Divorcing from the old ways | Deborah Schembri

She came out of nowhere and led a groundbreaking apolitical pro-divorce movement to a solid electoral victory, becoming a household name in the process. Deborah Schembri talks about the referendum under her belt and the election that lies ahead.

Schembri rocketed to prominence in a matter of months from being merely a relatively successful family lawyer, to adopting the mantle of a civil rights crusader at the vanguard of what was arguably the most significant democratic debate since the EU accession referendum.

Given the referendum’s solid success, Schembri’s political debut was considered by many a foregone conclusion, but up until only five weeks ago, speculation was rife whether Schembri would actually set her sights on greater things.

Her announcement on Xarabank on Friday 3 June quickly put paid to the speculation. More significantly however, it marked the start of a ‘candidate race’ between the Nationalist and Labour Parties over which would be able to field the most liberal candidates in time for the next election.

As we sit down to chat in her St Paul’s Bay office on a sunny June afternoon, I confront her with the one question that is on everyone’s mind.

Why would a former Nationalist who served as vice president of the St Paul’s Bay Nationalist section – and also militated in student protests against Alfred Sant and Evarist Bartolo’s university stipend reform in 1997 – chose Labour?

Schembri says that despite being intentionally “neither here nor there, politically speaking” during the run up to the referendum, “the campaign itself was an eye-opener. The way it unfolded, including how the Labour and Nationalist parties carried themselves, made me realise that I no longer felt as comfortable within the Nationalist Party as I once did.”

“Additionally, one needs to work with what parties are available,” Schembri says cautiously. “I did not have hundreds of parties to choose from. If not Labour, my choice was either the PN, or Alternattiva Demokratika.”

“I did not see myself joining AD,” she says. “I always believed that if I joined politics, it would be to achieve something significant and lasting. If one wants to help people, one requires position of strength.”

She concedes that the realisation, and her subsequent decision to join the PL, was at odds with her Nationalist activist background. She however attributes her choice not to a shift in her ideals, but rather those within the PN.

“I became aware of a significant number of core nationalists who were increasingly becoming as frustrated as I was. I was not alone.” She says that for many, as well as herself, the party that they once believed in and militated for in had somehow evaporated.

“In the past, the PN managed to present the face of a party that was less conservative and slightly more liberal in appearance – whatever might have lain beneath. But now even that veneer has dropped,” she says, describing the situation within the PN as “claustrophobic.”

“The party being what it is, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable,” she says. “If I had been invited to enter politics only by the PN, I wouldn’t have been able to accept. I don’t feel it is my place any longer,” she says unapologetically.

She juxtaposes this with what she described as a frank and no-nonsense three-hour-long tête-à-tête with Labour leader Joseph Muscat earlier on the day of her announcement, during which he and Schembri threshed out “a never-ending list” of questions and concerns. “When I spoke to people within the PL, and during my meeting with Muscat, I felt comfortable discussing whatever I wanted and bringing up points which I wanted to work towards. I felt understood and appreciated. I did not feel that they were up there, and that I was down here.”

She adds that in her years of activism, she had always felt the PN was “a little bit elitist and detached from the people, but never as much as today. Today, there is a palpable feeling that despite how the people want certain things, the party is not feeling it. Why not, I can’t precisely say.”

She however refers to a comment by columnist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who wrote that political administrations that surround themselves exclusively with like-minded individuals risk becoming blind to shifts within the electorate, and cannot react when things start going downhill.

“That is why a referendum was called,” Schembri says, explaining that the cocoon effect led the highest echelons of the PN to believe that the people wanted something else than what they referendum result showed. “They assumed that the majority would agree with them.”

So did she make the choice to not throw in her lot with the PN because of this alienation?

“Yes. It would have meant going against my ideals, even if these hadn’t changed over the years,” she adds. “I do feel conservative on certain issues, but it depends on which issues, and it is difficult to pinpoint.”

She however argues that her choice to join the PL was not simply because she was asked to join.

“The choice was mine, before it was theirs,” she says categorically.  “When I saw people wanted more of what I had to offer, I decided that if I was going to involve myself, it would be through the PL.”

Schembri didn’t waste time in announcing her decision, which came just six days after the referendum victory and a full year and a half before the general election. Why so soon?

“I am a very straightforward sort of person. I say what I think,” Schembri says, her ‘trademark’ cool yet direct approach coming to the fore. “I made my decision on the same day that I announced it. Since I had decided, I might as well as announce it.”

“If little else, it meant people will stop asking me about it. Up till then, I had been receiving roughly 30 emails a day asking me whether I intend to involve myself in politics,” she says, laughing.

She adds that she also felt obliged to announce her intention, given the public’s interest in her. “I felt that it wouldn’t be fair to announce it a good six months down the line. If I feel more comfortable being active within the Labour Party and aim to eventually run for election, people deserve to know. I have nothing to hide.”

Schembri rejects the notion that she was attempting to strike while the political iron was hot. “It was not a matter of planned timing. If I wanted to play it safe and avoid criticism, I would have delayed it, but it’s not in my style.”

I point out that her frankness is one of the factors that won her support among the electorate. How will she handle the possible need to conform to a party line?

“No, I won’t,” she replies immediately, adding that this was an issue she and Muscat discussed during their meeting. “I told him I need to know whether my candidacy with the Labour Party would mean that there would be topics upon which I would not be free to speak as I wish to.”

“Muscat assured me there wouldn’t be,” she says, adding however that there will be certain party-related issues in parliament where a common stand would be expected, Schembri says, “as with any political party.”

Asked whether her acceptance was conditional on her freedom to express herself freely without kowtowing to party-pressures, Schembri nods. “If the answer hadn’t been positive, I don’t think I would have accepted.”

