The man who said ‘No’ | Adrian Vassallo

He may hold the record for lowest parliamentary attendance ever, but Dr Adrian Vassallo, MP, tends to make noise on the rare occasions he turns up for a debate… as evidenced last Wednesday.

Dr Adrian Vassallo certainly sticks out on the Opposition backbench. Openly dismissive of Labour leader Joseph Muscat’s claims to being ‘progressive’, the family doctor from Ta’ Xbiex appears to be ideologically cut from the same conservative cloth as Lawrence Gonzi, Tonio Borg and Austin Gatt. Certainly he bears little resemblance to the increasingly liberal image projected by Muscat; and this difference came dramatically to the fore last Wednesday, when Vassallo became the only Labour MP to vote ‘No’ to the divorce bill at second reading.

Emerging from Parliament after the vote, a visibly unimpressed Joseph Muscat warned Vassallo that his ‘No’ vote would invariably entail “consequences”.

Two days later I meet the rebel backbencher at his Ta’ Xbiex residence, and – after being inspected in the hallway by a suspicious one-year-old mongrel named Skippy (picked up from near a skip, his owner explains) – I ask Dr Vassallo what “consequences” he thinks the Labour leader had in mind.

He shrugs. “I have no idea. You’ll have to ask Joseph Muscat.”

After a little prodding he consents to expand. “There are only two possibilities I can think of,” he muses. “They might stop me from contesting the next election – which I doubt, because it will only make the whole party look ridiculous – or more likely they will allow me to contest, but then put spokes in the wheels, and try to make it as difficult as possible for me to get elected. Having said that, there might be other consequences, too. I don’t know. Either way, I took it as an indirect threat.”

I ask him if there has been any contact between himself and Muscat since the vote in parliament. “No. The only party official I have spoken to recently on this subject was (deputy leader) Anglu Farrugia. I asked him if the free vote still stood, and he told me yes, it still stands. Mind you, it was always a free vote ‘tra virgolette’. But even without the free vote I would still have voted No…”

Vassallo hints that he was not alone in the PL to disagree with the party leader’s declared stand on the issue. “I got no support from others in the party. I know there were some who felt the same way I did. But when it came to the crunch they all voted how they voted…”

What about at street level? As a GP, Adrian Vassallo gets to meet constituents in their own homes all the time, and as such has a stethoscope permanently on the pulse of Labour’s grass-root support. How do his voters stand on the issue?

He smiles wryly. “Oh, if I were to tell you all the antics (praspar) Labour voters got up to in the referendum! I know people who voted ‘Yes’ just to spite the Church… because they took offence at a homily, or during the Our Lady of Sorrows procession, or at something the Bishop of Gozo said that they misunderstood. There were others who voted ‘Yes’ as a protest vote against the Nationalist government. And these are just the people I know myself…”

Like other anti-divorce campaigners before him, Vassallo holds the media partly responsible for ‘distorting’ the issue for political reasons. “Our station [One TV] was definitely biased.”

At the risk of repeating all the pre-referendum arguments, I ask him the reason for his own position. Not so much the fact that he is against divorce – but rather, the zeal with which he has fought his corner within the party. 

He takes a puff on his trademark pipe. “I disagree with divorce because it breaks up families. It’s got nothing to do with religion. If I were Muslim I would still say divorce is wrong. Some people need it, I don’t deny that. But the fact that it is a solution to some people doesn’t make it a good thing in its own right. It will only create more problems than it will solve.”

Adopting a ‘don’t-say-I-didn’t-warn-you’ tone of voice, Vassallo launches into an apocalyptic vision of the repercussions he claims Malta will now have to face.

“We are already seeing an increase in serious crime, committed largely by people from broken homes. With divorce you will have more broken families, which means more serious crime. We will have many more children with psychological problems. Then there’s the issue of maintenance and the so-called ‘guarantees’. What guarantees? How can a man on a relatively low wage afford that sort of maintenance? These things were never fully explained before the referendum. The ‘Yes for divorce’ movement played on people’s heart strings. They kept asking, why can’t people have a second chance? Why, why, why, why? They never said anything abut a third, fourth, fifth and sixth chance. They never talked about the problems that will be faced by single women in government housing, who have to give up their residency upon getting married. What will happen to them with divorce? We never talked about married couples where husband and wife are co-owners of a business. How will divorce affect the business, when one or the other spouse remarries…?”

