Alfred Sant on Maltese politics: Eight take-aways from his latest interview

The former prime minister, Labour MEP, writer and playwright’s latest set of memoirs has opened a new window on his view of Malta in 2021

The following are extracts from Alfred Sant’s latest interview in The Times

Malta’s elites remain powerful by learning to settle into traditional structures

Alfred Sant maps out the way elites have moved from one political era to the other, from the “colonial based, totally anti-democratic, totally traditional and pat­riarchal” system of the 1950s and 1960s; to the transition of change that included the 1980s. He says those elites - priests, merchants and lawyers - “resisted pressure, resisted change… And when the change came, they were sort of accommodated within the old structures.”

Over the years those elites have become “political apparatchiks, the new businessmen, then the businessmen from abroad, the promoters” who also managed to integrate themselves into a traditional structure.

It’s not the two-party system that is the problem, but the friends-of-friends network that makes up Maltese society.

“I’ve been in politics for 30 to 40 years. And I’ve been preaching about that – the ‘friends of friends’ – it’s a Gonzi problem, it’s a Joseph Muscat problem, a Mintoff problem, a Fenech Adami problem…” Sant says the ‘friends of friends’ way of doing things “just bubbles up. I spent about 16 to 17 years just pushing and showing how things were being done on specific cases. Nobody was interested then. Why?”

The proximity between the business community and the political class has always been there. “It’s always shocked me. But the point is it’s only being highlighted now. And that’s what I find so really Rip Van Winkle about how the media operates these days.”

Sant wanted a French-style reform of the Maltese police

The anti-corruption mechanism that we have had up to now, in my view, does not work. The only one which could have worked and we were proposing – but nobody wanted it – would have been the system they have in France. You have an investigative judge, with his own resources, able to tackle busi­nesses, able to tackle scandals directly using his own resources in an investigative and executive role. People are afraid to do it in Malta. Why? Because that could undermine relationships, friendships, and that will cut to the bone. And they’re also worried because this kind of judge could also have his own agenda – politi­cal, partisan, or individual agenda. And you can’t exclude that that could also be a problem.

He is disappointed that Joseph Muscat had to leave early but says he did the right thing to resign

“Number one, he was not my protégé. He can move sufficiently on his own, to be able to move forward, which is what he did. And I think he did that very well. I’m disappointed that he left early. I always told him you have to stay where you are until you face an economic downturn, because he was quite lucky to be able to run the show when the economy was booming, which happened because of his policies as well.”

He judges Robert Abela very positively

“I do not judge my successors. But I think he’s doing a good job. [The pandemic] shows he’s a man of steel. His baptism was really one of fire. [On rule of law] I think he’s doing a good job.”

He says Malta needs accountability but it is hampered by traditionalism

“We’re still running it on old engines, old ways of doing things. We think that modernisation means digitali­sation; of course, you have to digitalise, but that’s not the real game. The real game is accountability, responsibility and transparency. And that we don’t have. On all fronts.

“You have to accept that we are a small society. And a small socie­ty lives through relationships, the person-to-person basis. It’s also religious and cultural. They make for our traditional ways of doing things.”

Construction: the cowboys cannot run the show

“I think people are increasingly understanding that we can’t just let the cowboys run the show. We shouldn’t just restrict construction, but we should say we’re going to have real regulation and real prohibitions. If it’s ODZ then you can’t do anything. If we’re discussing a flyover for traffic, no – penalise traffic, rather than have a flyover. But that’s got to be done by people who are not involved in construction, by people who are not involved in business.”

Civil society action… is also hampered by the friends-of-friends network

“Civil society in Malta is also used through the friends-of-friends’ network to do partisan stuff… I haven’t gone into the dossier [of Repubblika being threatened with withdrawal of NGO status]. The point is that you have NGOs and NGOs, you have civil society and civil society. But you don’t necessarily trust all NGOs, or all of civil society.”