Stuck in a moment | Owen Bonnici

Lawyer and PL spokesman for Youth and Culture Owen Bonnici has made a name for himself as a liberal voice within Labour. But how in synch is his progressive agenda with the ordinary Labour man in the street?

Labour MP Owen Bonnici on Mintoff's long shadow: 'You could say we are suffering from a hangover of the Mintoff years'
Labour MP Owen Bonnici on Mintoff's long shadow: 'You could say we are suffering from a hangover of the Mintoff years'

I meet Owen Bonnici in the Opposition's chambers in Parliament on Thursday morning, and am immediately struck by how very... quiet the place is.

Apart from the usual on-duty AFM sentry, and a couple of lost-looking German tourists wandering aimlessly around the corridors, the Palace seems (and feels) entirely empty.

In a sense this makes it a fitting venue to interview someone who has often given the impression of somewhat isolated himself... not just within the Labour Party, but also within Malta's political spectrum as a whole.

Labour's spokesman for youth and culture, Bonnici is one of only a handful of local parliamentarians to have consistently stuck their necks out on liberal issues... issues like the fight against censorship, which he has championed from day one.

He now admits that his outspoken public stand on the matter (at one point he even said that the censorship board should be "thrown out of the window") occasionally raised eyebrows even among his own constituents.

"The feedback I received was mixed, especially when I found myself attacked by the PN media for my defence of Realta," he recalls about the much-publicised prosecution of author Alex Vella Gera and editor Mark Camilleri, over an "obscene" short story in a campus magazine.

"Some people supported my stand on this issue, but there were others who couldn't understand it... who asked me what I thought was doing, sticking up for obscenity..."

Looking back on the whole thing, Bonnici admits that the issue presented unforeseen difficulties: among them, the astonishing lengths to which the Nationalist media went to discredit him.

"They portrayed us as paedophiles; as though we were in favour of child rape," he recalls. "In my case they even dragged my one-year-old daughter into the picture, asking me if would read the story out to her aloud... like it was in any way relevant to the issue at hand, which was all about fundamental human rights. I honestly can't understand how they could stoop to such low levels of journalism. That was below the belt."

Bonnici acknowledges that if the intention was to hurt, it succeeded. "But I decided to let time give the answer... which eventually it did."

Time's answer took the form of a Court of Appeal ruling which upheld an earlier acquittal by the Magistrates' Court - bringing to an end a two-year ordeal that had started in 2009, when the University rector reported the matter to the police.

The PN's reaction was to issue a sheepish statement defending its coverage of the court case as 'factual' and 'unbiased'. Bonnici however stands by his earlier claim that the PN's position was "extremist".

"They wanted at all costs to portray anyone who spoke out in defence of Realta' in a bad light: like we were all idiots or madmen. And they lashed out ferociously, like rabid dogs. They couldn't even see the possibility that they were wrong. This all points towards a very arrogant streak running through that party..."

But doesn't it also point towards an identity crisis, I ask? After all, the upshot of the court case has resulted in a credibility problem for government. In fact it has backpedalled to a point where culture and the arts has been removed from its previous ministry (Education), and entrusted to Mario de Marco:  who enjoys a reputation as being one of the more liberal government MPs...

Bonnici however points out that the change in ministerial responsibility did not have any initial effect.

"At one point Mario de Marco entered the scene, true, but at the time when it really mattered, he said nothing. Instead he merely sat on the fence. The only government MP who was supportive at the time was Charlot Bonnici, who spoke about the issue in parliament. Not that he said very much, mind you... but at least he said something, and I thanked him for it at the time."

Bonnici now points out that the government is singing a slightly different tune. "De Marco has since apologised to the artistic community over the government's handling of the censorship issue. This is all well and good, but I sincerely think the Prime Minister should apologise, too. It is a serious matter to attack the fundamental principle of free speech, in the way his party media did in the Realta' case."

