A time of reckoning | Dominic Fenech

The events of the past week have plunged Malta into a deep crisis. But how unprecedented is the current situation? Historian and dean of the Faculty of Arts, Prof. DOMINIC FENECH argues that while today’s crisis is unlike any other before it, it may yet redefine the Maltese political landscape in unforeseeable ways

Would you agree that Malta is going through a seminal historical moment right now?

Yes. It’s a time of reckoning. We have had a unique political situation now for two and a half years: since the last election, maybe longer. In electoral terms we have one of the most popular governments on record, yet one that has sustained unremitting attacks from diverse quarters, both local and foreign. Things are coming to a head, and hypotheses making way for evidence, hopefully, though until now we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg. I won’t venture a look into the future, but yes, this is bound to be ground breaking, though I can’t guess in what way. Hopefully we’re getting closer to a really new way of doing politics.

Yet Malta has often experienced political crises in the past. Is today’s situation different from the crises of yesteryear… and if so, how?

I don’t think there was ever a situation like this before. Past political crises involved party splits (the Mintoff-Boffa clash of 1949), political-religious conflicts (the imposition of spiritual penalties on Constitutional and Labour voters in the 1930s and the 1960s), conflicts with Britain (which underpinned the crises of the 1930s, 1950s and 1960s), electoral aberrations (1981-87), and internal party discord (2008-2013).

There is no precedent to a situation where a government party enjoying an unequalled popularity finds itself under siege due to investigations involving corruption and an assassination that would seem to be interconnected. Nor is there a precedent for so many resignations at once. Ironically, the current crisis has been brought about, at least in part, by the very architects of the party’s success.

Prime Minister Muscat’s intention to resign raises additional questions about whether the 2017 mandate is still valid, with Labour under new leadership. Do you think there is a need for a renewed mandate by general election?

Labour’s mandate is not tied to Muscat. Labour has a handsome parliamentary majority as long as it remains united. I’ll wager that the question that exercised Muscat’s mind was whether party unity was coming under threat if he stayed on. In the end it’s numbers that count.

The ongoing criminal investigation confirms the existence of a deeply entrenched relationship between politics and big business. To what extent, historically, has this relationship underpinned Maltese politics… and do you see it changing as a result of this week’s developments?

I’m not sure we needed the ongoing investigation to tell us that there’s an entrenched relationship between politics and big business. Earlier, during Mintoff’s time, the business class was kept on a tight leash, because the state took a leading role in the economy. For this there has been unrelenting criticism. The government then only supported those businesses that went into manufacture for export or in some way supported the country’s balance of payments.

Ever since socialism – as a practised ideology and electable programme – went out of fashion after the 1980s, the Labour Party, like the Nationalists, came to believe in the centrality of the business class to economic prosperity.

This neo-liberal approach, which has formed part of a universal trend since Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and gained momentum with the fall of communism, presumes that business people are the essential engine of the economy (which is a big discussion unto itself, of course). It would be short sighted to suggest that this is a phenomenon of recent years.

I don’t remember a time, for example, when someone wanting to build a hotel didn’t expect the government to donate premium public land for free. And then we graduated to a point where if you wanted to build a hotel you not only got premium public land but a permit to build on it scores of luxury apartments to boot.

The thing is, we’re locked into that economic model, and I don’t hear anyone saying we should change it. That said, we do need responsible and credible regulation, and in particular to look at the economy and society as one whole organism. Any part of that organism that grows at the expense of the whole should be restrained, which is, for example, what the environmentalist argument is partly about.

But to go slightly beyond your question, the problem of allowing big business a free run of the country has resulted in excesses that are pitting the very rich against the people, fattening the former and disinheriting the latter. This perhaps is what the Labour leadership should have kept in sight when evolving into a business-friendly party. Trickle down effect or not, society is composed of competing sectors and, if left uncontrolled, the strong will always win at the expense of the less strong. I mean, isn’t it ironic that the grassroots of the Labour Party, its genuine backbone, should have to grin and bear the political baggage of the greedy rich and mighty?

Meanwhile, the rise of civil society movements seems to be upstaging the traditional two-party model. For instance, the Nationalist Party’s cancelled a mass meeting scheduled this Sunday, suggesting that it has been overtaken by events. Do you agree, and if so, what does this portend for the future of Maltese politics? Could this be the end of the two-party system as we know it?

