A grim view of power | Godfrey Farrugia

Former PD leader GODFREY FARRUGIA says his exit from party politics is not leaving the fledgling Democratic Party high and dry. But did he owe the PD the courtesy to stay on up until the election to help them gain traction?

Former PD leader Godfrey Farrugia
Former PD leader Godfrey Farrugia

Independent MP Godfrey Farrugia, now having resigned as the flag-bearer of the party he himself founded only two years ago, looks back at what he claims is his “turbulent political career”.

Farrugia, erstwhile Labour MP who followed his partner Marlene Farrugia’s exit from Joseph Muscat’s party into the PD, is proud of his political footprint and for having left his integrity intact in the process.

But with regard to life in politics, now fast approaching its expiry date as the MPs give notice of their last legislature, Farrugia says he experienced the grim reality of seeing idealists degenerating into puppets.

“I resigned from Partit Demokratiku so that fresh new faces could enjoy leading a clean-slate party without being potentially held back by a politician with a history,” Farrugia claims – who only last June as PD leader was outvoted by his own party’s candidate Camilla Appelgren in the European elections.

“It was a natural progression in the party’s evolution that I step down so that new leadership can spearhead a total rebranding of the party in the image the electorate requires it to be to vote for it. If PD was to have ample time to deconstruct and reconstruct itself so as to be a more popular force by the next general election, there was no time to waste.

“I have been stating for many months that for PD to be seen as a credible alternative – it must have a front bench of new faces backed by a potential backbench of other fresh faces. Since many potential contributors seem to be hovering on the flanks but never taking the step forward to participate openly in the political arena, where they are sorely needed, I thought it rational to remove myself, a politician with a history, from being a potential deterrent to the influx of these people,” Farrugia said.

Farrugia, a former health minister who lost his job in a Cabinet reshuffle to become Labour whip, says his biggest moment of regret was not giving a vote of no confidence to Konrad Mizzi, the then energy minister embroiled in the Panama Papers scandal, and eventually became the subject of an inquiry into Dubai company 17 Black.

He also claims he regrets not calling out Labour MP Joe Debono Grech for “his shameful behaviour in the House” where, among other things, he made a verbal threat of violence to Marlene Farrugia during a sitting.

Yet these are regrets which politicians are not remembered for, where the benefit of hindsight does little for the measure of a man.

“My moment of triumph was when I found the courage to walk away from the health ministry and refuse the social policy and environment portfolios as soon as I was certain that the trajectory that the executive was following was not in line with my way of doing politics,” Farrugia insists. “Throughout my professional and political career, I took great care to preserve my integrity.”

Partit Demokratiku was founded in 2016 after Marlene Farrugia had already exited the Labour Party on the back of mounting criticism of their environmental policies and the demerger of Malta’s planning and environmental regulators. Godfrey Farrugia joined right on the eve of the 2017 election.

“It was not the change of portfolio that tipped the balance towards deciding to leave the executive arm of government. It was the way government was handling accountability and transparency and the way that Keith Schembri, an unelected government official, seemed to set the agenda and hold sway over all decisions taken at the office of the Prime Minister.”

“The saddest thing in my political experience has been watching people I used to think were worth looking up to degenerate into puppets, giving up their dreams, to hold on to power,” Farrugia says, remembering his resignation letter to Muscat in which he lamented that some governmental directions seemed to border on the illegal as the OPM took more power for itself.

“With certain reforms founding new authorities, I expected that the politician would no longer be the centre of all things but this didn’t happen. It’s as if everything had to be controlled. The government was essentially a good one, but bad behaviour was not sanctioned in a timely manner… we lost our moral fibre,” he had written.

Farrugia says he joined Labour in 2013 thinking the so-called ‘Taghna Lkoll’ slogan was a break from partisanship. His own first foray into politics had been as an independent candidate for the Zebbug local council elections, where he was elected mayor with over 1,000 votes.

“This is what attracted me to join the Labour movement in 2013: the apparent resolve to take Malta to the next level and to do away once and for all with divide-and-rule politics. Unfortunately, it turned out to be only a propaganda smokescreen for Joseph Muscat and the Labour Party to gain power.

“I have learnt how fickle human nature is and how easily power causes humans to mutate into lesser, insignificant beings: empty versions of homo sapiens… I have served the country with complete loyalty, never giving in to the pressure generated by dirty manoeuvring within political parties or elements with huge interests outside them.”

Yet both Godfrey and Marlene Farrugia were popular MPs in their constituencies, and knowledgeable of the ‘partisan’ colour of Maltese politics, where parties live to serve interest groups that give votes, such as pyrotechnic associations and hunters, even when those demands are often at loggerheads with overarching demands for public safety or environmental sustainability.

