It was the interview that got the country talking. Foul-mouthed and rabid, the Nationalist Party’s newest candidate Salvu Mallia laid down the law with some amazing soundbites. The one that got the most attention? “If I am suffering and want to die because I have had enough, why should some asshole in Parliament decide whether I can do it or not? …I am against abortion but I think it is something personal and should be decided by the person, not by a government.”
At the very least, his no-bullshit approach suddenly made people pay attention to the PN, which had been struggling to make much of an impact in the past few months. His candid and no-holds-barred approach employed some of the tools that have been so successful for Donald Trump. But if liberals felt comforted by the fact that a PN candidate was being open about taboo topics like euthanasia and abortion, all hope was quickly extinguished by Simon Busuttil. The PN leader issued a near immediate response to the anti-abortion lobby group Gift of Life. This is everything that was wrong with Busuttil’s statement.
1. He responded directly to Gift of Life as if they’re the only voice that counts
Thousands of people reacted to Salvu Mallia’s interview yesterday, including many people who felt their views were finally being reflected in public. But by responding directly to Gift of Life, Busuttil has demonstrated how much importance he plans to give to this organisation over the many other points of view out there.
What he should have done: Busuttil should have responded in a more general manner, without making direct reference to a single NGO.
2. He shut down the entire discussion within the PN
Just when you thought the PN might be comfortable with discussing difficult issues like abortion and euthanasia, Busuttil simply shut down the conversation by saying the PN will “not be open to the legislation of abortion or euthanasia” under his watch. What is the point of having candidates with differing views if you show no openness to challenging the party’s status quo position?
What he should have done: Busuttil should have been less absolute and left the door slightly open to having a healthy and useful discussion on these issues.
3. He contributed to the misinterpretation of Salvu Mallia’s words
Salvu Mallia never said he was in favour of abortion or euthanasia. His point was that these are deeply personal choices that should not be decided by the whims of governments or politicians. By imposing his views on his party before a discussion takes place, Busuttil is behaving precisely the way Salvu Mallia (and thousands like him) don’t want politicians to behave. It also strengthens the position of those who feel any mention of the word abortion means you want to kill babies.
What he should have done: Busuttil should have at least pointed out that Salvu Mallia never said he was in favour of abortion or euthanasia.
4. He made no distinction between euthanasia and abortion
Salvu Mallia chose to describe both euthanasia and abortion as personal choices that should not be decided by politicians, but that does not mean they are one and the same thing. The moral implications of each are rather different, even if you use the arguments of Gift of Life. For example, there is no innocent third party when an adult chooses euthanasia.
What he should have done: If Busuttil really wanted to assert his anti-abortion stance, he could have at least shown some distinction with the issue of euthanasia instead of treating them as one and the same issue.
5. He gave his leadership an expiry date and tied it to two peripheral issues
His ‘under my leadership’ comment basically means that if his party were to decide to legislate on abortion and euthanasia, he would resign. I remember a PN leader who did pretty much the same with divorce and gay marriage. Remember how that ended? These are issues that are going to be discussed whether Busuttil likes it or not. And it is terribly inadvisable for him to be so absolute in terms of his leadership.
What he should have done: Busuttil could have shared his personal views and said that unless these were to be superseded by a party decision there are no plans for the PN to legislate in favour of abortion or euthanasia.
6. His words didn’t even make any sense
The statement by Busuttil talks about not being “open to legislation”. If they said legalisation, this could have made more sense. But to rule out legislation altogether is short-sighted to say the least because it is so absolute. What if a referendum is held and the public votes in favour of an extremely limited law on euthanasia. Would he still resign then?
What he should have done: Busuttil should have read the statement at least once more before sending it out, and he should have kept in mind that he might be around for longer than this debate might last.
7. He played into Labour’s hands
Busuttil probably wanted to end this discussion and go back to talking about corruption. But by issuing such a categorical statement on abortion and euthanasia, he has opened this to further discussion, reminding undecided voters about the eternal PN weakness: the inability to discuss difficult issues. Now Labour has a great card to play: No matter how corrupt we may be, at least we’re open to discussion on issues that could mean the world to some of our voters.
What he should have done: Busuttil should have left the Gift of Life statement go by and applauded Salvu Mallia’s comments on corruption instead.
8. He took a good moment for the PN and shat on it
This could have been a seminal moment for the PN. Salvu Mallia was never going to impress the hardcore Nationalists, but he could have been a great bridge builder for the liberals who voted Labour but are now fed up of seeing bad governance. This could have been a game-changer but instead, it will serve as a reminder of the party’s weak leadership and lack of political strategy.
What he should have done: Busuttil should have reminded hardcore Nationalist supporters that they will not win an election with their votes alone. To win, they must also bring on board the more liberal section of society that has so far been consistently won over by Joseph Muscat.