Inside the PN’s youth wing, liberal voices say they feel free to disagree

Emma Portelli Bonnici has a clear view of what her generation talks about, and says her difference of opinion on issues such as sexual and reproductive rights is tolerated

MZPN secretary-general Emma Portelli Bonnici
MZPN secretary-general Emma Portelli Bonnici

An unstoppable wave of feminist political affirmation in Malta has found a home in all political parties, even at the Nationalist Party.

People like Emma Portelli Bonnici, the secretary-general of the PN’s youth wing MZPN, refuse to shy away from the one-time taboo subject of sexual and reproductive rights, even while the the PN touts itself as a resolutely ‘pro-life’ party.

“Obviously, it’s an issue I feel very strongly about, and I’ve never felt the need to hide the fact that I am pro-choice: not even from the party. I respect their views… even though they are completely in opposition to mine,” she told MaltaToday in an interview last Sunday.

“But when it comes to abortion, the situation in Malta is slightly different, in the sense that… we’re tiny; and we also tend to divide ourselves. Personally, I don’t believe that society’s lines are drawn into such blanket ‘pro-life versus pro-choice’ terms. The issue is more complex than that.

“But I also feel that there is so much else to be done, in the sexual health department, that there’s no need to start with legalizing abortion. There are so many other minor things that we do agree upon: like, for example, better sexual health, and more access for young people. The fact that the GU clinic was closed – or if not ‘closed’, accepting very few appointments, with waiting lists of over two months, or more – is not acceptable, in a 21st century European country. Especially during a pandemic. We already know that the pandemic has had an impact on mental health; just imagine the added anxiety, of having to wait two months to be tested for a possible STD…”

In the past the PN has often used the abortion issue to smear rival politicians, but Portelli Bonnici says people in the party have been respectful in their disagreement. “In fact, I feel it’s almost encouraged: because having different opinions makes for a much more interesting discussion, than only ever talking to people who agree with you 100%.”

She laughts at being asked whether anyone within the PN ever called her a ‘baby-killer’, or a ‘murderer’, for her views. “No. If anyone called me a murderer, the conversation would have ended there, and I’d have walked away. Because I no longer have the patience for these things…

“I also feel that, ensuring there is a pro-choice perspective – when decisions are made, when policies are discussed – is always important. I know, for instance, that as secretary-general of MZPN, I’m not going to be the one to introduce abortion in Malta… but I also know that, having my opinion expressed within the party, we are more likely to talk about, for instance, sexual health: a conversation we might otherwise not have had at all.

“So no, the fact that I have different views has never been a problem. In fact, I enjoy those conversations. You’d be surprised to hear that it is often the least likely, most unthinkable people who will afterwards come up to you and say: ‘I see your point, ta…’ And when it happens… I feel like I may at least have made a small difference…”

Portelli Bonnici, a lawyer, had supported the first wave of dissent inside the PN to force former PN leader Adrian Delia to a confidence vote in the process that led to a leadership election.

She has spoken of a generation that is exhausted at “reading the news every day” as Malta gets submerged under over-development or dealing with allegations of corruption. “It has reached a stage where, to monitor the incredible destruction of our environment, and to fully understand what’s happening every day… it’s a full-time job. You can’t even keep up with what’s being lost, on a daily basis… every single day, it’s either a new corruption scandal; or a new case of Labour using civil liberties as a smokescreen – which they love doing: and it’s incredibly upsetting, to the people who are actually involved… and on top of everything, the constant destruction of the environment.”

She admits the PN has made its own mistakes on immigration, but has taken issue with the discourse employed by Prime Minister Robert Abela and the use of his ‘full-up’ rhetoric.

“I don’t like to be overly negative… but just yesterday, I watched a show on TVM, featuring an interview with Robert Abela. And even just the way he talks about migrants – I find it so… problematic. So abhorrent, that he thinks he can say those words on national television; and there are no repercussions. And then, in the next sentence, he talks about ‘xenophobia’… when he himself is the one adding fuel to the fire…

“But Robert Abela is not the only one talking about immigration in those terms. It wasn’t that long ago that a NET TV journalist stood outside the ‘Bangladesh Food Shop’ in Hamrun, rousing ill-feeling towards ‘foreigners taking Maltese jobs’…

“I don’t deny that mistakes were made in the past: and I sincerely feel that all PN representatives need to be more sensitive about this issue. But by sticking to past examples, we will never be able to move forward. Unless we learn from those mistakes, and at least start trying to move in a different direction, things will never change at all…”

Portelli Bonnici said the reality was there was nothing Malta could do “politically” to stop asylum seekers from coming here without breaching international law. “While there may be no ‘cut-and-dried’ solution: there are definitely things you can avoid doing, so as not to exacerbate the situation. You do not add racist sentiments, to a country that is already being ravaged by xenophobia. Adding fuel to an already blazing fire is not going to benefit anyone. It won’t help anyone living in ‘hotspots’; or anyone who cares about immigration as an issue, one way or the other. Still less will it make the problem itself go away.”