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Malta’s ‘Establishment’

The ‘Establishment’ is a word which has become familiar to us due to its use during the United States presidential campaign. It is a word which stands for those dominant social groups and structures which wield power or heavily influence it in a nation.

Obviously, in Malta we also have an ‘Establishment’ which in our case is made up mainly of the two major political parties, the business community and the media. The majority of the Maltese people do not feel that they belong to the Establishment, whose members are perceived as being the power brokers in Maltese society.

Let us start with the two main political parties. Both the Labour Party and the Nationalist Party are highly-organised political structures with their own media. Both when in government and also when in opposition, they are capable of influencing public opinion and getting people to support their position on political issues which affect the whole Maltese population.

The electoral programme of the political party which is successful at a general election will chart the course which the country will follow for the next five years.

When a political party is in power, one can perceive an exercise of power on three levels. First of all, there are the all-powerful government officials, then the party apparatus made up of party officials, and finally the party supporters whose say in influencing the course of action is very limited indeed.

In fact, one can have a situation where the government officials decide upon a particular course of action which is wholeheartedly supported by the party officials but is very unpopular with the party supporters. In Malta, we have seen several examples of this in the past.

The political party in opposition also has a certain amount of power in that it is organised enough to mobilise public opinion on particular issues. The party apparatus made up of hundreds of officials can be used to mount a campaign in support of a particular political position, usually against the government of the day.

Again, both in this case and that of the political party in power, the ordinary people who support the party usually have very little say in the major decisions taken although the opposite impression is usually given. In reality, decisions are usually taken at the top within a very closed circle and then the rest of the party and its supporters are ‘consulted’ to rubber stamp the decisions already taken.

Party delegates, for instance, in theory have considerable de jure power but in practice their de facto power is immensely limited

Party delegates, for instance, in theory have considerable de jure power but in practice their de facto power is immensely limited.

Exactly below the main political parties in the pyramid of power one finds the business community. In a small country such as Malta the business community has considerable political clout.

Decisions taken by powerful businessmen can seriously affect a government’s electoral programme, especially where employment is concerned.

Furthermore, the support of powerful and influential businessmen can be crucial in helping a political party to be successful at a general election. All this obviously leads to a debate about the undesirable influence the business community may have on the major decisions taken in Malta.

What happens if a major decision to be taken by a government is unwelcome to the business community? Will extreme pressure be put on the government to change its decision or face the consequences at the next general election, even if the decision to be taken is in the national interest?

Many Maltese feel that the most problematic aspect of the power pyramid is indeed the way certain business interests tend to impinge on the political exercise of power. The majority of Maltese citizens are of the opinion that unelected businessmen should not condition the government into a certain course of action and that government decisions should respect business interests but should also not be based on them.

The third tier of the pyramid of power is made up of the media. I have always marvelled at the way Maltese society is influenced by it. General elections have sometimes been decided by mistaken public perceptions created by the media.

Do you still remember how the 2008 general election result was influenced by the ‘reception class’ controversy when a perfectly commendable educational proposal by Labour was sabotaged by certain elements of the media and presented to the public as a ‘repeater class’?

I still find it incredible that, less than a decade ago, so many people could be so gullible and so easily manipulated by certain elements of the local media.

Make no mistake about it, the influence of the media in Malta is a major factor in influencing important political decisions. The local media is a major power broker. It creates perceptions that often totally obscure reality; it exerts pressure on the government, sometimes forcing it to change a certain course of action. It can push forward a particular agenda which may be against the national interest but in the interests of certain powerful members of Maltese society.

Some may say that this happens everywhere in the world. Granted, but even more so in Malta because, despite globalisation, we are still to a certain extent an insular society.

There are lesser power brokers too such as pressure groups and lobbies. The Church also retains a certain influence in Maltese society.

However, I believe that the major political parties, the business community and the media are by far the most powerful components of the Establishment.

It is our duty as citizens to work towards ensuring that all major decisions taken are in the best interests of our country. We have to do this even if it means taking on the Establishment as Donald Trump successfully did in the United States.

Desmond Zammit Marmarà is a Balzan Labour councillor.

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