Let’s call a spade a spade

Historian and activist MARK CAMILLERI admits it’s hard to trust Labour on corruption today. But the party he identifies with is now in a unique position to undertake the necessary internal reforms

"If it takes Joseph Muscat to step down, so that Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi would go... I would say it’s a necessary development the party would have to go through."

Your comment on social media yesterday, to the effect that you are ‘disgusted’ by the latest developments concerning Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri, has been interpreted by some [eg. Manuel Delia, etc] as the beginning of a turnaround in Labour’s fortunes. ‘Even Muscat’s supporters seem to be realising that their leader’s critics have been right all along...’, etc. Is that an accurate reflection of what you meant by that remark?

Well, what I said was that: since there is now clear evidence that they [Mizzi and Schembri] have laundered money, it should be obvious that, first of all they should resign – that’s the least they could do.

And secondly; yes, that they should be investigated criminally. However, it must be said that right now, there is this narrative being perpetuated that there has been a breakdown of the rule of law; that this is all Labour’s fault; that Labour has brought Malta to the brink, etc.

The reality is that this is the same situation Malta has had for the past 30 years. So we have to call a spade a spade. It’s true that there is corruption in this government, and now it seems it is being proven through hard evidence.

But it is not true that Labour is part of this new hyperbolic development of the ‘collapse of the rule of law’. I would say that we went through even worse excesses in the 1990s, and at the turn of the century, when the PN was in government.

We can mention many scandals: the dry-docks, Mid Med Bank... the list would be endless. Of course, I would be in favour of addressing the situation. I would be very glad to have a police force which would start prosecuting these cases, and bringing politicians to court. But let’s call a spade a spade.

When Labour was campaigning against corruption during the 1990s, and at the turn of the century, there was a huge, persistent campaign to discredit Labour; to personally discredit Alfred Sant... the leader of the Opposition who was fighting corruption back then... and in fact, one of the people who was part of this campaign was Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Sorry: why would you expect, right now, that Labourites, all of a sudden, will start taking serious note of these issues... when you have created this environment yourself, and have been perpetuating this ideology of corruption for the last 30 years? Things don’t change that quickly, I’m sorry...

Sorry to butt in, but with the argument you’re making now, things will never change at all...

No, things will change... things can change for the better. However, if there is going to be any change at all, in a progressive direction, it will come from the Labour Party...

But hang on: the Labour Party is in power today. Why is this change not happening?

First of all, progressive change has always been brought by the Labour Party in government...

Not on this issue, it seems...

But now, the Labour Party is in a position to start addressing these issues in civic and ideology terms. Why? Because we have just defeated our common enemy – the Nationalist Party – by a landslide...

Whom do you mean by ‘we’, exactly?

People who support the Labour Party...

Do you identify yourself that closely with Labour?

Of course. I have a tribalist mentality as well... even though I am very critical of the people in power. But going back to the earlier point: now that we have defeated the Nationalists, now we need to sort out our own things.

We have plenty of time, and plenty of opportunity to do this.

Because the Nationalists are not a serious contender to the Labour Party in an election. They are not capable of being an alternative government. So we have the privilege to sort out the problems in the PL right now.

We couldn’t do this in an election campaign. Now, we can start bringing in changes to the Labour Party; to improve and to solve the problems that are now undermining the Labour Party in government.

There is a flaw in that reasoning, however. Earlier you pointed out that Mizzi and Schembri should resign. Now, that the PL has the perfect opportunity to affect the necessary changes. But the reality we’re all seeing is that... it isn’t happening. Muscat is still defending Mizzi and Schembri to this day...

It’s not happening right now because... it’s a struggle.

Look: one has to understand the mentality of the Labour voter. This is something which the media have ignored for many, many years. Even if our leaders are corrupt... OK?

Let’s say there are top politicians, in government today, who are corrupt. Once the English-speaking media, and the Nationalist party – and the elements which are related to the PN – will start attacking Labour on this point... automatically, the hardcore Labour support-base will be galvanised to support their party leaders who are under attack.

Even if there is insurmountable proof that they are corrupt.

But... how did we come to such a situation? We have arrived at this point because – and this is something that most of the English-speaking media do not understand – the working class, in this country, has been besieged and exploited, to a great extent, for so many years, that the only sense of security these people can have is in the Labour Party.

And this is not about nepotism: I’m sorry. This is about basic political survival. For example, you have the Archbishop, right now, persistently and constantly attacking the government.

He may be right on certain issues, but that is not the point. The Church has waged a ruthless war against the Labour Party, and the working class in general, to the extent that these people have been ostracised from society.

This is something we should speak about. The Church shouldn’t have the cheek to criticise Labour, when it did all those atrocities in the 1960s. The least it should do is apologise...

It is ironic to have to play ‘the devil’s advocate’ on behalf of the Church, but... it did apologise. Archbishop Joseph Mercieca apologised for the events of the 1960s: I remember him doing it...

It wasn’t a serious apology...

You mean he didn’t go down on his knees and grovel enough?

No. But there must be a serious, well-articulated apology that... [pause] you know, people don’t understand the suffering that the workers’ movement went through in the 1960s.

