Tuesday, 27 July 2010

MaltaToday: Strange bedfellows [Interview:] Cyrus Engerer

27.7.10 by Raphael Vassallo

With his progressive views on divorce and gay equality, Cyrus Engerer would not be out of place in a European liberal party. So what on earth is he doing representing the traditionally conservative Nationalist Party on the Sliema local council?

Cyrus Engerer: not exactly a religio et patria politician

Openly gay, pro-divorce and in favour of full marriage equality for same-sex partners, Cyrus Engerer is not exactly your typical ‘Religio et Patria’ sort of politician. Nonetheless, the Nationalist councillor for Sliema argues that his own chosen party, and not Labour, can claim to be Malta’s truly progressive political force.

“Historically, the PN has always been the party that changed Malta for the better,” he tells me as we meet for our appointment at our offices in San Gwann. Having said that, he also confesses that contesting with the PN was not an automatic choice… coming as he does from a politically mixed family.

“There are only two parties that have the practical ability to form a government, so the choice was always going to be between those two. Both parties have their strengths and weaknesses. But when you think about it, it was always the PN that took all the right decisions at the right time – especially since Independence.”

Be that as it may, at a glance Cyrus Engerer certainly appears out of place militating within the PN. On his Facebook page he describes himself as “liberal on some issues, conservative on others” – but most would agree that his liberal views outweigh his conservative ones by a very wide margin.

Surprisingly, however, Engerer himself disputes the particular perception of the PN as a ‘conservative’ party. On the contrary, he believes that ‘conservative’ is actually an epithet the party has picked up only fairly recently in its 125-year history.

“Nowadays, the PN is labelled ‘conservative’, true; but it was only a few years ago, when Alfred Sant was still Opposition leader, that the PN was actually seen as the more progressive of the two…” Besides, he argues that it would be a grave mistake to assume that ‘the party’ exists as a single, homogenous entity in its own right.

“Who is the Nationalist Party, anyway?” he suddenly muses. “Is it the leader? The supporters? The candidates? Who…?”

Answering his own question, Cyrus points out that the party is actually composed of a few hundred ‘kunsilliera’ (let’s call them councillors, for lack of a better translation) who together decide on policy.

“No two people will agree on all things at all times. I am often asked, ‘so why do you remain in the PN if you disagree with them on so many things?’ The truth is, I am not in agreement with the party leadership on some issues – mostly civil liberties – but I agree on others, like economic policy.”

And how many of the PN councillors agree with Cyrus Engerer? He assures that me that “many” see eye to eye with him on such issues as gay equality… though few would currently speak out in public. Ultimately, however, he argues that in politics one has to evaluate the package as a whole: and on balance, the Nationalist Party remains a far more credible option than Labour.

Furthermore, he insists that once you sift through their various stands and positions – especially on so-called ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ issues – you will find that the two parties are actually indistinguishable.

But what about divorce, I ask? What about Muscat’s promise of a vote in parliament, as opposed to Gonzi’s clear stand against..?

Cyrus Engerer reminds me that there is a distinction between ‘party’ and ‘leader’ in the PL, too. “If you look closely at what Labour is saying, you will see that Joseph Muscat himself is in favour of divorce, yes… but the party itself has never taken a stand. Has the party placed divorce on its electoral manifesto? No…”

Engerer is also sceptical about whether Muscat actually enjoys grass-root support for his divorce proposal – and a cursory glance at the current composition of the Opposition bench in parliament strongly suggests that he might not even enjoy the backing of his own MPs.

Now that we are on the subject of divorce, the question becomes inevitable. What does he himself think of the issue?

“I am in favour of divorce,” he replies without hesitation. “I know it may sound contradictory, but I firmly believe that in order to strengthen all families, we need to introduce divorce. As things stand, we are witnessing the emergence of new types of relationships, which are not recognised at law. This creates problems. Besides, people marrying for a second time are likelier to approach marriage with more caution…”

As he talks, I can’t but notice the emphasis on ‘all families’, ‘new types of relationships’… is he also referring to gay marriage: a topic all but taboo within Nationalist circles? And if so, what about the difference between Labour and PN on this issue? Surely, Labour would be closer to his own views on the subject, having recently set up an LGBT section, and all that…

But Cyrus Engerer is unconvinced.

“Again, Muscat has claimed he is in favour of some form of civil partnership being recognised at law. But it is not on the same footing as marriage, and he has certainly not promised anything like marriage equality on the party’s manifesto…”

What if he did? Would Cyrus Engerer consider contesting with Labour instead of PN, if it promised full marriage equality?

To my intense surprise, he nods. “It would make a difference, certainly.”

Would it make such a difference that he’d consider jumping ship…? He answers slowly, as though conscious of the weight of his own words. “Let me put it this way: If Labour took that step, and really put full marriage equality on its manifesto, then… yes, I would vote for them. I know I earlier said that you have to look at the whole package, and I still think on balance the PN is the better choice. But this issue… this issue makes a big difference to me.”

Engerer acknowledges that others might find this attitude hard to understand. “I wouldn’t expect a straight person to change allegiance over an issue like this. But for a gay person, it’s another matter.”

He also makes it clear he considers it highly unlikely that Labour – which he believes is just as conservative as the PN, if not more – will ever take that step.

“At the end of the day, Labour suffers from the same internal struggles as the PN. If I were to join Labour, I know I will have to fight exactly the same battles all over again.”

Foremost among these battles is (unsurprisingly, given the above) to convince a Catholic-leaning party of the need to achieve full equality for the LGBT community. But how does the party respond when he brings up these issues internally? Does he encounter any resistance?

