Liberal, my left foot

Published: February 8, 2009 at 9:04pm

Joseph Muscat’s left-wing thinking on rent reform is being disguised and sold to the shallow thinkers in our midst as ‘liberalism’. In reality, it is the very opposite of liberal thinking, which argues that there should be the minimum state intervention in the market. The terrifying thing – terrifying because one needs reassurance that one’s future prime minister is well informed, clear-thinking and knows a bit about political philosophy – is that he himself appears to believe that he is being liberal in calling for cohabiting couples to be housed at the expense of the private sector.

In reality, what he is saying is profoundly socialist: that the state should trample over the rights of property-owners and force them to provide social housing at their own expense so that the state does not have to provide this service itself; that those who have ‘surplus’ property should be obliged to share it with others at their own expense and against their will; that those who have not bothered to work towards home ownership because they are sitting tenants and have a home for next to nothing – at somebody else’s expense – should be rewarded.

If Muscat were in the uncomfortable position of owning a house to which he will never have access – though his children will have to pay inheritance tax on it – because it is encumbered with sitting tenants, then he would not be speaking the way he is today, suggesting that even the live-in partners of sitting tenants should be given the same protected status. I hated the way Tonio Borg spoke about this issue, and his unfortunate choice of tone, language and terminology, but he was essentially right: the government has committed itself to reducing the burden on landlords and to cutting down on the extended list of those with protected-tenant status. Now Joseph Muscat and his Labour Party have crawled out of the woodwork to jabber on about extending the list of protected tenants even further, to include sexual partners, rather than restricting it.

If Joseph Muscat thinks that gay couples need the same tenancy rights as married heterosexual couples, then he should argue for gay marriage, and not for extending protected-tenant status to boyfriends and girlfriends. If he thinks that heterosexual couples who are living together without a marriage certificate should have the same tenancy status as those who are married, then he should push for divorce to allow them to marry, instead of trying to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds by saying that he will allow his MPs a free vote on something he considers to be a civil right. Once you remove the obstacles to marriage and two people choose not to get married all the same, that’s their problem and not society’s, still less their landlord’s.

More to the point, if Muscat believes that these tenants need to be protected because they can’t afford to pay real rent, then if he were a true liberal he would free the landlords to get what they can on the rental market and plan social housing programmes for those who truly can’t afford to put a roof over their heads (and not for those who can do so but prefer to freeload off others). That way, he’ll be all ready to go once he’s running the country. There is nothing remotely liberal about using other people’s private property to provide social housing.

Muscat has told the press that the minimum rent of €185 now being proposed by the government will be “a fatal blow” to some tenants. The government, he said, must ensure that there won’t be tenants who are “affected badly”. Apparently, the adverse effect on landlords doesn’t bother him at all, even though he claims – quite ludicrously – that he is liberal in outlook. He doesn’t seem to have woken up to the fact that people who can’t afford to buy or rent a home are not the private sector’s problem. Throughout Europe and North America, they are not even the state’s problem, which is why waiting-lists for social housing are endless and there are so many people living out on the streets, in shelters, in subsidised bed-and-breakfasts, or in their cars.

When Muscat was elected, it was immediately obvious to me that he would make a poor leader because he is incapable of taking difficult decisions, especially those which might lead to his being disliked by certain sectors. First he fence-sat on divorce, and now we have had more fence-sitting from him on the matter of rent reform. It is the government’s duty, he says, to make sure that neither the tenant nor the landlord suffers. Oh really? And what sort of magic wand might make that possible (please, no vulgar suggestions)? “It is our duty to protect the minorities in the country,” he said. The real minority, in this case, is the landlords whose houses and flats are occupied on a permanent basis by sitting tenants with, as things stand now, no hope of respite.

Protestant versus Catholic: living standards has published a list of Europe’s top 10 best cities to live in, based on an annual survey of worldwide quality of living. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that of the 10, only three are predominantly Catholic, and then only in name – Munich, Vienna and Brussels. Also, they are, or rather were, Catholic but integrated into what was very much a Protestant environment – hence, no comparison to Rome, Madrid or Lisbon.

Some months ago, I wrote about the real or perceived link between the Protestant work ethic and the economic development of Protestant northern Europe versus the Catholic south, and of Protestant North America versus Catholic South America. It spurred quite an interesting debate, with a variety of conflicting views, not all of them driven by Catholic prejudice against Protestants who, according to the excommunicated Bishop Williamson, recently rehabilitated by the pope, take their orders directly from the devil.

So, apart from Vienna, Brussels and Munich – Catholic but completely integrated into a dominantly Protestant work culture – the other top cities to live in are those historic hot-beds of Protestant investment in enterprise: Zurich, Geneva, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Bern, Copenhagen and Amsterdam. Is it just a coincidence? No, I don’t think so.

Exhibitionism by any other name remains exhibitionism still

Fr Joe Borg, writing a column for the religion pages of another Sunday newspaper, described a mass he celebrated for a Neo-catechumenical group. One of the curious attractions at these events is that members of the group stand up and ‘share’ – as the Americans put it – their problems and their sins with everyone else present. They’re not obliged to do so. They do so when they are ‘ready’. It is the same system as that used by support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, but pointing this out is not allowed because these are apparently religious people rather than people with problems that they can’t handle on their own or with the support of family and close friends, and so they must drag in the entire congregation too.

Fr Borg, an otherwise eminently sensible man, was impressed because a woman stood up at that mass and said: “I was unfaithful to my husband more than once.” If I were there (an unlikely occurrence) I would have tugged at her skirt and told her to sit down and belt up, that it’s between her and her husband and nobody else’s business, that giving in to the urge to unburden oneself in public to relieve one’s feelings of guilt is an act of pure selfishness, and that the only reason other people are listening is because they are insatiably curious gossips with a prurient interest in other people’s private lives, and not because they are concerned with the well-being of her soul.