This must be spoken about. Because this is why Labour others think and act in this way. Once they are besieged, they will take the side of their leaders, no matter what.

Again, the media don’t understand this. I know stories from the 1960s, for example, about people who stopped making love to each other – I’m talking about Labourite married couples – because priests used to tell them that it’s a sin to make love to each other, and have children, because they were Labourites.

There are people who are still traumatised by these things, you know. How can you expect these people to, all of a sudden, turn their backs on their leaders, even if they are corrupt?

When these people have been besieged for so many years? This ‘siege mentality’ did not come from nowhere. But that is also why this is a good opportunity to start speaking about these things, and maybe even start criticising the party leaders.

Because time is passing; we have a very strong party, which can defeat the Nationalist Party once and for all...

But is the only objective of the Labour Party to utterly annihilate the PN? Isn’t that just a case of being permanently encamped in your own trenches?

[Pause] Yes. But now that we have achieved the objective of defeating the Nationalist Party... now, we have the privilege of being able to improve the  Labour Party, and continue delivering progressive change to society....

Why, then are we not seeing any significant change in the Labour Party right now? All we’re seeing is more of the same...

No, it is happening. Now, there will be a leadership race, and things will change. Joseph Muscat has already said he will be resigning, so now is a good time to lay the groundwork for the future of the party.

But Joseph Muscat is the only one who has declared he’s going to resign – not for any reasons connected with corruption, either – while the only two people who have actually been caught with their pants down are still in their positions today. Isn’t that just a case of Muscat taking the fall for two corrupt colleagues?

Well, first of all I think Joseph Muscat took the wrong decision in retaining those two people in power. There’s nothing justifying that decision. So I wouldn’t say he would be taking the fall unjustly, in that case.

As for Mizzi and Schembri, it’s not a given that they will remain, either. That’s the struggle which should be fought for. It’s a struggle for the future of the party...

Meanwhile, there are questions surrounding the ‘progressive agenda’ itself. As ‘Front Kontra c-Censura’ chairman, you have been criticised for being very active and vocal under the Nationalists... yet very silent on similar issues under Labour. It’s not as though freedom of speech is no longer under threat: apart from the obvious example (Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder) there have been attempts to shut down dissident voices... excessive lawsuits, posters pulled down overnight, etc...  a public broadcasting service that farcically distorts reality... Are you too close to Labour to criticise them on that score?

No. The Front Against censorship had very specific, very practical, legislative proposals. And once Labour was in government, Labour applied these reforms.

Not only that: Labour went even further in reforming libel laws, for instance, taking huge steps forward in that field. I would say the Front’s objectives in changing those laws, have been fulfilled.

But I should also remark that, yes, there has been corruption in the last five years. But in the last five years, Labour has also achieved great progress in terms of legislation, civil rights... even in terms of social development, such as childcare, etc.

And in the Labour Party, and government, there are a lot of people who are progressive-minded. A lot of good can come out of the Labour Party and government.

I’m not a cynical person who will say: ‘I will go back to the streets and protest’. Because... come on. The bottom line is that you need to take power. If you don’t take power, you cannot change things.

That’s how change is achieved: by taking power. Of course, a lot of compromises will have to be made in the process. But there’s no other alternative to it. The bottom line is, you have to take power...

OK, fair enough: but is there any reason why the PN should not look at things the same way, and conclude that... the only important thing is that WE’RE in power, and not them?

The Nationalists would do the same thing they have always done, every time they were in power. They will privatise things, take kick-backs...

The same could be said for Labour, from a different perspective. In the 1970s, Labour had a nationalisation policy, which often translated into simply wresting private businesses away from their rightful owners. How is it that you only see a danger in the PN’s rightwing ideology, and not in Labour’s entire history of left-wing extremism? Not to mention corruption: what position is Labour in, to talk about corruption after the 1970s and 1980s? How can we ever trust Labour again on that score?

We... right now, it is admittedly difficult to trust Labour on corruption. But once again, I would return to my previous point.

When the Labour Party was a lot weaker than it is today – when it was led by Alfred Sant, who waged a very consistent campaign against corruption... and he also proved it, in his two years in government: that is why he faced a lot of challenges, and a lot of interests putting spokes in his wheels.

But while Labour campaigned against corruption, there was a very huge and effective campaign to deride and discredit it. That is why it is very difficult for people like me to bring this argument back into the Labour Party. Because it hasn’t worked, for so many years.

Why should we do it now? That is mentality of the Labour hardcore. And they are right, you know.  They are right; they have a legitimate reason to think that way.

That is the reality. So it’s a struggle; but it is a struggle and a challenge that is now worth fighting for. We have won elections by a landslide, so the discussion will not compromise the Labour Party electorally in any way...

Would you say that ‘Joseph Muscat stepping down’ – which he said he’d do anyway – has become a necessity for this discussion to take place?

Well, I would say... yes. If it takes Joseph Muscat to step down, so that Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi would go... I would say it’s a necessary development the party would have to go through.

But I want to be a gentleman here... I want to give credit to Joseph Muscat for all the progress he has achieved on censorship, for instance; and even for his support for the book industry, especially, which has taken great strides forward in the past five years.

Whatever else he did, he still deserves recognition for that. But at the same time, we also have to move forward on other issues.