Starting on the right foot | Marlene Farrugia

It has already been dismissed as a flight of fancy… but could Marlene Farrugia's new political movement really take on the two-party system where others have failed? 

Independent MP Marlene Farrugia
Independent MP Marlene Farrugia

Political parties may not always be quite as entertaining as parties of the more festive variety. Both, however, are equally tricky to actually get off the ground. 

Long before even getting down to the logistics, there is the small question of what the party actually commemorates. That, traditionally, is the starting point of every new party. What are we celebrating, anyway? Or, in parties of the political variety… what does this party actually stand for?

It is usually here that the analogy breaks down. In years gone by, the question seemed simple enough. The socialists were on the left and the conservatives on the right. All that, however, seems to have shifted out of place over the years. Not only have mainstream parties largely lost sight of their original raison d’être… but judging by recent controversies, politics itself no longer seems to serve its traditional purpose.

It is this situation, roughly, that Marlene Farrugia and I have been discussing prior to this interview at her St Julian’s home. Immediately, a contradiction swims into view. Farrugia’s plans for a ‘new political movement’ stem directly from the identity issues that plague the two major parties. There is evidence that a large number of voters – large enough to sway an election by a landslide – just no longer identify with the traditional ‘Labour/PN’ divide.

Yet Farrugia’s own party has so far not (apparently) come up with any clear identity of its own. How can it expect to gain the trust of the electorate, if as yet we have no idea what this party actually stands for?

And for that matter… why is there so much need for a new political force, in a country that is already overflowing with politics?

“First of all, I’m seeing an unprecedented situation in Malta at the moment. We have a party in government that won an election with such a huge majority, that you’d expect it to govern comfortably for at least 10 years. On the other hand, we have a party in opposition that, because of the magnitude of its defeat, would normally be expected to take 10 years to get its house in order.

“What happened? The government which came into power with a majority strong enough to implement those reforms – and let’s not forget that is why this government was elected in the first place – has failed to implement the most important ones. Yes, it has delivered on some promises of reform; its performance in some areas has been very good. But the overarching factor – which is good governance, transparency, accountability, meritocracy, etc… – on these, the government has failed. And it failed big time…”

Apart from the ‘teething problems’ that Farrugia – a dentist by profession – expected, there was the failure to actually do things differently. “I expected we would learn from our mistakes. Instead, things have deteriorated. Scandal after scandal after scandal… But it’s not just scandals. We tend to focus only on the big things, when for many people it is the little things that matter more. If you have someone who spent his or her entire life studying out of aspiration for a better future; and, when the times comes for this person to take up the deserved position… he or she finds that someone less qualified has been appointed as a ‘person of trust’. These are things that, coupled with the bigger scandals, erode public trust in government…

Is this a reference to any specific case? 

“It applies to a lot of cases I know. I can mention one example: at Arms Ltd, for instance, when applications for promotions were issued, people who were qualified – and had been preparing for the opportunity for years – found themselves bypassed in favour of less qualified appointees. Apart from the fact that this also undermines the institution itself – by having less competent people in key positions – you will also have the demoralisation of a lot of human resources. Worse still, it devalues the currency of education. After all, how do people build a better future? By studying, learning, by getting an education. By disregarding this, we are changing the meaning of education… and this is very dangerous. This is why you hear some people reasoning that it would pay them more to get a job at a ministry, than a degree at University…”

Panamagate, however, was the proverbial last straw. 

“We can all see that he [Mizzi] acquired a company in Panama when he was still minister… a minister who conducts massive transactions in the government’s name… and the same minister who still hasn’t published any of the government’s energy procurement contracts.  We’re tired of calling for their publication in parliament. Publish them, if you’ve got nothing to hide. Otherwise, you’re only giving the impression that you do have something to hide…”

All this, she adds, gave the government an opportunity to show off its clean governance credentials, as promised before the election. “It failed,” she concludes simply.

This leaves us with the Opposition: and commenting about Farrugia’s political aspirations, PN leader Simon Busuttil seemed (at least, to me) to strongly hint that she should join the PN instead. Does she share that interpretation… and if so, what is her ‘RSVP’ to this ‘invitation’? 

