Liberty once again under threat | Dione Borg

Author, journalist and Nationalist Party candidate for the European election, Dione Borg argues that in different ways, Malta once again faces a political struggle against tyranny and oppression

Dione Borg
Dione Borg

A Sunday Times poll places Labour’s support at 59%, versus 37% for the PN. This broadly echoes our own surveys, and also the European Commission’s prognostications. There seems to be a sense of resignation to this fate, too… as though the PN has thrown in the towel, before even stepping into the ring. This is not the same PN that I remember from the 1980s and 1990s. Where has all the fighting spirit gone?

People who, like me, have been active in the Nationalist Party since the 1980s, do see a difference. Unfortunately, the PN did not succeed in reforming, or updating itself, to remain the party it always used to be. But I believe that the party will do more to attract more people in future: young people, people of integrity, people who are honest and credible. I believe that these people – who look at politics as a mission, or a vocation: call it what you will – will once again see the Nationalist Party as a vehicle for their concerns. But I also think that young people, in particular, are losing interest in politics altogether. Which is a pity. When I was young, it was the other way around. Young people were engaged, involved… the sensation was, ‘you had to be there, to be part of the change’. Today, young people seem to feel no connection with politics at all. And I think that today’s generation of politicians bears some responsibility for this. Politicians have not always set the best example: without being partisan, the present government is not sending out the right message, in the way it deals with certain politicians, to young people who might be interested in entering politics. It is a situation that affects both parties, and the PN suffers from it too…

By the same argument, however, the PN should be reaping the benefits of the government’s loss of trust. Yet polls indicate that Labour’s trust ratings have grown, while the PN keeps trailing far behind. How do you account for this?

One of the shortcomings of the PN in recent years is that we didn’t always acknowledge the changes that were taking place in society. So ironically, despite having been the party that revolutionised the country’s institutions after 1987, and steered the country in the direction of EU membership – and whatever flaws we may have had, I believe we changed this country a lot, in a positive way – we reached a point where we no longer recognised that society had continued changing. We no longer projected that image of a ‘fresh’ party, always at the forefront of all the major challenges. But still, I don’t agree that we lack the necessary motivation. I still see fighting spirit in the Nationalist Party. Recently the PN set up a new youth branch, called ‘Future Leaders’… and you might tell me, so what? Another internal party structure? But believe me, there is a lot of enthusiasm. It has 70 members so far… is that a little? A lot? I don’t know, but I can assure you they’re engaged and involved. Now: the Labour Party has its own equivalent. I’m not saying we invented anything new.  And I don’t even think we’ll manage to hold onto all those 70 members, in the long term. But some of them will stay. And if you don’t even try to attract youngsters, you will have nothing…

But the problem may have more to do with present leaders, rather than future ones. A few days ago, Nationalist MP Ivan Bartolo gave a speech in parliament, which – without mentioning names – underscored that the party’s credentials have been tarnished as a result of that meeting with Yorgen Fenech. Jason Azzopardi tweeted the same thing, only much more explicitly, some days before. Let’s face it: a substantial portion of the party rank and file have simply not accepted Adrian Delia as leader. Would you agree?

It is clear that there are differences of opinion within the party. What I see positive in this, however, is that on the fundamental issues, there is no division. That we are a party against abortion, for example: there is no division on that. On policies and principles, the party is united. On issues like when life begins, and the need to protect all human life from conception, to natural death…

OK, but issues such as abortion are extremely specific, and represent only a fraction of any political party’s full spectrum of interests. Is the PN united on anything else, apart from embryo protection? 

It’s an important issue, though. It might not be to everyone, but the protection of human life, in all its stages, is essential to us, as the Nationalist Party. The Labour Party, on the other hand, has internal differences of opinion on the issue [abortion], and you don’t really know where you stand with it. But yes, we also have to acknowledge that – just as Labour had its own internal differences, such as between Sant and Mintoff in 1998 – there will always be these currents, after an electoral defeat. If I denied the existence of these currents, I would only be deceiving the public. People don’t like that. Besides: Nationalist MPs are speaking up about it in public; so it is inevitable that journalists such as yourself will ask questions. For that same reason, however, I would say that these MPs – or candidates, activists, whoever – have an obligation to offer stability to the party. Because you can’t draw up policies, especially at European level, when there is instability within the party. The Nationalist Party had spent all those years as Malta’s most stable party: offering the people peace of mind that, whatever its other flaws, the PN could guarantee stability in the country. So today, the first and most important thing we have to do – as PN candidates, MPs, or exponents at any level – is restore that platform of stability. Only then can we move forward. And this process has begun. But if anyone thinks that there’s a magic wand you can wave, and simply bring all dissenting opinions together and make them agree… no, it doesn’t work like that.

There is an irony here, as the PN is often criticised for trying to bring about instability (when in Opposition, anyway). Its MEPs have projected the image of a ‘Mafia state’ where there is no freedom of expression, and the rule of law has collapsed. First of all: isn’t this a slight exaggeration?

No, it’s not an exaggeration. It’s not just the Nationalist Party that is saying those things. Every European institution has said them, too. To me, this is a problem that the Labour government has brought upon itself… I don’t want to sound partisan, but that is how things are…

As far as I’m concerned, you’re entitled to be as partisan as you like. You are, after all, a Nationalist Party candidate…

Still, I don’t like having to talk in partisan terms. It bothers me, to be honest. But in this case, the Labour Party is talking as though Malta’s international image depends on what the Nationalist Party says. That’s obviously untrue. If the Labour government is criticised over Malta’s rule of law situation… it’s not coming just from the PN, or the EPP. It’s coming from the European Socialists. From the OECD. Transparency International. GRECO. These are not entities that take their orders from the Nationalist Party. The reality is that the Labour government has a problem. In the past, it used to shackle freedom through aggression. Today, I would say that… yes, once again we have a problem of liberty, and democracy, being under threat. The Opposition has for years been asking for a Police Commissioner agreed to by both sides. Or for the appointments of the Attorney General, judges and magistrates, and so on…

The Nationalist Party also spent 25 years in government, and took Malta into Europe without enacting any of the reforms you mention. So once again: how credible is the PN on this front?

