On 6 February, President George Vella announced a one-day conference on national unity. As he unveiled his plans, the President said that people are sick and tired of fighting and that the country could not move forward if it continues to face division in every aspect of people’s daily lives.
The President is right, of course. Public discourse in Malta remains deeply divided and partisan, as even a perfunctory perusal of the commentaries below any news item on the internet and on social media would show. Yet the President’s statement was met with a mixture of incredulity, mockery and the inevitable partisan mudslinging as if to underscore that even if the President’s intentions are undoubtedly well-meaning, the complexity of such a challenge is multi-faceted and it is going to take a lot more than a panel of speakers to foster a measure of unity.
Do as I say, not as I do
The press release announcing the initiative mentions how the President “is glad to hear political figures speak out in favour of unity, as people were being reminded, albeit passively, of the importance of this concept.”
One cannot know for certain who the President is referring to specifically, however, he is most certainly correct in labelling unity a “concept”, because as things stand there’s not much else.
Prime Minister Roberta Abela has called for unity on numerous occasions in the past year, starting with when he won the Labour Party leadership election in January 2020, then again on Freedom Day, then in an op-ed reflecting on the economic challenges of COVID-19 in Malta, and even when criticising the Opposition for “failing to offer viable solutions during a crucial time of national unity”.
Abela also called for unity during his end of year message in 2020 and again in the New Year, using the catchphrase “Team Malta”, when he invited the Opposition to support the revamped citizenship-by-investment scheme. He also appealed for further unity on the national stance towards immigration.
These calls for unity – hollow as they sound or, indeed, may be – have not gone unnoticed. In the case of the government’s response to the pandemic, Abela called for unity on the one hand but clearly struggled to present a united front on the other, especially considering the number of times government and health officials sent contradictory messages.
Even more problematic is the fact that, with the exception of an op-ed in The Times of Malta, most of the calls for unity championed by Abela were broadcast on the Labour Party’s TV or radio stations, which by their very nature are designed specifically to amplify a partisan message, often using divisive language to target critics.
Abela is merely following in his predecessor’s footsteps. Disgraced former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat also liked to invoke the “concept” of unity, whether it was when the Labour Party won the 2017 general elections, when news first emerged about the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia or when the Labour Party won major victories in the European Parliament elections. Even during his last speech as prime minister and Labour leader, Muscat said that he had taken the decision to step down so that “unity can win over hatred.”
Never mind the fact that he allowed the state-sponsored trolling and dehumanisation of Daphne Caruana Galizia to flourish during his tenure, or that Glenn Bedingfield, as a communications aide to Muscat ran a blog, under the pretext of “free speech” that was dedicated almost entirely against Caruana Galizia and government critics. And according to the testimony of Mark Anthony Sammut, the son of renowned Maltese writer Frans Sammut, given before the public inquiry chaired by Judge Michael Mallia, Muscat had asked his father whether he would be interested in contributing to a blog that would put the journalist in a bad light. Unity over hatred indeed.
A false choice
There’s another aspect of the calls for unity than simply preaching to the converted on partisan media outlets. Over the course of last year, not only has the public inquiry into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia revealed the widespread ineptitude and self-interest of Malta’s top government officials but a number of investigative stories revealed corrupt deals engineered by government ministers as well as a string of unethical practices by ministers still sitting in parliament.
Each revelation causes outrage, but nothing ever seems to come of it. Calling for unity amid all that has been going on smacks very much of simply asking the Maltese public to ignore wrongdoing and move on.
It is similar to what is unfolding in the United States. In the aftermath of the assault at the US Capitol, top voices on the American right of the political spectrum issued calls for lawmakers to “move on” without resorting to impeachment proceedings against former President Donald Trump, who many believe contributed to inciting the mob that carried out the attack – a veritable insurrection. They argued that pressing for impeachment is “divisive”.
Even as President Joe Biden called for unity in his inaugural speech, many Democratic lawmakers bristled at the prospect of “unity” as envisaged by Republicans, which is why many have insisted on impeachment proceedings against Trump, even if he is no longer in office.
When a grave crime or injustice is committed, society can only truly move on when those responsible have been held to account. Defining accountability and responsibility depend on the type of crime and the roles of those executing it. But the principle stems from the idea that to be forgiven, one must first acknowledge responsibility and, in many cases, accept some sort of consequence, usually punishment. Without accountability, social wounds do not heal but fester instead.
Unity within a democratic system would require the individuals within it to recognise that disagreement can occur in good faith. Power shifts and policy changes are part of this process, so those with different views are not “traitors”. Real unity demands that politicians prioritise achieving things for the country over ruining their political opponents or lining their pockets. It also entails respect for the democratic process.
The “unity” Abela and Muscat call for is simply a mixture of one side getting what it wants (agree with us on the passport scheme) and sweeping wrongdoing under the carpet. As long as individuals like Konrad Mizzi, Keith Schembri and a string of past and current government officials face no consequences for their actions, omissions or other censurable behaviour, and as long as calls for accountability are equated with betrayal, then there is no single one-day conference that is going to achieve any tangible results, and unity will remain very much as President Vella described it: a concept.