Greener on the other side… | Arnold Cassola

As voter confidence in the bigger parties seems to visibly wane, AD/The Green Party hopes to capitalise on widespread disenchantment ahead of the next election. But is it going about it the right way? Arnold Cassola on political consistency, and the vacuous promises of other parties.

These are interesting times for Malta's Green Party. For the first time in recent history, it approaches an election with polls pointing towards a staggering 30% of the electorate who are either undecided, or declare they have no intention of voting at all.

Admittedly this figure will almost certainly dwindle in the last leg of the campaign. But everything seems to point towards widespread voter disillusionment with the two big parties, and this can only work to the advantage of a third party which has long campaigned against what it refers as the PNPL duopoly.

And yet... the same polls also convey some discouraging news for Alternattiva Demokratika. Their own share of voter preference currently stands at less than 2%: an improvement over the last election, but still a far cry from AD's positive 4% showing in its first election in 1992... and a much farther one from Arnold Cassola's own impressive performance in the 2005 MEP election.

At the same time, AD's recent statements and declarations may have puzzled some of the party's traditional voters. AD chairman Michael Briguglio was last seen during the party leaders' debate on Xarabank, where he was often in apparent agreement with Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi and openly critical of Labour's Joseph Muscat.

Given that so much of AD's supporter base has traditionally consisted of disgruntled Nationalists - and given also the fact that the Labour Party appears more compact and united than we have seen in years - it strikes me as curious that the Green Party would project the image of being so close to the PN, when so many of its supporters had originally abandoned the PN precisely because they could no longer identify with that party's ethos.

I meet Arnold Cassola - now the party's spokesman on European affairs, but also a co-founder and former AD leader- in his office at the University of Malta, and put it to him that many of those who are sympathetic to AD's cause find it strange that the party would enter into a rapprochement with the PN precisely now... especially after the same PN had treated AD so shabbily before the last two elections.

Has AD fallen into a cosy relationship with PN? And what sense does it make to invest so much political capital in discrediting the Labour Party: whose supporters are (let's face it) highly unlikely to abandon what they perceive as a winning horse?

Arnold Cassola however rejects both these perceptions, pointing towards the recent Tonio Borg debacle as a prime example. AD last week joined its European partners in rejecting Gonzi's "ultra-conservative" choice... while Labour surprised many by backing him. Cassola in particular was singled out for scathing criticism over this decision.

"If it is true that we were cosying up to PN, then surely we would have supported the choice of Tonio Borg instead of rejecting it," he replies matter-of-factly.

He also rejects the view that his party has taken a strategic deision to focus on Labour more than on the PN... arguing that if AD criticizes Labour at all, it is only because Muscat invites such criticism by proposing vague promises with no idea how to back them up financially.

"We attack Labour because it has a habit of saying things without substantiating them. One example would be its pledge to decrease utility bills. All well and good, but how will a Labour government recoup costs without raising taxes? And which taxes will it raise?"

Another question mark hovering over PL's policies concerns the so-called national pension's time bomb. "The Labour Party never talks about pensions... yet we all know they need to be increased, and the money has to come from somewhere..."

Cassola argues that this 'secretive' approach he ascribes to Labour (and to a lesser extent also to the PN) stands in sharp contrast to AD's own budget proposals: which coincidentally came out on the day of our interview.

Cassola takes visible pride in informing me that AD's policies are the only ones to be fully open and transparent when it comes to addressing that all important question: where will the money come from?.

"We believe in progressive taxation. Other parties will not commit themselves to raising taxes for fearing of losing votes. But we all know what happens in reality... there is never any mention of increased taxes before an election; but afterwards? That's a different story. At AD we don't reason this way. It is clear that if you're going to increase spending here, then some taxes have to be raised somewhere else. And we will tell you up front exactly which taxes will be raised, and why."

