This column first appeared in Malta Today
There is a very simple explanation why, politically, Malta has never really moved forward. Too often, those who prop up their favourite politicians no matter what, love to egg them on even when they are behaving disgracefully, by using the time-honoured uniquely Maltese colloquialism “tpaxxihomx”. Roughly translated it means, “don’t give them the satisfaction’.
By ‘them’ of course, one is referring to the other side, the opponents, the adversaries, whoever they may be. I have heard this phrase used in various scenarios where there is rivalry, from football to politics to village feasts and even a marital dispute…”what? You’re going to let him see the kids even though he is late with his child support? Tpaxxihx!”
Giving in or backing down is not seen as taking the moral high ground, it is seen as lily-livered cowardice, and it does not play well, especially among those for whom winning is everything.
Its use in politics by diehard supporters is particularly fascinating. The reasoning goes something like this: the opposing party is calling for you to resign, but that would put them at an advantage and prove that they were right, and you cannot admit that, as that will make you and the party look weak and defeated, so just hang in there.
I have read the many comments by Konrad Mizzi’s supporters, as well as the belittling remarks by those who cannot understand how people can still support Mizzi despite everything we now know. The latter have called the former a variety of names: ignorant, sheep, stupid, you name it. But I think they are missing the point. Part of the reason Mizzi still has such a following is not because these people are unable to understand that he did anything wrong (I will come back to this later) but because in the cutthroat world of politics, any faltering is perceived as a chink in one’s armour which can be used to twist the knife in even further. (And to be fair, there were also Labour supporters who bluntly told Mizzi he should stop talking as he had already caused enough damage to the party.)
In the constant battle for people’s hearts and minds, the Labour Party has learned its lesson from when it was at its lowest ebb after one consecutive defeat after another. Ever since it came back into power, its motto seems to have been that, no matter what, they must always show a united front. However, while this might have worked well for the party, unfortunately, it has been to the detriment of the nation because someone like Mizzi should never have been allowed to remain in a position of power for as long as he has.
The other reason people still support Mizzi is, naturally, more self-serving. It is not a coincidence that many supporters and canvassers who lurk in the shadows of politicians refer to them as iż-żiemel (horse), because ‘betting’ on someone by working to get them elected is a surefire way to have all sorts of doors opening wide for you, for every little thing you need. A candidate is also sometimes referred to as il-qaddis (saint) for reasons which are far from holy; we often drily remark that “kull qaddis jgħin” (every saint can help) when some favour is required. Being well-connected in this small island community has always been crucial, something which those who come to live here soon discover when they are trying to get something done.
So if you despair when you go on Mizzi’s page and read: “this is just what the PN wants”, “we are in Government, but they are calling the shots”, “they are just jealous”, “the others never had to resign”, “you helped build Malta’s economy”, “kuraġġ, King” and all sorts of other fawning remarks, I would not be too impressed.
Just recall all those burly men banging on the perspex dividers during an election and their ecstatic elation each time Mizzi got elected. Do you really think they will still be hanging on his coat-tails now that he has been removed from the Labour Party’s Parliamentary group? As an independent MP, his clout and power will be greatly diminished, and as that disappears, so will all the people slapping him on the back, boosting his ego and making him feel important. Whether we like to admit it or not, a Government MP is potentially in a position to dispense all sorts of political favours, including jobs, with just a phone call – an ordinary MP has no such connections at his fingertips.
Of course that last sentence, read by someone who is not Maltese, is likely to be met with horrified shock. Maltese people will read it and shrug nonchalantly and matter-of-factly, and say, that is just the way things are done here. Which brings me to the concept of right or wrong which I mentioned earlier.
Are we really that surprised that so many still fail to accept just why Konrad Mizzi’s actions were wrong? What is it about our entire political landscape which could lead you to believe that ethics and integrity have ever been qualities to be lauded, when the average person will try to screw the system themselves every chance they get? Even after attempts to break down the implications of corruption and kickbacks into understandable layman’s terms I still find that too many people simply could not be bothered. A cunning ability to swindle is even admired by some. The way they see it (until Covid-19) the economy was good and they don’t care how it happened as long as the cash was flowing and they could party with their friends on weekends.
Did this obsession with materialism only manifest itself since the Labour Party re-invented itself under Muscat? Hardly. The pursuit of money has always been a driving force and actively encouraged by the political class. Who can forget how the billboards for Eddie’s PN harped on having trolleys filled to the brim with groceries after years of Mintoffian austerity? We were all fed up with austerity, and that one image struck just the right chord at the time. Or how we were constantly being told that we must join the EU in order for Malta’s infrastructure to be injected with millions of much-needed European funding? Yet there was barely a mention on what our own obligations to the EU would be in return. Once you condition a nation into believing the message that everything is justified as long as the economy is propelled forward, then in retrospect, I can see why Muscat tapped into this aspect of the Maltese psyche. All we heard for six years was the word “ġid” (prosperity) and how everyone would become little millionaires.
The problem is that Muscat switched on a mighty juggernaut which could not be stopped, nothing was off limits, and all behaviour, no matter how unbecoming or shady, seemed to have justified the means.
While the whole world has been financially affected by the pandemic, one of the biggest issues facing Malta’s economy is that it was on a whirlwind of excess. After several years of what felt like a scene of debauchery straight out of The Wolf of Wall Street, the country is now waking up, stone cold sober, and in some cases, dead broke, to realise that the lifestyle they took for granted, is gone.
Maybe now we will realise that we need to make do with “just enough”. Maybe it is not such a bad thing that only the most financially sound, legitimate restaurants and cafes which sprang up all over Valletta will survive. Maybe it is OK if weddings will have to be scaled down from 500 of our “closest friends” to 100 friends and family members whom we actually like. Maybe it will do children some good to learn that money’s too tight to mention at the moment and they will have to wait before they receive the latest gadget they have their heart set on. Maybe we do not really need (or can sustain) 3 million tourists but should aim for less quantity while providing more quality in the product we have to offer.
In this land of extremes, within the span of 30 years it seems we went from not having any choice to being bombarded with so much of everything that we gorged ourselves and made ourselves ill, like the gluttonous Augustus Gloop from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. So maybe it will be a blessing in disguise if the economy is no longer off the charts, so that it will give us a chance to calm down and re-assess our priorities and provide some much-needed calibration.