Distinguishing between ‘party’ and ‘government’ | Daniel Jose Micallef

The sole contestant for the position of Deputy Leader for Party Affairs, former Labour Party president DANIEL JOSE MICALLEF outlines his vision for the future of an equally ‘unopposed’ Labour Party. But how will he tackle the many unresolved issues that still haunt Labour from its previous administration? 

Daniel Jose Micallef
Daniel Jose Micallef

When submitting your nomination for deputy leadership, you said you wanted to ‘renew this party, strengthen the movement, and strengthen the country. Yet with the situation that has engulfed the Nationalist Party, the reality is that Labour has never been stronger than it is today. Do you see your position, then, as counterbalancing this lack of any external pressure on  government? Is it a case of the Labour Party wanting to provide opposition to itself?  

Not exactly, no. Or rather… not only. I myself do not depart from the premise that ‘there is no opposition in the country’. It is true that, on a party-political level, the traditional ‘opposition’ does not really exist… in the sense that the people who should be providing a credible, structured opposition, are instead focusing on ‘power games’ within their own party. And I don’t think that the government is to blame for this situation. 

But it doesn’t mean there is no opposition at all. On the level of civil society, and the constant scrutiny of the media, and other entities… the role of opposition is still being fulfilled, even if not on a party-political level. 

As for your question of whether the Labour Party sees its role as ‘opposing government’, however…  no, that’s not how I see it myself. Yes, the Labour Party should also scrutinize the actions of government; it should be pro-positive, and even critical, where necessary.  

But my vision is for the party to gradually evolve into a stakeholder in its own right, distinct from government. We need to create adequate policy fora, which can attract people to participate in policy discussions… so that the government knows that, in the Labour Party, it has a stakeholder that is there to deliver its message – or even its criticism – in a way that is genuine, and addressed towards doing good for the country. Nothing more, and nothing less. 

Coming back to your political programme: it is divided into three distinct spheres: ‘party, movement, and country’. The concept of the Labour Party as a ‘movement of progressives and moderates’ was first coined by Joseph Muscat: who has since been replaced by Robert Abela. Has the leadership change impacted this ‘movement’ concept? Is the Labour Party still ‘progressive’ today? 

Without a doubt, the Labour Party’s agenda remains a progressive one… though it naturally depends on what the individual perceives a progressive agenda to be.  

But despite the fact that there has been a change in leadership, the government remains bound by the same electoral programme. It is committed to implementing the same electoral pledges. 

Even during the Covid months, we saw how those pledges continued to be implemented; and even now, we have to ensure that the entire manifesto keeps being implemented in full. And unless there are discussions to the contrary in future – which I don’t see happening – this will not change. 

So yes: I consider myself one of the main… I won’t say ‘defenders’, but one of the main ‘promoters’ of the concept of a movement. For a political party to aspire to have the support of a majority of the electorate, you need to formulate policies that can somehow appeal to that majority.   

That is precisely what the Labour Party has succeeded in doing in recent years; and that is what I intend it to keep doing. It has to be a continuous process. We have to maintain a consistent outreach; to keep meeting and talking to people from different walks of life; to formulate policies that people can identify with, which can then be transmitted in the form of a political manifesto… as we have already done, even until very recently, in the local council elections.  

That is why, as I said earlier, I see the Labour Party evolving into a major stakeholder, that can deliver its message, or criticism, in a way that is distinct from government. Because this is something that is often misunderstood here: governments are distinct from political parties; but a government is elected from a party platform… not the other way round. 

The vision you outline implies ‘continuity’ from the Muscat era: which was also promised by Robert Abela, before winning the leadership election last January. Yet as we all know, the Muscat era actually ended under a cloud of scandal and controversy. What about the darker aspects of Muscat’s legacy? How does the Labour intend to deal with the phantoms of its recent past?  

When you analyse what Robert Abela said, and what he has done, since becoming Prime Minister… there was a lot that was positive in the previous administration, and yes: it merits continuity. If you look at Malta’s economic growth over the past seven years; or the fact that the word ‘unemployment’ has vanished from the national vocabulary… 

At the same time, however, the Prime Minister was also resolute that the decisions which needed to be taken, were taken. I think it is now clear in everyone’s mind that the Prime Minister is not shying away from taking all the necessary decisions: however hard they may be. And I think this gives credibility to the Labour government… 

I assume you’re referring to the decision to expel Konrad Mizzi from the PL parliamentary group. What other hard decisions have been taken, though? 

