His liberal agenda | Mario de Marco

Economic and social changes brought about by successive Nationalist administrations have contributed to a change in values, which the PN cannot ignore, says Parliamentary Secretary for Tourism Mario de Marco.

On the Nationalist bench, Mario de Marco was among the first to declare his intention to vote Yes for the divorce bill, as approved in the referendum in the forthcoming vote in parliament. Having taken no part in the anti-divorce campaign, he has emerged as a politician who can bridge the gap between liberals and conservatives. 

But when asked about his political future, he makes it clear that he will be focusing on his present role as parliamentary secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister.

“I see my political future day by day. I have been requested by the Prime Minister to serve the government as parliamentary secretary responsible for the environment, tourism and culture, and I will do that to the best of my abilities.”

Nearly a year has passed since the de Marco lost his father Guido, one of the historic figures who together with Eddie Fenech Adami moulded the Nationalist Party in to a popular mass movement in post independence Malta.

“As a family we try to ensure that a bit of him lives on in each one of us… and there is rarely a day which passes by without somebody mentioning him to us,” de Marco tells me in that inimitable voice which reminds me of his father.

Part of his father’s legacy, which he strives to keep alive, is the respect for other people’s opinion, which characterised Guido de Marco’s political life.

“For my father, it was not just a question of respecting the opinions of others, but also of acknowledging that those with whom you disagree are not necessarily wrong and that ultimately they may well be proved to be right”. 


Another part of his father’s legacy that he cherishes is the former president’s optimism.

“My father never felt defeated by anything. He never felt defeated by any political circumstances. Neither did he succumb to health problems, which affected him for most of his life.  If anything, he worked harder in adversity… his famous words were: ‘keep smiling’.”

At a time when the party is reflecting on its identity, the younger de Marco’s reflections on his father provide some clues on what constitutes the party’s DNA.

“He was a deeply rooted Nationalist in the sense that he believed in the strength of the nation and its people as individuals.  He was also a person who was always moderate in his views. He never gave in to any form of extremism in life. He was always open to new ideas and very forward looking”. 

And significantly, according to Mario de Marco, his father always insisted that the Nationalist Party is a centrist party “which is more centre-left than centre-right.”

He recalls his father quoting post war Italian Christian Democrat leader Alcide De Gasperi’s that his was “a party of the centre which looks towards the left.”

And crucially the elder de Marco always felt close to the people.

“The worst thing for any politician to do is to detach himself,” warns de Marco.

The result of the divorce referendum has had a deep impact on the Nationalist Party’s identity. I ask the junior de Marco whether this has left the party at an ideological crossroads, having to decide between a greater yearning for social liberalism and the deep-rooted conservatism, which characterised it during the campaign?

For de Marco, it is not just the Nationalist Party but Maltese society as a whole which is at the crossroads.

“The truth is that people are changing, our society has changed and is changing and even values which we have always cherished are changing. It does not mean that simply because society is changing it is changing for the worse. And society is changing as a result of the many changes which the Nationalist Party in government has brought about in the past years.”

De Marco fully concurs with Prof Joe Friggieri’s (a guest speaker in the PN’s recent general council) assessment that “You cannot open a window and expect the wind not to blow through.”

“Ultimately we cannot stop the change that we ourselves brought about.”

De Marco attributes this change in values to policies undertaken by PN governments – such as pluralism in broadcasting – which brought about a greater freedom of expression and the fact that more people are continuing their education and travelling to other countries. Coupled with this was the liberalisation of the economy.

“All of these factors have brought a change in our society… the way we think today is not the way we thought 30, 20 or even 10 years ago and society will keep changing. We can’t be idealists and hope that society will not change because it changes”.


Yet the divorce issue has brought out the most conservative elements of the PN to the forefront. Even long discarded slogans like religio et patria were resurrected by frontline exponents like Infrastructure Minister Austin Gatt. Does de Marco feel comfortable with a slogan reminiscent of the party before the rise of his father’s generation?

De Marco replies with the same diplomacy, which characterised his father’s political career insisting that there is no harm in using this motto adding that what counts is the interpretation one gives it.