She argues that she “is not the sort to denigrate anything that is not achieved by my party simply to score points.”

She says that despite being “a fervent Nationalist in the past” Schembri thought highly of the separation Dom Mintoff and his administration brought about between Church and State. “I was completely in favour of it, and I always said so.”

“There were also certain things regarding pensions and the welfare state that were also unquestionably positive,” she adds. “Whether done by the PN or the PL, positive achievements are positive achievements.”

Schembri stresses that she is still the same woman she was before. “If something bothers me, I’ll speak my mind. I won’t hold back.”

Divorce aside, liberalism seems to be spreading rather slowly within the PL. How does she see herself in a party withpotentially conservative standpoints on issues like same-sex relationships and IVF, I ask.

“I will definitely not speak against something I believe in,” Schembri says categorically. “If I believe that IVF is something positive, I will not say that it is not.” She however concedes that she form part of a bigger democratic structure.

“I will say my piece and try to sway the party’s opinion but if despite this, the party adopts a different position, I am still part of a democratic party. If the majority decide differently, I will respect that decision. What I will not do is speak against something I believe in.”

Like the PN, Labour has its conservative fringe like MPs Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca and Adrian Vassallo, both staunchly anti-divorce. How does Schembri feel being in the same party?

“It is normal to have people with different ideas even within the same party. Every ‘club’ is composed of people with different opinions – even the Church and the Vatican,” she says.

“That is the beauty of a pluralist society where different opinions abound,” she says, adding that “within a party, what matters is that one enjoys not only the freedom to express one’s opinion freely, but also that the opinion heard and not ignored.”

“Especially because I recognise that variety is important, I feel comfortable sharing a party with people who are more conservative,” adding that she is comfortably with diversity. “If I was conservative, I’d probably be giving you a very different answer,” Schembri laughs.

Asked specifically about the PL’s evasive stand on same-sex relationships, which is relatively similar to that adopted by the PN, Schembri says that it could yet change.

“When you have fresh candidates joining a party and discussions start being influenced by new mindsets, stands emerge that could differ from previous ones,” she says, “especially if the new candidates are more liberal.”

Schembri maintains that challenging discussions and new ideas are more welcome and appreciated within the PL than within the PN – particularly liberal ideas. “I often felt how sometimes, within the PN, people might say that they are open to new things but it was just a façade.”

She describes the situation within the PN as one where liberal votes are welcomed, yet, once obtained, “liberals are expected to sit pretty while their concerns are not acknowledged.”

“For the PL, it is not simply a vote-catching exercise,” Schembri argues. “There is greater willingness to discuss and explore options with an open mind, even if there might not be immediate agreement.”

Does she see herself contesting in a district aside from the 12th, where her home locality St Paul’s Bay is located?

“Once I’m in it, I want to win it,” Schembri says, explaining that as a political newcomer a committed approach is required. “I definitely intend to contest for election in a second district. One would be improving one’s chances for election by not putting all of one’s eggs in one basket. I would be arrogant to think I can take election for granted and contest only one district.”

Asked which second district she is eying, Schembri is circumspect.

“I need to consider who is contesting where to determine where I stand a better chance than the rest,” she says, adding that the choice will be made once the new electoral districts are announced by the end of July. “That is why I am lingering.”

I point out that she shares a ‘home’ district (12th) with Evarist Bartolo, with whom Schembri collaborated extensively during the divorce referendum and who also enjoys liberal credentials.

One wonders how it would feel to effectively compete with a man who undoubtedly influenced her decision to run for election with the PL.

“It is true that contesting there is a measure of competition, when one is running in the same district. But I do not see it as if I am competing with Evarist.”

She argues that their referendum campaign collaboration afforded them a friendship that allows them to collaborate “perfectly.”

“I am not the sort to tell people to vote for me and not someone else simply to get elected,” she states. “Everyone is free to like me or not, and to vote for me or not. I would welcome the chance to eventually work with Evarist should we both find ourselves in parliament.”

“I augur that he gets elected from whichever district he contests, but I do not think Evarist has any problems in that regard, given that he is regularly elected from two districts. The question is whether I get elected, not him,” she laughs.

“We might actually win more chairs,” she remarks in passing when I point out that both she and Bartolo are likely to be angling for the same liberal floater demographic.

To what degree does Schembri see herself involved in the Labour Party?

“My aspirations didn’t reach even this far up till a short while ago,” she smiles, adding that being in a position to contribute is what matters. “It depends on those in whose hands the decision of what role I can, and should, perform lies.”

She affirms that she is “ready and willing” to serve in different roles, but emphasises that it will be down to future decisions.

“When the time comes and I am called to serve a particular role, I would consider the position in terms of what I would be doing at the time, and discuss the issue with my family,” she says carefully.

Schembri acknowledges that she has come a long way since the birth of Moviment Iva, but laughs at the suggestion that she became an overnight celebrity. Asked how it feels to become such a public person, she admits that it is different.

“Everywhere I go now, people stop to chat. I am used to that, but not to this degree. I also like how people now know me and call me by name. It suggests that they feel comfortable approaching me and speaking to me – which is certainly the case.”

“If I am to be considered a celebrity, I would like it to be as a down-to-earth celebrity,” she smiles. “I enjoy people, and I always get along with everyone no matter where I go. It did not make a huge difference to me.”

Schembri however says that despite her new-found political aspirations, she is still not an overly ambitious person. “Irrespective of whether I get elected or not, my life will not be deeply affected in that regard.”

“I am not one of those who spend years hoping to get into parliament,” she says. “At the end of the day, if people decide that they want me in parliament, I’ll take my place. If not, all’s well and I’ll have more free time,” she remarks pragmatically.