Politicians cannot expect ‘trust’, if they ignore people’s concerns

Malta seems to be losing its confidence in politics, across the board. For sociologist (and former politician with both AD and PN) MICHAEL BRIGUGLIO, this is the inevitable consequence of a political ‘disconnect’, with the man in the street 

MICHAEL BRIGUGLIO (Photo: James Bianchi / MediaToday)
MICHAEL BRIGUGLIO (Photo: James Bianchi / MediaToday)

We seem to be living in an age characterised by declining trust in the political system. According to our surveys, the Labour Party is currently haemorrhaging votes. Recent events (especially in Hamrun) suggest that the PN is still suffering from infighting, since the Adrian Delia ordeal. Meanwhile, the latest Eurobarometer survey shows that Malta’s trust in the EU has likewise declined by a massive 40%, since last year alone. As both a sociologist, and a former politician in your own right: how do you account for this loss of trust, yourself? 

As far as the EU goes, I was pretty surprised by that Eurobarometer survey, to tell you the truth. This sort of thing had never happened before. Usually, it’s the other way round: Mata is one of the member states which expresses the highest level of trust, in the EU. It's always amongst the top performers, in this regard. 

Why is this happening? For what it’s worth, my own qualified guess is that has to do with migration. Because yet again, immigration is a major concern, according to Eurobarometer surveys; and the EU doesn't seem to be reaching the expectations of people in Malta, on that front.  

It’s possible that the Ukraine war might also have had an impact; but I doubt it, because the same survey also shows that a huge majority [91%] actually support the EU’s position on Ukraine.  

There may also be other factors. One thing I’ve been hearing quite a lot, recently, is that some people may have had higher expectations from the EU, with regard to corruption, governance, ‘The Rule of Law’, and so forth. So there is that aspect as well; though it’s probably not as much of an issue, as it is sometimes projected. 

Ultimately, however, I think it is mostly related to migration: which is an issue that affects people from all different social groups, and different political backgrounds. Not to mention the fact that migration has been the most important concern for 12 out of the last 13 Eurobarometers: even if this latest one didn’t focus specifically on the issue... 

The survey itself may not have focused on migration; but it unfolded against the backdrop of Lampedusa receiving 8,000 asylum seekers – more than the entire island’s population - in just 24 hours. At the risk of a Devil’s advocate question: aren’t people justified in ‘losing faith in the EU’... when the EU has promised so much, on this issue; but delivered so little? 

Oh, I think their concern IS justified. First of all, I want to make it very clear that I completely disagree with people – some of whom are friends and colleagues of mine – who automatically label all those who are concerned with migration, as ‘racist’, or ‘far right’. 

This is happening across Europe, not just in Malta. And it is actually helping the Far Right – and other parties on the right of the spectrum – to win a lot of support, across Europe and the rest of the world. One of the many reasons for this, is that [more moderate] politicians, opinion-makers and so forth, do not want to speak about migration, at all: because they will be branded as racist, or whatever, by some of their own cohorts. And therefore, the game is being given away to the Far Right parties... 

... who DO ‘speak about migration’, all the time. If I’m understanding you correctly: the silence of mainstream parties, on migration, allows the Far Right to project itself as ‘representing people’s concerns, that other parties ignore’? 

Exactly. Because how can you say – and this applies not just to political parties, but even to various NGOs: some of which which I support – that you're ‘speaking on behalf of the people’... and then, not even mention one of the people’s uppermost concerns?  

Now: migration itself, as an issue, is about more than cases like Lampedusa; or other instances where migrants arrive by boat. It also has to do with the issue of ‘overpopulation’: i.e., with people coming here legally, from other countries, to live and work.  

And yes, that is a huge issue for Malta. I think it needs be discussed, whatever one’s opinion in the matter. And obviously, by ‘discussion’, I don’t mean saying: ‘Go back to your country!’ I don't think we can, you know, just go back to a ‘Golden Age’ [of Maltese homogeneity], which probably never even existed.  

But it is an issue, all the same. Even if you ignore all the social and cultural factors, and look only at the infrastructure of the country. This summer, I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many infrastructural problems, since the early 1990s: when we had rubbish everywhere; sewage all over the place; and beaches where you couldn’t swim. Not to mention blackouts... 

As such, you can’t just ignore the fact that our infrastructure cannot actually sustain the number of people living on the islands. People are right to be concerned about it; and it's wrong to label those people as ‘racists’,  ‘xenophobes’, ‘idiots’, or whatever else... 

Turning away from the EU, towards local politics: how much would you say this issue – migration/overpopulation - is impacting the loss of trust in the Labour and Nationalist Parties, too? Or are there other reasons why Malta’s mainstream parties seem to be losing favour, with the electorate? 

Let’s take the two parties separately. In a recent column I wrote for The Malta Independent, I referred to the PN as being still attached to a discourse that’s sort of... ‘priestly’. You know: a ‘holier-than-thou’ discourse, which many people find off-putting. First of all, because people don't actually need a political party, to tell them that. If they want to hear that sort of message, they can simply ‘go to Mass’.  

And secondly, because there are many people out there, who still do not trust the PN over things which it has done in the past. Both when it was in government; and even in these recent years... such as the ousting of Adrian Delia: which, in my view, was ‘not on’, because they didn't give him a chance to lead the party for the full five years.  

So the PN’s major issue, I think, is that it's speaking like a ‘moralist’; it’s still projecting itself as the ‘Holy Ones’. I watched Bernard Grech’s speech yesterday, for instance. It was almost as if he was saying that Labourites are somehow automatically ‘inferior’. He didn't say that in so many words, obviously... but the way he framed things, was like: ‘If it's Labour... it's bad’.  

