Taking it to the next level | Miriam Dalli

Labour MEP Miriam Dalli is working hard on her re-election campaign, and also to ensure that Maltese women get the same opportunities – in Maltese politics, and elsewhere – as men. But are those the only targets she has set for herself?

Labour MEP Miriam Dalli
Labour MEP Miriam Dalli

You are about to launch your official campaign, under the slogan: ‘The Next Level’ [Malta: il-Livell Li Jmiss]. According to the Labour Pary’s current slogan, Malta is already at the ‘Best Time Possible’ [L-Aqwa Zmien]. Put those two slogans together, and… isn’t there a contradiction? If this is the best it can ever be… how can there be a ‘next level’ to go to?

My experience has taught me that, even if you believe you are at a very good level already, you always have to keep looking forward, and have the ambition to always improve. That is my intention. If you look at Malta’s economic situation today, compared to the situation before 2013 – when we often used to talk about the deficit, unemployment, and so on – today there has been a huge leap forward. Today, we are talking about a surplus; people do have jobs…. to the extent that we are now talking about improving salaries and conditions... and this, to me, is where the ‘next level’ comes in. When I visit companies, they tell me that one of their biggest headaches at the moment is manpower. They are not finding enough people for the jobs that need filling…

So much so, that we are now importing workers from overseas…

Yes, but even that doesn’t always address the issue. Recently, for example, I visited Maypole [a bakery] and the owner’s idea – which I think is very positive – is to encourage students, through courses at Mcast, to once again start picking up traditional crafts and trades: in this case, to bake Maltese bread, pastizzi, ftira, etc… so that he can employ Maltese workers who have been trained. So yes, we do still need to look forward. It is, in fact, for this very reason that we can afford to talk about a ‘next level’: because today, the country’s economic foundation is on secure footing. If it wasn’t secure, I wouldn’t even dream of talk about ‘where I’d like to go’. But today, with things as they stand, and after five years’ experience in the European Parliament, I feel it is my responsibility to step forward with a vision. I want people to look at that vision, and tell me if they agree with it, or think it needs improving here or there. This is why I asked people to tell me what they think are the priorities I should be focusing on. I could have a hundred and one ideas… but at the end of the day, people live their everyday lives in different realities…

Perhaps, but… what is the ‘next level’, anyway? Where do you think Malta has to focus on, primarily?

For me, the next level is about the environment: cleaner air, less noise pollution. It is also about standards. If there is construction next door… why should I suffer the effects of dust, non-stop noise… why shouldn’t there be more enforcement in this regard?

If you do any house visits in my neighbourhood, you’ll be hearing a lot about that…

I’m sure. Another issue is that, while it is good that more people are working and earning money, we have to ensure that they also get to spend time with their families. That there are places they can go to with their families: to have a picnic, to spend time away from the stress of work or family life. Some people may consider these as ‘micro-issues’… but if we are going to make a quantum leap forward in the environment, that, to me, links directly with mental health. Why are we in a situation, today, where so many more young people suffer from mental health issues? Could it have something to do with the lack of opportunities for families to spend time together? Anoth-er question is, why are we still in a situation today – in 2019 – where women are paid less than men for the same work? I would like to reach a state where the salary disparity no longer exists. These are the things I would like to focus on…

The issues you mention can also be described as the ‘price to pay’ for economic success. The construction boom, for instance, is directly related to an increase in population on account of the demand for foreign workers. So is the increase in rental prices, and all the related social issues. Are you hinting, then, that in focusing on the economy – and cultivating a ‘pro-business’ image – the Labour Party has lost sight of its primary vocation as a Socialist movement?

Any country is always in a state of flux. No country stays still over the course of a year. And any changes will bring about other changes, that also have to be catered for. So, I wouldn’t say it is a ‘price to pay’. I would say that the country is moving forward economically… so let us make sure that there aren’t any negative consequences. After all, within the Labour Party, we don’t go around saying that everything is champagne and roses [ward u zahar]… the rent issue is a case in point. Just because the country is doing well, it doesn’t mean that all families are doing well, too. Obviously, some will be struggling. And it’s not always just economic issues. We have more and more families where the parents are separated. We need to look at the effects it may have on the children. That family where the child is brought up by the grandparents, who can’t help them with homework… we need to see that those children have all the support they need. Because otherwise, 10 years down the line, we will ‘lose’ those children. That’s not what I want. Ten years down the line, I want children who are geared up to have a career in which they are happy, that earns them money, that allows them to maintain their families… that is the kind of shift I’d like to see. That is why we need policies to address these ‘vacuums’ that are coming to the surface.

It’s a choice. Either I’m going to say, ‘Can’t be helped, we have a chauvinist culture’… or I’m going to try and do something about it

Let’s talk about gender disparity. Leaving aside salaries and quotas for the time being: there seems to be a disparity also in perception and public reactions. President Marie-Louise Coleiro recently spoke about being ‘criticised for being a woman’… and there are many examples of other women being singled out for gender-based dis-crimination, in a political environment dominated by men. How seriously does this affect women in Maltese politics today?