I’m not saying the Nationalist government was perfect. We made mistakes. To me personally, my biggest disappointment remains that we never solved the cases of Karin Grech and Raymond Caruana. I feel let down by this, even because I investigated those murders myself… and especially because those cases remain an open wound to this day. How is it even possible, that all these years later, the President of the Republic sill mentions those murders in his inaugural address? To me, it proves that… we failed. We failed. No doubt about it. [Pause] But to answer you on the issue of credibility… how can the Opposition party not criticise? How credible would we be if we kept quiet? Today, when you watch TV, or read comments online, you often hear people say: ‘Because the Nationalists are going abroad and damaging Malta’s reputation’. Sorry, but… who is ‘Malta’? Is Malta… Konrad Mizzi? Is Malta… the corruption of the Labour government?

But it is not just ‘Konrad Mizzi’ or the government that will bear the brunt of the damage. What if we lose our right of veto, because the European Parliament votes to invoke Article 7? Speaking of which: do you agree with Sven Giegold, that it should?

No, I disagree completely…

Why? You yourself only just argued that ‘democracy and liberty are under threat’…

But that doesn’t mean that steps should be taken against Malta. No, no, no…

It was ‘yes’ to Poland, though. Any reason why steps should be taken against Poland, but not against Malta, when you’re arguing we’re guilty of the same crime?

But the people who are damaging Malta are the ones who opened accounts in Panama… not the ones who criticise those accounts. And this is what all the criticism is saying too. The IMF, the EP committees, and all the other entities: they don’t just repeat what the PN tells them. They come here, they hold meetings with all the regulators, and then they publish reports. And one after another, all the reports say the same thing. So, who really is damaging the country?

This brings us back to the poll projections for this EP election. It’s my interpretation, but those dismal projections could also be a reflection that the PN’s strategy is backfiring. All this constant negativity is inducing electoral fatigue. Would you agree?

Not really, no. The polls are what they are… but I don’t think the issue we’re talking about has much to do with it. To me, the result of any election should be a reflection of good policies, that offer solutions to the country’s problems: housing, pensions, social issues, and so on. At present, the Nationalist Party is still in the process of trying to win back public confidence. The process has begun, as I said… but the polls tell us that we are not there yet.

Regarding your own campaign: you recently made a video-blog in Hamrun, Marsa, and elsewhere, highlighting the residents’ concerns with (mostly African) immigrants. I will not play the racist card, because – quite frankly – it is altogether too easy… but there is an another angle to this. Companies like Farsons have declared that, without immigrants to fill up jobs for which there is no local supply, they would have to close down. How does your policy vision fit into that equation? What, exactly, are you proposing here?

I’m glad you asked me this question, because it’s a subject that I feel strongly about. It’s also an issue that crops up all the time on house visits. First of all, I will never accept that the Nationalist Party has ever been racist. We have always believed that the refugee from Iraq, who ended up coming here on a rickety boat, has to be helped. Not just because of our international obligations; but because he’s a human being. The Labour Party, on the other hand, reasons differently. Let’s not forget that Joseph Muscat promised to enact a pushback policy…

I haven’t forgotten that; but nor have I forgotten that the Nationalist government mass-deported over 200 Eritreans, despite warnings that they faced the threat of torture and execution on return. Sorry to be blunt: but people who remember these things may find it a bit rich, to hear you complain about immigration only now…

But there was a difference: the Eritreans went through the asylum process, and they were not given refugee status. I admit that, with hindsight, it was wrong to deport them… but it remains a fact that the Nationalist government abided by international law and procedure in that case.

Muscat’s pushback proposal was also for failed asylum seekers, but I don’t want to get sidetracked into individual cases. What I’m asking is: you seem very quick to voice popular concerns about immigration… but what are you actually proposing to do about those concerns?

My position on immigration is this: I believe we should help these people, from top to bottom. I believe we should pursue a process of integration. And I’m proposing that… the European Union has funds for lots of things. For students, for farmers, for fishermen, for this, for that… but it has no funding for communities – not just in Malta, but in Cyprus, Spain, wherever – which are suffering from large influxes. There is no particular programme for places like Marsa. What I propose is that the government invests directly in those localities, so that what is viewed as a burden today, will be viewed as a benefit. The EU could make funds available for that purpose. Apart from that, we also have to look at the economic policies of the present government. This government has adopted a policy of quantity over quality; and is importing foreign workers by the thousands…

… but if local industry is telling you they need workers by the thousands?

We are not only importing what we need, however. This is where I criticise the government most, in fact: where there is need, I have no issue with importing foreign labour. But we are getting people who are accepting lower wages and unacceptable living conditions, with the consequence that, instead of raising the standard of living for everyone, we are lowering it. Because the government is concentrating only on certain sectors like construction, which involves mass-employment… and this is part of the problem. Nationalist governments made their fair share of mistakes… but no one can deny we also created a lot of new sectors and economic niches after 1987. Labour is not doing this. If, God forbid, something happens within the construction sector… God knows what will happen to this country. 

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