Best foot forward… | Emma Portelli Bonnici

The election of a new party leader seems to have galvanised the Nationalist Party, especially among younger supporters. But will this new-found optimism truly herald a new beginning for the PN? MZPN secretary-general EMMA PORTELLI BONNICI is optimistic about the first steps taken so far

Emma Portelli Bonnici
Emma Portelli Bonnici

Before becoming party leader last month, Bernard Grech admitted that the Nationalist Party had lost traction among the younger demographic. Has anything tangibly changed since Grech took over? Do you see any renewed enthusiasm among younger voters?

Bernard Grech hasn’t been leader of the Opposition for a very long time, but already you can tell there is a positive feeling among younger people. You can tell when you’re been being heard; whether someone is using you just because you’re there… or whether they’re actually interested in what you have to say. And I think it’s important that we acknowledge that, at this stage, Bernard Grech is interested in what we have to say.

Having said this, to expect a new leader to step in and simply change everything, from one day to the next, is a bit of a stretch. A change in leadership, on its own, is not enough. We all need to throw in our weight, determination and effort, to make sure that the party’s policies reflect what youths need nowadays.

So, on his own…. No. But with everyone behind him… for sure!

Judging only by his speech last Monday – in which he mentioned ‘the environment’ (a major youth concern) no fewer than 57 times – Grech is certainly making an effort to reach out. But, given the PN’s past track record on the environment, how credible is this new direction?

Obviously it’s still very premature to determine whether that was a ‘soundbite’ or not. I personally don’t think so. From what I’ve seen so far, Bernard Grech is very interested in taking on our ideas. He has spoken to us, not just about the environment, but also about the National Youth Policy: which we are in the process of finalizing.

But when we speak about the Nationalist Party in the past, we tend to talk about 15 years ago, or more. And I honestly feel we need to start afresh; to stop judging today’s realities by yesterday’s standards.

From my point of view, even the fact that Bernard Grech started out on the right foot – and so far, that’s the only foot we’ve seen – is hopeful, in itself. I’m very excited to see what the future brings, starting from that point. Because if you’re leading off from a good starting point: it can only get better, in my view.

Obviously, that may be an optimistic opinion… but I’m OK with being optimistic, at this point in time. I feel we deserve a little optimism, for a change…

Grech said he ‘wouldn’t allow any further extensions to the development zones’. The issue today, however, is more with over-development taking place within the existing boundaries; and also the fact that the developers’ lobby is so deeply intertwined with the political class. What sort of advice would you give Bernard Grech on those issues?

Just to clarify: as MZPN, we have been asked for advice… or at least, for a youth perspective… but we haven’t finalized anything yet. We are still in the process of looking into the issues.

But for me personally: what I would like to see is less development happening everywhere. Less of these beautiful houses, that are scheduled, somehow crumbling down; less of these projects, where they say they’ll ‘keep the façade’; then suddenly, there’s no façade…

Because right now, there are just too many of these cases to even keep up with. It has reached a stage where, to monitor the incredible destruction of our environment, and to fully understand what’s happening every day… it’s a full-time job. You can’t even keep up with what’s being lost, on a daily basis…

And it’s a constant exhaustion. I honestly feel that people of my generation are exhausted, reading the news every day. It’s becoming traumatic.

Not just because of the environment, either. Or even COVID-19: which naturally doesn’t add any joy to the newspapers. But every single day, it’s either a new corruption scandal; or a new case of Labour using civil liberties as a smokescreen – which they love doing: and it’s incredibly upsetting, to the people who are actually involved… and on top of everything, the constant destruction of the environment.

Even on the eve of the budget: is that when they saw fit to uproot the trees for the Central Link project in Attard? It’s not just the damage being done, in all these cases: it’s also the constant backhandedness of it all…

You mentioned Labour ‘using civil liberties as a smokescreen’; but isn’t it also true that the Nationalist Party has made itself vulnerable to that tactic, by allowing itself to become too internally divided on such issues?

I wouldn’t say it has become ‘too internally divided’. There are differences of opinion within the Nationalist Party, yes; but the PN has always been home to different opinions. And this is something I feel we need to retain…

What if those differences turn out to be irreconcilable?

But the PN is a political party; you don’t have to ‘get married’ to it. You don’t need to agree, 100%, on everything. I think we should move away from this tribalist mentality, whereby support for a party means absolute agreement on everything….

Fair enough, but some of the issues are too divisive to ignore. Abortion, for distance. You have publicly identified yourself as ‘pro-choice’; yet the PN touts itself as a resolutely ‘pro-life’ party. How can this difference of opinion be reconciled?

Obviously, it’s an issue I feel very strongly about, and I’ve never felt the need to hide the fact that I am pro-choice: not even from the party. I respect their views… even though they are completely in opposition to mine.