“Religio refers to the fact that the Nationalist party is rooted in the  Christian Democratic tradition… the patria aspect is that we are proud to be Maltese and we should be proud of all that Maltese society has achieved in the past years.”

But while referring to the Christian democratic tradition, according to de Marco the best way to describe the Nationalist Party is that it is “a popular party.”

“In fact we form part of the European People’s Party. This is a coalition of parties which reconcile liberal and conservative elements by trying to get the best of both words”.

But is the PN flirting with liberalism simply to assuage disillusioned liberal voters who would otherwise seek new pastures?

De Marco insists that this is not the case because the “liberal agenda” was always at the forefront of Nationalist Party policies, especially in the economic sector where it removed state controls but also in education where it not only created new openings for church and independent schools but also in the way children are thought.

“Even in the way we educate our children at schools, we follow a liberal agenda”.

He also considers the government’s approach to immigration issue as a liberal approach.

“We recognise that the people arriving to our shores have risked their life in escaping from very dark existence and we feel a moral duty to help them… we understand that we have to protect the interests of Maltese society but for us protecting the interests of Maltese society does not mean leaving people drowning in the Mediterranean.”

While on issues like immigration, the PN stands to the left of Labour, it was always conservatives who called the shots on moral and social issues like divorce.

“In a way you are right. If you just look at the divorce issue there was definitely a conservative approach”. 

But it was not a categorical one, insists de Marco, who points out the position approved by the party’s executive recognised that there are people within the party who are in favour of divorce and even allowed members to take a free vote.

“The fact that today the PN recognises the result of the referendum and has made it very clear that the result will be respected and the law on divorce will be enacted shows that ultimately the party will be taking the liberal approach.”


But while the PM has made it very clear that the result of the referendum will be respected, he also made it clear that Nationalist MPs will have the freedom to vote against or abstain. Does this mean that divorce will only pass thanks to a handful of Nationalist MPs like de Marco, who will be voting in favour?

“Not at all… because the PM made an important qualification on the freedom of MPs to vote according to conscience, as he made it clear that the law will has to pass. Even if, for the sake of argument, nobody agreed with it, there is still the fundamental duty of the party to ensure that there are enough votes to approve the law.”

De Marco does not dispute the right of other MPs to vote according to their conscience, but he makes it very clear that he feels obliged to vote Yes.

“I have made my position on this very clear. I believe that once parliament decided to go for a referendum before passing the vote on a possible bill, we have obliged ourselves to respect the referendum result.  I will fully respect the result by voting in favour of the bill.”

The Prime Minister has refrained from saying how he will be voting. Wouldn’t a vote on his part contrast with the democratic will of the people expressed in the referendum?

De Marco is slightly put off by the question.

“It would be presumptuous on my part to say how other people should vote, and I would not reply to such a hypothetical question.”

What is clear for de Marco is that the party should now change its position on divorce to reflect “reality out there”.

“We should seek what unites rather than what divides. If you look at the campaign, there were two common themes reflected in both Yes and No campaigns: the importance of the family and the importance of the institution of marriage. So I think we should work even harder on these themes within the context of the reality of divorce.”

He also makes it clear that despite his prior “reservations on no fault divorce,” he will be respecting the referendum question, which made no distinction between fault and no fault divorce.

“Now we have to move on. The question of the referendum was very clear on this aspect. People were aware that they are voting for a no fault divorce. We can’t look back we should not look back.”

He chimes in with my opinion regarding the PN’s current state. The party is arguably in siege mode at the moment, and is hardly in a position where it can confidently push its agenda, given that it has fallen prey to a referendum that it lost control over, on top of having to face an onslaught by the Opposition on the honoraria issue.


De Marco partially agrees with this assessment.

“The most unfortunate aspects of the divorce and honoraria issues is that these have distracted people’s attention from the real achievements of this government”.

For de Marco, the real achievement of this government was to foster an economic climate which could provide jobs on a consistent basis, despite the global economic crisis.