One of the first decisions taken by the Labour government was to change the way Police Commissioners are appointed. We have the recommendations of the Venice Commission, which – after a lengthy period of consultation with the same commission – are now being enacted by Parliament; and the response by the Venice Commission itself has been positive.  

Besides, when talking about the decision-taking qualities of a new Prime Minister, you cannot ignore the fact that Robert Abela – along with the rest of his government – found himself facing an unprecedented crisis in the first few months of office. And the decisions he took were very, very tough.  

He had to face people and tell them that their businesses would have to close down; that the airport would be shut… and from one day to the next, government had to fork out millions in wage supplements, to protect tens of thousands of jobs: at a time when its own income decreased drastically, because – except for certain specific sectors - consumption practically disappeared overnight. That’s a big challenge. 

But it could be done. And it was doable, thanks to the competence of the present government, but also thanks also to the robust economy we have had in recent years. This is why, as a country, we managed to handle a situation that could have been much, much worse, where other countries failed... 

But those challenges were imposed by the COVID-19 crisis, and have nothing to do with the previous government. What about all corruption scandals we now know about? The Auditor General, for instance, has just issued a very damning report about the Vitals Hospital deal.  There are three other investigations into that same deal; not to mention ongoing inquiries into the Panama Papers, and the revelations concerning Montenegro, etc. How does Labour intend to overcome this aura of corruption? 

When you have situations like the one you just described, the important thing is how you deal with them. Now: until recently, in this country we were used to a situation whereby critical reports by the Auditor General – no matter how damning, either for government or even for individual politicians – were not only swept under the carpet… but the office of the Auditor General itself would be undermined. 

I don’t think that was the reaction of the Prime Minister today. Quite the contrary: Robert Abela is seeing to it that, once all due process had been carried out, all the decisions that need to be taken, continue to be taken. But we need to look ahead; what is certain, however, is that under no circumstances are we going to defend things which are not defensible… 

Yet the Labour Party did defend the indefensible: at a time when you yourself were party president. Konrad Mizzi, for example, won a unanimous vote of confidence after the Panama Paper revelations in 2016… 

What I’m saying is that, if there were things that were positive [in the previous administration], we will say they were positive; if there were things that could have been done better, we will say that they could have been done better… and if there were things that need to be changed, or which were done badly… we will say that, too. 

But how do you explain the fact that Mizzi’s involvement in the Panama Papers emerged in 2016… yet it was only last month that action was finally taken against himWouldn’t you say that the Labour Party defended him all that time, until he became indefensible? 

It was not a question of ‘defending him until he became indefensible’; it is important that you do not interpret me that way. The reality is that, as the Prime Minister himself explained immediately after that vote was taken, the circumstances of the time – including recent revelations – were different from before…  

Were they really, though? The fact that Mizzi had opened offshore companies, designed to receive moneys from (among others) 17 Black… that has been public knowledge for four years. 

Yes, but the revelations were unfolding throughout that time. The Montenegro connection, for instance, was not known before last month. I think the Prime Minister was very clear, in that statement he made after the vote was taken. He explained very clearly what had changed in the meantime; and when the time came, he took the decisions that needed to be taken. 

Only with regard to Konrad Mizzi, though. There remains the question of how Labour intends to deal with the legacy of Joseph Muscat himself. As the Prime Minister responsible for all government’s actions at the time…  shouldn’t the Labour Party also dissociate itself from Muscat, in the same way as it already has with Mizzi? And if it does come to that scenario… wouldn’t there also be a much higher political price to pay?  

I think it would be a disservice to talk in terms of ‘what if?’, or to speculate about ‘what might happen’. 

Let’s look at what did happen instead. The context we are looking at is that the situation regarding Joseph Muscat is entirely different from that of Konrad Mizzi. The Prime Minister has already made this very clear… it was, in fact, the first question he was asked after emerging from the [Mizzi] vote. There is nothing unclear or ambiguous about his reply. And it is a reply that I fully agree with, and uphold.  

Moreover, I think that Joseph Muscat has already paid the highest political price possible… and certainly, the highest political price that has ever been paid by a Maltese politician. 

So as far as I can see, there is nothing more to be said about the matter.   

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