Two ‘rights’ sometimes make a ‘wrong’

Partisan considerationshave meant that the entire country pays an exorbitant price: as with local councils, ‘media pluralism’ of the 1990s managed to exponentially multiply the existing political animosity… without actually contributing anything of benefit to anyone outside the PL/PN tandem

Local councils provided the Nationalist Party with a level of exposure that Alfred Sant’s own party lacked, and this in turn translated directly into an electoral disadvantage for Labour
Local councils provided the Nationalist Party with a level of exposure that Alfred Sant’s own party lacked, and this in turn translated directly into an electoral disadvantage for Labour

A number of seemingly unrelated articles caught my eye in the press this week. The first was a reported speech by Nationalist MP Ivan Bartolo, who said in parliament that Alfred Sant had been “right” in his initial stand against political party participation in local councils, when these were first introduced around 25 years ago.

The second was an interview with author Immanuel Mifsud, who called for the immediate disbanding of political party stations [i.e., One and NET TV] because ‘[they’ve] done enough damage already’.

The third was the 20th anniversary of NET TV… which was commemorated (on the same station) by a series of ‘talk shows’ discussing how absolutely fabulous NET TV has always been over the past two decades… and how they hope to repeat this ‘success’ for the next 20 years at least.

Well… put all three together, and you get a pretty clear picture why this country is so seriously screwed up on so many levels.

Let’s start with local councils. I, too, agreed with Alfred Sant when he argued (back in 1993, or thereabouts) that neither Labour or PN should contest local council elections. I hadn’t started writing articles in newspapers, but I remember arguing the same point with friends and acquaintances at the time. My reasoning was roughly as follows: around the last thing Malta needed back then was yet another space to serve as a battleground for Labour and PN. By allowing those main parties to contest those elections, we would only transform the entire concept of ‘local government’ into a breeding ground for new politicians… a glorified test-tube, as it were, where future general election performances could be measured.

In the process, the actual needs of those local communities would continue to be bypassed in favour of purely partisan issues. We would end up voting for candidates whose true allegiance was only to their own party, and whose political aspirations would extend far beyond the confines of their own home towns and villages.

Not to say ‘I told you so’, or anything… but that is precisely what happened, on all three counts, over the past quarter century. The injection of partisan politics into local government has only translated into a deepening of the political trenches on either side. Instead of allowing the country to gradually ease out of a culture of tribal antagonism, that had already caused so much strife over the previous 20 years… we went ahead and made Malta even more subservient to those two parties than it had ever been before.

I find it revealing that this admission has finally come from a Nationalist Party representative… even if it did take quarter of a century to materialise. Yes, Alfred Sant was right, all those years ago. And so was former Archbishop Joseph Mercieca, who had echoed his sentiments to the letter.

This also means that Eddie Fenech Adami – who had argued passionately in favour of political participation, to the extent of contradicting Malta’s Archbishop (an unheard-of thing, back then) – was wrong. Yet we all discarded the right advice when he heard it, and instead followed the predictably doomed path. And just look at where we are today: decisions affecting individual localities are still taken at higher levels than the local council… which – as we all recently saw in the case of the DB Group project approval – doesn’t even have a say in such matters as town planning (!). About the only things to ever be decided by the local council are your weekly garbage collection schedule, and maybe whether to plant magnolias, petunias or sunflowers on centre-strips… (actually, no: even that is decided by something called an ‘Environmental Landscaping Consortium’.)

I suppose you can see where all this is heading. Our entire political structure, from the ground up, is still basically geared towards a centralisation of the decision-making process: keeping power tightly controlled by the government of the day, and minimising the scope for local communities to ever take any decisions on their own. This, when the whole point of the local government experiment was actually to de-centralise that power, and dilute the national government’s plenipotentiary grip on the country.

Hard to imagine a more complete and thorough failure than that, really…

But to acknowledge this reality, we also have to admit to something than many people here find impossible to even imagine: i.e., that their own political idol may have been wrong, while their detested political adversary may have been right. Rather than admit to that, we would collectively far sooner retain a system we all know to be severely screwed, than try and bloody fix it once and for all.

