Auberge de Castille, Valetta, Malta, by Rosemary Dukelow
Sydney. 2 March 2013. A Saturday Morning
I take to Glebe Point Road, the road of my memories. I brave the weather and head for Broadway Centre where I plan to meet Greg Fardell, a fellow 78er. He is having a haircut. I go about looking for a bag for my camera equipment.
A long day lies ahead. It is, after all, the 35th anniversary of the Mardi Gras. We, the 78ers, have been invited to lead the parade. Some will travel on foot along Oxford and Flinders Streets before finishing at Moore Park. Others, less mobile or perhaps wanting a more relaxing view of the 300,000 crowd that has gathered to watch the parade, will ride on top a double-decker bus, covered with Generations of Love banners.
After Broadway Centre, we visit Teru Café in Glebe Point Road for a café latte. The café now takes in 33A, CAMP NSW’s centre for most of the 1970s. It was also my second home. At Teru Café, I receive a telephone call from the SBS Maltese Language Program. Marlene Galea interviews me on the significance of the evening parade and asks me what it means to me. I reply that Mardi Gras is more than a celebration of the many legal milestones of the last four decades. It is also a celebration of the change that has taken place in Australian society.
Are there other battles still to be won, she asks. Of course, there are. Same-sex marriage, same-sex adoption, IVF access, gay and lesbian-friendly old age homes…. The list is endless. But the biggest challenges facing our community, at least as I see them, are both at home and abroad. At home, many of our ethnic communities (the Maltese among them) live in a cultural freeze. Some of the migrants reaching Australia nowadays are less inclined to treat men and women as ‘equal’. Their way of thinking about gay men and lesbians is also alarming. At the international level, we still see countries persecuting our brothers and sisters. What are we doing about that?
The night parade was exhilarating. It was an opportunity to renew acquaintances with old friends, many of whom had formed such an important part of my life. There was Ron Austin, the now-styled “godfather of Mardi Gras”, Peter Bonsall-Boone and Peter de Waal. In late 1972, I came out as a gay man when I visited the Balmain home of Bon and Peter to attend a meeting of Cross-Section. There was Steve Warren. We both reminisced about Lance Gowland who drove the truck in 1978. And there was Sau Foster whom I had not seen for many years. We had shared many friends including Garry Pye, the founder of Acceptance. I also met Lynn Thomas and Col Eglinton.
The parade was exhilarating. At Taylor Square, the 78ers were welcomed by a spectacular fireworks display and the raising of the rainbow flag. A greater challenge, however, lay ahead of us. As we reached the end of our parade, someone decided that we should all travel by the double-decker bus back to the Glamstand so that we too could watch the parade. Someone, however, forgot to tell the police that we would be making our way through Moore Park. Policemen stopped us at least on two occasions and ordered the bus to turn round. They remained unmoved until a lesbian decided to sort it out … and she did. So just imagine a double-decker bus full of screaming senior poofs and dykes, making merry, going through a deserted Moore Park, as a noisy parade continues to unfold in the distance. Everyone was in high spirits. 1978 revisited we thought! This was the kind of confrontation with the police we did not mind.
As I walked along Oxford and Flinders Street, waving to the crowds along the route, I reflected on what was about to unfold in Malta, the country of my birth, a week later. Malta was set to have its elections on 9 March 2013 and all polls pointed to the Labour Party victory. I feared the return of the conservative, arrogant and inefficient self-styled Nationalist Party, a party that had tried to befriend the gay and lesbian community as the election drew near.
What was on offer for gay men and lesbians? A Labour Party that decriminalised ‘homosexuality’ in 1973 or a Nationalist Party that opposed it even though two of its senior members were known to be practising homosexual? A Labour Party that offered genuine reform including civil unions or a Nationalist Party that offered a wretched version of a civil partnership and reform to the Constitution but with no follow-up? A Labour Party that had led the way to gay and lesbian rights when in Opposition or a Nationalist Party that unsuccessfully tried to match Labour’s promises?
A Nationalist Party that promised us changes in 2008 but delivered sweet bugger all. A Nationalist Party that used gay men as political fodder including the co-opting into parliament of an openly gay man but one who appears not that interested in gay and lesbian rights. A young Labour Party leader who managed to turn the party into a movement or a Nationalist Party Prime Minister who lost the confidence of three of his parliamentarians and even failed to have his budget passed in December 2012?
Labour went to the electorate with an inspiring dream. Labour’s dream was to unite all Malta: Malta belongs to us all. In many ways its campaign was Whitlamesque. The Labour Party offered a government of the people, by the people, for the people. The Nationalist Party seemed to govern for the few, the oil purchasing scandal surrounding Enemalta clearly demonstrating that many close to the party were in receipt of kickbacks. Meanwhile, under its watch, one out of seven Maltese was either poor or at risk of poverty?
The Nationalist Party engaged in personality and divisive politics. Nationalist Party bloggers repeatedly belittled Labour supporters including gay activists. The party’s new messiah, Deputy Leader Simon Busuttil, the man with the most irritating voice in the Maltese parliament, accused one Labour parliamentarian of having a Nationalist Party face. Perhaps he would care to tell us what a gay face looks like. I am sure he is well qualified in this regard.
The Nationalist Party set out to rewrite Malta’s recent history to suit itself, accusing former administrations of being aggressive and vindictive. This from a party that had made it its business to encourage Labour supporters to leave Malta! It also set out to fabricate scandals, trying to link the Labour Party with drug trafficking.
A new day dawned on 10 March 2013 when Labour won the election, securing 54.83% of the vote (compared to the Nationalist Party 43.4%), no mean feat in a country of tribal politics! From my North Carlton home, I followed proceedings on the internet. I watched Prime Minister-elect Joseph Muscat walk Republic Street and take his oath of office at the President’s Office, then make his way to the Auberge de Castille, his new office.
In St George’s Square, I saw ordinary men and women who have been marginalised celebrating. There were also rainbow flags flying. And I reflected on what my late uncle (Guze Chetcuti) told me in 1994: Malta never changes. He was wrong. But he, too, would be celebrating today. Time will tell whether this victory will bring an end to Malta’s siege mentality and usher in a long-overdue open society.