Back in the trenches

Both Simon Busuttil and Joseph Muscat need reminding that their public role comes with the highest levels of political responsibility

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

It would not be an exaggeration to state that the level of political animosity between the two main political parties has now reached alarming proportions.

In Friday’s televised debate, Opposition leader Simon Busuttil made several references to ‘body language’: suggesting that prime minister Joseph Muscat’s posture and demeanour were indicative of political dishonesty. Whether this is true or not depends largely on one’s political perspective; but it is undeniable that a great deal can be discerned in the body language of both party leaders. 

Not since the days of Dom Mintoff and Eddie Fenech Adami has there been such overt, naked aggression and hostility between the two sides. The difference, perhaps, is that Mintoff and Eddie respected each other underneath their mutual exterior frostiness. No such respect appears to exist today.

This is extremely worrying, especially in view of the fact that the party grassroots look towards their leaders for inspiration. It should not surprise us that the open hostility Busuttil and Muscat now express towards each other would be reflected in increasingly unacceptable expressions of hate-speech across the board. 

It would be unwise to read too much into the despicable online ‘joke’ that portrayed Muscat as a child suffering from Down’s Syndrome. Clearly it was the work of a single, twisted mind, and cannot be attributed to the party that put up the original (politically acceptable) billboard. But it is also an undeniable fact that such hatred is rooted in the very real culture of verbal violence that both sides have come to embrace.

 It doesn’t have to be this way. We must learn to distinguish between two separate and incompatible sentiments. On one level there are corruption allegations which need to be addressed through political engagement; on another level, there are acceptable and unacceptable ways to engage in dialogue.

The Opposition is fully justified in exploiting suspicions of corruption for political purposes. It is a fact that such suspicions exist, and the prime minister cannot expect to be exempt from criticism over such serious issues. By the same token, Joseph Muscat is within his legitimate rights to counter such accusations, and to point towards the PN’s poor record when it comes to governance issues. These are legitimate areas for political confrontation.

It is absolutely unacceptable, however, that the two party leaders abdicate totally from their responsibilities in ensuring that a dangerous, volatile political situation does not get out of hand. From this perspective, it is not enough for the leaders to distance themselves from vile attacks such as the ‘Down Syndrome’ meme. They must also acknowledge that their own public behaviour is partly to blame. We have nurtured a culture of political apartheid that threatens to precipitate into intolerance of the kind last seen in the late 1980s. Unless something is done to calm the situation down, people might get hurt.

President of the Republic Dr Coleiro Preca was absolutely right to deplore the aggression and hostility of this campaign as ‘heart-breaking’. But the situation did not begin with the election. For too long now we have encouraged hate-speech on blogs which exist specifically to deepen political resentment in this country. We cannot applaud the liberal use of invective and hate-speech when it comes from bloggers and political minions, then deplore exactly the same kind of verbal violence when it comes from the parties themselves, or their more fanatical supporters.

Both Busuttil and Muscat need reminding that their public role comes with the highest levels of political responsibility. They are both still in time to come together for a public appeal for unity and calm.