Obituary | Lino Spiteri, his own man

Business-friendly but intellectually on the left, the oldschool politician came close to taking Labour to the European social democratic mainstream.

Lino Spiteri signing his memoirs back in 2007
Lino Spiteri signing his memoirs back in 2007
A younger Lino Spiteri (second from left) with friends, in a photo taken some time in the late 1950s.
A younger Lino Spiteri (second from left) with friends, in a photo taken some time in the late 1950s.

Intertwined between business, politics and literature the Qormi born Spiteri hailed from a rare breed that combined sobriety and business acumen with European socialist values.

In 1992 he came close to winning the first round in a three way contest but was surprisingly beaten by Alfred Sant, a fellow novelist with less political baggage having not served in the post-1981 cabinet of Labour ministers. Spiteri may have made a different sort of leader for the Labour Party, sober and punctilious as Alfred Sant but more rational, and less messianic than either Joseph Muscat or Dom Mintoff.

Spiteri expressed his more idealistic and intellectual side in writing, something which endeared him to young idealists, a trait that some found it hard to reconcile with his business interests. Surely he was one of the few Labour ministers from the 1980s stable whose reputation remained unscathed despite serving in a Cabinet mired in accusations of violence and corruption, possibly benefiting from his “rehabilitation” in the Nationalist Party’s books after falling out with Alfred Sant in 1997.

He jealously protected his reputation, recently going to great lengths to rebut Eddie Fenech Adami’s claim in his recent biography that he was among those who opposed Mintoff’s views that another general election be held in early 1982 to rectify the 1981 anomaly.

Like Alfred Sant and Joseph Muscat, Spiteri did not belong to the medical and legal professions. Neither was he a product of the party’s media machine. In fact he owed his business-friendly reputation to his experience in the private sector. In some way Spiteri gave his party a connection to a part of the financial establishment.

Up to 1970, Lino Spiteri was research officer with the Malta Chamber of Commerce. In 1973 he became chairman of the Central Bank of Malta, a post he held until 1980. Later he served as financial management consultant mostly to manufacturing concerns and on the board of a number of companies including: Medavia, Tumas Finance and Bortex – reportedly, it was Spiteri who suggested the Easysell name for the Tumas Fenech owned company.

Possibly, his financial independence made him less likely to follow his political masters blindly but it may well have exposed him to conflicts of interests had he been elected leader. Yet despite his proximity to big business interests, he regretted the drift to the centre of both major parties whom he criticized for endorsing tax cuts for the more well-off.

Commenting on Labour’s endorsement of the 2012 budget tax cuts proposed by the outgoing PN government, Spiteri had this to say: “In 55 years observing, practicing and analysing politics, I have never seen the likes of this social obscenity from either party”.

In the vein of a traditional socialist he remained an advocate of taxation as an instrument of social justice.

Life under the patriarch

At 23 years of age Lino Spiteri was elected in parliament through a bye-election for Albert Hyzler’s Qormi seat in 1962. He lost his seat at 27 to regain it again when he was 41.

He received his political baptism of fire in the atmosphere of the Church interdict. He recalls telling Bishop Gerada how “my wife and I had been married in the sacristy, and how my uncle Gamri ‘Amleto’ Spiteri had been buried in unconsecrated ground after a roof fell in and a beam from it wounded him mortally.”

After Labour was elected to power in 1971, Spiteri served as head of research at the Central Bank when a run on the privately-owned National Bank of Malta in December 1972 saw the Labour government forcing shareholders to sign over their shares – controversially without any compensation – to the State.

Writing in 2012, Spiteri disputed the main grievances of the National Bank shareholders, who have always contended that the bank’s solidity was deliberately weakened by government-instigated rumors that prompted the run, in a bid to nationalise the bank – today the Bank of Valletta. In his Times Business column, Spiteri disputed this version of events, saying that as head of research he had been privy to the reports on the financial state of the bank, a major lender at the time to Malta's fledgling manufacturing, construction and tourism industries.