“When I resigned from Labour, Simon Busuttil came over to me in the House and suggested I sit with the Opposition in parliament. He didn’t so much invite me to join the PN… he offered me a seat next to his MPs. I told him, ‘I’ll stay here for now; whenever you like, you can come and sit with me instead.” He just stared at me, as if not understanding what I was saying…”

I must be staring in much the same way, for she spells it out to me: “If I joined the Nationalist Party, I would have been taking on the baggage I had been criticising for a whole legislature when in opposition. Because, even though Simon Busuttil is trying very hard to clean up the party... we all know it is not ready to govern yet. We all know it is not a credible alternative government; because it still needs to acknowledge its past mistakes, and then to work on those acknowledgements. I keep telling Busuttil to his face: when are you going to publish your party accounts? Because until you publish them, you are in no position to talk about transparency…”

To be fair, the PN has set itself a target date of April 30… 

“OK, let’s see. Let’s hope he does it. Because until then, I can’t believe what he says. That is why I do not see how, at this moment, joining the PN would be serving my country. It’s the other way round. I see many people, both Nationalist and Labour… or who think they’re Nationalist and Labour; the difference is only down to a party tribalism that comes from another age  – who quite frankly don’t have anyone to vote for in the next election. You might ask, what about Alternattiva? AD has existed for 30 years now. Its core manifesto has been adopted by both parties; most of the things they wanted done, have been done. But as a party, it never attracted enough attention from grassroots to ever form part of government. So people are looking for a new political formation…”

Perhaps, but then we must question why they should trust Farrugia’s party over AD… when both share very roughly the same political platform: at least, on the issue of corruption, governance, etc. 

Why would a new party be any more effective than AD in achieving what are ultimately the same political goals?

“In politics, unfortunately, there is the issue of perceptions. AD has had its share of success as a party: many of the issues they have been promoting have been addressed, precisely because AD brought them to attention. They have pushed a lot of their own agenda onto the manifestos of the two parties. That counts as success to me. Success in elections, however, is another thing. I don’t want to sound unkind, but AD has suffered too many defeats. It is too firmly associated with loss… the perception has stuck.”  

This brings us to the identity of the new political formation itself. So far, we still have no clear vision of where it will all lead. Farrugia has already pre-emptively warned that she cannot go into too much detail regarding who – apart from herself – will actually represent this party at the polls. But she has dropped hints as to its general political direction. She has described it as a left-leaning movement, which aims to attract mostly disillusioned Labourites…

“Well, what I have been saying from the outset is that this movement will try and do what is right…”

OK, but that is in itself rather vague…

“Agreed. But until now, we have traditionally always looked at issues strictly from a ‘for’ or ‘against’ perspective. Let’s take immigration as an example. People are either ‘for’ immigration, or ‘against’ immigration; either ‘for’ or ‘against’ integration. When I talk openly with people who clearly don’t agree with having refugees becoming part of our society, I explain to them that I am also ‘against’ immigration. I am against the forced displacement of people. I am against countries which instigate wars that cause mass evacuation of people from their homes. I am against huge industry – which has a budget bigger than any governments – which collectively causes climate change that displaces people. We all agree that we have to fight against immigration... but not by rejecting the poor people who come to us for help. We should tackle the cause, not the effect…”

Fair enough, but that only reinforces the earlier question. If you look only at what other parties say (as opposed to the policies they actually implement when in government)… they’d all agree with her on paper.

“That’s exactly my point. What I’m harnessing from all the discussion that is going on is that we need to do politics in a different way… to think outside the box… I know, I know… you’ve heard all this before…”

A few times, actually. This is Gonzi’s ‘new way of politics’, all over again…

“Well, I think it is about time we made it happen. And we can make it happen, if we believe in it…”

Therein lies the rub. Many people believed Gonzi in 2008, and many, many more believed Muscat in 2013. Why should we now believe Farrugia instead? In what way would her ‘new way of doing politics’ be any different from all the old ones? 