“Yes, obviously. Everyone encounters some form of resistance, no matter what he tries to do. And if you look back at the party’s history, there was resistance to its most important achievements: Independence, EU membership – all these things had to be fought from within first. And there were Nationalists who supported Labour achievements, like the Republic. I would qualify this as normal…”

At the same time, Cyrus Engerer talks of a ‘silent majority’ within the PN – which is perhaps a little too silent for his liking – which at least acknowledges that such change is inevitable.

“Personally I am hopeful things will change. In the UK, change happened overnight. In the mid-1990s Tony Blair introduced gay equality out of the blue, and it was accepted. The same happened in Spain under Zapatero…”

Pre-empting the obvious question, Engerer himself points out the political fly in the moment. “Of course, both Blair and Zapatero were Socialists. But then, it’s the Socialists in Europe who tend to be progressive, who favoured EU membership, and so on. In Malta, it’s the other way round…”

But he also acknowledges that internal fights within the PN over such ‘basic’ issues can sometimes be disheartening, to put it mildly. “There were moments when I said I couldn’t take it any more… that maybe I’d leave the party, or even the country. Over here I feel like a second class citizen sometimes. And I’m not alone in feeling this way. There are many people out there who are genuinely suffering. But in the end I said ‘no’… I will remain, and fight for change.”

Apart from basic prejudices, Engerer argues that gay couples face an uphill struggle against the authorities for recognition on a wide variety of levels.

As an example, he cites adoption – pointing out how the availability of single parent adoption indirectly makes it possible for gay couples to adopt a child.

“But it’s not the same thing as adoption by a couple. It can also cause problems. Imagine you have a same sex couple, and one of the partners adopts a child as a single parent. When the child is still small – say, six or seven years old – the registered adoptive parent dies. What happens to the child?”

As the couple was never recognised as a family at law, the partner of the deceased will not be recognised as a parent.

“The child would be taken away,” Engerer continues, answering his own question. “The remaining parent will have no rights over the child. This is a reality in Malta right now…”

Wouldn’t the cohabitation bill, currently debated in Parliament on the insistence of the PN, address this issue anyway? Engerer grimaces at the word. “Yes,” he answers slowly. “Cohabitation could change matters in this regard. But cohabitation is an insult to me. It may be necessary to grant rights to, say, siblings living together… but it is no alternative to marriage equality. Cohabitation is currently being used as a pretext to put both divorce and marriage equality aside for the time being…”

But for all these shortcomings, Engerer nonetheless challenges the perception of the PN as a ‘gay-unfriendly party’ – though he does agree that ‘elements within the party’ are ‘behind the times’.

Pressed to elaborate, he invites me to consider a notorious quote attributed to Lawrence Gonzi when still speaker of the House in the 1990s – to the effect that, as leader, he would ask any candidate to leave the party if discovered to be gay.

Engerer insists the future PM had originally been misquoted. “What (Gonzi) actually said was that he wouldn’t want anyone as a candidate if they were uncomfortable with their own sexuality, and kept it hidden from the party. And I think he was right. Imagine the party was in government with a single-seat majority, as it is today, and that one of the MPs – who is gay, but hasn’t told anyone – was being blackmailed…”

Now that he has brought the matter up himself, I ask him his views on whether it is justifiable to ‘out’ such public figures, even if they themselves would prefer to remain inside the closet.

“You mean like your newspaper did with Karl Gouder?” he says, with reference to MaltaToday’s description of the Nationalist candidate as ‘Malta’s first openly gay MP’, when his own mother was unaware of his orientation.

“I think you were right,” he continues. “In an ideal world, it would be up to the individual to decide whether or not to come out into the open. However, in politics it could be dangerous if he doesn’t.”

Coming back to Lawrence Gonzi and his reputation as an arch-conservative, Engerer insists that the Prime Minister is a very different person when met face to face.

“He is not a closed book. Far from it: I find him to be quite open. He is always there. He always listens. We may not agree on all issues, but there are several areas where we are in total agreement. The economy is one, but there are also certain civil liberties: for instance, transgender rights. Where we disagree completely is marriage equality. But like I said, you have to look at the package as a whole.”

Looking instead at the country as a whole: how optimistic is Cyrus Engerer that Malta will one day change in the way he’d like it to?
“Malta is changing, undeniably. It has changed since I was a child. It’s changing right now…”

He takes the opportunity to attribute at least some of this change to the Nationalist governments of the past. “I don’t want to sound elitist, but I think that education has a lot to do with it. The general level of intelligence has increased. Look at your own survey on divorce – you will find that the vast majority of those who agree with divorce have at least secondary school education, many of them a university degree. I don’t think this is a coincidence.”

This, he argues, is the fruit of an explosion in tertiary education since 1987.

“More people are going to university today. A lot more. There were around 800 university students in total before ’87... Today, there are over 10,000…”

Engerer also points towards what he calls a ‘detachment’ between youths and the Church: a good thing, he reasons, as the Church appears to have stepped up its rhetoric against homosexuality of late.

Cyrus Engerer does not disguise his distaste for the stand taken by the local Church on gay issues.

“The Gozo bishop talks about homosexuals all the time, about how it is a sin. Recently, the head of the Cana movement even described homosexuals as a ‘detriment to the family’. A detriment to the family? How? In what way…?”

Engerer argues that this is ultimately tantamount to hate speech, and should be made illegal. “People who are totally faithful to the Church are being told we are an abomination. No wonder gay suicides have increased recently. With its constant attacks on gay people, the Church is now instilling guilt even in parents. This should be a crime. After all, legal action is taken against people like Norman Lowell for spreading hatred towards people of different races. The Catholic Church is doing the same with homosexuals. This must be stopped.”

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