TUESDAY, JULY 26, 2011 By JAMES DEBONO
In the space of two weeks, Sliema Vice Mayor Cyrus Engererwent on from addressing the PN’s general council to joiningLabour. What does this say about his credibility?
In his speech to Nationalist councillors on 19 June – just two weeks before he joined Labour – Cyrus Engerer proclaimed his loyalty to the party which, according to him, still had the “best leadership” team.
“Whatever those of the Labour Party say, and however they try to picture us, we are needed because we have the best team, and this includes our Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi... who has the ability to govern this country.”
Did Engerer really believe that the PN is the best party to lead the country, and does he still think so?
“The PN had a team which changed the country and I was sure that if the team adapted itself to present realities it would have been a very good team,” replies Engerer.
But he puts his speech in a political context.
“However, during that general council there the feeling that the party was about to open up and change was felt. I also warned the party about the risks of not accepting change. But still, there was hope.”
Engerer reveals that immediately after the referendum – in which he had campaigned actively for a Yes vote – he went to the party’s headquarters to talk to the PN information director Frank Psaila.
“I told him that I was no longer feeling comfortable in the party. Frank asked me to give it one last try by attending the general council, and I agreed.”
During this meeting, Psaila also encouraged Engerer to contest the general election with the PN, an offer he refused because of his disagreement with the party’s leadership.
Engerer also reveals that he had informed Psaila that he would resign from the PN “if the Prime Minister votes No to the divorce bill.”
But although all the speeches made during the council – including that of the Prime Minister – were all about the importance of opening up to change, Engerer experienced a reality check when parliament started discussing the divorce bill.
“In parliament, the party was doing the exact opposite of what the council was saying.”
He refers to the Prime Minister’s speech before the divorce vote in parliament as “shocking.”
“He always says ‘judge me according to what I do and not on what I say’. But while in the general council he was saying that we should be inclusive and open to everyone in parliament, he said that he would keep his ears shut to those calling on him to change direction.”
Engerer also reveals that the Prime Minister never made an attempt to talk to him face to face after the referendum.
“I understand that the PM could have been too busy… but is it possible that not even Paul Borg Olivier had the chance to talk to me?”
Faced with my scepticism on jumping ship from one party to another in such a short timeframe, Engerer makes it clear that his conversion did not happen overnight.
“For the past year I was noting that the party was becoming more and more conservative, especially on those issues which affect my life. The party was closing ranks, and becoming more confessional.”
But it was his interaction with young Labour activists during the referendum campaign which facilitated his move to Labour.
“During the referendum campaign, I worked closely alongside members of the Labour Party such as Nikita Alamango, Daniel Micallef and Aaron Farrugia, and I realised that the vision I had for the country was the same as theirs. At the same time, I realised that I did not share the same vision with members of the MZPN.”
Could it be that Cyrus Engerer was simply in the wrong party in the first place? After all, isn’t conservatism a trait in the PN’s DNA?
Engerer disagrees, insisting that he felt perfectly at ease working in the Nationalist Party between 2000 and 2008.
“I became active in the party during the EU referendum campaign in 2003. At that time, the Nationalist Party was a movement open to everyone who shared its vision.”
He attributes the party’s existential problem to its lack of vision.
“The problem with the party today is that it lacks a vision. While back in the 1980s it had democracy as a battle cry and later it had the vision of taking Malta in to Europe. Today, there is no common goal for which people can work together. The moment it stopped having a common goal, the party closed ranks, becoming more conservative and thus betraying expectations raised by EU membership…”
But Engerer insists that for most of the time, he was “on the right side of history.”
Doesn’t that mean that the party you are joining now was on the wrong side of history? I interject.
“Yes they were... But things have now changed.”
Engerer insists that Muscat had immediately left a good impression on him by declaring his personal stance for the introduction of divorce, speaking about gay rights and endorsing the EU membership project with enthusiasm.
Addressing the PN’s general council for the first time in 2009 Engerer praised “Lawrence Gonzi’s government” for building “solid foundations” (pedamenti sodi) and that thanks to this, Malta was saved from the ravages of the global economic crisis.
