Sunday, 12 June 2011

MaltaToday: Liberals in a brave new Malta

Post-divorce Malta sees both major parties portraying themselves as a natural home for liberals. Positive, but full bloodied liberals have reasons to remain wary.

Following the yes victory in the referendum, Labour leader Joseph Muscat told us that his party is the natural home for liberals. Now PN information director Frank Psaila reminds us that social liberals can also feel perfectly at home in the PN.

What is most striking in Psaila's claim is that it comes in the wake of a referendum campaign that exposed the confessional doctrine not just of the present PN leader, but also of his predecessor and the ministers who served both party leaders. It comes in the wake of a refusal by Cabinet ministers to ratify the referendum result with their vote.

It is true that social liberals have not been barred from the PN. But when it comes to real issues - be it the marriage agreement with the Vatican signed in 1995 or the divorce referendum - it was the conservatives who called the shots. The problem for the PN is that while liberal voters are needed to win elections, the party has lost the glue that kept the coalition together. For it was the promise of normalisation after 1987 and the EU membership bid in 1998 which kept its disparate voters together.

As regards Muscat's claim of Labour becoming a home for liberals, the argument gets a bit more complicated. I give it to Muscat that his gamble in taking the country to a divorce referendum originally proposed by Gonzi has paid off. I also give him due credit for campaigning for a yes vote in the final days. And Deborah Scembri's decision to contest with Labour has provided him with the perfect liberal trophy to parade before the next election.

Still, it was the same Muscat who must be credited for inventing the idea of a "free vote" meant to accommodate his own confessional MPs. It also remains questionable as to how far Labour is willing to go in secularising and liberalising Maltese society. Probably the IVF issue provides Labour with another opportunity to pounce on the confessionalism of the PN. But how will it react to more radical demands like the introduction of gay marriages or doing away with the notion of a state religion?

Secondly, one should distinguish between a degree of secularism which Labour inherits from the Mintoff days, and social liberalism as a political concept. Mintoff was probably Malta's most secular leader but he was far from being a liberal.

Liberalism goes beyond secularism and comprehends a belief in individual rights, a conscious effort to limit the powers of the state on individuals and a genuine attempt to maximize political pluralism through representative electoral systems which favour consensus-seeking coalitions over ruthless and tribalist one-party governments – notorious in Malta for taking care of their own at the exclusion of others.

Liberals also tend to favour clear separation of powers between the executive, the legislative and the judiciary and to limit the powers of all three through a system of checks and balances. One thing which comes to mind is the direct appointment of Maltese judges by the political class, something that blurs the distinction between the powers. Liberals tend to value the rule of law and tend to be sceptical of law and order populists who exploit moral panic to introduce measures which go beyond the scope of the law.

They also resent the power of lobby groups like our own land squatters or the festa community to act outside the scope of the law. They also tend to be suspicious of laws which do not respect the sovereignty of individuals over their bodies and minds. That is why they question the war on drugs.

Not surprisingly, they also see beyond the myopia of the nation-state by favouring collective European solutions as well as the integration of ethnic minorities through the affirmation of civic patriotism.

One must also distinguish between right-wing economic liberals and left-wing social liberals. While both categories might share common values, they disagree on the role of the state in levelling inequalities. Right-wing liberals who believe in absolute freedom of markets might find a more natural home in a secularized version of the PN.

The choice for left-wing liberals who also believe in state action to eliminate social inequalities, encourage social inclusion and protect the environment, remains more problematic. The latter category still cannot feel at home in a Labour Party, which speaks the language of the populist right-wing when it comes to immigration policies. Neither do they feel comfortable with a brand of economic populism which promises no pain and all gain to all and marries the anti-tax populism of the right with the statism of the old left.

Probably this category remains small in Malta and like its closest political reference-point – the greens – still lacks a critical mass to force change through in the immediate future. Genuine pluralism remains alien in the rowdy Maltese public sphere that still condemns reflexivity to a dark corner.

But the experience of other European countries confirms that the ascendant aspirational and cosmopolitan new middle-class, which is equipped with cultural capital rather than economic capital, is emerging as the propulsive engine of progressive change whose impact could be far more long-term than the equally ascendant xenophobic populism.

And despite all the talk about liberalism we should not forget that dark monsters, who might well take an anti-clerical guise, still lurk beneath the surface. Malta is bound to catch up. The times have only started to change. But it remains unclear how this will eventually change the tectonic plates of Maltese politics.

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