Campaigning in a material world | Ralph Cassar

The political landscape has changed beyond recognition, but Alternattiva Demokratika – The Green Party [AD] still struggles to set its stamp on the national political psyche. Secretary-general RALPH CASSAR stands by his party’s record of 30 years of consistent ‘principles and values’

Ralph Cassar
Ralph Cassar

AD was founded in the last 1980s, yet to date has never registered more than 3% in terms of electoral support. Recent surveys suggest that its current support level is just over 1%. Yet we are arguably living at a time when there is more environmental awareness than ever before. Why does AD find it so difficult to tap into environmental angst?

Let’s go back to 2005/6, when there was the ODZ issue. Government had announced a revision of the development zones – not just an extension of the zones themselves, but also a relaxation of the building heights policy, etc. AD had organized a big campaign about it at the time.

But things started happening 10 years later… even now, a lot of the construction going on can be traced to those policies changes. I think that, back then, people didn’t feel there was a crisis, because they didn’t experience the effects of those changes first-hand. They weren’t as worried as they are today, because they saw nothing with their own eyes.

The same thing happened recently with the proposed developments in Attard. Residents asked us why we weren’t ‘doing anything’ about what was happening in their neighbourhood. The reality, however, is that we were talking about overdevelopment, and the need to protect Urban Conservation Areas, 10 years ago. And even now, many of those people will carry on supporting their traditional party – mostly the PN, in this case, as Attard is mainly a Nationalist locality.

The bottom line, I think, is that people don’t vote on matters of principle. Not everyone, naturally. But at a certain level, these concerns are not translating into political swings. And it’s not just about the environment. Even those Nationalists – to stick to the earlier example – who call themselves liberal sometimes ask why ‘their’ party would also be home to someone like Edwin Vassallo. To me, the answer is obvious. Because the PN is a centre right party which attracts that kind of ‘religious right’ support. But those Nationalists who want their party to become more liberal, keep hoping that the PN will change its ideology to suit them. Sorry, but it doesn’t work that way…

The idea that a political party can comprise two opposing ideologies also exists in AD, however. Take the abortion issue. AD is a pro-life party, yet it is home to people who have different views. And look what happened: when AD candidate Mina Tolu called for a national discussion on abortion… former chaiman Arnold Cassola left the party, etc. So isn’t this something that also affects AD?

Ironically, Arnold Cassola also said that he agrees with abortion, in cases where the mother’s life is at risk... while criticizing Mina Tolu for proposing a national discussion on abortion. But this is precisely why a discussion is needed. It would take an amendment to the law to make the necessary changes to that effect. And you can’t change the law without a discussion.

But yes, AD has an official position against abortion. The reality, however, is that people – especially the young, or those of a certain background and education – want to talk about the subject. A discussion is needed. I admit that I’m uncomfortable with the topic, myself; perhaps because of my age and upbringing. But the younger generation views things differently. They want to talk about it; and they’re right to want to discuss such issues. Malta is not the ‘special country’ it likes to think it is. This is a real social issue, and it needs to be discussed… because whatever you or I say: women who, for whatever reason, feel the need to terminate a pregnancy… they will do it regardless. Nobody can stop them… not Labour, not PN… least of all AD…

Nonetheless, AD is also a member of the European Greens, which, by and large, is a pro-choice grouping. Surely, AD’s pro-life policy stands out in European circles. How does AD justify its position with its European partners?

It does stand out. Not just with the Greens. Because this is the irony: all European parties agree that it is the woman who should decide. The Socialists, the Liberals, and – with few exceptions – the Conservatives, too. Angela Merkel, for instance [is pro-choice]. In Ireland, it was the Christian Democrats who called for a referendum on abortion, and campaigned in favour. This, too, shows how much we need a discussion about it here in Malta…

Do you think this issue is still being used to destroy AD (as, let’s face it, it has been used for years)? Did Arnold Cassola’s departure, weeks before a European election, damage the party?

I think it did damage the party, yes. Arnold Cassola might have been taking advantage of this national taboo to damage AD… but he alone knows what his motives were; I can’t speak on his behalf.  What I can say is that… egocentric individuals are a bigger problem for small parties, than for big ones. Each party has members who – how can I put this? – are perhaps a little narcissistic. Let me use that word. But in a small party, the effect is felt much more.

Let’s expand onto the other parties, then. I saw a correlative between Arnold Cassola’s departure, and the surprise resignation of Godfrey and Marlene Farrugia from PD. Meanwhile, the PN seems to be split down the middle. Like PD, AD has traditionally drawn its support base mostly from disgruntled Nationalists…

I would say ‘pale blue voters’. And I think it’s mostly because of our position in favour of the EU before the 2003 referendum. I think it comes from there. Because on the whole, it’s not as though our policies bore very much resemblance to the PN’s…

But the EU issue is finished now.  Which raises the question: why vote for AD today? Do you think those pale blue voters vote AD because they agree with your policies? And if so: does that mean that people who agree with your policies amount to only around 1% of the population?

