Earlier this month, Lovin Malta and Xarabank invited Prime Minister Robert Abela and PN leader Bernard Grech to a political debate. Despite several requests and reminders, both have yet to accept the invitation. Here are several reasons a debate needs to happen sooner rather than later.
1. Malta hasn’t had a debate in almost four years
It might be hard to believe, but the last time Malta’s political leaders agreed to a televised debate was in May 2017. Then Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and Opposition leader Simon Busuttil had faced off in a tense live debate on Xarabank ahead of an early election.
This was months before the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia which has since radically changed the island’s political landscape and discourse. In three and a half years, voters have been deprived of a debate, with both Joseph Muscat and his successor adamantly refusing regular challenges by the now-ousted PN leader Adrian Delia. Three and a half years is too long for voters to be deprived of a debate.
2. Both parties have new leaders who have never debated before
Since the last political debate, both parties have change leaders. In the PN’s case, this happened twice over. Prime Minister Robert Abela never agreed to a debate with Delia and he seems to be shying away from one with his replacement Bernard Grech. What’s more worrying is that even Grech seems to be reluctant now, even though he insisted on putting his name forward as PN leader despite having no political experience. Ironically, Grech became a favourite to replace Delia because of his debating skills honed throughout the years on Xarabank. So why hasn’t he accepted the invitation yet? What is he afraid of?
3. Both leaders need to train themselves in debates before an election is called
What both leaders should be afraid of is continuing this status quo where they rarely get to test their debating skills. There are rumours of an election being called early next year, so this is a great time for them to train and sharpen their skills. Christmas won’t be a great time for a political debate but delaying until the New Year could be too late. This is the time both leaders can get used to each other’s debating style and improve their performance closer to an election. Unless they plan on dodging debates even during an election campaign, which would be more disconcerting.
4. We need our leaders to be challenged on the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic implications
If nothing else, Malta urgently needs a debate on the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. The country seemed to handle the first wave very well, but as the second wave escalates to record numbers, people are worried – and they’re right to be. Deaths are rising, tourism has ground to a halt, our economy is suffering and the only political direction seems to be coming in the form of Tweets and controlled interviews on party stations. Why aren’t our leaders ready to challenge each other on their proposed directions? We deserve to know their thought processes.
5. We need a discussion on issues like immigration, abortion, corruption, cannabis legalisation and controversial land deals
One advantage of political debates is that it gives voters the chance to see politicians actually discuss policy and make side-by-side comparisons. It’s easy for our political discourse to be taken up by nasty tit-for-tat comments about matters that interest the political leaders. But what about the issues that voters care about? Shouldn’t we see how our leaders compare on controversial issues that voters are discussing in their homes?
6. Debates are a fundamental aspect of democracy and crucial to informing voters
Debates aren’t optional in a democracy. They’re a fundamental aspect of it and they help to ensure accountability. They also give voters the chance to make informed choices on those vying for the same position. Debates are important because they focus on policy but they also inform voters on other matters, such as the character traits and temperament of politicians. How do they respond when they’re caught off-guard? How do they treat their opponent? These things matter to voters because they show us what politicians are like when they’re debating issues behind closed doors.
7. Appearing on political media to preach to the converted isn’t an alternative
It’s bad enough that Malta is the only country in Europe where political parties own the major broadcasting stations. When political leaders insist on only appearing on their own stations they end up preaching to the converted and avoiding the tough questions. But crucially, they avoid each other. A debate would counteract this and give people the chance to watch a discussion that isn’t controlled by one party or the other.
8. After such a drawn-out tense political climate, we need to see the leaders treat each other with respect
Malta’s political climate has been terribly tense since the Panama Papers hit in 2016. Things got worse when Daphne Caruana Galizia was assassinated and they reached a head late last year when the investigation began pointing directly at the Office of the Prime Minister. After several high-profile resignations, things have begun to settle down, but with two new leaders in charge, the country needs a civil debate. Voters need to see our leaders can engage in a respectful debate. The longer we hide from debates, the more we prolong this period of mistrust and cynicism.
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