The woman went on bleating about how she and her husband repaired their marriage with the help of Christ, who now appears to be a marriage counsellor in between sorting out the problems in Darfur and Iraq, and making sure that not too many people starve in India or are thrown out of their homes in China and the USA. Fr Borg wrote that he thinks it “takes guts” to tell a church full of people that you were unfaithful to your husband. No. It doesn’t. What it takes is a remarkably high level of self-absorption. The urge to confess in public is not driven by courage but by exhibitionism. These people are essentially exhibitionists. You can’t stop them confessing and telling you about their sins even if you want to. And they’re at their worst when they’re on a roll, with a big audience, lots of attention and the justification that they’re telling you about their sex life or their drunkenness or their wild spendthrift ways, in the service of Jesus.

Lots of people appear unable to draw a distinction between religious behaviour and coping mechanisms for problems that are best dealt with by other means. When you have to use a psychological or physical crutch to deal with your problems as the default scenario, then you’re not dealing with them at all, and that’s the case whether the crutch is whisky, wine, cocaine, gambling or ‘sharing’ with a substitute family called a religious group. If there are people who can’t handle their problems in a mature way without recourse to a religious group and mouthing off about their personal life in front of people who have no business knowing those things, then fine – whatever it takes and whatever gets them through the night. But sensible people like Fr Joe Borg shouldn’t promote this kind of behaviour to self-contained, well-balanced, mature adults as an acceptable way of dealing with life’s ills. You don’t solve problems by creating a dependency on something – in this case, on mass prayer and public confession. Mass prayer and ‘sharing’ in front of hundreds of strangers don’t solve your problems. They simply mask them.

This article is published in The Malta Independent on Sunday today.

6 Comments Comment

  1. Ronnie says:

    @ Daphne: Tonio Borg’s choice of tone, language an terminology were not ‘unfortunate’ but derogatory, spiteful and intentional.

    [Daphne – No Ronnie, they were unfortunate. Unlike Maltese, English demands understatement. All of what you spell out would have been read into the use of the word ‘unfortunate’ by anyone who speaks English properly.]

  2. David S says:

    People who attend AA are afflicted by an addiction , and they are in a group with the same problem where they encourage and help each other. I certainly would not think AA is an exhibitionism while I agree with you public confession is.

  3. ss says:

    “ has published a list of Europe’s top 10 best cities to live in, based on an annual survey of worldwide quality of living. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that of the 10, only three are predominantly Catholic,….hence, no comparison to Rome, Madrid or Lisbon.”

    Daphne, while I would agree that this survey is indicative of the level of quality certain cities enjoy, one must also analyse the results critically. I’m in no way defending Catholic culture as sometimes I am as exasperated as you are with certain idiosyncrasies but I believe we should put everything into perspective. For instance, if the research is carried out by an American organisation (Protestant?) there is already an important bias in favour of Protestant values and way of life, thus naturally, cities with a Protestant culture will feature at the top of the list as the best cities while others that may not be as strong on those values and qualities may not get a good position.

    One last thing – which countries do you think would have come first had the researchers asked Europeans to choose a city in which to live among the following: Zurich, Geneva, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Bern, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Vienna, Brussels, Madrid, Rome, Lisbon.

    [Daphne – I think the results would have been exactly the same, and for the very same reasons. In Madrid, Rome and Lisbon only the well-off – and by well-off I mean well-off and not those with an income from employment – can hope to achieve a comfortable standard of living. In the other cities, social services and civic amenities make it possible for virtually everyone to be comfortable. Copenhagen is so comfortable that the birth rate is one of the highest among European cities: the place is literally teeming with pushchairs, infants and toddlers. Weather isn’t everything, you know. If it were, we would all be emigrating to Africa.]

  4. Jason Spiteri says:

    I don’t think you can clear the muddle using the term ‘liberal’ in Maltese politics or politicians – because this is a country where a large majority of voters would be up in arms if they were subjected to liberal economic policies, i.e. small non-interventionist government, free market. They may not say so, but both PN and PL pander to a social democratic mindset (“what do you mean I have to pay for my pills?! what do you mean, private pension! what do you mean, the government won’t subsidize my business?!) in their manifestoes. This is why we always hear about their ‘social conscience’.

    The differences begin when we talk about the other policies – what happens inside one’s home and his religious beliefs, and whether and how the state should concern itself with these. That’s where people like Tonio Borg start to stand out.

    Your article’s main thrust is right: mixing in concerns about gays in this rent reform is by no means a liberal approach, but plain old socialism. Which is not to say that PN policies are economically liberal either, but I really can’t see how any party could pragmatically follow any economically liberal agenda in a country that squarely rejects it.

  5. Gerald says:

    Tonio Borg was simply confirming the well-established fact that the PN is a conservative, right wing party with clearly set views on divorce, abortion and gay marriage. For further instruction one should follow the euthanasia case in Italy which is creating a constitutional crisis due to the President Napolitano refusing to sign Berlusconi’s meandering bill which dabbles with Italy’s constitution and laws.
    Oh and by the way, Vincenti is at it again taking out a full page colour insert in last week’s The Sunday Times.

    [Daphne – Let’s see now, Gerald: how are Labour’s views on divorce, abortion and gay marriage any different to the government’s? Joseph Muscat made it very clear when he spoke about divorce that his opinion is personal and not party policy, which is why he is keen to give a free vote – even though he thinks it’s a civil right.]

  6. David Buttigieg says:


    Oh get real. Joseph Muscat and Labour have as much in common with the European socialists as chalk and cheese!

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