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Dwight and Varist

When you thought you’ve heard it all, enter another debate in Parliament and you have to start again.

What emerged yesterday in Parliament again confirmed a very scary prospect. While both parties lived up to their self-given tasks and scrambled to secure their hegemonic position, serious symptoms of the possible death — or at least a deep coma — of politics, were reconfirmed.

With an Opposition busily milking the Panama case and a government waxing lyrical on its various achievements, it was evident that in their majority, our MPs are comfortable with a situation where they stay put while people quibble which side they should take.

This appears to be fiercely political, but in effect it is the very opposite. The current scenario is pushing our democracy into a quietist zone — where it risks becoming qualunquista.

The Panama aftermath may look like a point of no return, especially with Minister Konrad Mizzi not being consigned to the backbenches. But what in effect the Panama case has brought to Maltese politics is a quietism that stands to grow further while real politics - that of education, of social justice, of civil rights, of the health service, of institutional reforms, and even of the politics of the economy -dies a slow death and becomes a matter of mere customer care and delivery.

My fear is that Panama further confirms that wealth is playing a much more heavy role in governance than it should

However, there is a silver lining in that in Parliament we also heard a few voices from MPs who are still holding onto political values as they are very conscious of the dangers of anti-political quietism. These are the MPs whom some so-called Labour “loyalists” publicly told to “shut up”, either because “the leader has spoken” or because this “gives mileage to the Opposition” — as if the Opposition needs any help on this matter.

Anyone who listened carefully to Minister Evarist Bartolo’s speech in Parliament yesterday might agree with me when I say that this was one of those historic speeches that indicate a crossroads in a democracy’s political life.

It was a short speech and it was not dramatic, but it did somehow remind me of the late Robin Cook who, disagreeing with Tony Blair’s Gulf War, tendered his resignation and then in a short personal statement in Parliament, spoke eloquently about ethical foreign policy — a project which he nurtured but which found its demise with the Iraq War.

Minister Bartolo — or Varist, as many know him — did not resign or vote against his whip, but his speech carried similar weight and significance to Cook’s in that it cut through to a major ethical issue. Varist chose to cite President Dwight Eisenhower’s warning against the debilitation of democracy through parallel hegemonies which emerge as powerful lobbies outbidding the people itself.

Minister Bartolo’s speech insisted on the moral life of our democracy. He also accentuated the danger of parallel powers, where what appears on stage is countered by what goes backstage. He spoke of the clientelistic dangers of small democracies. He critiqued the Opposition’s shortcomings when it came to reforms in party financing. He also spoke of the need for vigilance against the anti-politics emerging on both the Right and the Left in Europe and elsewhere.

Somehow Varist’s speech confirmed all my fears but also reassured me that not all MPs are caught in this quietist turn. He also confirmed my worst fear, about which I already wrote in my article The Moral Life in this very blog.

My fear is that Panama further confirms that wealth is playing a much more heavy role in governance than it should. This is not simply in terms of those politicians who are ready to put their money offshore - and Panama is the last in a series of other cases which go back into other legislations - but where wealth could well create the situation which Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican President, warns against.

In his farewell speech to the nation, President Eisenhower speaks of “the need to maintain balance in and among national programs – balance between the private and the public economy, balance between the cost and hoped for advantages – balance between the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable; balance between our essential requirements as a nation and the duties imposed by the nation upon the individual; balance between the actions of the moment and the national welfare of the future. Good judgment seeks balance and progress; lack of it eventually finds imbalance and frustration.”

So while some are happy that this government steams on with the delivery of a strong economy and other programmatic business, the question here emerges: is the balance that Dwight mentions, being taken into consideration?

Taking Varist’s analogy of the stage, I would argue that this balance could be kept only if a democracy’s political actors are one with their audience - which, let’s not forget, is not a passive bunch of spectators.

If what goes on backstage becomes an obstacle to this balance between our political actors and democracy’s participative audience (the “people out there” as our beloved MPs like to call us), then a much more serious political crisis is awaiting to happen - where politics would die and we’re left with neutered managerial administrations maybe calling themselves social - or Christian-Democrats, but only to placate their tribes and keep a semblance of difference.

 

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