On a more positive note (from the anti-censorship perspective, anyway) few can deny that in recent months the tide has emphatically turned. For Bonnici the catalyst that ushered in this change was the outcome of the divorce referendum last May.

Bonnici echoes what is now widespread opinion (though it certainly wasn't, this time last year) that the Nationalist Party was unwise to launch itself headlong into a doomed campaign against divorce.

"It was a tactical mistake to propose a referendum, but you can see why it happened. Traditionally, the PN has always reasoned that as long as it has the Church on its side, it would win for sure."

This was certainly the case in the famous 'Interdett' issue of the 1960s - and Bonnici notes in an aside the interesting coincidence whereby the censorship and divorce issues came to a head almost exactly 50 years after that particular episode.

Gonzi, he argues, evidently made the same calculation as the PN did all those years ago, and was so assured of victory that he even went as far as to tie his entire party to an anti-divorce platform.

"This sort of strategy had worked in the past, but not this time. Don't get me wrong, I think the Church is an important institution, and has a vital role to play in society... but not that role. Not campaigning, with billboards, political slogans and so on."

And yet, it is not just the PN to suffer from identity problems when it comes to liberal/conservative ideology. For while the Labour Party projects itself, on paper, as 'progressive', in practice the situation at grass-roots level is rather different. Many of the country's more liberal voices have traditionally been heard from within the Nationalist camp, while Labour supporters often come across as dyed-in-the-wool conservatives.

Bonnici agrees up to a point. "In the last years, the champions of liberty were associated with a small minority of PN voters. Until recently they were the ones who spoke up about civil liberties. We call them the 'PN-Stricklandjani'..."

This in turn raises another political paradox. For the former 'Stricklandjani' (i.e., supporters of Lord Strickland's Constitutional party in the early 20th century) were traditionally the PN's sworn opponents... albeit along battle-lines that quite simply no longer apply to modern Maltese politics. They also had a natural affinity to Labour... in fact the PL itself first gained prominence as a coalition partner with Strickland in the Compact Alliance government in the late 1920s.

And yet, surviving Stricklandjani (and more cogently their descendents) found themselves gravitating towards the PN, not towards Labour as one would have expected.

Bonnici acknowledges that the Labour Party was not an attractive option for liberals in the 1980s; and that the troubles associated with that period pushed these people towards the PN, despite the fact that the party itself was anything but liberal.

"Especially after 2008, it became increasingly clear that the ruling oligarchy of the PN was very conservative. They were true believers in the motto 'Religio et Patria'."

I myself can confirm that this was upsetting to liberals who had previously embraced the PN as a political safe haven. But Bonnici also confesses that the PL is finding it hard to overcome the perception cemented over previous decades.

"For years the Labour Party was dominated by a very strong leader, Dom Mintoff. His hold on the party officially ended in 1984, but to this day the influence can still be very strongly felt. You could say we are suffering from a hangover of the Mintoff years... I don't mean it in a negative way, because Mintoff did a lot for the country. How can I explain this? When you have such a larger-than-life figure, it becomes hard for the party to reinvent its identity afterwards..."

This is, in fact, one of the fundamental problems faced by the Labour Party at the moment: its apparent difficulties reconciling the events of its own recent past with the image Muscat is trying so hard to project.

Recently we paused to remember Raymond Caruana on the 25th anniversary of his murder in 1986. Naturally, the PN media had a field-day pointing out how many of the active Labour figureheads of those times still occupy prominent positions: Karmenu Vella, Alex Sceberras Trigona, etc.

Bonnici admittedly represents a younger generation of Labourites who cannot be directly associated with those years. But let's face it: the party as a whole has never quite managed to put that epoch firmly behind it.

Bonnici agrees that the problem exists. "If I were alive in the 1980s..." here he pauses to correct himself: "Actually I was, but I was still only a small child. If I were older back then - as old as I am today, with the same forma mentis - I would definitely have been critical of the Labour government at the time."

