His last bow | Adrian Vassallo

For conservative and outspoken Labour MP Adrian Vassallo, today’s society is marred by excessive liberties and social degeneration. Now he prepares for the twilight of his political career

“The title was misleading. It’s not what I said,” Labour MP Adrian Vassallo says. “But the rest of it is correct,” he says as he runs his finger across the front page of last Wednesday’s Times, which read that he’d prefer living in Iran.

Vassallo, a backbench MP whose conservative, Catholic, and pro-hunting views have been known for some time now, made front page news on the strength of one of his particular parliamentary questions, where he demanded to know whether the screening of pornographic movies in hotel rooms was legal or not.

When he was asked to elaborate on his views, Vassallo let rip – apparently taking umbrage at a film that ‘ridiculed’ Jesus Christ – claiming that the way Muslims took umbrage at those who ridiculed the Prophet was indeed something admirable.

Vassallo’s honesty generated some mirth. Those in the Labour party felt embarrassed, seeing that their leader’s progressive regeneration of the party had not been felt down in Ta’ Xbiex, where Vassallo, a general practitioner, has his clinic and constituency.
Others on Facebook launched a group to buy Vassallo a one-way ticket to Iran. He didn’t check it out, he tells me. But now, it has been removed by the Facebook moderators.

Sitting inside his home, Vassallo is in the mood for some frank talk about everything that is wrong with modern society: a place that is no longer what it used to be back in the 1950s or 1960s.

“All I did was ask a very simple question. Since there are adult, hardcore channels in certain Maltese hotels, is this legal or not? If it is legal, no problem… if it isn’t, the government should take action.”

Vassallo claims his concern is entirely about legality. “This is a government that claims to be conservative – as I am after all – but then closes its eyes to such things as lap dancing clubs and whether these dancers have work permits.”

Still, Vassallo is against many of the insalubrious products of the modern age. He is personally against pornography, against lap dancing bars, against divorce, and of course, against gay marriage. While he argues about what is legal or not – for example, pornography – his personal opinion is that it should not be. I conjure up the example of CC Bill, the internet’s largest banker for porn sites, which is registered in Malta: should the government be able to claim tax from such businesses? Vassallo says ‘no’.

“It’s pornography and I feel it is degrading women and human activity. Just because it is accepted abroad, are we going to accept it ourselves as well? Just because it is on the internet and it is freely available, people think it is acceptable. Not if it can be controlled – as they do in China.”

Another dictatorship, another red flag. Does he agree with the Chinese style of internet control, in which freedom of expression and the freedom to receive ideas is controlled by the state?

“I expect that if what you do is creating harm to society, it gets controlled by the government. There are consequences to everything. If this leads to broken marriages, won’t it be the government to pay the cost? Why should I not have the right to go hunting, to drive without a seatbelt? There are rules for everything. If it’s illegal to download pornography, it should be illegal to screen it in hotels.”

What gets Vassallo’s dander up is the availability of sexy programming – he mentions the TV station ‘Jimmy’ and its late-night programming on bordellos and the porn industry – and a recent movie he had the displeasure of seeing: Choke, the film adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s eponymous book, which features the cloning of a man from the Holy Prepuce… Jesus Christ’s foreskin, as it were.

I can understand how this might have disturbed the conservative Vassallo, who goes to some lengths to explain what the movie was about, and generally feels annoyed about it: annoyed, perhaps, that Christ tends to be given a rougher ride in his own Western sphere of influence than Muhammad does in the East.

“Go do the same thing about Muhammad,” Vassallo says, rhetorically inviting comparisons to the kind of punishment meted out to blasphemers in other parts of the worlds.

But isn’t the freedom of expression we enjoy, more desirable than the wrath provoked by the Muhammad cartoons, or the censorship that exists in Iran and China [for religious or political reasons]?

“You can’t not admire that they are ready to fight and die for what they believe in,” Vassallo says about Muslims in general. “It doesn’t mean I agree with their methods… and I don’t want to be misquoted… I don’t agree with the Talibans.”

But he finds it admirable that somebody should die for their religion. “Doesn’t the Church make you a saint if you die for your religion, how can you not find it admirable?” Vassallo attempts to defend his record of “being honest”, saying he never felt any compunction in denouncing what he felt was wrong. Indeed, he says he is surprised that nobody felt the need to come to his defence in the barrage of Facebook comments that, at the time of interviewing, were making the rounds. “Not even one clergyman,” he huffs.

But what is so special about religion that it cannot be ridiculed, I ask Vassallo? What is it about religion, God, saints and prophets that they cannot be the butt of jokes?

“They should not be ridiculed because… why should I ridicule somebody who is short? Am I going to call him a ‘dwarf’?”
Well, it’s impolite…

“Freedom of expression has its limits,” Vassallo says. “It should not include the right to offend. I can criticise the Anglicans for allowing women to be priests, but offending one’s religious sentiment, with films such as Choke, is not on.”

Even if it’s fiction? “Fiction? I can understand the mentality of those who feel that religion is a no-go zone. You can criticise Iran over WMDs, the death penalty and so many other things, but not religion. Today, the mentality is that everything goes: even a simple wedding invitation doesn’t invite Mr Jones and Mrs Jones… it invites Mr Jones and partner, just in case somebody is cohabiting. There is no longer Mrs, but Ms.”

