The government’s repeated attempts at discrediting the public inquiry into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia centre around a predominant strategy: labelling it “political”.
Understandably, after a number of testimonies and barbs between the lawyers involved, the judges on the inquiry board had seen and heard quite enough. They expressed their anger and offence at the “political narrative” that was being levelled at them. This is because the judges understand it is partisanship that is being implied in this case.
Want to discredit a journalist’s work? Call them a “political activist”. Want to create suspicion around a cause or a person? Ask whether they or their cause have a “political agenda”. Dismiss the protests about the lack of access to public land? Call the protest “politically motivated”.
Over the years, the word “political” has metamorphosed from being synonymous with “public sphere” and “good governance” to meaning “calculating” or “partisan”, and “political” and “partisan” are now used interchangeably.
As things stand, calling someone “political” or “politically motivated” nowadays is rarely a compliment.
From political to partisan
The adjective “political” and its archaic form “politic” derive from the Greek word “polis”, which means the City-State. Ancient Greek and Roman authors, unlike most politicians today, reflected constantly about justice, good government and the nature of law.
The medieval use of “politik” implied all that was prudent, sensible and wise, even when the word evolved into “political”. At the time, the sphere of political public speech was regarded as an elevated and righteous endeavour that was practised by an enlightened few.
The adjective that once implied good governance and a judicious nature now triggers an altogether different set of connotations such as “scheming” and, in the current political climate, “partisan”.
This shift in meaning might have something to do with the change in how we now perceive politics. In the past, politics was viewed as anything (and everything) to do with the public sphere, with institutions and with conflicts between nation states. Now it can also include conflicts between individuals and an institution or between an ideology and non-governmental groups.
The digital tools at our disposal now provide each of us with our very own virtual soapbox so that we may be as political and as partisan as we like. These tools are great for individual engagement but have done very little to foster any real or respectful debate about political matters.
Modern dictionary definitions of the adjective political will still place “relating to the government or public affairs of a country” first. The adjective “partisan” on the other hand, is described as “feeling, showing, or deriving from strong and sometimes blind adherence to a particular party, faction, cause, or person”.
Partisanship is when an individual exclusively supports one political party over another without room for compromise and it is a stance individuals may take when they decide to engage politically. But it is not political engagement itself.
Citizens can be as partisan as they like but not remotely political. Given that in Malta we have an entrenched two-party system, and given the way we “do politics”, which is, at best, shouting past each other, it is going to be very hard to for anyone to claim that their stance is non-partisan, even when it is and when an issue goes beyond merely advancing the agenda of one Party over another.
It is why government and Party propagandists label any form of government criticism, no matter from which corner it originates as “partisan”. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t, as they say.
Take your pick
But we can make some distinctions. Let’s take for example the protests against the government handing over large swathes of public land to the hunter’s lobby, FKNK, to manage. Protesting this move by the government was political, and rightly so, because it was contesting what in effect was severely limiting public access to one of the few green open spaces left on the island. It was everyone’s concern and not the concern of just one political party over another. It was an issue of good governance.
The two judgements regarding Occupy Justice activist Pia Zammit and that of the journalists held against their will at Castille can be considered political, not because the Judges were in any way advancing a Party agenda – hardly, they stuck religiously to the letter of the law.
These examples, like many judgments involving issues of public law, are “political” in the sense that they will inevitably have a ripple effect on similar cases which may be brought before the courts. The same can be said of most judgments of judicial review of administrative acts. Although in Malta there is, strictly speaking, no doctrine of precedent, these judgments, especially if confirmed on appeal, are an indication of how the judicial branch of the State intends to handle similar cases – they can be considered a statement of how the judicial branch intends to administer certain issues, and that’s a matter of governance and therefore there is a political content.
We also have the example of the uncouth rants in an online video against the animal welfare commissioner, Alison Bezzina, by the controversial zoo owner Anton Cutajar. After Bezzina criticised a change in Malta’s draft zoo policy that allows petting of animals, Cutajar took to his digital soapbox to issue a string of warnings and managed to turn what would normally be a run-of-the-mill animal welfare issue into a partisan one by claiming that “the more you hit out at me, the more I’m strengthened because I’m a Mintoffjan…” and “but that my Party elects a Commissioner like this who hails from the opposing clan and you attack us like this… that is unacceptable”.
In a rare display of political unity, the government, the opposition and independent politicians all showed their support for Bezzina. Thank goodness for the animals that unite us (excluding birds, of course).
When Joseph Muscat attempted to belittle the public inquiry by claiming it has “deteriorated into a political exercise”, what he was implying was that the board was acting in a partisan manner, taking sides in some way or other. The thing is, the public inquiry into whether the State has failed to protect the life of one of its citizen’s, is exactly the kind of important political exercise the country needs to undertake. The outcome of the inquiry will have a lasting effect and it is disgraced politicians like Muscat and Konrad Mizzi and the propaganda machine that props them up that are turning the inquiry into a partisan issue.
We are a long way away from the Greek and Roman philosophers’ concerns about good governance and nobody should realistically expect any form of semantic shift in the meaning of the word “political” to come out of Malta, of all places. Yet we can do some things to counter the weaponisation of the word.
We could start by acknowledging that ‘political’ is now a multifaceted, flexible word that is reflective of what it describes. More of what is political now takes places in a variety of arenas, with different types of participants contributing simultaneously and which may not always fall easily within a particular definition or narrative. And we could also try and reclaim the adjective “political” from the propagandists by being less offended by the term.