Returning to the past

Control is the anathema to modern-day politics and transparency, and it’s a wrong message to send

Valletta Cultural Agency Chairman Jason Micallef
Valletta Cultural Agency Chairman Jason Micallef

If you are looking for some signs of where this country is heading, then the signs are not great.

Instead of embracing the positives of ‘Muscatian’ politics, some of the boys from the Labour block are calling for more of old Labour. Indeed, that vintage of old Labour which specialised in hitting out at opponents and critics as if they were enemies that had to be decimated at all costs.

The first sign was the refusal of the party to allow the leadership candidates to face each other on television out of the comfort zone of Labour channel One TV. I asked Daniel Micallef, the president of the Labour Party, to reconsider this decision, and his reply was standard. “The decision was taken, and the format of having individual interviews was the accepted norm.”

So, here we are; after having surpassed the mediocrity of the politics of Alfred Sant when he was Labour leader, we are back to the siege mentality that we knew.

The rules of engagement are no longer determined by the media but by the political parties. So here we are: it is not in the interest of the Labour Party to see how Robert Abela and Chris Fearne fare in a face-off. Instead it seems that any difference that could surface between the two should be controlled.

And we’re only talking about the next prime minister of our own country. Yet the cohort of people who will determine the person who will lead Malta and Gozo is squarely in the hands of the Labour membership, and so is a proper exchange of ideas in a debate now the prerogative of the Labour Party.

Control is the anathema to modern-day politics and transparency, and it’s a wrong message to send.

Much like the message sent by Jason Micallef, a former secretary-general from the Sant era who lost the 2008 election and was kept on board; his endemic habit to hit out at any sort of political adversary big or small, a relic of his old Labour days, who has hit the headlines again.

Jason Micallef represents the heart and soul of old Labour. Were it up to Keith Schembri, who took matters in his hand as Muscat’s man after he was elected Labour leader, Micallef would have been completely sidelined. That is why James Piscopo was brought in as Labour CEO and the secretary-general post, which was an elected post that carried much power, was abolished. In the end, Micallef was retained as chairman of Labour’s television but also given an important posting at the helm of Valletta 2018 and now the Valletta Cultural Agency.

Whatever his insistence to wade in politics in the most petty of situations, this does not justify his ballistic reaction to hit out at the artist Alexandra Alden, just because she happens to be a judge on X Factor Malta, which happens to be broadcast on TVM.

Again, this is the most rotten form of thinking: just because someone is talented enough to be picked to be a star on national broadcasting, should exempt them from having a political opinion… at least that is what Micallef seems to be suggesting.

To illustrate how retrograde this kind of thinking is, one only has to look at the politically keen landscape of artists in the United Kingdom, for example. Indeed, it would be challenging not to find one artist or singer there who does not say ‘fuck Boris’; countless of singers and bands openly supported British Labour during the Red Wedge tours of the 1980s; many more are politically active in song and in art.

And to extend this spirit of freedom of thought, so are journalists in the UK not berated for holding political opinions while presenting shows on the BBC, like for example, the conservative Andrew Neill… as long as their professionalism gives viewers the value they deserve.

This Maltese assumption of ours, that anyone who partakes of some sort of national fund or participates in settings directly financed by the State, must be politically neutral and devoid of opinion, is simply dumb-witted. We have to fight this by hitting out at those who want to take away our mental space or punch down on our freedom of speech.

And speaking of punching down… is a grown adult like Jason Micallef really going to pick on a non-controversial woman half his age?

Let’s be serious for once. Micallef is probably simply hitting out at Alden as a proxy for his obsessive prejudice towards the former Net TV boss Anton Attard, the producer of X Factor Malta.

But Micallef tends to forget his place ­­–­­­ place which, given his role as Valletta ‘culture boss’, truly does not fit someone with such a wide mouth. If someone occupies this role they should be welcoming artistic liberation and criticism. Instead, Micallef feels free to flex his own political muscle despite being financed by the State! What a contradiction if there was ever one.

Alas, he happened to be one of the most vehement opponents for a debate between the two contenders on TV stations other than One TV.

Yet he is just the visible part of the problem. For the general feeling among Labour diehards is that the party has been deprived of their most precious leader – as if the goings-on in the corridors of Castille were catalysed by the dark forces of the PN!

Muscat’s downfall is his own doing, of the blindness to the problem of greed and arrogance festering next to him. Of course, he can be faulted for many things. His sternest opponents will at least concede that he never looked at people’s politics if they were read to serve the country.

So Chris Fearne and Robert Abela have a tall order. They not only have to ensure that they serve all the people, but more importantly guarantee that we do not revert to the situation we knew before 2013.

Because it has to be said, that if there was one success from the Muscat administration, it was that of treating everyone by giving them the same opportunities.

Jason Micallef knows this, so much so that his harshest words are always reserved for two of Muscat’s ‘beneficiaries’ – Anton Attard and Lou Bondì, two former PN functionaries who found the warmth of Labour’s largesse.

But the future lies with people who see beyond the hang-ups we all share. We need leaders who confront the current not swim with it. And those kinds of people do not grow on trees.