Emergency contraception: another trap Muscat has laid for Simon Busuttil – and he walks right into it

Published: October 17, 2016 at 3:08pm

If the debate about emergency contraception (known as the ‘morning-after pill’) appears to you to have come out of nowhere, then it’s because it did not. I am one of those who think it completely ridiculous that emergency contraception is not available in Malta and over the counter, but my work as a commentator about politics and social affairs means that I observe the bigger picture narrowly, drawing all the ends together.

And that means I can see it did not come out of nowhere. One fact that has been kept hidden from the public is that one of the original initiators of the campaign is Nikita Zammit Alamango of the Labour Party’s Youth Forum. Ms Zammit Alamango presents herself as just another woman campaigning for emergency contraception, but in reality she is one of the couple of people who raised this issue in the first place and who is driving the campaign.

This is significant because Ms Zammit Alamango is one of the government’s/Labour Party’s inner circle, is politically very close to Joseph Muscat, and was one of the key members of Muscat’s/the Labour Party’s campaign team in the 2013 general election. She even worked on the Labour Party’s electoral campaign in 2008, when she helped lead a team of people whose task it was to write letters to the newspapers falsely claiming to be private citizens who were angry at the (Nationalist) government.

She was rewarded for her services to the Labour Party’s 2013 election campaign with a position on the board of directors at the Water Services Corporation and a job as senior manager of corporate services, human resources, marketing and communications at the government’s utilities billing agency, ARMS Ltd.

In other words, if Ms Zammit Alamango has organised a campaign for the introduction of emergency contraception in Malta, it is not because she wants to convince the government of its merits and of the importance of making it available. She has a hotline to the Prime Minister and the government and can persuade them directly. Her campaigning history is in campaigns to persuade us to dislike the Nationalist Party and to vote for the Labour Party, and not in campaigns to persuade the Labour Party of the importance of certain issues.

Nikita Zammit Alamango is working on the emergency contraception campaign for the very same reason that she worked on the Labour Party’s other unofficial campaigns before the 2013 general election and in its immediate aftermath: to make Simon Busuttil and his Nationalist Party look like conservative “fossils” who are out of touch with reality.

This campaign, like earlier campaigns driven officially and unofficially by the Labour Party for same-sex civil unions and adoption, transgender issues and others, has drawn in hundreds if not thousands of vocal individuals for whom this is an opportunity to get what they need. They are right to seize it. The Labour Party’s cynical manipulation of their needs and desires, of what they think is essential, is not their concern.

The fact that Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, whom I hold in the lowest regard possible, brought the divorce bill before parliament purely to destabilise Lawrence Gonzi’s government did not stop me and tens of thousands of others from voting for divorce legislation in the referendum which followed. This country was in desperate need of divorce legislation and had been for decades, and we would have been irresponsible to wait around until a nice, decent and genuinely-motivated MP brought a bill before parliament.

The same thing is happening here. The thousands of people who want emergency contraception to be made available over the counter in Malta don’t give a monkey’s cuss that the campaign is being driven by the very government/party they are petitioning for legislation, purely to make the opposing party look terrible. If this is the opportunity to get emergency contraception made available as it is elsewhere in civilised society, then they will take it. I am with them in their demands. My criticism is not of these women whose concerns I share, but of the politically motivated among them, who are cynically using their real concerns for political gain.

In this context, I am far from thrilled by the way the Opposition leader has walked slap-bang into the trap that the Labour Party has laid out for him. This has been designed as a trap to make Simon Busuttil and his party look like “fossils” (the word is being used all the time by those driving the campaign, who simultaneously fail to point out that the Prime Minister hasn’t even bothered to tell them what he thinks) and he has duly obliged by walking – rather than accidentally falling – right into it.

Busuttil has demonstrated constant inability to see that his role as the leader of a political party seeking election to government places very different demands on him to those of a lawyer in professional practice, or a member of the European Parliament. His role now is not to negotiate or seek common ground, but the precise opposite. It is to pull the rug out from under Muscat’s feet, and to seek every possible opportunity to wrong-foot him and make him look bad. People aren’t going to vote for Busuttil because he’s “reasonable”. They’re going to vote for him because he makes Muscat look lousy and evades his traps. As things stand, people have formed a very strong view of Muscat’s lousiness with no help from the Opposition at all, which is saying something.