“The conclusions were worrying,” Spiteri said of reports he submitted with the inspection unit at the Central Bank. “So much so that the Central Bank drew the attention of the minister of finance to them.”

Spiteri recalled that in the first Cabinet meeting after 1981, Mintoff “faintly wondered whether he should govern or call another election.”

In the ensuing brief discussion, Spiteri asked whether the country would be thrown into confusion without a government and what if the result proved to be the same. Spiteri insists that Mintoff did not test the opinion in the Cabinet or the parliamentary group. “He never brought up the subject again in the few Cabinet meetings held thereafter, until he resigned.”

Spiteri served as Mintoff's finance minister between 1981 and 1983. But he refused to work at Castille, fearing constant interference from Mintoff. He also served as minister of trade and economic planning under Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici between 1983 and 1987.

Despite his participation in Mintoff’s and KMB’s governments, Spiteri still managed to present himself as a moderniser in his clash with Joe Brincat and Alfred Sant in the 1992 leadership race. Probably one of the reasons he stood out from the 1980s crop of Ministers was the contrast between his intellectual demeanor and the intellectual poverty around him.

Thwarted ambitions

Lino Spiteri was close to being elected as he had more votes than Alfred Sant in the first round of the vote. But Spiteri ended up losing in the second round.

The leadership contests proved highly controversial. On the very day of the leadership contest, a letter containing allegations against Spiteri sent to the MLP’s vigilance board was leaked to the Nationalist media. Before the vote was taken, party propagandist Manuel Cuschieri raised this issue in the MLP conference. 

Subsequently the PL’s vigilance board was asked to investigate claims by Labour mayor Paul Muscat that he had rigged the contest to ensure a Sant victory. Muscat told the board he had made up the tampering story which, he told the board, he had used first to upset Spiteri and subsequently in an attempt to have Alfred Sant removed after the Labour prime minister introduced unpopular budgetary measures in 1997.

Yet Spiteri remained loyal to Sant in opposition, but after the party was re-elected to power he found himself at odds with Sant’s fiscal promise to remove VAT and resigned.

In his letter of resignation Spiteri cited personal reasons and declared that when he had accepted his post he had informed Sant that he would do so only temporarily.

Spiteri later acknowledged that contesting the 1996 election with Sant’s Labour despite his agreement with VAT was his greatest political mistake.

From backbencher to columnist

After resigning Lino Spiteri started speaking his mind on issues like the removal of VAT and the European Union. Surprisingly the secular minded Spiteri also declared that he would not support a divorce bill in parliament, as this was not part of the MLP's 1996 manifesto.

Spiteri suffered the humiliating fate of providing ammunition for the propaganda machine of the opposing party.

In 1998 Spiteri together with Alex Sciberras Trigona and former MLP Deputy Leader George Abela was depicted in a PN pre-election billboard entitled “Ma Alfred Sant Ma Tahdimx”.

But Spiteri never tried to use the fact that Alfred Sant was relying on an unstable single seat majority to his advantage. Spiteri’s dissent was in fact eclipsed by Dom Mintoff’s outright mutiny in summer of 1998. Spiteri did not contest the 1998 election when he declared that his political career was over.

In 2002, the Pandora’s box of the MLP’s 1992 leadership was reopened but Spiteri made no attempt to challenge the leadership again. In the subsequent years, Spiteri continued to make public pronouncements in his newspaper columns. 

He supported Malta’s EU membership bid and admitted not voting Labour in 2003, in an interview in 2008. He also supported his friend George Abela’ss bid for the leadership but subsequently praised Muscat for growing in stature before the 2013 election.

Novelist and writer

Spiteri started his political career in 1957 as a member of the national executive committee of the MLP, already a regular contributor in MLP organ Il-Helsien. He was deputy editor of It-Torca from 1964 to 1966 and then head of publications at Union Press and editor of Malta News between 1967 and 1968. For five years, he was the local correspondent for The Observer and The Guardian.

An established writer, he published various books of short stories. He married Vivienne Azzopardi and they had four children, Noelle, Bertrand, Lara and Lincoln.

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