Speakers, guests clash over political ideologies in Times debate

Audience protests at Sceberras Trigona comments

It's been a year of political earthquakes, with the UK's Brexit decision and the USA's election of Donald Trump rattling certainties and leaving many with more questions than answers. 

What has caused this political backlash? Why are voters shunning traditional politicians? And can we expect the uncertainty to prevail through 2017?   

Times of Malta is hosting a debate titled 'Brexit, Trump... Should we blame democracy?', at the Intercontinental Hotel this morning to answer some of these questions.  

Former Prime Minister and Nationalist Party leader Lawrence Gonzi, the special envoy to the Prime Minister and former Foreign Minister Alex Sceberras Trigona, activist and sociologist Michael Briguglio, satirist and blogger Wayne Flask and businessman and former politician Josie Muscat are the key speakers.

Times of Malta online editor Herman Grech will be moderating the debate, and we will be providing a running commentary of proceedings.

10.50am And that wraps up the debate. 

Dr Gonzi made it clear that income inequality had him seriously concerned, Dr Sceberras Trigona was keen to trumpet the current government's economic achievements - riling many audience members in the process - Dr Muscat defended Donald Trump by hook or by crook, Dr Briguglio couldn't mask his disillusion with the left and Mr Flask mourned what he termed "the death of ideology." 

10.44am Dr Gonzi says this year's political results have not shaken his faith in the democratic system, and he urges locals to look at themselves and their country with pride. "We are the EU's smallest member, and yet we are doing better than our neighbours."

The problem, he reiterates, is income distribution. "I think there are answers, but we need to work in a constructive way."  


10.40am Dr Sceberras Trigona takes issue with an audience member having suggested that the selling of passports is not consistent with a socialist government, and says PN members have no credibility in criticising the scheme. 

Political talk around the issue is "cantankerous and cancerous", he says. Many audience members murmur in disagreement. One doesn't bother with such niceties and instead yells out "you're the one being cancerous!"

The former minister then goes on to look a bit further ashore, and suggests reevaluating the relationship between the global North and South in the years to come. 

10.38am No left or right? No way, says Mr Flask. "Everyone is scrambling to the centre. Nowadays, anyone on either side of the centre is seen as an extremist." 

10.36am Josie Muscat dismisses talk of political left and right, and insists the media is biased in expressing concern about the year ahead. 

10.32am Will 2017 be a messy year politically, Dr Briguglio is asked. 

The sociologist urges PM Joseph Muscat to "defend and sell the European dream" during Malta's presidency of the EU Council. He warns of the dangers of allowing the far-right to monopolise debate.

And right on cue, a fire alarm goes off.  

"Everyone is scrambling to the centre. Nowadays, anyone on either side of the centre is seen as an extremist."
- Wayne Flask

10.25am The right "has successfully rebranded" and taken on board many ideas that used to "belong to the left", Mr Flask says. He notes Marine Le Pen's focus on social welfare, and the left's failure to successfully manage migrant integration.

10.20am The issue is about income distribution, says Dr Gonzi. "Bottom line, that's what hits home. Be it in Malta, Washington, or anywhere else."

Globalisation has created "a mess" in income distribution, with inequality growing, he says. "And this applies to Malta too."

"Please don't make the mistake of thinking that just because our economy is growing is 6 per cent everything is fine. Things could very easily change," he says. 

10.17am Taking his cue from an audience member's comments, Dr Briguglio points to Canada as a positive example for others to follow. 

"Inward-looking politics are today's biggest danger. Outward-looking politics, as our Canadian friend in the audience mentioned, cross the political spectrum. [German Chancellor] Merkel is the EU's biggest champion at the moment. She is standing up to be counted."

Don't make the mistake of thinking that just because our economy is growing is 6 per cent everything is fine.
- Lawrence Gonzi

10.10am Marlene Farrugia is in the audience, and the MP sets her sights on her former party, the PL. "The left is only the left while it is in opposition," she says, before railing against the existing PL government and its policies. 

Inequality is on the rise in Malta, she tells Dr Sceberras Trigona, who had previously touted the government's economic successes. 

10.04am A few more comments from the audience. Liberal democracy has made it too easy to label people, one man argues, "and that has affected discourse."

Another takes issue with Dr Sceberras Trigona's pro-PL talk. Why did the government have to wait for NGOs to rise up for it to start addressing civil rights issues, they ask. 

10am Dr Sceberras Trigona decides the debate is pointless. "How can I discuss Trump when I don't know his presidential agenda? Does anyone actually know what Brexit means?" 

He says the Labour Party administration is proof that "the left" is working. Cue lots of murmuring and a couple of sniggers from our audience members.  

9.57am Josie Muscat is defending Trump and talk of his wall, and reaches for an odd hypothetical. "Imagine the same situation in Malta. Wouldn't you want to send the drug dealers, rapists, criminals back?" 

9.55am The EU could be more democratic, Dr Briguglio says, "but let's remember what the alternative is. The alternative is Putin, who is carpet bombing Syria while we sit here eating our omelettes." 