Busuttil seems to be used to conciliatory European-Parliament-style politics, in which you shake hands, sit down, have a bland discussion that lasts for hours, post a photo to Twitter and announce a watered-down conclusion that completely fails to catch the Zeitgeist. It is dangerous to pretend that this is not a problem, because it is. This country can’t afford to have a corrupt government controlled by Keith Schembri, Konrad Mizzi and Joseph Muscat (in that order) for another five years. They those five years to populate their Panama companies with assets, to use the term Mizzi favours, and they should be stopped.

The Nationalist Party’s advisers, and we now hope that Caroline Muscat will deliver on this, have got to drive a lightning bolt into Busuttil and get him to show some anger about something, anything. The perceived lack of anger drives people nuts, and it is perceived as coldness and indifference. When he tries to sound angry, it comes across as manufactured, even though those who know him know that he really is angry about corruption and other issues, and that he is not indifferent to the concerns of individuals.

Busuttil has also got to make the first move. When the Labour Party, through the agency of individuals like Nikita Zammit Alamango, started a campaign for emergency contraception, instead of hanging about waiting for “advice from medical professionals”, he should simply have used his common sense and basic political intuition and backed the campaign, saying “Yes, of course emergency contraception should be available, and why has Muscat engineered this debate for partisan reasons when he is in a position to just go ahead and legislate?”

Busuttil’s propensity to walk straight into loaded Labour traps is worrying. He started as he meant to go on back in July 2013 with the Security Services issue. He was called in for a meeting to reassure him about the Security Services and emerged obligingly reassured. Aside from the fact that he shouldn’t have been reassured at all, given the nature of the people involved, he should never have gone along, and never in a million years emerged from the meeting to give the government’s choices his stamp of approval. He should have instead turned it into the massive political issue it should have been, a public-interest issue, a matter of public concern. It should have been a full-on Opposition campaign: THE GOVERNMENT IS SPYING ON YOU. Few things make a government less liberal than spying on its citizens, but that is exactly what this government is doing.

Busuttil did the same thing when he accepted Muscat’s invitation to have him and other Nationalist Party representatives sit on some kind of committee to scrutinise the names of those who apply to buy Maltese citizenship. He should have been able to see that the last thing Muscat wanted was him and his party scrutinising the names, that he only wanted to be able to say that the Nationalist Party was cooperating and on board. And in fact, that committee met just once and never again. Busuttil should have simply told Muscat where to shove it, saying: “We’re not going to get into bed with your mess. You’re entirely responsible and don’t try to involve us.”

With the emergency contraception debate, the Nationalist Party leader should have come out in favour of total liberalisation. This would have pulled the rug out from beneath Muscat, who hasn’t even pronounced himself on the matter. But it is Busuttil, not Muscat, who is being targeted by the campaign. That in itself should tell you everything you need to know about its political motivation. The campaigners are not going after Muscat, in whose hands the power to legislate lies, for the opinion he has failed to give. They are going after Busuttil as though he is in power himself.

By passing the buck to medical professionals, Busuttil has allowed the campaigners to twist his words and succeed in their aim of portraying him as a “fossil” with younger members of society and those still in the throes of an endless midlife crisis. Busuttil never said that you should have to go to a doctor for a prescription to get the morning-after pill, but because of his equivocation, he has been portrayed as saying exactly that. Meanwhile, Muscat has said nothing at all and got away with it.

The Nationalist Party is squandering opportunity after opportunity, and watching it do so is maddening and frustrating. The Labour Party has haemorrhaged almost all the 36,000-vote majority it won in the last general election, which means that 2018 is the Nationalist Party’s election to doggedly set at losing.

The unavailability of the emergency contraceptive pill is a very real problem for young people in Malta. Young women are swallowing multiple doses of the ordinary contraceptive pill to achieve the same result. While some politicians and others are stupidly talking about the need for a prescription for emergency contraception, because it is not something to be taken lightly, young women are taking their entire packet of contraceptive pills, which they have obtained on prescription, and swallowing the lot at once. This is a problem.

And contrary to the impression the campaigners try to give, this is not a women’s issue but a young people’s issue. It takes a man to make a baby too, and men are responsible for the outcome both at law and morally in fact. It is an issue that strikes at the very core of young people and their lives, and while concern about corruption tops the list of people’s preoccupations in published surveys, general elections are won by breaking down the electorate into special-interest groups and addressing their concerns. It is preoccupying that the Nationalist Party still doesn’t understand this.

He is morally, ethically and in terms of common decency the better man. But his strategic thinking leaves much to be desired.

He is morally, ethically and in terms of common decency the better man. But his strategic thinking leaves much to be desired.