This article first appeared on Malta Today
Joseph Muscat can be blamed for many things, especially for getting too cosy with developers and acting as if Malta is his own personal fiefdom to be parcelled out to whoever wants a slice.
However, when I repeatedly read that the widening rift threatening to tear the Nationalist Party apart was deliberately caused by Muscat because he kicked off this new legislature with the Marriage Equality Act and rushed it through, all systems go, I cannot really agree with this analysis.
Granted, it is true that he could have chosen other Bills to push through Parliament as his first act in office as the newly re-elected Prime Minister. Those who accuse him of cynically “using” the gay community to make himself look good might also have a point. I can also understand those who feel uneasy with the way the gay community and their causes have taken centre stage over the last few years, when compared with other, equally important, national matters.
But those who read Machiavellian motives in every decision Muscat makes, have gone so far as to claim that this law, which has introduced gay marriage, was a crafty, almost devious gauntlet thrown deliberately in the face of Stamperija, aimed at a party still reeling from the shock of another devastating defeat, at a time when its future leadership is still a big question mark. Their reading of the situation is that it was the equivalent of kicking someone when they are down; not content with having crushed the PN, they insist that Muscat also wanted to break its back, cause a split and render it completely ineffectual.
As I said though, I have my doubts about this conclusion, not because Muscat is not capable of mapping out such political chess moves – we know that he has it in him. My doubts stem from the fact that the signs of a serious rift within the PN have been clearly visible for a long time. The signs were not in the party structure as such, but where it really counts: when one is talking to ordinary people.
For example, for quite a few years now I have noticed that while the PN voters of my generation (i.e. people in their 50s) were still Church-going, devout Catholics, who genuinely did their best to live their lives according to their faith, their children were already heading down a different path. Many had stopped going to Church on Sundays, they did not automatically “believe” in Catholicism in the same, unquestioning way their parents did, and they eventually even adopted lifestyles which were contrary to the church’s teachings. So in just one generation you already had indications that there were going to be cracks, even if they started out as minuscule. Those in their 30s and older from PN backgrounds have had children out of wedlock, lived together rather than get married, or got married, had children then separated (and divorced) and are now living with someone else perhaps with another set of children, perhaps re-married, perhaps not. Then, of course, there are those who plucked up their courage and finally came ‘out’ to their families, steeling themselves for the inevitable reaction to come.
Obviously, I am not judging them, and obviously it is not only within Nationalist-voting families that this has happened, but it has to be acknowledged that the disturbance to a family which has traditionally voted PN with its Christian Democrat roots is going to be felt quite keenly. (Those who are very devout but who vote Labour are similarly affected, of course, when their children “stray” from their faith, but somehow it is not all tied up with their party allegiance and identity in quite the same way).
There is another reason why the belief system within Nationalist voting families has been dealt such a shock: whereas in the past almost everyone who voted PN attended a Church school, with the introduction of private independent schools, a new crop of youngsters were raised in a much more secular school environment. This has had a lot to do with their rather casual attitude towards anything religious, as has the broadening of horizons in general, which comes with further education, working and studying abroad, and being exposed to different cultures and beliefs (or non-beliefs). Cable and satellite TV and the Internet further compounded the growing rift between the generations. Just recall how quickly we went from harmless family-friendly TV shows to the Girls of the Playboy Mansion and the vacuous world of the Kardashians.
The sheltered environment of Church schools in the 80s is not only another world, but another planet away when compared to the way those who are under 30 have been raised. Even the Church schools themselves are no longer the same because they are no longer the bastion of a certain “type” of family where everyone basically came from the same social background, but are as eclectic as any other school.
And finally, EU membership saw a whole swathe of 20-somethings not only leaving Malta but also leaving behind the huge influence of their parents, breaking free from the shackles of an island full of do’s and don’ts based on social and religious norms and conformity. These Maltese migrants, however, have never lost touch with the island and in their own way have also influenced and shaped the way the others think.
In the face of all these incredible changes within their voter base, the Nationalist Party, in contrast, remained firmly rooted as it has always been in the ‘religio et patria’ mode. More and more therefore, you had people who for all intents and purposes were ‘Nationalist’ because that is how their families had always voted, who looked at this party and just could not relate, especially when it came to civil liberties.
I think the last time that the PN felt the pulse of the nation was with EU membership…but when it comes to understanding the zeitgeist, it has been downhill ever since. In short, the rift has now come to the fore because the party never fully understood the importance of separating state and Church, namely that you can still be a Catholic politician without imposing your own beliefs on the rest of the country.