So tell you what: I’ll try and make it easier for you all to make this transcendental quantum leap forward. Alfred Sant was right, did I say? Well, he was also wrong… in this issue, and in at least one other that is intimately related.

When local councils were first introduced, Sant decided not to allow the Malta Labour Party to contest elections. The first series of elections was held between 1993 and 1994; and two years later Labour won the general election and Alfred Sant became Prime Minister. As you probably remember, the experience did not last too long. Another two years later, Sant called an early election, which he went on to lose. The following year, he lifted his ban on Labour candidates in local council elections. The Labour Party has been participating in local government ever since.

Erm… what do you think the main driving force behind this U-turn might have been? Did Alfred Sant reconsider his previous arguments against political participation, and find them to be flawed? Or was his mind simply changed for him by the result on the 1998 election?

No prizes for guessing the answer. All it took for the Labour Party to do the wrong thing for the wrong reason, was loss of political power. Local councils provided the Nationalist Party with a level of exposure that Sant’s own party lacked, and this in turn translated directly into an electoral disadvantage for Labour. So it was ultimately a partisan consideration that led to the volte-face: it was to benefit the MLP – not the country, still less individual towns and villages – that he ceased to be ‘right’, and willingly embraced a course of action he knew was ‘wrong’.

There is a pattern in there somewhere; and it starts becoming more visible when you look across the divide, and examine how Eddie Fenech Adami handled ‘media pluralism’ at roughly the same time. As I mentioned earlier, this week marked the 20th anniversary of NET TV... which means it was founded in November 1998. One TV, on the other hand, had started operating illegally (as ‘Super One’) some years before that.

This placed Fenech Adami in a slightly awkward position at the time. Technically, the Labour Party was breaking the law by transmitting without a licence. But the Nationalist Party had earlier done something similar itself: having transmitted its own station illegally from Sicily, in the years before 1987.

On an entirely separate level, Fenech Adami probably underestimated the impact Super One would have on the electorate. Certainly he didn’t see the 1996 election result coming (otherwise, he wouldn’t have howled so loudly in abject shock); and it is not unreasonable to suppose that – just like Alfred Sant in 1998 – he would have belatedly identified ‘Super One TV’ as one of the major causes for that gargantuan political upset.

So where Eddie Fenech Adami had (correctly) resisted the notion of ‘politically-owned stations’ for several years… suddenly, in 1998, he decided to go back on all his own former arguments, and open a political station of his own. Why would he have done that? Out of a lifelong ambition to branch out into the television-entertainment sector? To elevate the standards of broadcasting in Malta across the board? Or simply because he understood that his party now needed a TV station, if it was to compete with Labour in the new media arms race?

Once again, it was partisan considerations that led to this colossal mistake… and once again, the entire country has paid an exorbitant price ever since. As with local councils, ‘media pluralism’ of the 1990s only managed to exponentially multiply the existing political animosity… without actually contributing anything of benefit to anyone outside the PL/PN tandem. Meanwhile, the standards of broadcasting have plummeted so severely, that people like Immanuel Mifsud – who is certainly no idiot – have come round to ‘giving up on Malta altogether’. And I can’t say I blame them: for the same pattern I outlined above, also indicates that this awful situation is not only here to stay… but can only get considerably worse.

What was it again that dictated both Alfred Sant’s U-turn on local councils, and Eddie’s U-turn on party-owned stations? Ah yes: their own, narrow, grubby little political interest. And in both cases, the decision was to abandon a position that was ‘right’, to endorse something that is ‘wrong’.

So what consideration do you think will govern any decision taken today, by either party, on either of those two issues… or indeed, on anything else under the sun? Make no mistake: it will be the same. The Nationalist and Labour Parties will continue to willingly take decisions they know to be ‘wrong’, for reasons they equally know to be ’wrong’; and we will continue to be lumped with the awful consequences of those mistakes… forever.

And on that cheerful note, may I also remind you all that this is the season to be jolly, and to get shitfaced at the nearest pub. Speaking of which…

More in Blogs