“It is different from inception. For the first time, all the people coming together to participate in discussions about politics do not come from any of the ‘traditional’ political backgrounds. I’m not at liberty to divulge names, but there are people involved in education, in sciences, in the arts… and no lawyers, yet,” she adds with a laugh.

Can she give us an idea of roughly how many we are talking about? “In terms of people directly contacting me, it’s hundreds. But then we have call groups, too. In most cases, it’s people looking for information, interested in getting to know who we are. Some people attended our first meetings, then never showed up again. It’s not easy to put a number to it. Don’t forget that this is not like a normal party… what we’re used to is a bunch of leaders who decide things from the top down. This is different. I am first getting people together in groups, and the party is finding its formation in these meetings. It is through informal discussion that we’re getting to know each other; and people can decide whether they want to participate in the creation of this movement, or not.”

At the same time however, this as yet unborn party has already faced criticism, and not just from the two major parties. One example of the criticism is that the approach being taken seems designed to appeal to a broad church of different (and often contradictory) points of view… a groundswell movement that is united only in their discontent with the two parties, but otherwise fiercely opposed on many other issues…

“I disagree that the only thing uniting the people is discontent with the two parties. There is also the desire for a different of way of putting politics into place… not just in the imagination, or in a manifesto, but in reality. People believe that things really can be done differently. That is why the scientific input is so important to us… we have people who are used to approaching problems from practical, professional angles. As a dentist, for example, I have patients who come to me with problems. I have to diagnose those problems, and act on them. If I don’t do that, that patient disappears...” 

In traditional politics, she quickly adds, the approach is often very different. 

“With a parliament full of lawyers – no offence to them, but that’s how it is – when we are faced with a problem, we discuss it, we debate it, we argue about it, we procrastinate, we postpone… we have 45 minute speeches, which could easily be delivered in one minute… That’s the kind of parliament we have. We don’t want that. We want to get the views of experts, consult the people, and then act on the problem. This is also why it’s taking us so long to form. We didn’t want to do things just for the sake of saying ‘we have a party’…”

At the same time, however, this party can only realistically be formed from castaways from the two major ones. Already – and admittedly unfairly, too – Farrugia’s movement has been laughed off as a motley crew of rejects. In the absence of any clear answer to questions about the new party’s identity… isn’t there a grain of truth to the criticism?

“I see it completely differently. Everybody is assuming that, if this political force takes off, it will be something small. I don’t assume that. Not because I’m a megalomaniac…”

Again, my facial expression must have given my thoughts away. No offence or anything, but it might sound slightly like megalomania, at least to some people... 

“I am not a megalomaniac,” she repeats… with a laugh, but firmly all the same. “I meet so many people who are genuinely disillusioned, who want something different… that I genuinely think this political movement might not turn out to be the small party everyone expects it to be. The way I see it, if we put our case across to the people properly, it might be a lot bigger than many expect. This is why it is clearly irking some people, who are already shooting us down. Because we can actually create the movement Joseph Muscat created, then destroyed because he didn’t make it work. I believe we can make it work. We are starting on the right foot. None of the people who have approached us is doing it for personal gain. They are all people who want to give something back to the country…”

Viewed from that angle, Farrugia’s big-time aspirations may not seem so unrealistic. Undeniably there is a widespread hunger for precisely the sort of change she outlines. But it doesn’t follow that groundswell discontent will automatically translate into support for the first new party on the block.

Add to this the fact that Farrugia herself is no newcomer to politics. She has militated with both Labour and PN, and for this reason alone, many (on both sides) have already accused her of ‘opportunism’. At the risk of repeating political propaganda, there has been an attempt to suggest that Farrugia’s motivations are mostly personal; that, having failed to obtain what she wanted from either Labour or PN, she was left with no option but to start a new political movement…

How does she respond to this criticism?

“The truth is: yes, I am disappointed by both parties. Yes, I did fail to get something that I wanted. I wanted clean governance, transparency and meritocracy, from both parties. I worked for that. An opportunist is someone who stays in a party even when that party betrays the people blatantly and openly… as long as they get something for themselves. That is something I will never do.”

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