12 May 2012 by Keith Micallef
Labour backbencher Adrian Vassallo claimed that his party is focusing too much on clinching power to the extent that it has no policies.
This accusation, which echoes similar claims from the Nationalist Party, was made in last Thursday's edition of Bondi+, during which Dr Vassallo spoke in depth of the reasons behind his decision to retire from politics. The Labour MP had harsh words for his leader, describing his style of leadership in the divorce issue in particular as totalitarian.
Dr Vassallo recently announced his retirement from politics, reported first in this newspaper, saying he will not contest the next general election because he feels he is surplus to requirements.
Dr Vassallo said he had been mulling to retire from politics for quite some time as his interest in parliament was declining. The turning point was the divorce referendum when he stood out as the only Labour MP to vote against its introduction in Parliament, even though they were granted a free vote. His decision had provoked a stormy reaction within the party with the Labour leader publicly declaring that declaring that Dr Vassallo "had to face the consequences of his decision." It was this declaration that triggered a series of events which ultimately led the Labour backbencher to call it a day.
During the interview the Labour MP reiterated his strong views against divorce to the extent of declaring that he would only change his stance if God descended from heaven and pleaded him to do so. According to him, since referenda in Malta are not legally binding, MPs are not obliged to adhere to the result. He thus suggested amending the law to make referenda legally binding.
On the issue of the free vote in Parliament, Dr Vassallo claimed that from the early stages of the public debate it was evident that while the Labour Party had no official position, it was promoting the personal position expressed by its leader in favour of divorce. In particular he referred to his participation together with PN MP and divorce promoter Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando in a discussion programme hosted by John Bundy on the Labour media. According to him, the fact that Labour Party supporters in the audience were booing him and cheering the PN MP was proof that the event was staged to give the pro-divorce movement an advantage. He backed his argument saying that Labour MP Evarist Bartolo who is the person in charge of Labour's media, was at the same time actively involved in the pro-divorce movement.
Dr Vassallo said that even after the referendum result was out and the Labour leader had declared that MPs on both sides had no other option than voting yes or abstaining, he was still convinced he had to vote against it. Nevertheless, he felt he had to seek advice on the free vote issue from the Deputy Leader for Party Affairs Anġlu Farrugia, who in turn preferred to consult the leader before committing himself. Subsequently even though he was informed by Dr Farrugia that Dr Muscat would allow a free vote, he still felt the need to formally ask the speaker clarification a few moments before the actual vote took place. Dr Vassallo remarked that in the preceding weeks some of his colleagues on the Opposition benches including Marie Louise Coleiro Preca and Justyne Caruana had shared a similar opinion against the introduction of divorce but none of them voted against it, in spite of the free vote.
The Labour MP claimed that Muscat's declaration following his vote was interpreted as a warning that he had gone against the party's will, up to the extent that some Labour Party supporters had accused him of siding with the Nationalists, even though the majority of them, unlike him, had voted in favour. "Dr Muscat should have refrained from such a declaration if he really believed in granting a free vote" remarked Dr Vassallo.
Challenged to give some evidence that he was being marginalised by his own party he said that besides this particular issue, over the years he was completely ignored by the party media and not given adequate room to voice his opinions. He also claimed that the party administration is not adopting a level playing field, with some party members being given too much exposure while others are being left in the doldrums.
Dr Vassallo said that the fact his beliefs are rather conservative should not have been an issue as following his election as leader Dr Muscat had promised that he would persevere to persuade people to join the party from all the political spectrum as long as they had good intentions for the country. "It is clear now that I was the exception. On the contrary he showed me the door" claimed Dr Vassallo. The Labour MP remarked that in contrast, former Nationalist councillor Cyrus Engerer was charged with criminal offences and was embraced and welcomed into the party by Dr Muscat.
Dr Vassallo had declared his intention to retire from politics in a letter to his leader dated 26 April which he also sent to this newspaper, claiming that his position in the party was no longer tenable, as he was feeling to be an embarrassment. He made this move following another letter dated March 25 in which he had disclosed his intentions to the Party's Executive Secretary Lydia Schriha but received no feedback.
He said that since then Dr Muscat did not bother to contact him, and the only feedback he received was from the party whip Joe Mizzi who phoned him from Uganda, while on Parliamentary duties. In this conversation Joe Mizzi conveyed a message from Dr Muscat who urged him to reconsider his decision. Dr Vassallo replied that instead of relying on Joe Mizzi, he expected the Labour leader to convey his message personally but since then no contact was made even though both sides came face to face in Parliament last Wednesday.
Dr Vassallo said the PL nowadays is only concentrating in winning the election at the expense of keeping everyone in the dark about its policies. He added that this is evident with the exposure being granted by the Labour media to the PN rebel Franco Debono who is a regular guest on Labour's talk shows.
He justified the reason for his continual absence from parliamentary group meetings claiming that this has been reduced to serve as a rubber stamp for the leader's proposals, with no one daring to challenge him in the open. However his internal rifts started even before during the leadership of Alfred Sant. Dr Vassallo referred to one particular case, when he felt he was unjustifiably omitted from a committee set up during Alfred Sant's reign on the issue of drug abuse, as he felt he could contribute following a month long experience in the USA on a similar initiative organised by the US Embassy.
Though he admitted he may be a difficult person to work with the Labour MP stated that "no one can question my integrity and I was always loyal to the party". He stated that up to some time ago he had felt at ease in the party as there was no proposal in the electoral manifesto that impinged on his fundamental principles, but things recently started to change.
Referring to the term 'moderate' frequently used by Joseph Muscat to describe Labour's political stance on major issues, Adrian Vassallo said that evidence shows that the Labour leader himself is the total opposite and is acting like a communist leader or a dictator. "You either follow his orders or else you end up being insulted by him on television" claimed Dr Vassallo, referring to the time when Dr Muscat publicly warned him of facing the consequences of his decision in spite granting him a free vote on the divorce issue. He added that since then, Dr Muscat made no effort to retract his comments.
Regarding his poor participation in Parliament, he justified his absence by saying that he values mostly the quality of his contribution rather than the number of times he attended. At the same time he admitted that lately he lost interest.
The Labour MP said that nowadays the PN gives the impression of being conservative and promoting traditional values which is not necessarily true while the PL has become a free for all party trying to appeasing everyone. Dr Vassallo said that a substantial chunk of Labour supporters especially the elderly are against certain policies such as granting same-sex marriages. In particular he vociferously expressed his objection to Dr Muscat's proposal of granting some form of recognition to gay partnerships, stating that this would invariably deal a serious blow to traditional marriages. However he did not commit himself to vote against such a law, saying he needed to analyse it thoroughly first.
Asked if his decision would be considered as blessing in disguise for the party's administration, Dr Vassallo expressed his conviction that he was doing the right decision and at the end of the day as a Catholic he had to be accountable to God. This led to the issue of IVF, with Dr Vassallo reiterating his stance against it. When challenged by Lou Bondi with some of the views expressed by the late Fr Peter Serracino Inglott which according to him were not so extreme, Dr Vassallo said that Fr Peter is no exception and he had to give account of his deeds to God just the same.