It is a reality: I have faced it myself. When I contested my first election – considering that, at the time, I was known only from television – nobody said that was because I had a law degree, or that I was the first female news editor on Maltese TV. They said it was because I read the news on One… besides a lot of other ‘comments’. But I had a choice: I could have either kept complaining about the situation, and do nothing about it; or do something about it, and try to prove my critics wrong. I took the second option. Another thing I remember about that first election was that, at the time, my son Jacques was about five months old. A male colleague of mine had a baby of just two months. I remember us standing side by side, at a campaign event, and people would ask me: ‘But your children: how are you going to take care of them, now that you’re in politics?’ They asked that to me, not to the man standing next to me who had an even younger child. But then… [shrugs] I am also aware that that is the culture. I’m not happy about it; but again, it’s a choice. Either I’m going to say, ‘Can’t be helped, we have a chauvinist culture’… or I’m going to try and do something about it.

This is, in fact, the driving force behind your LEAD campaign. Am I right in saying that it is aimed at increasing female participation in politics?

The idea behind LEAD is precisely that I agree with what you said earlier about Maltese politics being ‘dominated by men’. Politics in general – irrespective of Labour or Nationalist Parties – is male-dominated. But this is not because there are no capable women. There are plenty of capable women. But perhaps they haven’t been given enough opportunities to get involved…

Or perhaps they don’t want to, precisely because of all the stress and criticism they will be going in for…

I wouldn’t say so. Does a man hold back just because he’s criticised? It depends of his character, no? The only difference is whether women are exposed to more criticism just because they are women. I think they are, but it’s no reason to hold back. And besides, the moment you prove yourself… that perception changes. Plus, you also reach a stage when you start taking such criticism in your stride. But I do believe that the more female role models we have, the more we will achieve gender balance in representation. To me, it is not a matter of simply getting more women into Parliament, and by how many. To me, it is that Maltese society is made up of men and women. Why shouldn’t Parliament be composed of the same balance? It is supposed to represent Maltese society, after all…

But the composition is determined by a popular vote. Not that this reflects my own opinion, but… if the electorate voted for those candidates, and most of them are men… isn’t their vote binding? Can we go messing around with the election result, to ensure that more women get elected?

I can’t agree with that. If the people are given an adequate choice to choose from, the people will choose accordingly. At the last European election, for instance, 25% per-cent of the candidates were women… compared to around 11% in the 2017 general elections. If the people are not being given a choice… how are women going to get elected? And if a party fields women candidates only on the eve of an election, and just to make up the numbers… and these women haven’t been coached or trained, they don’t know the ins and outs of politics, and nobody knows who they even are, still less what they stand for… how are people going to vote for them? That is the basic idea behind LEAD. I believe that, if we are to give equal opportunities to women to enter politics, we will not only get more female candidates, but also more female MPS. Because given a choice, the people will vote for women more. I am convinced that the end result would be much better.

At the same time, however, that is not the system currently being proposed. Government is toying with a quota system, which targets the election result… not the number of female candidates…

Originally, I didn’t agree with quotas. I saw it as a sort of tokenism. Why should a woman be elected just because of a quota mechanism? And people would also remind me that I got there on my own steam. And… yes, granted, I got there on my own steam. But I started out in politics, with Labour’s Forum Zghazagh Laburisti, when I was only 15/6. Politics has been part of my life all this time. And I had expo-sure through television. But I can’t expect a woman coming out for politics today, with no prior experience and no public exposure, to just get elected, like that. And generally speaking, the attitude always used to be: ‘Oh look, the campaign’s about to begin, we don’t have enough women candidates. Let’s run around and try and find some.’ That’s not the way to do things. But back to quotas: the issue, as I see it, is that… we are in 2019, and when you look at the paltry number of women in parliament – even though I feel that the quality of female MPs, across the board, is very high – I feel we need something to shock the system. Not a permanent measure: but something that is introduced to shock the system, only for a short while, to ensure that women do get role-models. Because this, I think, is what will make the difference. I have seen it with my own eyes: even the fact that last President was a woman. I have heard young girls say that they had a role model to look up to. And at the end of the day, it will not just benefit Maltese women, but Maltese society as a whole.

On the subject of role models: there is a lot of speculation concerning the post-Joseph Muscat scenario. Do you intend to contest for the position of party leader when (or if) he steps down?

In first place: I don’t want to entertain, in my discussions, any ‘post-Joseph Muscat scenario’… because I believe he should stay. I’ve made this clear a number of times. The only election I am campaigning for, and working very hard at, is the European election. Whatever happens after that, my first priority is for the Labour Party to remain united. I have been active in the Labour Party for a long time now. I went through a phase when the Labour Party wasn’t united; I know what the consequences were. I also lived through the time when Joseph Muscat managed to unite the Labour Party. And as long as a party like the PL remains united… it will be good for the party, but also good for the country. So whatever happens, I want to carry on working within a party that is not lost in internal divisions… but can keep taking Malta forward, and remain united. Irrespective of any future role I play in it… this is my number one priority.

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