As we have agreed not to rake up all the old arguments of the campaign, I resist the impulse to counter these examples – for instance, by pointing out that we are already experiencing an increase in broken families, with or without divorce. Instead I ask him for his own interpretation of Labour’s rechristening as a ‘progressive’ party. As expected, he is less than enthusiastic about the idea.

“Progressive? What does it even mean? What do any of these labels mean? Progressive, conservative, liberal… in my opinion they are all meaningless really. If ‘progressive’ means introducing things which are harmful to society… in what way will we be ‘progressing’? Go to Paceville, and you’ll see what I mean. Is this progress? I don’t think so…”

I put to him, however, that the bulk of his own arguments are limited to merely opposing individual issues and developments. He has mounted personal campaigns against divorce, pornography in hotel rooms, prostitution in his own district, embryo freezing in the IVF process (more of which in a moment); he is adamantly averse to gay marriage, and one need hardly add that this opposition extends also to all the usual ‘phantom’ issues associated with ‘liberalism’: abortion, euthanasia and all that.

It seems, then, that Adrian Vassallo’s grand vision for Malta is simply to retain the status quo as much as possible. But what is he actually proposing that is in any way new?

“More discipline,” he replies after a pause. “Harsher sentences meted out by the courts…”

Meanwhile there are other issues coming up in the near future that Vassallo feels strongly about: not least IVF, which is currently the subject of a parliamentary debate to establish a regulatory framework within which the medical service may be provided.

Vassallo is characteristically blunt about his voting intentions: “If the laws allows for freezing of embryos, I will vote against.”

As with divorce, he explains that this is a matter of ‘conscience’, and as such is not up for discussion. “We are talking about human life here. A lot of people talk about IVF but don’t know exactly what it is. They think it’s all about a sperm meeting an ovum in a dish, and nine months later, hey presto! The mother is cradling a baby. But there’s much more to it than that… the process involves hyper-stimulation of a woman’s ovaries, after which between eight and 12 eggs will be fertilized. Of these, only two will be chosen for implantation. The rest are frozen. What do you think happens to them in the long run? They are discarded, naturally…”

Vassallo insists that all eight-12 fertilised eggs are to be considered as human beings endowed with full human rights, which technically makes the above process tantamount to abortion. I interject that this is at best an individual opinion of his, and as such is open to debate. He shrugs. “It’s a question of when human life begins.”

So when does human life begin, I enquire? Vassallo’s answer: “Ask God.” But what about people who don’t believe in God? He stares at me blankly for a second. “Don’t believe in God…. don’t believe in God…” he mumbles back. But his voice trails to nothing.

As it would be patently futile at this stage to embark on the oldest philosophical debate known to man, I draw his attention to another paradox surrounding the IVF issue. In the absence of any law regulating bioethics in Malta, private hospitals have been able to carry out the treatment unregulated since the late 1980s. Technically this means they are free to conduct multiple implants, freeze and discard embryos at will (though whether they actually do any of these things is another questions altogether). And yet, ironically, Vassallo himself would attempt to block legislation that would regulate the practice once and for all. Isn’t this a contradiction? Wouldn’t it be better to introduce legislation, than to leave everything as it is?

“They should have stopped local hospitals from providing the service from the beginning,” he immediately replies. “Without a legal framework in place there shouldn’t be IVF available in local clinics.”

But at the same time he is arguing that there shouldn’t be even a legal framework at all. He nods. “There shouldn’t.”

Effectively, then, it is not just embryo freezing that Vassallo opposes… but the process as a whole. By what right can he deny others medical treatment? Is it on religious grounds? And if so, isn’t this unfair on others who do not subscribe to the same religion?

Surprisingly, the man who earlier referred me to God for an answer to the question of human life, now insists that his opposition to IVF – along with abortion, euthanasia, divorce, cohabitation, and a host of other issues opposed by the Church – has “nothing to do with religion.”

“Religion is not the deciding factor,” he insists. “Yes, it’s true I have been caricatured as a Taliban, a fundamentalist, and so on; but my views come from my own background, my own experience, my own upbringing. These are all life and death issues we are talking about... even divorce, which deals with the family, and therefore the very foundation that brings life into the world.  I am a doctor. I have seen life and death up close. People have died in my hands and have been born into my hands. These are the things that form my conscience, not necessarily religion at all.”

While on the subject I can’t resist asking him what he makes of the proposal, heard with increasing frequency after the divorce result, regarding amending the Constitution to remove the clause (Article 2) which defines Malta as a Catholic country… among other privileges granted to the Church.

