Monday, 15 March 2010

MaltaToday: The moderate progressive

One of the young guns inside Joseph Muscat’s rainbow of ‘moderates and progressives’, Owen Bonnici took up the anti-censorship cause. But is Labour a home of ideological schizophrenia, or consistent policy?

James Debono

Owen Bonnici’s soft-spokenness is the very embodiment of political ‘moderation’ – the term that has fast become one of Labour’s political memes, explaining its evolution under Joseph Muscat.
Still, the young Labour lawyer MP has not refrained from sticking out his neck for that other Labour meme… ‘progressive’ causes. But will he be able to stand his ground as his party tries to run with the hares and hunt with the hounds in its newfound strategy to win over the middle-class, business people, minorities, and pale-blue voters in one fell swoop?
His principled stance on censorship seems to prove that on this issue, at least, the progressives are prevailing in the Labour Party. “We are proposing that censorship on theatre and films is removed and replaced by a classification system based on age,” Bonnici says, having penned his own private members’ bill on the subject that reached fever pitch after the Stitching ban and prosecution of Realtà editor Mark Camilleri.
Bonnici also believes that plays or films which include strong content which could be shocking to the audience should carry a warning for the public. But he is unwavering in supporting the principle that “adults should be free to watch whatever films or plays they like”.
Bonnici’s bill proposes the abolition of censorship, but he is giving the government time until May to come up with its own proposals before presenting it. Why wait for the government to come up with a solution instead of taking the initiative now?
Bonnici makes it clear that his intention is not to seek political mileage from this issue but to make sure that the law is changed. “It would be useless to present a bill if I know that this is going to be defeated. That is why I am giving the government enough time to come with a proposal which can be voted upon by both government and opposition.”
He also reveals he has been approached from the government side and that discussions were held on this issue. But he expresses disappointment that so far, there was no follow-up.
He also expresses his disappointment that the government has not yet acted on his suggestion to set up a committee to revise obscenity laws. For while censorship laws affect theatre productions and films, they have no bearing on literature and other forms of artistic expression. In fact, Realtà editor Mark Camilleri is being prosecuted under the obscenity law regime.
Bonnici explains the distinction between censorship and laws banning obscene material. “Censorship laws are meant to prevent someone from sending a message before this is even sent. Mark Camilleri is being prosecuted after the publication of a short story, which was deemed obscene.”
While censorship laws only apply to film and theatre producers, the law on obscenity applies to everyone. Bonnici’s proposal is not that of doing away with this law altogether, but to exempt artistic and literary works from it. “Since we believe in artistic freedom as stated in the draft national cultural policy, the law on obscenity should be applied differently when it comes to artists.”
He points out that the law itself states that the definition of obscenity should be revised from time to time. In fact, the last revision carried out in 1976 already refers to the specific cases involving art and literature. “But we need to brush them up to make sure that cases like that of Realtà do not occur again.”
In an answer to a parliamentary question, Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici warned that a relaxation of censorship laws could open the gates for the abuse of minority rights. Bonnici appears flabbergasted by this insinuation, especially in view of the fact that together Labour MP Evarist Bartolo he had already called for stiffer penalties against hate crimes to protect groups like gays and ethnic minorities. “This is absolutely not the case because the only thing which will be removed is censorship on films and theatre productions. Penalties against other crimes will remain.”
I present Bonnici with two hypothetical cases: a leaflet instigating violence and hatred towards black and gay people; and a book which exposes the intolerance which exists in Maltese society through the depiction of a racist or homophobic character who expresses brutal and intolerant views.
Bonnici says he would ban the leaflet but not the book. “In the first case I would be the first to take the author to court. There is a profound difference between writing an article in a newspaper advocating doing XYZ to black people, and someone who writes a story in which the character says he would do XYZ to black people. When writing such a story the author is doing something praiseworthy by putting a spotlight on the mentality of the nation.”
Bonnici also expresses surprise that criminal proceedings against Realtà’s editor were instigated by the university rector. “I have to praise him for the great work he has done in recognising the value of science and research. But I’m concerned that the rector is afraid of openness when it comes to freedom of expression. University should be a place where ideas are even more tolerated than in other places.”
Even though censorship seems to be one of those instances where the Labour Party has moved way from anachronistic conservatism to a more modern and secular mentality, is its striving to be a ‘movement of progressives and moderates’ and please everybody at the same time, a tactic to simply widen its electoral net?
Bonnici disagrees, insisting there is no contradiction between progressive and moderate values. When asked where he places himself, Bonnici replies that he is, in fact, both. “A progressive is someone who strives for social change… but I am also a moderate in my style. And I think this is what the people want. People want change but they do not want any tremors.”
Bonnici disagrees with the interpretation that Labour is trying to appeal to both centre-right and centre-left voters by projecting itself as moderate and progressive at the same time. “Labour is progressive because it strives for social change and therefore it is clearly not a conservative party. But the way we want to implement change is through a moderate approach.”
On the question of divorce, while Labour leader Joseph Muscat has committed himself to present a private members’ bill for its introduction and allow a free vote to his MPs. Muscat has also excluded proposing the introduction of divorce in the party’s electoral manifesto.
