Leaders cheered, booed by students

Party allegiance role reversal since 2008

Labour supporters dominated a lively University debate between the three political leaders yesterday in a reversal of what happened at the same event during the 2008 electoral campaign.

I’m certainly not a Prime Minister who goes to a Labourite policeman for a favour

Students thronged outside Sir Temi Zammit Hall from 9am to make sure they had a seat by noon.

At first it seemed the Nationalist-leaning had got there quicker because PN deputy leader Simon Busuttil was welcomed into the hall to loud applause.

But they were outnumbered by those who then welcomed Labour leader Joseph Muscat on stage to coordinated cheers of Labour’s slogan: “(Malta) Tagħna Lkoll” (Malta for All). Labour supporters also came armed with Maltese flags but these were confiscated on entry.

Their presence in large numbers created a contrast with the leaders’ debate in the same forum five years ago, when then Labour leader Alfred Sant was constantly booed by a large majority of Nationalist supporters.

This time, although not as disproportionately, the majority of students in the hall clearly belonged to Labour, who punctuated the proceedings with regular chants of “Joseph”.

Though yesterday’s debate was more civil than the last time – also organised by student media organisation Insite – students did not hold back from clapping, cheering, booing and hissing throughout the two-hour event.

Alternattiva Demokratika chairman Michael Briguglio earned the most applause as he managed to appeal to both sides of the partisan spectrum. Beaming at the thought of being given equal time to his two counterparts, Dr Briguglio boasted that his party was “always on the right side of history”. He recalled his party’s involvement in the campaigns on stipends, EU membership and divorce and praised the two other parties for slowly moving towards AD’s positions on gay marriage and drug decriminalisation – issues which seemed to enjoy widespread support among students.

“We’re already changing things from outside Parliament,” said Dr Briguglio, adding that it would take only 2,000 votes from one district to earn his party a seat in the House of Representatives.

Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi – the only leader to have participated in the 2008 debate – had to deal with an, at times, hostile crowd.

Earning strong applause when he spoke about the €1.12 billion of EU funds he negotiated for Malta, he stressed that jobs remained the first priority for students and his was the only party that could guarantee them.

Asked about Labour’s proposal to build a car park at the University, Dr Gonzi infuriated a large part of the audience when he linked parking to the need to encourage public transport.

His comment prompted heckles about “Arriva”, which forced him to admit things could have been done a lot better.

The audience was also unen-thusiastic when he spoke of his party’s credentials on divorce and gay rights and he faced booing when he mentioned the 1980s and even Labour’s removal of stipends in 1996.

He drew a much better response when faced with an antagonistic question from the floor – which the event organisers quickly pointed out had deviated from the one that had originally been vetted.

Asked how he could be trusted after he opposed divorce and gave himself a €500 weekly raise, Dr Gonzi replied by saying: “I’m also the Prime Minister who broke records on tourism, records on student participation and safeguarded jobs during economic turmoil.

“And I’m certainly not a Prime Minister who goes to a Labourite policeman for a favour,” he added, referring to the Toni Abela case.

Meanwhile, Labour leader Joseph Muscat earned applause when he spoke about his commitment to civil union for gay couples, saying this was something he would handle with urgency, unlike the current administration.

He also spoke about the “political risks” he took when he adopted a position in favour of divorce.

Dr Muscat took Dr Briguglio’s cue on drug decriminalisation, saying he agreed people should not be imprisoned for being caught with a “joint”.

Instead, he said, they should be given counselling and a warning.

Responding to Dr Gonzi’s criticism on stipends, Dr Muscat at one point read out a statement that had been issued by the University Students Council (KSU) when the Government reduced stipends in 2005.

He was quickly shot down by one of the moderators, who pointed out that he was meant to be answering a question on pensions.

“You’re being tougher than (TV presenter) Lou Bondi,” quipped Dr Muscat.

Asked about the PN’s proposal to give a grant to students to discover a European country, Dr Muscat said he could not disagree with the proposal but said one had to see whether it was a priority.

Asked by the KSU president about Labour’s “unnecessary” scrutiny of KSU’s Student House rent agreements, Dr Muscat admitted KSU was right, adding: “This is a small issue compared to the Enemalta oil commissions.”

The Labour leader concluded the debate by projecting himself as a unifier, saying when the country took major decisions it always moved forward as one people.

Dr Gonzi concluded with a message about how students were the country’s future while Dr Briguglio ended on a call against partisanship.

The debate was moderated by Insite’s student journalists Annabel Hili and Ivan Martin.


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