Nonetheless Bonnici is unimpressed by the Nationalist's campaign. "It's a fear tactic, nothing more. The PN is strategically using those issues as an easy way to win back its lost liberal voters... having alienated so many of them in the previous months."

Does this worry the more progressive elements within the PL? Bonnici shakes his head, pointing out that most discerning voters will see it for the transparent ploy it is; while the ones who won't would never have voted Labour anyway.

"But there is one aspect of this issue that worries me. The more we talk about this, the longer the wound will remain open. This is why I don't believe that the Nationalist party has a genuine interest in resolving the past. If the PN wanted these wounds to heal, it would be speaking about these issues differently. If it were really acting in the national interest - and not in the interests of the Nationalist Party - it would not keep fanning the flames the way it's doing. But this is the problem: the PN is not interesting in tearing down the walls. It wants to build them higher..."

As an example he points towards the same PN's coverage of the above-mentioned 'Interdett' issue, as we approach the 50th anniversary of the 1962 election.

"Today (Thursday, 16 February) there was a whole feature article about that election in the Nazzjon, and they didn't even mention the 'mortal sin' issue," he comments, alluding to the threat of clerical sanctions against Labour voters. Bonnici quips that this reminds him of the U2 song Stuck in a Moment.

"It's as though the PN are stuck in a moment in time... unable to see that the people have matured since then, and that what used to work in the past no longer works today."

Still, Labour does seem to find the constant references to its own past a difficult tactic to counter in public. Joseph Muscat has tried to distance himself from the 1980s: recently even admitting that Labour should not have governed for five years after 1981, after failing to secure a national majority in the election.

But in so doing, he arguably irked and alienated an older generation of Labour voters, who were brought up to believe the very opposite.

"The best answer to give in these circumstances is: look at how we are talking today," Bonnici replies. "The PN portrayed itself as a champion of civil rights in the 1980s. But who's doing more about civil rights today? Who tried to introduce civil rights which were previously unavailable, and who tried to block them?"

He argues that Labour can take the credit for the recent changes we have all witnessed - primarily the divorce referendum, which in turn led to the apparent change in national policy direction on other issues, including censorship.

"Many of the recent liberal victories were pushed through by the Opposition, and passed by parliament despite government's resistance."

This may well be true of the parliamentary motion last October, in which case most government MPs voted against. But what about the referendum itself? As I recall, this was held after a private members' bill presented by a Nationalist MP, not a Labour one...

"True, and I have a lot respect for Jeffery Pullicino Orlando," he begins (after reminding me that the motion was jointly presented with Labour MP Evarist Bartolo). "He sacrificed his entire career over something he truly believed in... although let's not be too categorical about the 'entire career' part. As they say, a week is a long time in politics..."

But Bonnici stresses that Labour was instrumental in not just in passing the law, but also in shaping and improving it.

"On our insistence, the divorce law also caters for maintenance of children up to the age of 24, in cases where these are still studying and unable to maintain themselves. We put that clause in, and there were some who opposed it..."

I confess that this a rather novel definition of 'children', but Bonnici has moved on to another example: "Take the rent laws reform. You may remember how the law allowed for inheritance of rents on pre-1995 properties. I had proposed an amendment to extend that transferability not just to families, but also to gay couples. But it was blocked by government MPs..."

Elsewhere, Bonnici assures me that the Labour Party is working as we speak on numerous proposals on a wide variety of issues - including the environment.

Bonnici reveals that he himself has been entrusted to 'translate' individual proposals (compiled by Leo Brincat and Aaron Farrugia) into a legal framework. But echoing another line of criticism often levelled at Labour, he stolidly refuses to spill the beans when asked what these proposals actually contain.

No matter how hard I press for the details, Owen Bonnici sticks like a limpet to the official party line: "The decision to publish these proposals will be taken the moment the people are called on to choose in an election..."

And so, to conclude with another U2 reference: I guess it will have to be 'another time, another place'...