Bonnici concurs with this rather roundabout approach. “Muscat is being very courageous in being the first leader of a major party to make such a clear commitment to push for the introduction of divorce if elected to power.”
Bonnici also makes it clear that he will be voting in favour Muscat’s divorce bill. But isn’t there a risk that people choosing Labour because of the divorce issue would end up bitterly disappointed if Muscat does not garner a parliamentary majority when the bill is presented?
Bonnici insists it does not make sense to create political regimentation on moral issues like divorce. “This is not a question of principle. This is not a country where all Labourites are in favour of divorce and all Nationalists are against divorce. My wish is that the Nationalist Party also gives a free vote to its MPs. I do not wish that the divorce issue is turned in to a game of political football.”
But does not such a stance confuse people who would like to vote Labour so that a basic civil right like divorce is introduced? “At the end of the day, by allowing MPs to vote according to their conscience, we are empowering people to vote for those candidates who respect their values. If there is a majority against divorce they would elect MPs who are against and if they are in favour they would elect MPs who are in favour.”
He also reminds me that Malta is not a presidential democracy but a parliamentary republic where people ultimately vote for the candidate. “They can even vote for candidates contesting with rival parties. Muscat’s position gives more liberty to people to elect candidates who reflect their values.”
Bonnici also thinks that it is unrealistic nowadays to perceive Maltese society as being split between Nationalists and Labourites.
“We live in a society where people can be rigidly pigeonholed in to a red or blue box. There is also a white box in which one finds people who are progressive in their ideals and moderate in their attitude, who might not agree with everything the Labour party says, but are willing to support it on various issues.”
Labour is projecting itself as a progressive party. Yet the same party supports the government’s stance in favour of spring hunting. It has also opposed EU moves to protect the bluefin tuna. The party has even promised to consider an airstrip in Gozo.
Bonnici disagrees with me that issues like spring hunting have anything to do with being progressive or not. “The Labour Party has taken a progressive stance on a number of issues like gay rights, censorship and divorce… I do not think that someone favouring sustainable hunting is not progressive. I have a number of hunters who are my friends who respect the environment. What I object to is not hunting but the excesses of some hunters.”
But even on the economic front, Labour seems to be promising an ideal situation where taxes are reduced while health care remains free and poverty eliminated. Where will the money come from?
Bonnici is convinced that Labour can find money by increasing the size of the cake through economic growth. He also believes that part of the solution lies in the promotion of creativity and culture which also have an economic value. “Creativity is tied to research, innovation and culture. Malta is losing its competitive edge because we are losing out on the creativity front. Creativity must the basis of our economy. In this way we will increase the size of the cake.”
But Bonnici does not hesitate to describe himself as a ‘socialist’ when it comes to distributing the cake. “I am a socialist and I firmly believe that every citizen has a right for access education, health, food, water and electricity.”
He makes it clear that when it comes to water and electricity one should never favour waste. “The government should establish the amount of water and electricity which is needed by each individual. This basic amount should be affordable. On the other hand, the polluter-pays principle should apply for those who consume over and above that. This is something which the government is not understanding. It does not make sense to solve Ememalta’s financial problems through a mathematical formula; that of dividing its total debt by the number of people.”
But does it make sense to throw money on subsidising bills when this money could well go to things like education?
Bonnici insists that access to basic consumption of water and electricity is as much a right as education. Yet he admits the ability of the state to subsidise the right for basic consumption of utilities depends on its ability to increase the size of the economic cake. He points out that the contribution of the creative sector to the national economy is the lowest in Europe, a sheer 0.2% of the GDP.
What irks Bonnici most is that creativity in Malta is simply associated with “hanging a beautiful picture to a wall… we should celebrate art and science in the same way to instil creativity across the board.”
The national cultural policy gives a wider definition of culture but Bonnici is disappointed by its lack of concreteness. He points out that a document prepared by Mario Azzopardi in 2002 was more of a “bread and butter document” than the present one which tends to be too philosophical. What Bonnici would like to see most is the recognition and promotion of the “creative industry”… “There are various sectors like cinema, films, theatre and fashion which are an industry in their own right and which create wealth.”
He cites the British example, where the government proposed a package to promote the creative industry in the document entitled ‘New Talents for New Britain’. Bonnici was taken aback by the transfer of responsibility for culture from the education ministry to a parliamentary secretary also responsible for MEPA and tourism. “The national policy on culture constantly refers to the ministry doing this and that. The day after the document was issued, culture was relegated to a parliamentary secretariat which is also responsible for MEPA and tourism… I can only imagine how much time Mario De Marco will have for culture.”
Bonnici does not question De Marco’s capabilities and expressed his appreciation that the new parliamentary secretary has already approached him to share ideas.
But instead of twinning culture with tourism or education, Bonnici believes that culture should form part of a ministry responsible for innovation, research and creativity. “My vision of culture is not art for its own sake but something intimately tied to creativity which also contributes to personal and economic growth.”
He is also worried that the education system is letting many creative people slip though the cracks simply because they come from poorer backgrounds. “How is it possible that we lose these assets? We need a system of feedback from the ground in which local councils can have a great role to identify these hidden talents.”

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