“It is totally possible if one keeps the country and the people truly in the centre of political decisions,” Farrugia says when asked whether politics in Malta can be truly removed from the partisanship of its many tribal loyalties. “The sad truth is that once elected into parliament, many politicians become ready to trade their absolute loyalty to the country for a bigger chance in parliament or the executive and to secure their standing in their respective parties.

“We never had such strange tendencies,” Farrugia says of him and his partner. “We peaked very early in life in our respective professions, entering politics only after we had achieved that, and became financially secure. Our sole intention was to do our utmost to ensure that those who come after us enjoyed the same or even better opportunities to succeed and be happy in their own country like we did. For us it was always country before party, even if we knew that meant potential marginalisation.”

And Farrugia also strikes a tone of confidence in his accomplishments with PD, despite having given notice of his services.

“We feel that our mission has been fully accomplished because not only have we remained unwavering in our political approach, but we have left the seed for a new political movement to thrive and grow. Of course, that will only happen if less narcissists and more altruists join the political trail.”

But the Farrugias’ successful re-election as MPs for the small PD in the snap elections of 2017 was only made possible by running their party candidates on the same list as the Nationalist Party’s, ensuring the swift re-election of Marlene Farrugia, and of Godfrey Farrugia by casual election.

“Dire political situations created by an establishment cannot be solved by the same establishment that created them,” Farrugia says, explaining the need for a coalition with Simon Busuttil. “It was an attempt to dilute that establishment and steer Malta away from stale politics towards the fresh politics promised in 2013, and never delivered.

“In a scenario where a PN leader who shared our mind-set had prevailed, the coalition would have been as effective in Opposition as would have been a PN-PD government been elected. Unfortunately, we consider the current PN leadership as toxic as the government leadership, and therefore we cannot create the synergy we would have wished to create.”

PD’s evolution was largely stunted in this piggy-backing on Nationalist votes: a host of prime movers have left since then, and now Godfrey Farrugia resigned as leader almost as fast as he was appointed PD leader, floundering in the European elections, apart from the party having never presented an ideologically coherent proposition. Are not the Farrugias’ resignations a clear statement that PD will not be making it to the House in the next election?

“Marlene had stated in more than one interview that she will stand for only two terms. She believes that fresh faces bringing fresh ideas and attitudes is necessary for a healthy democracy. She only contested a third legislature because of an unprecedented turn of events which demanded her participation. It was always the case that Marlene would pursue other interests which she had to sacrifice while she was bringing up her children as a single parent, setting up a business, practising her profession and contributing as a constant front liner in politics.

“As far as I am concerned, it is common knowledge among my closer circles that after surviving two cancers I would retire at 61, to live closer to nature and dedicate myself entirely to gardening and writing.”

Still, the Farrugias are leaving the PD midway through a race that, politically speaking, needs their steam in the House. Didn’t they owe this fledgling party the courtesy of staying on right before the next election? After all, they were elected in 2014 in good faith with no real political baggage dragging the party down… it almost seems they are abandoning ship when they are most needed.

“In politics time is of the essence. If Partit Demokratiku is to metamorphose and to construct and deconstruct itself, the political party which would create a real alternative for voters come next elections, needs to do that now and not on the eve of a general election.

“The MEP results confirmed that the necessary changes/ influx within PD could not happen under my leadership. Therefore, the rational thing to do was to bow out completely, to give PD a real chance of undergoing the necessary upheaval.”

The leadership role of Partit Demokratiku remains vacant, but Farrugia believes that the 2.03% of the vote garnered by PD in the 2019 MEP elections is a seed that has been sown to take the party to the next level. “With Labour mired in scandals and the Nationalist Party in chaos, the 2019 MEP election served as a timely testing ground for the progress, if any, that PD was making under my leadership,” he said, adding that though PD was a fledgling political party, the results were not encouraging.

Indeed, despite being an MP and party leader, Farrugia was unable to get more votes in the MEP elections than another – now former – candidate, the Swedish clean-up activist Camilla Appelgren. Did that affect his decision to resign? Farrugia’s reply is a terse acknowledgement.

“Appelgren’s vote confirms that the country is in dire need of a truly liberal party.”

And perhaps that liberal party was not the PD that seemed forged in the image of the Farrugias – pro-life, suspicious of the morning-after pill, and more likely to be closer to their parochial loves of festa fireworks and the hunting fraternities from their beloved districts of Zebbug and the Maltese south.

Godfrey Farrugia says he is not abandoning political life, even though just under two years later, his time at the PD is surely over.

“I will remain involved in a public capacity with the aim of seeing the Maltese community thrive. One does not need to be in a political party to call oneself a politician… Malta’s political atmosphere is a toxic one and one in which it is easily to become hooked on, losing the faculty to operate from a free space in the process. My advice to young, aspiring politicians is to dream big for their communities and country, and be prepared to work hard and selflessly to achieve those dreams. But do not lose yourself in that process.”

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