“As far as I am concerned it can even be removed,” he replies matter-of-factly.

How would he vote, if it came to that pass? “According to the majority view in my parliamentary group.”

Coming back to the conscience issue, which informed both Vassallo’s own vote, as well as that of the Prime Minister: isn’t there a danger that the same excuse can now be cited to absolve any political leader from his obligations to the electorate? I bring up the example of adultery, which was decriminalized in the early 1970s. The entire Nationalist Opposition voted against decriminalization, and the arguments were similar to those against divorce. Adultery breaks up families, it goes against individual conscience, etc. 

“I would have disagreed with the decriminalization of adultery at the time,” he replies. I confess this takes me by surprise. So he would have voted in line with the Opposition against his own party on this, too?

“It depends. Ideally, a party places an issue on its manifesto, and then enacts it once elected. If I were a Labour candidate before 1971, and the party placed decriminalization of adultery on its manifesto, I would certainly have withdrawn my candidature.”

Speaking of candidatures and their withdrawal, Dr Vassallo recently announced that this would be his last term as an MP. However, I find that he is now less categorical about his own political future. “There are still two years to go before the next election. Anything can happen in that time.”

Pressed to specify whether or not he will contest the next election (provided he is allowed to, of course), he concedes that there’s a “99.9% chance” he will call it a day.

“I’m approaching retirement age now, and I’m looking forward to having more time for my family and my hobbies. But there is also pressure from constituents…”

Vassallo admits he doesn’t want to go out with a whimper. “Once you start in politics, you have to know both when to enter and when to leave. From the second election I contested onwards, I was elected every time. I don’t want to contest and not get elected… like what happened to Louis Galea, Helen D’Amato and others. I will only contest if I am confident of being elected.”

Given the undeniable proximity of so many of his views to those of the PN, my final question is whether he has ever considered actually jumping ship (like Cyrus Engerer did in the opposite direction, on the same day as our interview). His emphatic ‘No’ comes out almost as a snort.

“I’d be betraying my constituents by doing that. And besides, the Nationalists would never vote for me anyway…” 

