New standards and old values

What’s good for the goose is rightly good for the gander. That saying goes for Labour too: will its own MPs and ministers come clean on the gifts they have received but which have gone undeclared? 

Opposition leader Bernard Grech was quick in the week to address his party’s loose ends: one concerning the acceptance of gifts by Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi, the other his MP Edwin Vassallo’s denigration of an LGBTQI strategy from the European Commission to link EU funds to the respect of equality and other gay rights. 

Grech seems to have set the standard so far in his own party. MPs have to practice what they preach, and it is clear that Jason Azzopardi broke the Code of Ethics for MPs by soliciting a favour and then accepting a gift from none other than the business group which had a direct interest in the Electrogas power plant, a project so denigrated by the Opposition at the time. That gift, a hotel stay at the Hilton in Tel Aviv, took place right at the time when the PN, led then by Simon Busuttil, was waging its own political theatrics against the DB Group over the unacceptable transfer of public land for the development of a hotel; but as it turns out, while receiving donations from that business group for wages of its own party staff. 

Of course, what’s good for the goose is rightly good for the gander. That saying goes for Labour too: will its own MPs and ministers come clean on the gifts they have received but which have gone undeclared? Now that the bar has been set high, the Azzopardi gift cannot be used as some measure of false equivalence in order to nullify the egregious disregard of ethics and standards in politics. 

Secondly, Grech this week also acted quickly to disassociate the party from claims by the conservative MP Edwin Vassallo to lambast an EC equality strategy led by Helena Dalli as “Marxist” and “totalitarian”. 

So overused have these words become by the ‘alt-right’ fringes of the Maltese political landscape, that they have lost their value entirely. All the privileged critics in Malta – people like former conservative minister and European Commissioner Tonio Borg, religious leaders, and MPs like Edwin Vassallo – are intent on denigrating anything that demands equal treatment of people, and equal access to goods and services, as ‘marxist’ (confusingly so, since Marx’s friend Friedrich Engels saw equality as an antiquated Utopian concept that actually had little place in socialist society...). 

Broad-church parties cannot exclude people on the basis of discriminatory politics; they need to be inclusive of any group whose aspirations include personal advancement and the common good, and which do not harm the pursuit of happiness by other groups. If Grech has understood this concept, he can start chipping away at the old stubborn edifice of Nationalist entitlement and privilege that has weakened the PN. 

But it will take bold actions to start repositioning the party as being capable of convincing policy positions, that embrace modernity, diversity, freedom of thought, and a willingness to place the people above the market and its masters.

Pierre Grech Marguerat 

When Malta became an EU member in 2004, its sovereignty became effectively pooled with that of the European Union and its member states, and with that, a shared system of values rooted in international law and human rights. One of these major changes had been Malta’s adherence to international rules on asylum and refugees, which meant it could no longer chose not to ratify the full obligations of the Geneva Convention and become responsible for the reception and processing of asylum claims. Malta’s entry into the EU coincided with a jumble of laws which punished border nations and which, 16 years later, is still the subject of wide debate inside the European Parliament. 

Be that as it may, the mass arrival of mixed flows of asylum seekers – some were refugees forced to make an illegal crossing without identity documentation, others were fleeing scenes of conflict or looking for better life opportunities in the rich EU – altered the Maltese political agenda. Migration, asylum seekers and labour migrants, racism and xenophobia, and also the general conversation on human rights, was thrown into a bitter, divisive debate. The Nationalist administration, like governments that came after it, wanted the problem gone, adopting a fatal pushback in 2002 that is widely documented by Amnesty; and an unforgiving detention policy. The new reality brought into political parlance the Maltese far-right, a collection of individuals who openly dehumanise foreign guests, migrant workers, rail against gender equality, and entertain spurious alt-right conspiracies and its lazy tropes. 

One of the protagonists of this debate at the time was the gentle Jesuit priest, Pierre Grech Marguerat. He was, at that point, tasked with the difficult job of explaining the value of international humanitarian law and the reality of migrations from the African continent to Europe. For being a Catholic priest, he ironically faced a sort of double barrier, for audiences who were wilfully xenophobic seemed to think the Church was foisting an undesirable agenda onto them. As the far-right attempted to silence these voices, unknown perpetrators – some believed to have been close to the forces of law and order at the time – set on fire the cars belonging to Jesuit priests like Grech Marguerat, and lawyer Katrine Camilleri, of the Jesuit Refugee Service. Other people who suffered arson attacks on their front doors were MaltaToday managing editor Saviour Balzan and the late journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. 

These were difficult times for humanitarian activists and voices. When shorn of a strong political voice, of a government that embraces humanitarian values, activists are left alone to fend off dangerous critics and right-wing extremists who are never inure to use lies and deceit for political gain. 

Fr Pierre Grech Marguerat was a gentle warrior whose life was dedicated to the universal value of human rights. We hope the memory of his actions live long after his untimely departure and can serve to inspire those whose aspiration in life is to see that people can pursue their happiness, without fear.