Why Mina is right, and Arnold is not

Now that Mina Tolu made a very sensible and moderate attempt at addressing the abortion taboo, Cassola expected AD's executive committee to disassociate the party from her

AD MEP candidate Arnold Cassola (right) yesterday called on his party to distance itself from comments made by fellow candidate Mina Tolu (left)
AD MEP candidate Arnold Cassola (right) yesterday called on his party to distance itself from comments made by fellow candidate Mina Tolu (left)

Over the last thirty odd years I have steered away from hitting out at Alternattiva Demokratika, for the most obvious of reasons. I worked relentlessly to set up this small party in 1989 and unabashedly will take credit for kick-starting it. It was a difficult time for me and it had an impact on my career. At the time, wherever I went my political affiliation did not get me places; indeed, it served as an obstacle. I was turned down by the civil service for a managerial role after I had come first in the public selection process. I remember at the time that no one – even the executive committee members of AD – were willing to front a personal guarantee to obtain a bank overdraft so that we could run our fledgling newspaper and administration.

I felt and I still feel today, that we need a third party that fills the void – especially on the left of politics – and which says things as they stand.

Alternattiva was a champion of so many worthy crusades: local councils, divorce, environmental campaigns, transparency, corruption probes and at one point even as a beacon for investigative journalism.

The electoral system and the political duopoly made it an impossible task for AD to get elected but it nearly did get elected in the European elections of 2004, garnering up to 22,000 votes in the 2004 election. And in its first run in the elections in 1992 it hit 1.7% of the national vote, a first for the time.

Both political parties, most especially the Nationalist Party, worked to literally destroy Alternattiva, denying it airtime and even a radio licence in the 1990s.

But Alternattiva was always plagued, like other parties, by its infighting, driven mostly by the egocentrism of its leaders and more charismatic executive members. The first rift had involved Joe (now Peppi) Azzopardi, with that schism becoming the first among many to waste precious time for the small party. Only recently, the party lost a former leader, Michael Briguglio, who became a PN member in mid-2017 at a sensitive point during renewed infighting inside AD. Briguglio, now a PN candidate, had also been at loggerheads in the past with former leader Harry Vassallo, his predecessor, and then with Carmel Cacopardo, soon after Briguglio brought AD its highest ever vote, 1.9%, in 2013.

Like many other members inside the AD executive committee, Briguglio would also threaten to leave in a bid to get his way. In 2017 he finally embraced the very political party which in the past despised activists like him, and which poured scorn on environmentalists who voted for AD.

But then there is Arnold Cassola, a guy who was always there for the show, and seemed to be always ‘more Nationalist’ than the Nationalists. When he argued, he did it in their style: just a little bit superficial, not entirely well-researched, and never touching on the real problem – mediocre populism.

In Brussels, he served the European Greens as secretary-general, a formation that has a radical agenda and openly embraces full reproductive and sexual rights for women.

Later in 2006, Cassola made use of his political networks in Brussels and his Italian parentage to obtain a candidature in Romano Prodi’s l’Unione coalition for Italian expatriate MPs… and he was elected to the Italian Chamber of Deputies, for two years up until the government gave way in 2008. That coalition included various parties which supported abortion rights: two communist parties and the Greens, among others.

So, when this Friday, Cassola sent out an open letter calling for AD to bring its new candidate Mina Tolu in line – one of three Green candidates – for suggesting an open discussion on abortion, I could only cringe.

Cassola finds it OK to describe abortion as his “red line” in Malta, when he actively worked with dozens of politicians who had a different take, and surely, which he respected while he worked with them in Brussels.

The twist in the tale is that now that Mina Tolu made a very sensible and moderate attempt at addressing the taboo of abortion, Cassola expected AD’s executive committee to disassociate the party from her – which the party did not. In fact, it reiterated its opposition to abortion, but said it agreed with Tolu’s sentiments.

In 1991, we were ridiculed as a bunch of cats (“erbat iqtates”) by then Nationalist education minister Ugo Mifsud Bonnici. It was a derogatory comment that actually endeared people to AD.

Indeed, we were a dynamic group: Azzopardi and Cassola, myself, chairperson Wenzu Mintoff and Toni Abela, Andrew Ellul, Anna Zammit and Stephen Cachia, and dozens of volunteers. We ran a newspaper and a radio station, with two offices and employees.

Today, that is no longer the case. AD has no office or media. They survive on a dream.

They can’t even be accused of having just four people in a bath tub.

And yet Malta is crying out for third-party politics – not stuffy politics like the one espoused by the Partit Demokratiku, a conservative outfit parading as a bastion of liberal democracy.

But Cassola gave in to a ridiculous and self-centred knee-jerk reaction, to pounce upon Tolu, who as an LGBTQI activist understands what taboo is about and has a true desire to change things. Which is why I sent Cassola a message: “Times have changed. You are better off in the PN. You just did a Briguglio.”

Indeed, I was not correct when I mentioned Briguglio: to be fair with Briguglio, he never published this kind of correspondence in the internecine war in AD. And Briguglio had warned that AD had to give space to younger activists.

This country badly needs a small party that will fight battles in a different manner, that will raise issues that none of the parties want to touch for fear of losing out to a wider electoral base. And yes, go back to harping on the basics: the issues of transparency, environmental protection and values – not as Cassola sees them from the political standpoint of 1989.

Mina Tolu might not break the mould of Maltese politics, but we need people to ram the dyke, open up the cracks for others who have the courage to make the next step. It cannot be that everything is measured in calculated risks, monetary advance or peoples’ perception. There must be more than this.

And the time for being cautious about the things we believe in is over: more so for a party that remained standstill since its inception in October 1989!

Thirty years ago, Harry Vassallo (also one of its later leaders) stood up to an audience of over 1,000 excited people seated in the conference hall at the Corinthia in Attard to launch Alternattiva, and said: “We need a new form of politics – neither left, nor right, but just ahead.”

Those words reverberate more than ever today. The only difference is clear: that audience we are talking about is very different today. It is more open to ideas, not restrained by taboos and cultural hang-ups, an audience that was not born in the 1960s or 1970s.

That is why Mina Tolu’s words were in synch with what is needed, and Cassola’s thinking process simply incoherent and not in tandem with the public pulse or the sign of the times.

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