[ANALYSIS] Saying sorry: a first step or a token?

An apology from Labour is not enough but it could be a start of a process. JAMES DEBONO analyses the reaction to Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca’s call for soul-searching in the party she loves

Joseph Muscat: a legacy under review
Joseph Muscat: a legacy under review

President emeritus Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca’s call on Labour to apologise and embark on critical soul searching has provoked two opposite reactions.

On one side there were those who derided Coleiro Preca for having been part of Labour and Joseph Muscat’s government and who consider Labour unredeemable. Underlying this school of thought is a Manichean view that Labour is historically “not trustworthy” or that it contains within it the seeds of immorality. On the other side there were those who kept insisting the party is not to blame for the actions of a few rotten apples, with most shooting down the idea of an apology relegating it to a token gesture of ‘humility’ from a magnanimous party.

A party grandee’s plea

Surely Coleiro Preca did weigh her words carefully when this newspaper asked her what steps Labour should take in the face of a tsunami of revelations linking the highest echelons of the party to white-collar crime. She did not propose a token apology made in passing, but a soul-searching exercise. To do so she presented the party with a list of questions on its identity. Unlike others in her party who consider recent events as a stain in an otherwise positive transformation of the party under Muscat, she sees a direct link between the moral degeneration under Abela’s predecessor with the ideological drift to neoliberal politics and the party’s mesmerisation with business. She recognised that the degeneration did not occur in a vacuum but in a context of a loss of values and ideals.


Abolishing Labour

Among the most critical of Coleiro Preca’s words was blogger Manuel Delia, who does not mince his words in advocating an all-or-nothing approach, once again refusing to reach out to critical voices in Labour. This is exactly the attitude which crippled the civil society movement born after the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. Instead of a movement which reaches out to Labourites to bring about change, it turned into a movement bent on alienating anyone remotely associated with the party. And what could alienate Labour activists and voters then calling for the abolition of the Labour Party? For that is what Delia seems to advocate.

“But we need the truth. And the truth is that no political party that facilitated criminals to take our country from us should be a political party at all. Saying sorry does not change that. Is Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca prepared to imagine a reality without the Labour Party?” Delia asked.

The answer to that is that the proposed ‘abolition’ of the Labour Party not only belongs to the realm of political fiction in a country where party identity is a definer of personal identity, but flies in the face of democracy, and it reveals a strain of antipathy against Labour which contaminates what could have been an inclusive movement for national renewal. In short Labour was an enemy to be beaten rather than reformed.

It also confirms the suspicion of many that the prime motivation of that movement is the fight against Labour now depicted as a mafia organisation rather than a renewal of democracy in which Labour is a player. The reality is that like it or hate it, Labour is here to stay. The question is: will it create the mechanisms to avoid repeating the same mistakes all over again? The reaction to Coleiro Preca’s appeal from party stalwarts does not augur well.

Say sorry and move on?

On the other side of the divide, the main reaction was “why should the party have to apologize for the actions of a few rotten apples?” Those asking this question are ignoring another more important question; how did their party allow criminals occupying the highest positions to lead it and hijack it and does the party have the antibodies to avoid this in the future? And while many online warriors derided the very idea of an apology, deputy leader Jose Daniel Micallef has neutered Coleiro Preca’s words, by dishing a half-baked and reluctant apology, which sounded like the church’s generic apologies for the interdett. For the kind of apology offered by Micallef falls short of answering the deeper questions on party identity raised by Coleiro Preca.

Micallefs said he had simply taken “note” adding that “the Labour Party has always been humble” and that he has “no problem apologising to those who feel hurt by what happened.” Instead of convening party structures including the general conference to reflect on Coleiro Preca’s questions and discuss a formal motion, which seeks to strengthen the party’s moral credentials, Micallef offers an apology in passing, more as a sign of the party’s “humility” than as a programme of action.

Moreover he insisted the “the behaviour of the few is not a reflection of the genuine activism of many within the Labour Party” and that the party “will build on the good” and “reform where it did bad” citing the last months as a “demonstration of this with clear decisions being taken.”

While one has to recognise that under Abela something has changed profoundly with regards to the impunity of those involved, the party and its leadership have still not addressed the political roots of the problems facing the party. And while the party’s actions in the past decade, which include a legacy of social reforms which revolutionised Maltese society, cannot be reduced to corruption, one cannot ignore the fact that the party failed to nip the problem in the bud by kicking Schembri and Mizzi out back in 2016. Neither can we forget that the party had elected Konrad Mizzi as its deputy leader after Daphne Caruana Galizia had exposed his Panama accounts.

For the party’s greatest problem was its withering away, after Muscat substituted it with a movement of cheerleaders, glued by love towards the leader.

And while Colerio Preca did not propose a forum where these questions can be discussed, the only forum where an apology could carry weight would be if takes the shape of motion endorsed by the party’s leadership and discussed in a general conference.

The party can’t continue ignoring its own elephant in the room – which is its former leader Joseph Muscat, at best someone who was either an idiot who did not realise what was happening around him... or at worst a willing participant in the subversion of the institutions. Surely one can understand the hesitancy from Labour as it gears up for an election, where it is bound to be more interested in unity than in renewal. Polls even suggest that Labour can still win comfortably without making a public striptease of its warts. Why engage in self-flagellation now?

Yet by not pressing the election button now, Abela has the option of first cleaning up his stables and be in a position to ward off corrupt elements, which may try their luck again, once the current storm recedes. Abela showed no qualms in ridding the party of Konrad Mizzi. But his failure to detach himself from Muscat suggests that he is afraid of his predecessor’s ability to upset his apple cart.

But shooting down Abela and anyone else in Labour for any past association with Muscat, suggests an eagerness for ‘ethnic cleansing’ which is bound to backfire on those who should know better having supported the PN, a party which is itself built on compromise and balancing acts.