He goes on to expand on a few examples. "Did you know that fully disabled people only receive a pension of 55% of the minimum wage? That's 55% of EUR650, for a person suffering 100% disability. We believe this is unjust. But how can it be addressed without increasing taxes?"

This is partly why AD insists on increasing the minimum wage, while declaring that high wage earners should be taxed at higher rates. The resulting increase in government revenue will finance pension increases, and other benefits that would put more money in the pockets of low wage earners.

"It is a known fact that when you give poor people more money, it will immediately go back into the economy and create more wealth. This is because these people have needs that have to be met. And they have to spend money to meet them..."

The Green Party views this as an element of 'social justice' that is curiously missing from the Labour Party's agenda. "It's even missing from their language. There was an analysis of the speeches of the party leaders recently: it observed that the one to say "middle class" the most was Joseph Muscat... while Gonzi now refers constantly to the 'haddiem' (workers). Traditionally and historically, this is a reversal of roles. But the reality is that no one is really representing the interests of the workers..."

Another long-standing Green Party battle-cry concerns the need to tax vacant properties. "We would introduce a tax on third empty homes: which means that you can own a home and not pay tax on it. You can own a second home, rent it out and still not pay tax on it - after all the rental income will already be contributing to the economy. But if you own a third or a fourth property and leave it vacant - in a country where we already have a stock of 70,000 vacant properties... we believe those properties should be taxed. We would then use the additional revenue to fund the social reforms we believe are necessary: to increase pensions, for example. So as you can see, we're not making proposals, but then refusing to explain where we will get the money from. Our proposals are all substantiated - we explain in minute detail exactly where the revenue is expected to come from."

But having made this point Cassola reminds me that many of the long-standing campaigns the Green Party has embarked upon were not exclusively geared towards the Labour Party at all.

"Take our stand on the illegal Armier boathouse village, for instance. Both Labour and Nationalists have entered into agreements with the illegal boathouses owners. It's not as though we criticize one side and not the other - both are equally guilty, and AD is the only party to have taken a firm and clear stand against these boathouses. We're not hiding our intentions either. We would propose bulldozing the whole area, and giving it back to the people..."

On other issues that may be slightly more peripheral - but nonetheless important to many people - Cassola invites me to consider how very close (if not identical) the two parties' policies actually are. One interesting example concerns AD's recent proposal to decriminalise illegal drugs - a policy that chimes in with an ongoing discussion at international level, where there is overwhelming evidence that decriminalization helps reduce drug-related crime and associated problems.

"The whole world is currently discussing drug policy changes in line with scientific recommendations. Yet ask the two parties what they think of decriminalizing drugs, and they will both instantly declare that they oppose it. Yet even here in Malta we have Sedqa - a government agency - publicly stating that the present policies are failing and that we need to start discussing decriminalization."

A note of frustration creeps into Cassola's voice as he explains how AD's position on this issue has been routinely distorted by the media. "They keep saying we're in favour of legalizing drugs. We're not - our position is to decriminalize drugs, so that, while they remain illegal, simple possession would no longer treated as a crime at law."

Citing various international studies - not least the Global Drugs Commission report last month, and the experience of countries like Portugal (where decriminalization has proved a resounding success), Arnold Cassola points out how the debate in Malta failed to even get off the ground.

Matters came to a head with the remarkable decision, by Where's Everybody, to exclude the only party to favour decriminalisation from the list of guests to discuss precisely decriminalization. And this fact on its own speaks volumes, not only about the sorry state of public discussion about drugs, but also the equally remarkable state of national broadcasting.

But let us briefly return to the flak Arnold Cassola found himself facing over the Borg 'grilling' last Tuesday.

Apart from illustrating that AD is no closer to PN than to Labour, Cassola stresses that the episode also underscores the consistency AD has exhibited throughout... as opposed to the constant flip-flopping by both the other parties.

But first he reminds me why AD had objected to the nomination in the first place.