I think most of the people who vote for us, do so because they have a certain set of values and principles - or whatever – and in AD, they see the party that most approximates what they believe in. Because the big, mainstream parties campaign more on the basis of what they can ‘give’ the voter once in power. Material things, basically. It is very difficult for us to campaign on materialistic things. Even If the big parties take on some of our agenda from time to time…

Actually, they’ve both taken quite a few of AD’s core issues on board…

Yes, but they don’t do a very good job of them, in my opinion. Let’s take climate change, for example. OK, so a climate emergency has been declared. But what has happened, in practice? New Zealand has just put a zero emissions target, by 2050, into law. What have we done? And If you look at what ‘Extinction Rebellion (XR)’ are doing in the UK, it is no comparison to what is happening in Malta…

Now that you mention XR: do you agree with their ‘disruptive’ sort of approach?

It’s an issue of strategy. Sometimes, the only way to get an issue onto the agenda – or to get things moving, at least – is to be disruptive. Maybe they can do it, because they’re a loosely defined organization. If a political party tried the same approach, it would look a bit… silly, for want of a better word. Although, when I was at Sixth Form and University, we protested by blocking roads, once or twice. It’s something that used to happen, but no longer does.  In Malta, there is a tendency to hold back; even among the young. I’m not sure why, myself…

You raise an important distinction between ‘political party’ and ‘NGO’. From the very beginning, there has been the argument that AD would have been more effective as a lobby group than a political party. Would you say that – today, with all these new NGOs being formed – there is some truth to that?

Not really, no. Because even when lobby groups campaign… sometimes, the issues they are promoting do get taken up by the mainstream parties; but it’s limited… and even then, it’s just lip-service they get, most of the time.  It’s the case of winning the battle, but only on one issue, and only for a short time.

Ultimately, lobby-groups and political parties might have the same objectives on certain issues; but they have different ways of reaching them. Personally, I think that – when it works, at least – politics is the most effective way of getting things done. We have lots of things working against us – the electoral system, and so on - but if you believe in something, you don’t give up so easily.

The electoral system is something AD has been complaining about for 30 years. Do you still think it is what holds people back… i.e., the old argument that ‘a vote for AD is a wasted vote?’

It’s certainly still part of the problem. But there is talk of a Constitutional convention now. And President George Vella seems to be serious about it. We had a meeting with him last Tuesday, as part of the ongoing public consultation. He said that a document will come out, containing all the proposals. So hopefully, things will start moving.

But at the end of the day, it’s Parliament that will have to approve, or not, a new Constitution. And neither Labour nor PN has made any public statements about what they want to see in this new Constitution…

What does AD want to see, when it comes to electoral reform?

Among other things, a party list system: which would also solve the problem of gender balance. The way they want to do it now, by just ‘topping up’, is not really a serious approach. It isn’t done anywhere else; and it’s really undemocratic, to just parachute people into Parliament, simply because they’re women. It’s important to achieve gender balance, yes; but it has to be done right… through a proper reform of the electoral system.

Earlier you mentioned ‘things that are working against AD’… does that include internal factors? Do you think there may be a problem with the ‘AD Brand’…?

With our values, you mean?

No, with the brand. How the public perceives the party…

Well, politics has become about ‘branding’ and ‘presentation’, there can be no doubt about it. I would say we do the best we can, with the limited resources we have. We don’t have the DB Group giving us E700,000, or anything like that. But, having said that… [laughing] E30,000 would be enough for us, if there’s anyone out there listening…

Joking apart: party financing is another issue AD has been complaining about for years. There has been a party financing law in the meantime; has it made any tangible difference?

When it comes to financing AD, we do receive small donations here and there. We have membership fees; which, at around E15, [sarcastic tone] are the highest membership fees of any party in Malta. But in the bigger picture, people – especially businesses - don’t donate money to political parties to promote ideas and values. In the main, they donate to get something back. Even with the party financing law in place. The DB story is a good example of this. The ‘donations’ were in lieu of adverts. That’s a way around the party financing law: by taking out adverts in a party’s TV station, instead of just giving it money. The way I see it, the big parties still have the advantage of being able to campaign on materialistic things – not to mention the electoral system, which, again, works against small parties anyway. We only have matters of principle to compete with. And to date, the materialistic approach has continued to work. Things might be changing slowly, however. But things take a very, very, very long time to change in Malta…

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