Last July, I chaired a public seminar on climate change. One intervention, directed towards Minister George Pullicino, suggested that resources like water should not be subsidised; their price should reflect their true market value. In reply, Mr Pullicino glowered: "This government is not a liberal government".
What he meant by "liberal" was a right-wing championing of market forces and individualism, associated with continental European liberalism. It is completely different from the meaning apparently given to "liberal" by Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Tonio Borg, according to Christian Peregrin's article in this newspaper on Monday.
In that article, the DPM is presented as passionately contrasting "liberalism" with the Nationalist Party's "conservative ideals". That is, the article referred to liberalism in the US sense.
Despite the report, it is virtually certain that that is not what Dr Borg thought he was doing (and since the article aims to report what he meant, then what he really intended is important). On the basis of conversations I have had with him, I would say he does not think of himself as conservative and is offended by the suggestion that he is. He follows every PN leader since the beginning (including Giorgio Borg Olivier, who as deputy leader gave a fiery speech on the subject) in considering his party to be centrist.
If I am correct, Dr Borg made what he thought would be a standard-bearing declaration of principle, but this principle was taken to be another by the reporter. Instead of clarification, there was confusion. And I believe it was a mistake that many other people would have made, since there are three powerful reasons pushing in that direction.
One is that "liberalism" has multiple, even contradictory meanings, but among many Maltese audiences the US sense eclipses the European one. Drawing a contrast with one kind of liberalism, when certain audiences are likely to think you are referring to another, is bound to lead to misunderstanding.
Second, the term "Christian Democrats" also tends to give rise to misunderstanding nowadays. It originated at a time when most Europeans were Christian. It was "Democracy" that was meant as the special marker: of a progressive party concerned to foster emancipation and popular participation in public institutions. The ideal of "solidarity" was pinned to actual rights and a formal voice given to particular social groups in structured social dialogue.
Today, the name popularly conjures up American religious social conservatives, even though their political ideals are removed from those of Christian Democracy.
The confusion exists among some politicians as well as the public. While Dr Borg himself is widely read on political history, other PN politicians and budding politicians have sometimes improvised what Christian Democracy means, and ended up sounding much more like social conservatives.
Third, there is the loss of sense that the term "solidarity" has suffered in Malta. It has been used so loosely that it sometimes appears simply to mean "sympathy" - as in, "You have my solidarity" when said to homosexual persons asking about rights.
Consequently, Christian Democracy's characteristic concern for developing policies to enhance the social ties and identities of individuals, which was salient to how it addressed the challenges of industrial society in the mid-20th century, has not been so much in evidence in the development of policies to address the challenges of 21st century cultural pluralism.
With that distinctive mark faded away, one can understand if the overarching identity of Christian Democracy is sometimes blurred, in public perception, with that of other political parties, less responsive to the times.
From the PN's perspective, this cannot be good news. It has a strong whiff of lost votes and simultaneously of lost identity - an unheroic combination.
The correct response would not be to accommodate oneself to "liberalism". In Europe, Liberal parties are rumps, at most potential junior coalition partners, while in the US liberalism is only a stream in the broad Democrat Party. The most creative politicians on either side of the Atlantic have not emerged from these political groupings.
The best of liberalism (US and EU) today is ensconced in academe. A lot of its most creative work is aimed at addressing the challenge of recognising the communitarian dimension of individuals, and of combining the dispersal of power with the development of their personal capabilities. These are questions that also lie at the heart of Christian Democrat thinking and in thinking about them it has developed considerable resources.
The challenge for the PN is whether it can persuade people that it is capable of addressing, with sufficient freshness and with its resources, those questions that are fuzzily, inaccurately but tellingly called the liberal questions of the age.