Despite joining Labour, Engerer still praises the Nationalist Party for “sparing Malta from the global recessions and for manoeuvring its way in a way which kept Malta stable.”
Unlike most prophets of doom and of gloom who predominate in his new adoptive party, Engerer recognises that “at the macro level”, the PN has been successful.
“The effort done to introduce the euro was phenomenal and resulted in the reduction of the deficit… the government’s performance at the macro level is satisfactory with regards to keeping unemployment level stable.”
But he qualifies this by posing the question: “are people at the micro level feeling that the economy is doing well? My answer is no.”
One of the problems, according to Engerer, is that although unemployment has not reared its ugly head, the kind of jobs on offer are of the precarious kind.
“In reality, are people finding jobs which fulfil their aspirations, or are they only finding part time jobs?”
Engerer is now the member of a party whose flagship goal is the reduction of utility bills.
But he immediately makes it clear that utility bills should be based on the price of oil.
“And this is the way they should remain. If one were to subsidise water and electricity, one would have to find the money from somewhere else”.
But there is also another side to the story, according to Engerer.
“One should also look at the various inefficiencies in this sector. Even the Nationalists themselves recognise this.”
And under the PN government, these inefficiencies are increasing.
“Just look at the way tenders are being awarded.”
Why didn’t he raise these issues when he was still a member of the Nationalist Party?
He insists that he raised them internally, because he was loyal to his party.
Engerer was elected as a councillor elected on the Nationalist Party’s ticket. Probably, some of the 600 voters who voted for him would have never have done so if he contested with the Labour Party. Doesn’t he owe these people a resignation?
“I don’t have to resign because people voted for me, and I didn’t just have Nationalist votes. I had many voters who voted for me first, then proceeded to vote for Alternattiva or Labour.”
He insists that his first loyalty is towards all Sliema residents.
“I was elected on the Nationalist party ticket on my own steam as I did not have the backing from any established MP as others had. I had my own campaign.”
He is also convinced that people recognise his commitment towards the council to which he dedicates approximately six hours a day.
“None of the other councillors do that.”
He also recognises that some people were “hurt” by his decision to switch sides. The majority, however, welcomed his choice.
“Many people feel that the Nationalist Party is a completely different party to the one they had voted for in 2008. Most people have urged me to remain in the council, telling me that you are the only one on whom we can count.”
But wouldn’t his conversion to Labour have been more convincing if it was seen to be the result of process in which he had enough time to digest his new party’s policies?
“It all happened so quickly. The Prime Minister voted no, then I wrote on Facebook that he should resign. I had no doubt that he would not in fact resign… on that same day, I contacted persons within the Labour Party, informing them that I was going to resign.”
He justifies joining Labour immediately by referring to the relationship he had developed during the referendum campaign with young Labourites who shared his vision.
“We need change. The question I posed to myself was: should I remain a spectator, or should I be part of the change I wish to see?”
According to Engerer, the first thing Joseph Muscat told him was: “welcome on board, but I’ll tell you one thing: our party is not perfect.”
But did he join Labour simply because it is presently perceived to be the winning horse?
Engerer replies by pointing out that personally, he stood to gain by remaining in the Nationalist Party.
“For me, personally remaining in the PN was the most comfortable thing to do. In Sliema I managed to build a strong support group, and I would have had better electoral chances by remaining in the PN. But I am willing to sacrifice myself for that change.”
Turning to gay issues, I refer to the irritation felt by many in the gay community to Joseph Muscat’s declaration that while he agreed with the institution of same sex partnerships, he believed that marriage should be always be between a man and a woman and that he disagrees with adoptions by gay couples. Engerer disagrees with his own leader’s stance but believes that Labour is more open to change than the PN.
“I see a fundamental difference between the Lawrence Gonzi and the PN and Joseph Muscat and the PL on this issue... the good thing about Muscat is that although we disagree, he invited me to convince him that his opinion is wrong. He told me that he would even change his position if convinced. The difference between Labour and PN is that Labour listens to everyone.”
