Aleks Farrugia | Labour’s fate cannot be tied to that of government

Author, journalist, and self-avowed ‘leftist’ Aleks Farrugia argues that the Labour Party can still be an agent of positive change, for Malta; but only if it reconsiders its current political roadmap 

There is a lot of criticism aimed at government right now – much of it coming from left-leaning opinion writers – along the lines that the Labour movement has somehow ‘lost touch with its Socialist principles’. In your latest article, for instance, you argued that “the State draws its legitimacy from the bond of trust between itself and the citizens. [...] If this bond of trust is broken, then chaos will take its place.” Is this what you think is happening in Malta, right now? That the ‘bond of trust’, between State and people, is being ‘broken’? 

Let's start from the idea of ‘public trust’. Every citizen – whether consciously thinking about it, or unconsciously taking it for granted – considers the State as a kind of ‘guarantee’. It is a guarantee of justice; a guarantee of protection – especially for those who are weak – and it is also a guarantee of peace.  

That is what we ultimately want from the State, as citizens; otherwise, we don't even need to have a State, at all. I mean, what use is a ‘State’, anyway... if it cannot protect us; if it cannot deliver justice; and if isn’t going even give us peace?  

But I think that what’s happening now, goes beyond ‘now’. What we're seeing today is the result of several issues which have been left unresolved, ever since the formation of the Maltese state. And there are many, many of these unresolved issues: that were ‘swept under the carpet’ during Malta’s formative stages, as a nation... and which have basically remained under that carpet, for far too long. 

So what’s happening now, is... not just ‘happening now’, so to speak. The underlying problems have always been there; but what we’re seeing is an accumulation of things, all coming to the fore at once. 

This is an argument you have made before: both in your ‘State of the Nation’ address in September 2021; and also in our last interview, that same month. But can you be more specific, with regard to these ‘unresolved issues’? What are they? And how do they impinge on people’s concerns, today? 

Well, one of the points I raised in that speech was the lack of any real discussion about ‘national identity’. Since Malta became an independent country, 60 years ago, we have never really sat down, and had a serious national debate about what it really means to be a citizen of this country: what it means to be ‘Maltese’. 

For example: how are we going to instil, in the Maltese public, a sense that ‘this is my country’? For me, that is one of the biggest problems we are facing, right now. We are destroying this country, because we don't really feel that it ‘belongs to us’. 

Let’s face it: nobody in his right mind destroys his own home. So the fact that we are destroying ours, already indicates that we don’t really view Malta as ‘our own home’, at all. 

And that, I think, is where the discussion should really begin. Because if there WAS a sense of ‘ownership’, of this country... if people really DID feel that Malta was ‘their home’... things would perhaps be different.  

Besides: if we do succeed in changing that perception; and instilling that sense of ‘belonging’... then people might be ready to make sacrifices, for the sake of their country. They might be willing to ‘do their bit for the environment’ – by, for instance, exchanging their massive SUV, for a smaller car; or maybe, no car at all. People might be less inclined to just demolish their houses, and build multi-storey apartment blocks instead... 

But let’s face it: most people are NOT ready, to make that sort of commitment to their country. More people might complain about, say, environmental issues today... but how many of those people would change their own lifestyle, to improve the environment? If, for argument’s sake, you were to give 10 plots of land, to 10 different people... how many of them do you think will say, ‘Great! I’ll turn this land into a public park, or a nature reserve, so that everyone can enjoy it for free’? [Pause] 

I’m not sure if you’re expecting an answer; but my guess is ‘probably not a single one’... 

That’s what I mean. Basically, there is this formative step that we, as a nation, have never really taken. Instead of ‘thinking publicly’...  we're still thinking very ‘privately’, right now. It’s just ‘me’; ‘my family’... and that’s it.  

If I may enlarge upon that argument, a little: by (initially) refusing to hold a public inquiry in the Jean-Paul Sofia case, the Prime Minister seemed to be cementing the popular perception that – faced with a choice between ‘private interests’, and ‘public concerns’ – the government will always defend ‘private interests’. We see this in other aspects of the construction drive, too... how the government sided with ‘developers, over communities’ in cases such as the Marsaskala yacht marina, and many more. Are you suggesting, then, that the State is ‘forgetting’ its obligations, towards the true ‘owners’ of this country? 

Let me put it this way: another of those unresolved issues is about the distinction between ‘State’ and ‘government’; and – even more significantly, in this context – between ‘government’, and ‘party’.  

In Malta, the lines between those different entities were never really all that clear to begin with – in terms of popular perception, at least – but today... after successive stages in which the same party has been in government, for a very long time: 25 years, in the case of the Nationalists; and, by the next election, 14 years for Labour... the waters have been completely ‘muddied’, so to speak. 

It is, in fact, often very difficult to establish exactly ‘who’s who’, between ‘party’ and ‘government’.  Or whether it is the government, or the party, that actually wields power. 

And what I think has happened, over the decades, is that: political parties have grown accustomed to ‘winning’... and ‘winning BIG’. Unlike the situation in the 1970s and 1980s – when there was regular alternation of power, between Labour and PN; and the electoral margins were always very small – we are now used to a situation where one, or the other party, wins with an enormous majority... and stays in power, for a very long time. 

And in practice, both political parties have come to learn – in Labour’s case, by studying, and emulating, the PN’s 25-year ‘winning streak’ – that... in order to ‘win big’, you need to have certain lobbies on your side. Otherwise, you don’t gain power. Simple as that, really... 