I find ‘civil society’ an ambiguous term in the context of current events. The protesters are a multifarious mix, including groups that rightly prefer to take their distance from politicians, like Graffiti, and doubtless a number of unattached individuals with a genuine craving for clean politics. But at its core there are the fringe Nationalist groups, foremost among which Repubblika.

As for the PN’s cancellation of Sunday’s ‘national protest’, the leaders of the ongoing protests did not want Adrian Delia to use the current situation to rally all the Nationalists behind him. Having taken the initiative out of the hands of Delia’s PN, the next logical step could well be to try and take back the leadership of the party. The schism that has beset the PN since the last election is an important sub-plot in the current narrative, with the actual government crisis acting as a catalyst. So as far as the PN is concerned the ongoing events may lead to a number of outcomes, including the formation of a second rival party.

One also has to see what’s going to happen in the PL. As I pointed out earlier, its unity is also to an extent going through a vulnerable phase, though I wouldn’t say it’s fragile, especially now that the causes of internal disagreement are easing. Anyway, we’re still far away from an election, or so it would seem, so we don’t know what would be the shape of the PN – or the PL for that matter – when the time comes.  

There has been a lot of talk about Constitutional reform over the years. On the basis of ongoing events, what do you think the most important changes should be? Does the electoral system, in its present form, promote a political patronage culture that makes corruption inevitable? And can a new party-financing regime lessen the dependence of political parties on big business, for example?  

Starting with the last bit of the question, I’m sceptical about the effectiveness of party financing legislation. The little legislation we have is flouted liberally, and anyway, business donors make their donations secretly, as only the beneficiary party needs to know they donated. As for the broader question of constitutional reform, some things do need looking into, because times have moved on since 1974.

But the electoral system? At the heart of our constitutions since 1921, we have the Single Transferable Vote (STV). Ironically this was imposed by the British specifically because it was believed to produce a multi-party system, as opposed to a two-party one. When the British imposed STV on Ireland, the only other country that uses it nationally, it produced the desired result. Over here it did so for the first years and then ended up producing two-party parliaments. Each time we had a new constitution, after a period of suspension, we’d start with several parties and eventually end with only two. So in the final analysis, unless the parties currently represented in parliament team up to produce a two-thirds majority to change that electoral system, it won’t change. And why would they have an interest in doing so?

As for patronage, I don’t know that you can attribute it to our political system. Tell me there’s no patronage in Italy. In Malta political patronage goes back in history to at least the time of the Knights. It did not disappear under the British. The state was always regarded as the succour of last resort. When we started to have our own elected governments, people started to turn to their politicians for patronage, instead of sending petitions to the lieutenant governor.

But there is hope; and it’s got nothing to do with the constitution, but with a change of culture, however gradual. I’d say there’s much less patronage today than there was 20 or 40 years ago. That’s probably because society is more affluent, hence people are less needy, and because the state occupies a less central part in people’s lives than before. What we have in our times, and this brings us back to the current state of affairs, goes beyond patronage. What we have is inordinately strong business groups that are allowed to ride roughshod over the common good. That turns the patronage argument a bit on its head, because people are feeling helpless in front of these groups. Why, not even politicians’ patronage is available to protect and empower them.

There will most likely be a PL leadership election in the coming weeks, and the victor will de facto become Malta’s new prime minister. What would you say is the most pressing task the new government will have before it?

Obviously to eradicate all traces of corruption: which is to say, corruption in the broadest definition of the word; to root out those elements and attitudes that corrupted the soul of the party, making it beholden to the prepotent and the rich. As long as these continue to wield influence, party and government will remain susceptible to the same pitfalls that have brought it to the present pass.

Tied to this is the environment, the greatest failure of this administration, amidst impressive economic performance, it has to be said. The elevation of business interests to a cornerstone of policy has given them free rein to seize Malta’s common birthright, from countryside to open spaces to heritage to shoreline to the very sunlight.

Whoever gets to lead the party must learn to put the people back at the centre of their policy. If it plays its cards right, the Labour Party may yet discover that the present crisis will have been a huge blessing in disguise, a win-win opportunity to govern well and govern long.