President George Vella’s Republic Day speech has made the rounds. And yet, what he said essentially was a repetition of what Joseph Muscat said two years ago, immediately after Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination: “Malta is bigger than this terrible event. Let us unite for the sake of our great country.”
Is there a meaningful difference between the words of the President and those of a now disgraced prime minister? Yes, but only if we reflect on the nature of truth and unity.
Vella has his sharp critics. Many see a deeply flawed, partisan politician who championed Labour in the violent 1980s, championed Alfred Sant’s Partnership fantasy, and championed Muscat for the Labour leadership. My own view is that Vella is a fundamentally decent politician whose political judgements were entangled in wider social and cultural conflicts.
It’s worth saying something more about these conflicts because they go to the heart of the issue today. Bear with me.
Vella is one of many Labourites convinced that a not insignificant portion of the blame for the violence of the 1980s should be laid at the door of the Nationalist Party. I disagree but do not doubt his honesty. Vella gave up a clear path to the Labour leadership in 1992 because he thought he wasn’t the one to lead Labour out of the hole it had dug itself in. He literally chased a gang of political thugs down Zejtun’s main street, when they turned up at his door to offer fealty.
Our 1980s are an open cultural wound because we never had a truth-and-reconciliation process. It still is possible for grievances to fester unchallenged by established truths and testimonies.
Back to Vella’s record. Yes, he supported the fantasy of Switzerland-in-the-Mediterranean, but that misjudgement isn’t evidence of indecency – he thought EU membership would make Malta a feudal outpost.
As for supporting Muscat for the leadership: I think that says more about his recognition that an entire generation of older Labour politicians had failed the party’s supporters, and he was looking for someone who could begin afresh. Was it Vella’s misjudgement or did Muscat betray his promise? At the moment, we don’t know, so we shouldn’t blame Vella.
What does all this have to do with today? It highlights issues that inform two burning questions, which we should be asking.
First, Caruana Galizia was as divisive and flawed a personality as any of us – so how could she have been so right and objective about the Panama gang, not just about what they were up to, but just how sinister the stakes were?
Second, Vella is as decent a man as any ordinary Maltese – no saint, but no charlatan. So how could he have been so wrong? He may now recognise the gang operating at the heart of government. But three years ago, when it mattered, Vella allowed his better judgement to be swayed to support the gang.
We know why. He was persuaded in the name of “unity”. The gang made him an unwitting associate by persuading him that he shouldn’t give hostages to ‘hypocrites’ like the Nationalists. Like others, he let “unity” be defined as uniting around persons and as My Party, Right or Wrong.
Maybe he was misled by that old political history of unreconciled grievances. But on the pretext of not giving hostages to the Opposition, he made his decency hostage to the machinations of crooks.
The people insisting fiercely on a different outcome over Panamagate were guided by a different notion of unity. Our personal flaws, real and deep, didn’t matter. They couldn’t get in the way because our judgement was informed by principle: the wisdom of decades of international democratic practice, which is modelled on collective good sense, not personal virtue.
So yes, President Vella, our country is bigger than this assassination. But only if we unite around principle, not around loyalty to leaders.
Corruption destroys national unity. It must be fought not just by finding out who was behind Caruana Galizia’s assassination but by eliminating the causes that made it so important to kill her.
Just as there is more than one kind of unity at play, there is also more than one kind of truth at issue. There is the truth that the criminal investigators and the magisterial inquiries need to determine. It is truth that is discovered.
But there is also political truth, which non-partisan institutions cannot determine. It is truth as creed: a statement we make about ourselves.
It’s this truth: If we are a country that’s bigger than the scandals that have engulfed us, then we must begin by saying, with no euphemisms:
Panamagate should have led to instant resignations. Muscat led us into this mess. He must go, disgraced, unapplauded. He must go now.
After that, we will need a Truth and Reconcilation Commission. Otherwise, we will be saddled with more long years of grievances without reconciliation, festering till the next tragedy strikes.