But when it comes to abortion, the situation in Malta is slightly different, in the sense that… we’re tiny; and we also tend to divide ourselves. Personally, I don’t believe that society’s lines are drawn into such blanket ‘pro-life versus pro-choice’ terms. The issue is more complex than that.

But I also feel that there is so much else to be done, in the sexual health department, that there’s no need to start with legalizing abortion. There are so many other minor things that we do agree upon: like, for example, better sexual health, and more access for young people. The fact that the GU clinic was closed – or if not ‘closed’, accepting very few appointments, with waiting lists of over two months, or more – is not acceptable, in a 21st century European country. Especially during a pandemic. We already know that the pandemic has had an impact on mental health; just imagine the added anxiety, of having to wait two months to be tested for a possible STD…

Nonetheless, the PN has often used the abortion issue to smear rival politicians in the past. Yet it seems to have no problem with the secretary of its own youth section being openly pro-choice. Isn’t this a contradiction? And do you get any internal criticism? Has anyone within the PN ever called you a ‘baby-killer’, or a ‘murderer’, for your views?

[Laughing] No. If anyone called me a murderer, the conversation would have ended there, and I’d have walked away. Because I no longer have the patience for these things.

But in my experience, people are very respectful in their disagreement. In fact, I feel it’s almost encouraged: because having different opinions makes for a much more interesting discussion, than only ever talking to people who agree with you 100%.

I also feel that, ensuring there is a pro-choice perspective – when decisions are made, when policies are discussed – is always important. I know, for instance, that as secretary-general of MZPN, I’m not going to be the one to introduce abortion in Malta… but I also know that, having my opinion expressed within the party, we are more likely to talk about, for instance, sexual health: a conversation we might otherwise not have had at all.

So no, the fact that I have different views has never been a problem. In fact, I enjoy those conversations. You’d be surprised to hear that it is often the least likely, most unthinkable people who will afterwards come up to you and say: ‘I see your point, ta…’ And when it happens… I feel like I may at least have made a small difference…

Turning to another issue that divides public opinion: immigration. Under its new leadership, the PN has seemingly softened its rhetoric on the subject; but beyond the change in tone, the perception at street-level remains that neither Labour nor the PN can really offer any long-term solution. What do you think the PN’s immigration policy should be?

I wouldn’t say it’s a case that ‘neither party can offer solution’; I think that neither party has worked hard enough for a solution yet. There is a lot that still needs to be done. Starting with the way we talk about the subject in public.

I don’t like to be overly negative… but just yesterday, I watched a show on TVM, featuring an interview with Robert Abela. And even just the way he talks about migrants – I find it so… problematic. So abhorrent, that he thinks he can say those words on national television; and there are no repercussions.

And then, in the next sentence, he talks about ‘xenophobia’… when he himself is the one adding fuel to the fire…

But Robert Abela is not the only one talking about immigration in those terms. It wasn’t that long ago that a NET TV journalist stood outside the ‘Bangladesh Food Shop’ in Hamrun, rousing ill-feeling towards ‘foreigners taking Maltese jobs’…

I don’t deny that mistakes were made in the past: and I sincerely feel that all PN representatives need to be more sensitive about this issue. But by sticking to past examples, we will never be able to move forward. Unless we learn from those mistakes, and at least start trying to move in a different direction, things will never change at all…

What direction do you propose?

There is a whole lot that still needs to be done. That is an undeniable fact, at this point. I feel we do need to put more pressure on our MEPs, to continue their struggle to get their point across to the European Union as a whole...

But the EU has been saying ‘No’ to a burden-sharing agreement for almost 15 years now. Are you suggesting that the PN should just stick to a policy which has clearly failed?

[Shrugs] You say ‘no’ once; you say ‘no’ twice… but you keep going. You can’t just give up. But no, I’m not saying that the approach should not be only that. We also need a proper policy on integration. This is something that has never really been put forward. On the contrary, we have consistently worked in the opposition direction.

The reality, however, is that there is nothing we can do, politically, to stop asylum seekers from coming here. All we can do is adhere to our international obligations – which we’re not doing: as was the case when we migrants were being held on Captain Morgan, out at sea, in the winter… while a pandemic was ravaging our island…

So while there may be no ‘cut-and-dried’ solution: there are definitely things you can avoid doing, so as not to exacerbate the situation. You do not add racist sentiments, to a country that is already being ravaged by xenophobia.

Adding fuel to an already blazing fire is not going to benefit anyone. It won’t help anyone living in ‘hotspots’; or anyone who cares about immigration as an issue, one way or the other. Still less will it make the problem itself go away.

In fact… xenophobia not going to help anyone at all. So while I know it’s a lot to ask… though it shouldn’t be, in this day and age… I honestly think everyone should just stop being so xenophobic. It has never helped anyone before; and it won’t help anyone in the future, either.