Onestament nemmen fil-genwinita' ta' Dr Vassallo, u ghalkemm ma naqbilx mal-kummenti tieghu, imma fl-istes waqt nista' nghid li hadd mhu se jehodha kontrih bli ghamel jew jaghmel f'dan il-vot tad-divorzju. Nifhem ghaliex Dr Muscat qallu (jeek veru) li jista' jkun hemm il-konsegwenzi ghall-vot tieghu. Din xi haga li seta' jghidielu kulhadd ghax tassew (u nahseb li hu stess jistenniha) li very jista' jkun hemm il-konsegwenzi ghall-vot tieghu. Imma zgur mhux ghax xi haff mill-partit se jinjorah. Kull min jghid xi haga jrid jifhem li konsegwenzi ghaliha jista'jistenna, tajjeb jew hazin. F'dan il-kas, ma jista jlum lil hadd mill-kostitwenti tieghu (u jien wiehed minnhom, u ghahekk nirrispettah hafna) li jekk ihoss li Dr Vassallo din id-darba ma mexiex kif kostitwent hass li kellu, ghandu jurih il-fehma tieghu bil-vot. Naf li Dr Vassallo ghad ghandu x'jaghti hafna lill-Partit u diga' ta hafna u ta' dan napprezza, imma jekk jimxi kif qal fl-intervista ma jehodiex bi kbira li jkun hemm lil min jimbotta 'l boghod minnu. Ghalhekk kull politiku ghandu jqis qiwsu jekk irid li jissokta fil-politika.
Nghidu Dak li Hu: Zgur li Dr Vassallo Mhux qieghed fil-parlament Biex Jiehu L-paga. Ghaliex ghal minn ma jafx fid distret tieghu ikollu kwantita kbira ta nies biex jinqdew bih bhala tabib. jekk tharres kemm izommilhom tara li dan ma jaghmilx ghal flus. Issa bhala li webbes rasu u ivota le ghad divorzju nifhem fl-opinjoni tieghi li zbalja.almenu missu astjena. hemm hafna nies li huma irrabjati ghalih fl-istess distrett. pero hemm hafna nies li maghndhomnx zejt f'wicchom, li minn warajh jghidu kontrih, pero imorru jigru saqqajhom ma sormhom ghandu biex jiktbilhom il pilloli, jew biex jinvistahom etc, dan kollu ghax b'xejn jew bi ftit flus. Tissemma ukoll il-mara tieghu li hija sindku ta tax xbiex, dan ma ghandu x'jaqsam xejn. Jien nemmen li ir-ragel xebgha fil pulitika, hemm hafna fatura ghaliex, imma mhux ser noqod insemmijhom, dawn kollha bdew mill mexxej ta qabel Joseph, meta dr Vassallo kellu xi jghid mieghu fil parlament. nghida bla tlaqliq It Tabib Vassallo mhux tifel hazin, anzi ragel, u dejjem kien tal punt. u nahseb li dik li gralu issa, gazzetti u media nazzjonalista inqdit bih, qadet tmur tehodlu il-kummenti, u biex zamm il-punt tieghu ivota le. Issa ser jibqalu it triq li ridt huwa stess, jippakja mill pulitika. Hassejt li ghandi nikteb, u nghid it tajjeb u l-hazin.
What does Dr Vassallo's conscience tell him about the fact that he is putting the people around him at risk of lung cancer through second-hand smoke when he smikes his pipe?
Dr. Vassallo you can say and rant to your heart's content. Still it is very unfair to treat with saracsm those who voted for divorce. I am sure many of them voted for you. It is quite clear that there is nothing that ties to the PL so why not gain some respect and leave. That seat in Parlaiment must be real confy, though you seldom seem to use it. Your hinting to a threat is proves that you are not against the party's policy but an enemy of the Party or is it Joseph Muscat? Did you report this threat to the police? You can rest assured that you will not represent the Party next time. The National Conference of the Party will certainly reject your application to stand for the PL. If you have the cheek to put in an application.
In order to be regarded as keeping to his word and his "conscience", he should have resigned and I would have applauded him. But neither he nor any of the other NO voters did and kept clinging to their seat. Unbelievable but then this is Malta and this things can happen. In fact, we should ALL be ashamed of what happened.
Abdi D
There is no need for the Party to do anything for Dr Vassallo to lose his position in Parliament. His words and actions are doing the job well. He will not change party, because PN voters would not vote for him and not because he does not want to betray his constituents, since he has already betrayed them by voting No when the majority voted Yes. He also betrayed their confidence by repeating what they told him in confidence. If he feels uncomfortable in the PL he should leave. His collegues, where against divorce, voted Yes because they repected their constituents. Immediately after the results were known Dr Abela said he would vote Yes to respect his constituents. M'Louise Coleiro said she would abstain since she could not bring herself to vote Yes, she also said she would not contest the next election, and only agreed to contest after many of her constituents and Party members asked her to reconsider. In this interview Dr Vassallo shows that he is too arrogant and does not deserve the vote of PL supporters, who were always liberal and progressiv.
RALPH VASSALLO,what's with your media in promoting this pipe smoking attention seeker. Is he related to you ? You are giving this pathetic man headlines about his conscience when nobody bothered to ask him, if he consulted with his conscience when he was collecting his MP's salary while being absent 90% of the time. Another issue I have with this hypocrite, has to do with what had he proposed as an alternative to divorce where women and their children are being abused and denied their civil rights for protection? Or is he another Pupazzo della Curia who believes in annulments that declare marriages never existed even when children has been born within that marriage and our civil courts cannot protect the maintenance of the family. while an annulment is in progress? Finally what does he think about the Curia's action to deny seperated couples the lawyer of their choice when they barred Dr. Schembri from represeting them? Does he condon this action which deny this decent and smart attorney the right to earn a living? Please remove his stupid picture, it makes the Maltese nation look daft by electing such hypocrites.
Krista Sullivan
x'servizz hu ? dan aktar mhux il-parlament milli l-parlament Dr Vassallo aktar ma titlaq malajr aktar tintesa malajr u thalli postok ghall persuna aktar valida........
If it was for me.I say to you "Thank you for your services pack up, and go" You are a very good family and stick to that, Politics is not your bread and butter.
Heil Vassallo!! Please do not feel that you betrayed the constituents...we do not need you...if ever PL would need to govern, it does not need anyone with someone ready to pounce off when the time comes just to cover up for his incompetence...a 90% no show in parliament is like stealing money from your mother and boasting how hard it is to earn them. if you have a conscience give back the money you earned as I sure you do not deserve them...
If you contest in my Birkirkara district you will certainly be saving 6 votes for PL. I like persons that can stand up tobe counted. I also like to have the downslides slowed down.