At this point, Vassallo comes across as Mary Whitehouse, drifting seamlessly from pornography to cohabitation, single-parent households and even divorce. He makes it clear that he is annoyed at the present-day condition, at how liberties can be taken with religion, with social truths that were cast in stone back in some golden age.

“It is a proven fact that whoever cohabits, the relationship’s permanence is not as strong as marriage,” Vassallo says, although he does not direct me to his source of information. “What’s wrong is that the consequences of such relationships will have to be paid for by the taxpayer… Look at the state of the UK, one of the first countries to have introduced divorce since Henry VIII. How many cohabiting couples are there? Marriage has finished. What is the UK? It’s a broken society.

“A law on cohabitation will open a minefield. It will allow people who are just living together to apply for rights under a cohabitation law. It will allow people not to get married. If marriage’s value is reduced, nobody will get married.”

When we turn to divorce, I ask him whether people who are today separated and already living with new partners should have the right to remarry. “Let’s see the effects of divorce and cohabitation. Today we’re getting married for an everlasting relationship. Once we introduce the option to dissolve marriage, breakdown will be inevitable.”

But this is already happening, I point out, with some 300 to 500 marriage separations taking place every year in the past decade. “I’m talking out of experience here when I say that three quarters of separations are due to the presence of a third party in the relationship,” Vassallo declares.

Another thing Vassallo offers from his experience: “Even in cases where the wife is battered, the children prefer their parents to stay together. Even when their mother dies, the children never enjoy seeing their father remarry.”

These and similar sweeping statements sound flimsy with nothing backing them up other than Vassallo’s brazen-faced honesty. Challenging Vassallo invites more statements about how ‘abnormal’ societal arrangements can only lead to a ‘broken society’. For example, he says children should have the right to be adopted into a “normal, married family”. He claims the “global statistics” show that children in single-parent families, when they are financially hard-up and also drifting in and out of relationships, are more likely to become pregnant as teenagers, abuse drugs and alcohol, abstain from school, and even become criminals.

These are again claims that are hard to back, but then again Vassallo is in a position to be able say anything he wants. A backbencher for the past 10 years, today he admits he no longer feels he can continue being part of the Labour party.

When I ask him whether he has any interest in staying in politics – considering that his antediluvian vision of modern society places him at loggerheads with what many might expect from a politician – Vassallo swiftly responds: “No… not one bit.”

In fact, he has been absenting himself from Labour party meetings for its parliamentary group for the past 10 years. “I toe the party line… I don’t speak in parliament anymore, perhaps some PQ here and there. The ones which make the most noise.”

When I ask him if he’ll be voting against divorce in parliament, he looks at me and tells me ‘no’. “I won’t vote against divorce, because I won’t be in parliament to vote against it.”

Have you ever had any discussion with Joseph Muscat about the PL’s ideological direction?

“Yes I did. I told him that I could never agree with him on the stand he took on divorce. I mean, I do have the right to disagree with him. I had even said the same thing to Alfred Sant when he wanted to create the commission on divorce.”

He even says his appointment as spokesperson for patients’ rights was a token role because he wasn’t interested in furthering the party’s agenda. “I have always been a backbencher.”

“However, I did take offence at Muscat when he said that there was no space for people in the party who don’t believe people should have a second chance.”

And was he referring to you? “Well… there are others in Labour who said they don’t agree with divorce.”

Like Marlene Pullicino, the Labour MP who is separated, cohabits with someone who is separated from their spouse, and is also against divorce. Isn’t that contradictory?

“Well, if she feels that way, who am I to judge her for the decision that she took? I’m not going to judge her.”
Vassallo has no doubt that divorce will be an issue come the next election.

“And the Nationalist government will use it against Labour, and the Church will also pipe up. I don’t it’s fair going for a parliament vote – it should be a referendum. After all, why should us 65 MPs decide for the rest of Malta?

“With Joseph Muscat’s system, this bill won’t pass. If it had to take place today, it would not pass. There are some four to five MPs who wouldn’t vote for it. I don’t understand how he challenged the prime minister to a free vote on divorce. I think he should legislate through electoral mandate, rather than leaving it up to the MPs.”

Vassallo says Alfred Sant had even expected his MPs to vote in favour of divorce if a referendum were to be held, and the majority voted in favour. “I told him I would have voted against if there was one single vote against divorce.”

When I ask Vassallo if Labour’s progressive and moderate umbrella may yet prove unable to attract everyone, he seems reticent to pass direct comment on Muscat’s motto. “In life you cannot please everyone. In that sense, there is no place for conservatives like myself.”

Otherwise, Vassallo says Labour is propping itself up as an effective opposition against the Nationalist government, although he says it still faces many traditional problems, amongst them the media.

“We know where certain independent media stand with respect to government. The Oppositions tends to be belittled because of this media bias. I can name it too: The Times for one, and Where’s Everybody is today the national broadcaster.

“The problem with the Labour party is that the Nationalist government has a vast network that allows it to win over aspiring Labourites to their side. Even secretaries to Labour ministers have today become Nationalists. The PN has a way of attracting people with contracts.”

Vassallo even says he finds One’s news service very negative and repetitive, citing the BWSC example. “I hear something of that every day… it makes you want to switch off straight away. And it’s been going on for a very long time. The media is very important for the party to win votes…

“The advantage we have is that a new leader gives people a fresh choice and voters may find that attractive,” Vassallo says in a nod to Muscat.

But if the people go for Muscat, it will be a new Labour government that won’t have Vassallo in its ranks.