This column first appeared in Malta Today
Over the years, the Labour Party has tried hard to shed its macho, chest-thumping image…then along comes zoo owner Anton Cutajar with his hysterical ranting against the Animal Welfare Commissioner Alison Bezzina and he reminds us of the bullying stereotype the PL has tried so hard to distance itself from.
His diatribe came about because Ms Bezzina ‘dared’ to say that wild animals should not be kept in cages in petting zoos. In her role, this is a perfectly reasonable statement to make; in fact it would have been downright strange to hear her say that she agrees with caging exotic animals. Since this is specifically the kind of (illegal) zoo he has created, from which he makes a lot of money, Cutajar’s anger is obviously due to the fear that he might be shut down. (This is hardly going to happen though. The fact that he has friends in high places was made clear when the Planning Authority ‘regularised’ his zoo in 2017 even though it was developed illegally on agricultural land and a disused quarry. A fine of €50,000 was later converted to an agreement for free school visits. Another case of do what the hell you want and we will sanction your illegalities later.)
If Cutajar had kept his argument purely on the issue of whether petting zoos should be allowed or not, and expressed his disagreement with the new Commissioner, it would have been just about acceptable. But he chose to turn it into something else completely, threatening that he would write to those in charge to remove her from her role, sneering that she had no qualifications and clearly implying that he has the clout to do so because of his connections. The swagger then intensified as he used his video to talk about ‘us’ in the majority and ’them’ in the minority, boasting about the fact that he is a staunch Mintoff supporter (Mintoffjan) and that Ms Bezzina’s comment was another attempt to dictate what the Labour Party in Government should do or not do. He claimed he was ready to contest the elections on the Labour Party ticket to remove her from her post.
Frankly, Labour needs a candidate like him like a hole in the head. If the party needed anyone to cast a dark cloud on its carefully-cultivated moderate media image, they could not have found a better person.
The video he uploaded on FB was soon taken down as the backlash against him intensified, a police report was filed and widespread support for Ms Bezzina grew, which included Lydia Abela, the PM’s wife. Cutajar then decided to change tack, denying that he had tried to intimidate her and resorting to the hackneyed phrase, “I have a right to my opinion”. By Wednesday he was ready to issue a public apology and even offered to give Ms Bezzina advice on exotic animals.
His change of attitude could have been as a result of several factors. The Police probably had a firm word with him about the consequences of using FB to issue thinly veiled threats, or someone high up might have told him to tone it down. But from what I could tell, the very vocal support from all quarters for Ms Bezzina also had a lot to do with it. Mr Cutajar might also have belatedly realised that when one is in business, it does not make sense to alienate potential customers who have a different political opinion. On his profile he is back to posting photos of his exotic ‘babies’, and has stated that he would not be replying to any negative comments and would block anyone who tried to instigate further.
What this episode has demonstrated is that this kind of attempt at intimidation does not work any more, save with a certain demographic which admires this kind of thing. The rest of the public, however, is fed up of bullying tactics. We have had enough of this type of arrogance where someone can just claim they will make you lose your job after they write a letter and make a few phone calls. Ironically, Mr Cutajar, who thought he could use social media to get his own way and drum up support for his cause, quickly realised that what you post online can come back to bite you. In fact, it was the overwhelming outpour of support on social media for the Animal Welfare Commissioner which turned the tables on him, forcing him to backtrack.
And while Mrs Abela showed spine by speaking up for Alison Bezzina, the person who really should have spoken out was the person who appointed her, Robert Abela, the Prime Minister. It is only when leaders start standing up against bullying behaviour that we can collectively demonstrate that those days belong to the past and that it will no longer be tolerated. He had a chance once again to show true leadership, but once again, missed the boat.
Meanwhile, the PN still fails to make headway (in bold)
You would think that by now the Labour Party would have started to feel the heat after years of political scandals, corruption allegations, ongoing public inquiries, and a string of people in top posts who have tumbled down from their perches after they were forced to resign because of possible sinister implications in the murder of a journalist. You would think that after all this, by now, after getting rid of the ‘problematic’ Adrian Delia and placing the more ‘acceptable’ Bernard Grech in his place, the PN would have started to make some headway among the electorate. But, from what I have been reading online, the in-fighting is as vicious as ever, and there does not seem to be a solution in sight.
The biggest bone of contention at the moment is what many believe is the untenable position of MP Jason Azzopardi, who is not only the shadow Justice Minister but also one of the lawyers representing the Caruana Galizia family in the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, which Yorgen Fenech (Tumas Group CEO) has been charged with commissioning.
On the one hand, Dr Azzopardi is leading the fight to clean up politics and put an end to the dubious links between politicians and big business, but on the other hand it turns out that in 2017 he had asked Tumas Group for a freebie at the Hilton Hotel in Tel Aviv. Although he was reprimanded by the PN ethics commission for not coming forward and declaring this gift from the outset, critical PN supporters maintain that he should resign because he has been compromised. Another faction within the PN, however, maintains that while it was an error of judgement, it does not warrant resignation.
The bickering between the two sides has revealed an interesting yet, ultimately, predictable conundrum. Just how much unethical behaviour is one willing to overlook when it is a member of one’s own party? Is a little bit of corruption more forgivable than a hefty backroom deal costing millions, or do they both point to the same underlying trait and an unredeemable flaw in one’s character? Perhaps it can be argued that asking for a free hotel room is somehow worse because it is such a comparatively paltry amount that it suggests the person can be easily bought.
All of this is reminding me of the 2012 bribery case involving a Judge who accepted free meals at a Bugibba restaurant in exchange for using his influence in a Court judgement. At the time I remember thinking that such embarrassingly petty bribery was somehow much worse than if the Judge had accepted a substantial amount of cash.
I find it fascinating that those who are advocating for Dr Azzopardi to step down are being insulted and derided by those who do not see it the same way. The former are, quite rightly I think, pointing out that Jason has lost his credibility and is in no position to advocate for ‘truth and justice’. The latter, who want Azzopardi to stay on, keep coming up with all sorts of conspiracy theories, and when they have nothing left to say, they accuse those who are against Dr Azzopardi of being “in cahoots with Labour”. I also find it rather amusing that bullying tactics which would not be tolerated otherwise, seem to be acceptable when it suits one’s agenda.
With the PN in such disarray, and with its own supporters unable to agree on what constitutes real ethical behaviour, and why hypocrisy cannot be allowed to go unchecked because it undermines their entire clarion call, it is no wonder that the Labour Party is still riding high in the polls.