malta who can say that he has no family relationship with someone supporting the other party. In other words this tribe idea is artificial and inane. But it existed for a long time in the past and we are now experiencing its resurgence.

Joseph Muscat’s success in changing the perception of his party into a movement that defies the old rigid tribal lines has unfortunately been undermined by Joseph Muscat’s failure to live up to his promises. Today the old Labour core – that supports the tribal set-up – grumbles that the so-called ‘new stars’ in Labour’s Cabinet: Manuel Mallia, Godfrey Farrugia and Konrad Mizzi have done more harm than benefit to the adminstration and that they are not getting what they deserve. By which they mean that the politics of the tribes where it counts is whether you are a traditional Labourite, which gives you the right to be awarded. The notion of meritocracy in their minds is very simple: the more one is loyal to the Labour Party cause, the more one merits rewards in the form of government jobs, appointments, promotions and social housing.

This is anathema for those so-called switchers who believed in Muscat’s promise of a movement that considers everyone on their real merits. 

I always thought that the tension between the two parts of Muscat’s movement – the old core and the switchers – could eventually lead to the movement’s undoing. Muscat has attempted to play the balancing game between the two constituents of his ‘movement’ and he has managed to satisfy neither.

The Panama papers revelations simply exacerbated this tension as one can see from the different positions adopted by the two factions of the movement: silly assurances that Mizzi and Schembri did nothing wrong and all this fuss is just an obscene PN plot (as one is continually reminded by the GWU papers), in contrast with the many switchers who are disgusted with the way things have turned out. The old tribal politics will destroy Muscat’s movement simply because he proved incapable of resolving this tension.

The PN, on its part, is also exacerbating the ‘us’ and ‘them’ state of affairs. This does a lot of good for the morale of the party’s loyal supporters who remained backing the party through thick and thin. But this is not necessarily a good thing for the PN’s electoral prospects. 

It is obvious that PN supporters are angry at the so-called switchers more than they ever were angry at genuine old type Labour supporters. They openly taunt those who declared themselves to be switchers by telling them things such as: ‘We told you so’ or ‘Labour never change – like a leopard that never loses its spots’. This taunting is doing the PN untold harm because it is pushing these switchers away from the PN and back into Muscat’s arms as they feel that many PN diehards are all out looking forward to the day when they will be able to settle scores.

The PN is not attempting to change this perception. It must openly acknowledge that, as free individuals, people who supported the PN in the past had every right to switch in 2013 and what they did is no breach of some imaginary tribal ethic. More than that, it must drum this in the minds of its core supporters if it wants to regain the majority that it so clamorously lost three years ago.

But the PN is doing nothing of this sort. Simon Busuttil and Beppe Fenech Adami keep on warmongering and crying wolf too often; indirectly encouraging the tribal mentality of old. 

That is why Claudio Grech’s comments were a breath of fresh air.

Are we two tribes? No, we aren’t. And it’s about time we stop acting as if we were.

Childcare centre bills

According to the rules of the Education Ministry’s childcare system, parents who fail to send their kids to a childcare centre for more than 25% of the hours they book for their child are to be sent a bill for services not utilised. This makes sense as otherwise many parents would capriciously book their child for periods in a centre and then utilise this booking only if it is convenient for them. This would be a waste of resources supported by taxpayers’ money and the threat of a bill should help to make parents using these facilties behave in a more responsible manner.

It now results that no data on how many parents were billed is available. This makes a mockery of the system as no one knows whether these bills are being sent, let alone being paid!

Instead of discouraging people from wasting money in unutilised resources, the system has been undermined and people are being allowed to waste as much taxpayers’ money as they want.

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