More than words

More work needs to be done to achieve a truly inclusive society. But Joseph Muscat's verbal commitment must be translated into action, if his exhortation to greater tolerance is not to go down as another echo of the as-yet unrealised ‘Malta Taghna Lkoll’ motif

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

March 31 has been a divisive occasion for 35 years; as tends to be the case with national festivities associated with political events. Ostensibly, the feast commemorates the final departure of British armed forces from Malta in 1974 following 160 years of military presence. Its official name, ‘Freedom Day’, conveys the impression that Malta was ‘liberated’ by this event.

Historically, however, this interpretation does not hold water. The British navy paid for its use of Malta’s facilities, and effectively left upon expiry of the lease. Nor can it be realistically inferred that the British naval presence in the 1970s constituted ‘oppression’ or ‘tyranny’. Malta was already an independent republic by then. The final departure of HMS London in 1979 did not impact this reality in any way.

On the political front, Jum Il-Helsien is widely perceived as a celebration pertaining to the Labour faction; and while preceding Nationalist governments generally respected the occasion, it cannot be cited as a ‘unifying’ day for the country as a whole.

From this perspective, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s speech for the occasion was particularly apt on two counts. On one level, Muscat rightly sought to break away from the traditional/historical significance of 31 March, and redefine the occasion to commemorate ‘freedom’ in all forms. This signifies that he understands the divisive nature of the festivity, and his efforts to broaden its appeal can also be taken as a token gesture towards greater national unity... even at the expense of dimming the political significance of Freedom Day for his own party.

In this he is to be commended.

At face value, the same could be said for his appeals for greater freedom from prejudice in general, as well as his surprising but welcome words on the subject of illegal detention of the children of asylum seekers. However, one cannot but observe a stark contradiction between the Prime Minister’s words last Monday, and several of the policies and/or policy directions that his government continues to implement even today.

Much has already been done by the Labour administration on the broader issue of freedom from prejudice and discrimination. The Civil Unions Bill – currently ‘postponed’ by the outgoing President’s refusal to ratify the law – is itself emblematic of its overall inclusive approach, and there have been other initiatives, spearheaded mainly by the civil rights and education ministries.

Nonetheless the desired cultural leap requires more than just a revision of legislative instruments. In several key areas, freedom continues to be undermined by cultural perceptions and institutionalised attitudes; and like all its predecessors, the Muscat administration has contributed to both.

Freedom of expression is perhaps the most pressing area where a cultural shift is required. To this day, Malta’s archaic defamation laws continued to be instrumentalised to a worrying degree by people in power and authority against their critics. The State is complicit to this abuse, as libel laws permit plaintiffs to pursue cases at the State’s expense. Yet the Labour government, like all its predecessors, has resisted even international calls to redress a situation that clearly undermines freedom of speech in this country.

On the subject of immigration, the Prime Minister offered an apparent show of solidarity towards asylum seekers – focusing on the plight of detained children – and this was clearly a message to his own party’s supporters, whom he exhorted to ‘abandon their prejudices’.

But at the same time it is a confusing message. While defending his government’s detention policy, Muscat declares that ‘we cannot sleep soundly in our beds, knowing that there are children sleeping in detention camps’. Yet the detention of children is already illegal, as it has been for years. Muscat’s admission that minors continue to be detained is therefore also an admission that Malta, under his tenure of office, continues to ignore its commitments according to international treaties. It is evidence that the same detention policy is not matched by the required investment in resources.

As one would like to think that government is not willingly detaining children to serve as a deterrent – which would be a criminally reprehensible act – one must conclude that the situation has been brought about by a lack of workable alternatives. In this respect, Muscat’s appeal should be directed towards his own government, whose responsibility it is to ensure that all the amenities are in place to properly implement its own policies.

Moreover, the emphasis on detained children is selective, and tailored to provoke a sympathetic reaction. Such sympathy was notably lacking on his own part in June last year, when Muscat threatened to renege on Malta’s international commitments by pushing back migrants on arrival. Elsewhere his government’s attitude towards immigration is fraught with contradiction. Muscat favours integration, but insists on imposing a ‘maximum limit’ for integrated migrants. This contrasts completely with the liberal and generous conditions made available to the world’s wealthiest through the controversial IIP scheme.

One is therefore inclined to agree with the prime minister that more work needs to be done to achieve a truly inclusive society. But this verbal commitment must be translated into action, if Muscat’s exhortation to greater tolerance is not to go down as another echo of the as-yet unrealised ‘Malta Taghna Lkoll’ motif.

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