"In the context of the John Dalli resignation issue, when the eyes of the world were on us, it made no sense to send a divisive, controversial figure like Tonio Borg. This is why we suggested that the parties get together and nominate a consensus candidate, who could then remain the full six and a half years..."

Cassola points out that this is how things are done in 'serious countries': citing examples such as Spain's Commissioner Joaquin Almunia: who enjoyed the backing of the Opposition and was in fact retained under succeeding administrations. 

"In Malta the dynamics worked differently. Gonzi needed to do something exciting in the party, so he took the opportunity to create a vacancy within his party..."

This in turn raises the question: how much consideration did Gonzi give to the European dimension? None at all, according to Cassola.

And what about Muscat? Cassola suggests he went along for the ride, too. "I think there was a deal, along roughly these lines: I (Muscat) give you (Gonzi) a free hand with Tonio Borg... so long as it is only for the one and a half years, after which we will nominate our own replacement..."

Apart from wanting a candidate who enjoyed cross-party support, Arnold Cassola adds that he would have preferred someone who was himself more consistent. Sidestepping Borg's apparent liberal 'conversion' on the road the Brussels, Cassola instead points towards his surprise declaration of support for gender quotas... when his own government had fought against this proposal tooth and nail.

"For the past six months - until 13 November, in fact - Borg was the deputy prime minister in a government which was actively blocking [Commissioner Viviane] Reding's proposal for gender quotas. But then he takes a plane to Brussels, and the next thing we know he has no problem declaring that he is in favour of gender quotas. Then, after another flight to Malta, he is back with the same government that opposes gender quotas."

Cassola refers to this remarkable transformation with equally remarkable economy of humour: dubbing Malta's Commissioner-designate as... "Dr Tonio and Mr Borg."

Yet he was fiercely criticized for pointing out these inconsistencies... and this Cassola attributes to what he describes as "pattrijottizmu bazwi" - or "bogus patriotism" (my translation).

"There seems to be this idea that while we fight among ourselves locally, we must always get together and automatically support any Maltese person on the international stage, just because he is Maltese."

But this level of 'automatic support', Cassola argues, can only come at the expense of principles. As an example he turns to the one issue where few can deny AD has been a rock of consistency over the years: hunting.

"If a Maltese politician or lobby-group were to come out fighting for spring hunting in Europe... well, he can be as Maltese as he likes, but if he expects us to support him, he will have another guess coming. As a party we are against hunting in spring: it is a point of principle. So you cannot expect us to throw away principles just to support someone in the name of fake patriotism..."

But despite officially opposing Borg's nomination, Cassola nonetheless sounds an altogether more sympathetic note when it comes to the more recent insistence, on the part of MEPs, that Borg offer some form of written guarantee. 

"I dislike the idea, partly because it is the equivalent of treating Borg as a child. Tonio Borg may be of a different political opinion, and I might not agree with him... but he is a seasoned politician, not a child at all."

As for the seven principles, Cassola - who paradoxically has been attacked by Borg himself over his association with the 'pro-choice' European Greens - points out that he himself would personally have problems with the one about 'actively supporting women's rights."

"I would have no problem signing the first six of those points: even if I think it is humiliating to force a Commissioner designate to make written guarantees. But the seventh point, which states that he must 'actively' support rights which include access to safe abortion', that goes beyond the sort of commitment a Commissioner is expected to make."

Cassola specifies that the problem lies with the word 'actively'. "It is as though they want to make Borg take up a pro-active stance with regards to issues even though he disagrees with them. This is unfair pressure..."

Besides: for all the 'public' negative feedback, Cassola assures me that AD has also received very encouraging and positive messages in private - among other things, on home visits (here he surprises me by admitting that he has never really embarked on door-to-door electioneering, despite a 23-year career in politics.)

"Our main objective, between now and the election, remains to convince as many of the disillusioned voters that voting AD is the right thing to do. We might not succeed with all 30% of them, but I am confident that our support will grow."