He turns to Mr Flask. "I love your satire, but Fidel Castro would have you in jail," he says. "The Left shouldn't mourn Hugo Chavez. People there were equal - but equal in poverty." 

9.52am "We have a responsibility to come up with answers, rather than building a wall or asking to change the subject," Dr Gonzi replies. Those who shout loudest should not dictate the agenda, he says. 

"I love your satire, but Fidel Castro would have you in jail."
- Michael Briguglio to Wayne Flask

Talk of "the EU" can sometimes be misguided, he adds, noting that "the EU" is a grouping of 28 different nations and Prime Ministers. 

9.48am Perhaps it is the EU's lack of democratic processes which has led to the upheaval, one man says.

Another man argues that the existing PL government is trying to "build a new establishment" with its manoeuvrings, and then goes on to ask Dr Gonzi whether there is a new Christian Democratic response to the existing situation.

9.45am Our moderator has opened up the floor to questions from the audience, and two dozen hands shoot up. 

 "Nobody has used the phrase 'neo-liberalism', not even a single time," one notes, adding that the fact that the panel is made up entirely of men is indicative of where power really lies. 

A second audience member picks up on the neo-liberal point. "It's the economy, stupid!" he exclaims. "We're seeing the long-term effects of these massive economic changes." 

9.43am Mr Flask notes that the media landscape has changed dramatically over the past 50 years. "Can anyone tell me what the main issues in the US election were, other than building a wall?" 

9.36am The subject of today's debate, says Josie Muscat, is the result of "a total and complete failure of the media."

"The media wants to dictate," he says. "What it forgot was that Trump defeated 16 other candidates before him. He couldn't have been wrong 16 times." 

9.31am "I experienced a totally different reality growing up," Dr Gonzi says as he makes it clear he sees things in a very different way to his political rival Dr Sceberras Trigona. 

"The media wants to dictate."
- Josie Muscat

"I believe that there are a set of values that remain constant," he says. "Today there seems to be a politics of anger," he says, quoting rabbi Jonathan Sacks. "Today's politicians need to address this." 

9.28am Dr Sceberras Trigona argues that values must be contextualised. The Inquisition had "values" too, he says. He lectures the audience about a 1995 Umberto Eco essay, and then pivots to Montesquieu, before going for the jugular. 

When the Labour Party wins elections, it enters government but does not control any of the other branches of 'the Establishment', he says. "When the PN wins, it joins up with the old boys' club." 

9.24am Talk of values seems to have pushed Mr Flask's buttons. What sort of values were on display when the Paceville master plan was drafted, he asks. Planning "seems to be a playground" for politicians, he says. "When I look around me, I find it hard to believe that politicians have our best interests at heart." 

9.21am Dr Gonzi is concerned that "we've forgotten about the language of values in politics."

"When the PN wins, it joins up with the old boys' club."
- Alex Sceberras Trigona

He urges people not to denigrate local politicians. "Why is it that we talk about everything except that which is value-based?"

It shouldn't matter if a person is dark- or light-skinned, or whether they arrive on a cruise liner or a small boat, the former PM says.   

9.18am Michael Briguglio is uncomfortable with the whole 'establishment' debate. "The EU is most definitely the establishment, and I am pro-EU. Does that make me pro-establishment?" 

Populist parties are "winning the language game", Dr Briguglio says.  

9.14am Both Joseph Muscat and Simon Busuttil have been busy declaring their anti-Establishment credentials, but Mr Flask isn't having it. 

"It's a bit like a tiff on a school bus," he says. 

"There are tens - dozens - of undeclared interests on both sides of the House. If they are not 'the Establishment', who is? NGOs?"

9.10am Dr Muscat reckons that the first signs of a political earthquake did not come from the Brexit vote, or protests in Greece or Spain, but rather much further east in India. 

The rise of Narendra Modi - who completely wiped out the Indian National Congress party that had dominated politics for decades, he says. 

Dr Muscat is not all that downbeat about eventual victories of far-right parties in France and Austria. "We have to give them a chance," he says, as he notes that political waves come in cycles. 

9.05am Dr Sceberras Trigona takes an academic turn, with Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz and political scientist Francis Fukuyama both featuring in his opening statement.

The post-Cold War euphoria surrounding multilateralism is no more, says Dr Sceberras Trigona. That Cold War dividend has been lost, he says, as has the peace dividend that the fall of the Berlin Wall seemed to augur.

9.02am Moderator asks Dr Briguglio if social media is leading to more uninformed decisions by voters.

The sociologist is hesitant to blame social media. Technology is a tool, he says, and activists in Egypt, for instance, used it to their advantage.

Populism, he adds, "is not just of the right." Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, he says, went down the populist route and "squandered everything."

9am Dr Gonzi kicks off proceedings, and he immediately defends the democratic process. "We might agree or disagree, but let us not undermine the most important development in our civilisation," he says. 

The former Prime Minister says that he sees the after-effects of the global financial crisis in this year's political upheavals, as well as the cultural impact of immigration and terrorism on the general societal mood.  




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