He recalls various incidents in the PN where he was not even given a chance to express his views on gay issues.
He recalls that two years ago, as the MZPN was organising a seminar on family friendly measures, Engerer immediately pointed out that that they should talk about different types of families, including same sex couples.
“The reaction was that in here we do not mention these things.”
Engerer believes that Muscat will be convinced on this issue.
“People change their opinion on things and I believe if we manage to convince him, he will change his position.”
Engerer describes himself as a liberal. Liberals tend to look at immigration as an opportunity, rather than as a problem. But in Malta, Muscat has taken a hard-line stance on immigration. He even went so far as to suggest suspending Malta’s international obligations towards asylum seekers if the EU does not heed its call for burden-sharing.
Engerer’s views on immigration differ from Labour’s emphasis on its more problematic aspects.
“I see immigration as a need which has to continue growing and I fully agree with a multicultural society, and I base this on my experience of living abroad.”
He defends his new leader from any insinuation that he would be willing to let people drown rather than rescue them.
“The impression given by the media that would let people drown is not true… what he is saying is that the EU should help Malta in this problem in the same way it helps countries like Greece or Ireland, both of whom are facing bankruptcy. Why should the EU only intervene on economic issues?”
But Engerer concurs with me that migration has many positive impacts which are never mentioned by Labour.
“Three years ago, the European Commission produced a report on the need for more people from outside the EU to come to work in the EU to make up for the shortage of workers in certain sectors, as well as to contribute to pension schemes. When immigrants – irrespective of where they come from – contribute to the economy, they create more wealth.”
I face Engerer with the criticism that on various issues – including divorce before the referendum – the Labour Party stands on the fence by not taking a position. How can we be so sure that the party represents positive change?
“Labour is presently listening. Changes do not happen overnight. Let’s not forget that the grass roots of the Labour Party might not all share the same opinion about various issues.”
Isn’t Muscat simply saying what everyone wants to hear: reducing bills, proposing a living wage, improving public services and decreasing taxation? Doesn’t this contrast with the fire and brimstone that governments all over the world are imposing on their constituencies?
“The government is saying that it has reduced the deficit, and that the GDP is growing and boasting that we fare better than Spain and other countries… that is why the Labour Party is saying that if things are doing so well, why not decrease some of the hardships?”
He also lashes out against the poor level of discussion in the PN, expressing his sense of relief about now forming part of a party which is open to new ideas.
“We used to learn what the government is doing from the media. Policies should first be discussed by the party and then enacted by government, but in many cases in the PN it was the other way round, with some Ministers expecting the party to rubber stamp their decision.”
Engerer has now found his place on Labour’s policy making think-tank: the Fondazzjoni Ideat.
Surely, Engerer’s interpretation of Maltese history is bound to irk hard-core Labour Party supporters.
Just a few days ago, he was reminding Nationalist councillors that Eddie Fenech Adami “read the signs of the times and brought democracy, justice and first liberties,” and that it was the PN in the 1980s “which understood that the people wanted to live in a democracy where everyone’s dignity is respected… something which was threatened in the 1980s.”
Does he feel at ease militating in a party where personalities from ‘Old Labour’ still occupy strategic posts?
While defending his interpretation of history, he insists that the Labour Party is changing.
“I see a great change in the new generation of Labour activists who are completely different to Old Labour…. I now feel very comfortable in the Labour party and will contribute to its modernisation.”
But doesn’t Engerer feel that he turned himself into a liberal trophy, which Labour can exhibit to win over the liberal vote without even making any grand commitments?
He reverses the question on his former party.
“I was a liberal trophy for the Nationalist Party. I was the token liberal in a conservative party which was not willing to discuss the issues.”
Cyrus Engerer was interviewed for last Sunday's edition of MaltaToday, but his interview was printed before the Chris Engerer incident.
[Click on the hyperlink above to view the comments on MaltaToday's website.]