In the 1990s, for instance, there was this mantra that the business lobby – and the construction lobby, in particular – was ‘behind the Nationalist Party’; and that this accounted for the PN’s consistent electoral victories, over such a long period of time.  

So the mentality within the Labour Party also shifted in that direction. They started reasoning that: ‘Now, we need to have those people on board; we need to be pro-business; we need to have the support of the construction and development lobby’, and so on...  

But the problem is that these lobbies - which have been wielding their own power, for a very long time – serve their own interest, at the end of the day. And their interest, is not the public interest.  

Now: government has to try and find a balance, between those interests. And if this balance is not found.... 

To conclude that sentence with a quote from your last article: “the bond of trust will be broken, and chaos will take its place.” Right? 


Isn’t there also an irony in all this, though? For decades, the Labour Party has always projected the image that it is the ‘champion of the worker’: especially the ‘small’ worker [‘Iż-Żghir’]. Do you think this ideological shift you have just described – towards being more ‘pro-business’ – has caused Labour to drift away from the very people it is supposed to represent? 

Well, I think that the idea of ‘Iż-Żghir’, in general – and everything it used to represent: the vulnerable, the unprotected, the exploited, etc. - has completely gone ‘off the map’, in today’s political discourse.  

Nobody speaks of ‘the workers’, anymore.... and I think that’s partly because the Maltese people themselves don't really identify as ‘workers’ anymore, either; and even less, as ‘Iż-Żghir’. 

Today’s definition of ‘Iż-Żghir’ is no longer the same. Today, the vulnerable, unprotected and exploited workers are mostly Pakistanis, Nepalese, Bangladeshis, etc. And we don't care about them, because they don't have a vote... and they're not ‘Maltese’.  

That, at any rate, is the perception; and as you can see, there's this latent sense of racism in it, as well.  

In reality, however, the vast majority of Maltese people ARE actually ‘workers’; even if they don't use that word to actually describe themselves. Because we are no longer talking about ‘blue-collar workers’, versus ‘white collar workers’... in today’s reality, a teacher, or a Civil Service office-clerk, is just as much of a ‘worker’, as a builder, or a factory employee. 

What many people don't seem to realise, however, is that – with the system as it is – even though they might feel that they are in a better position, than they were before... they're actually worse off. Because the level of exploitation we are witnessing, in this country, is much bigger, too. 

At the end of the day, we have adopted a ‘deregulated’, and highly ‘liberal’ (in the economic sense of the word) model, that has had the effect of leaving workers – all workers – highly vulnerable, to being exploited. 

So I think the problem with the Labour Party, today – though it actually started before it even came to power, in 2013 – is that, in its bid to overturn a 25-year losing streak... it came to the conclusion that ‘liberal’ economic policies, were the ‘key to electoral success’.  

And as a result, it moved away from the old mantras of ‘defending worker’s rights’; towards a new mantra of ‘defending the liberal economic model’, instead. 

And personally, I think that was a mistake. Because there was nothing wrong with the party’s [core Socialist] principles. In fact, most of the principles that Malta’s Labour Party holds, are effectively the same principles held by the vast majority of this country, anyway.  

And they are so deeply ingrained in our national psyche, that even the Nationalist Party – when it came into power in 1987 – did not make any radical changes, from the way the Labour Party had conceived the welfare state, in the preceding decades.  

Social services? Not only did they keep all the existing benefits, but they even enlarged on them, in some cases. Free healthcare, education, and so on? The Nationalists never touched any of that; they actually invested more, in all of them.  

Even the Nationalists, then, could see that those principles are in line with what the Maltese people want. They just need to be applied a little better, perhaps; and attuned with the social changes that are taking place.  

For example: one of the mistakes Mintoff made [in the 1970s], was that he managed to create this very broad middle class; but then, he did not see that the aspirations of that new ‘middle-class’ had changed, from what they were before.  

Now: admittedly, these are things that – as we all know - become very evident, with hindsight. But it also applies to what is happening today. You have to be aware of – and respond to - the people’s aspirations, if you want to retain their trust... 

One last quote from your article. You also warned that: “What’s at stake is much more than what appears at first glance. The effects go beyond what can be measured by electoral gains and losses.” Can you expand on that? What level of fall-out do you envisage for the Labour Party... and what (if anything) can it do to turn the tide? 

Don’t get me wrong:  I still believe that the Labour Party can be an agent of positive change, for Malta. But I also think that, after 10 years of government, what the Labour GOVERNMENT [as distinct from ‘party’] needs to do, right now, is have a bit of a ‘pause’.  

It needs to hit the ‘pause’ button; regroup; and think about everything that has happened, over the past 10 years. Because a lot of things happened in that time, you know. And after such a long period in power... I mean, you do tend to lose yourself, along the way.  

So they need to stop; discuss; and draw up a way forward, at least to the next election. And the questions that need to be asked, include: what are the principles that we are going to follow? How are we going to make those principles work? How are we going to communicate them to the people? How are we going to create a discussion: both within the government, and within the party?  

Because the one thing that the Labour Party definitely needs to work on, is the separation between ‘government’ and ‘party’. The Labour Party’s fate cannot be tied to the fate of the Labour government. The government needs to be kept on its toes, by the party.... and at the end of the day, the government is there to serve the people of this country: according to the principles, and the programme, established by the party. 

And none of that can possibly happen, in practice, if there is no actual distinction between the two... but that only raises the question: if these issues have been ‘unresolved’ for so long... why are they only ‘coming to the fore’, now? Could it be, perhaps, that people’s aspirations