That doesn't attract people to the PN’s cause. Actually, Labour is only gaining from this: because this is what the PN used to do before, in the days when it used to win one election, after another.  

One of the major reasons for this winning streak was that, in the early 90s, the PN had attracted a cohort of center-left, middle-class people, with high levels of education – including university academics - who in another circuit, or in other countries, would never have ended up voting for a center-right party, like the PN.  

Now, things have changed. The Nationalist Party has sort of ‘closed in upon itself’: which I think is counterproductive. And Labour, with all its defects - and it has very many – is doing the opposite. Instead of pushing people who disagree with it away, Labour tries to, you know, ‘suck them all in’. Which is what the PN used to do... except that Labour is doing it, in much a better way.  

By ‘better’, of course, I don't mean that it's ‘ethically correct’. Far from it, in fact. But if you remove morality from the equation, and look at it only from a cynical, politically ‘calculating’ perspective... Labour is certainly being more effective, at the PN’s old game. 

And yet, Labour seems to be suffering from a trust fall-out, too. And this has implications for next year’s European elections: given that Labour has now been in power for 10 years... and voters traditionally use EP (and local) elections, as an outlet for ‘discontent with their own party’. How do you see things panning out? 

I don't want to make any specific predictions; but I think Labour has a huge issue, coming up next year. Many people, as you say, use local and European elections to ‘send out a message’. Some don't turn up to vote, at all; and the major political parties will know who they are, because they have access – obscenely, in my opinion – to information about non-voters; and will even phone them up afterwards.  

So some people actually abstain from voting, specifically so that they DO get this phone-call, from the party... so they can tell them, directly, ‘whatever the matter might be’.  

Others might want to remain anonymous... so they simply invalidate their vote.  I myself know many people who are saying they’re ‘not going to vote’: one way, or the other. So I think Labour definitely has a problem, in that regard... even if my guess is that many of those people would still vote Labour in a general election, anyway.   

Nonetheless, some things are now being dragged out into the open. If you listen to Manuel Cuschieri, for example – who is, you know, like the ‘rock-star’ of the Labour hard-core – he does mention grievances, coming from Labour supporters. And this is unusual, for a Labour Party that has traditionally always avoided ‘hanging out its dirty linen, in public’. And apart from Manuel Cuschieri, there have been others.  

The Jean-Paul Sofia issue, for example. I don't off-hand remember the exact sequence of events. But in the final instance, there seems to have been a crescendo: first Deborah Schembri; then Jason Micallef; then Joseph Muscat, no less... all saying that ‘there should be a public inquiry’. And this left Robert Abela with no option, but to say ‘Yes’.  

Now: was this planned in advance? I have no idea. But in any case, it shows that there is some form of rupture, going on within the Labour Party. All the same, I don’t think it’s a rupture that the Nationalist Party is benefitting from, at the moment... and nor are any of the third parties. 

Speaking of which: ADPD – a party you once led – also seems to be struggling, right now. And yet, we are living at a time when ‘the Environment’ has risen to become a major concern, in all local surveys. Why do think Malta’s Green Party still lags so far behind, in spite of everything? 

One of the contradictions facing ADPD, at the moment, is that the party is focusing on issues which... I agree with, don’t get me wrong. I agree with Europe's climate policies, and so forth. But the reality is that those ‘global’ environmental concerns – climate change, etc. – are not necessarily the concerns affecting people in their daily lives, right now.  

Not to mention that some of the things ADPD is proposing, will definitely not be popular with the electorate. We have seen this in the Netherlands, recently; and other countries like France and Britain. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, for example, has just changed his policies, because there was a backlash against certain climate-friendly measures... 

But if ‘The Environment’ is becoming a major public concern, at the moment: it’s partly because of climate change, yes. But it is mostly about the ‘smaller’ (so to speak) issues, that are affecting the people’s quality of life. The building that’s going up next door... or the fact there is rubbish accumulating on pavements, everywhere you look. 

Even the pavements, themselves. How often do the bigger parties talk about the state of pavements, in Malta? Never... because they’re only interested in talking about ‘mega-projects’ (and let’s face it: there might be other reasons for that, behind the scenes.) 

But for many people, the state of pavements is actually a very, very serious matter. It’s a daily, bread-and-butter, accessibility concern: for the elderly; the mobility-impaired; for parents with push-chairs: and for pretty much everyone, at the end of the day.  

And yet, none of the larger parties seems to be in any way interested, or concerned. This is where I see an enormous opportunity, for ADPD. I think the party should focus on the local environmental issues, more: and for that reason, I think it should invest much more in local-council elections; rather than the European Parliament.... where, incidentally, I seriously doubt whether ADPD even can get elected, at all. 

And while the next general election is still too far away, to speculate... there are no signs, at the moment, showing that ADPD - or any other third party, or independent candidate – actually stands a chance, either. 

In local elections, however, it’s a different story. ADPD does have a history of getting elected, at this level. I myself was a councillor for four legislatures. So was Ralph Cassar... and there were others, too. So that is a huge window of opportunity, for ADPD: which the party seems to be ignoring.  

Meanwhile, the fact that ADPD is not immersing itself, as it should, in local issues, is also giving space to NGOs to ‘fill up that void’ themselves. And rightly so: they're doing what they should logically be doing, under the circumstances.  

But I would say that ADPD should be there, too – along with the NGOs, obviously. They should really be active on the ground, in local issues; and particularly in local elections, where people are ready to vote for another party, without threatening the status quo. 

Because like I said earlier: no party – be it PN, PL, ADPD, or any other – can expect to ‘speak on behalf of the people’... if it’s not going to listen to the people’s concerns.