“You should not only look at what is happening in Greece, where people are rioting in the streets and the government is bankrupt, but also Spain where unemployment ranging 20% and where one in two Spanish youths are without a job or the United Kingdom where the government was forced to make big cuts.”

In contrast to this, de Marco refers to official statistics showing that in past 12 months employment in Malta has risen by 5,000 new jobs, while the people seeking work has fallen by 1,300. Malta also has the fourth lowest unemployment rate in the EU. 

“All this despite the fact that our economy is one of the most exposed in the European Union. Tourism, for example, depends on the economic performance of the countries that our tourists originate from. Our core markets are the UK, Italy, Germany France and Spain.”

But wasn’t it a strategic mistake to increase the salaries of MPs and Ministers right in the middle of this global crisis?

“As the Prime Minister himself recognised, this issue was handled in the worst possible way”.

But de Marco points out that that the decision was taken before the global financial crisis of 2009. 

“The decision was taken immediately after the government was re-elected in March 2008 and the thrust of the reform was not that of giving a raise to ministers but to pay them their honoraria as MPs apart from that as ministers. This simply recognised the fact that ministers are also performing a function in parliament for which for some reason they were not being paid.”

I point out that news of the MPs pay rise was never communicated through an official statement and it was only thanks to MaltaToday that the public got to know that ministers had started receiving MEP honoraria. Didn’t this secrecy give the impression that the government was trying to hide the pay rise from the public?

“I do not contest the fact that it could have been done in a much better and transparent way.”


In 2008, the PN won by a whisker, despite facing a twice defeated opposition leader. Considering the popularity of present opposition leader Joseph Muscat confirmed by public opinion polls, is the next election a walkover for Labour.

De Marco disagrees.

“Definitely not…. We know that in the midterm most government suffer a lull – and eventually a dip – in popularity.  This happens throughout Europe and the rest of the world.”

But unlike most governments in Europe, except for a two-year interlude, the PN has been in power since 1987, which translates to being in power for nearly a quarter of a century. 

“Ultimately, you don’t vote out a party simply on the basis of how long it has been in power. You vote a party out of power because of its performance in government.  In a general election, people vote for the party which gives the best safeguards on quality of life. And this depends on the ability to create jobs and also on education, health care and the environment.”

It was this ability to improve the quality of life of the people, which enabled the PN to win elections in the past, and this will be the key issue in the next election. Surely for de Marco, the PN has to win on its own merits.

When asked about Muscat’s weaknesses, de Marco refrains from attacking the opposition leader but presents an identikit which could prove useful to party strategists.

He recognises that Muscat has a “keen sense of what popular demands are.”

“But he was to be careful that this keen sense of popularity does not prove to be his Achilles heel. Because so far he has said things which are popular, but he has shied away from taking a stand on fundamental issues like divorce.  He took a stance as an individual but he failed to lead his party in to taking a stance. And that shows a lot. And when it comes to economic issues, we still have to learn what his party’s position is. 

“People want to understand not just what Joseph Muscat stands for but what the Malta Labour Party stands for. This is still an open question mark.”

Prosit Hon M Demarco. Int wiehed mill-ftit Natjonalisti li ghandek rispest lejn ir-rieda tal-Maggoranza. 1987 ivvutajt Nazzjonalisti u ghadu jiddispjacini sal llum. Partit tal-anqbut , qabel fejn jaqbel, egoist , arroganti u dittatorjali. Hemm parti moderni u progressive fi hdan il-PN li jista jaghmel partit iehor sura
All i can say Dr. de Marco, that the people will never forget what your father was to this country. A true gentlemen who when the need arised, never saw himself as a blue person but as a white/red person. The interest of the country always came before anything else. From the little we know about you, you are truly your father's son. Good luck for the future.
What a pleasure it is to read this gentleman's words. He is a true diplomat and politician.
James, I can;t understand why noone brings them to task when they come up with a statement like this: “In fact we form part of the European People’s Party. This is a coalition of parties which reconcile liberal and conservative elements by trying to get the best of both words”. . I mean, isn't this opportunism? A party which stands for everything and nothing at the same time? .