Former Labour Speaker, minister, doctor and environmentalist DANIEL MICALLEF tells Herman Grech it was integrity that made him soldier on in politics, despite the odds.
Daniel Micallef offers a gentle handshake and makes a beeline for his “den”, a room in his garden where he researches the environment and alternative medicine.
In a gentle voice, the 82-year-old doctor explains how his room at Tal-Virtù, Rabat, doubles as an oasis of peace and tranquillity.
It is almost impossible to believe that Dr Micallef was Speaker of the House and a Labour minister during Malta’s most turbulent political period.
But 25 years on, his house still bears several reminders of his political connections. Dozens of newspapers, some dating back to the 1970s, are scattered all over the room. The shelves groan under the weight of religious and political books.
A pamphlet of the Labour Party’s MEP candidates sits on a chair along with cardboard illustrations related to his environment research.
A photo of the late former President Guido de Marco sits on his desk. He picks it up and talks of the pride he felt when Prof. de Marco, a former college friend at St Aloysius’ College and then University, had invited him to speak as a guest of honour during the launch of his autobiography.
Despite his close links with the Labour Party, he refuses to pigeonhole himself into any particular political category.
“I’m a cosmopolitan,” he says. To illustrate his point he displays a cut-out masthead from Cosmopolitan women’s magazine glued on to cardboard.
His affable character, coupled with his profession as a family doctor, had endeared him to many. He was the one Labour politician many Nationalists dared to like and trust at a time when his colleagues were feared for all the wrong reasons.
For decades he has been known as a pioneer for the environment, and he savours his short-lived experience as Environment Minister in 1986.
His interest in alternative medicine has become his daily mantra, and despite his age many residents still consult him for their ailments.
Tugging at his trademark silvery barnet, he points to an area in his garden and claims that no birds are ever seen resting there because of the infrared rays emitted from a nearby mobile phone base station.
“Birds never settle down in an atmosphere where infrared dominates – and we humans fail to identify and acknowledge these dangers,” he says, producing a CD of research he has carried out on the topic.
Walking into his living room, he lectures with his index finger raised, about the way his house was designed like a school.
“My father was a disciplinarian who inspired my love for reading,” he smiles, pointing out he still religiously reads all the daily newspapers.
The popular doctor was elected five times to Parliament but, ironically, first entered the political fray to counter Dom Mintoff.
“Archbishop Michael Gonzi sent Fr Feliċjan Bilocca to speak to me in 1961 to join the Partit tal-Ħaddiema Nsara (set up by former Labour activist Toni Pellegrini). They believed Mintoff was a communist who wanted to destroy the Church,” Dr Micallef says.
Eventually Dr Micallef fell out with Mr Pellegrini because he felt he could no longer trust him and resigned in 1966. He had utmost respect for former Nationalist Prime Minister George Borg Olivier but felt hurt by the way he believed the British were treating the Maltese.
Enticed by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s promise to inject Lm2 million (€4.6 million) into the Maltese economy, Dr Micallef switched allegiance and secured a parliamentary seat in 1971 on the Labour ticket.
“I wanted to have a say in the education and environment sectors because they were very dear to me,” he says.
But his drive, and especially his sharp public speaking skills, ironically meant he was relegated to the backbench for several years. At one point Dr Micallef was being earmarked as a potential successor to Mr Mintoff and he believes this was the reason he was sidelined by the Prime Minister.
“I remained in the party because I believed in Mintoff. I kept believing in Mintoff until... the late 1970s (when he) became suspicious about his colleagues.”
Still, Dr Micallef, who was an active member of the Council of Europe and vice-president of the European Assembly, respected Mr Mintoff for taking concrete steps in securing peace and stability in the Mediterranean. He believes the fiery former leader took on the Soviets and the Americans – and “won”.
The infamous 1981 election, which Labour controversially won despite securing a minority of votes, led to Malta’s darkest political period.
Despite the national protests, the strikes and ensuing violence, Dr Micallef felt his party had the constitutional mandate to govern for a third term.
“The most important thing was integrity and I never felt it was threatened. Whether it was ignorance on my part at the time or whether it was reality, I felt it was a legitimate government.”
Dr Micallef turned down Mr Mintoff’s offer of tourism minister at the time, saying he only wanted the education and environment portfolios.
“When I was at the office door he stopped me and said he wanted to honour me by offering me the Speaker’s post. He realised I was effective in Parliament even though I was a backbencher – and very often we were just five MPs in the House.”
The Rabat doctor with the thick spectacles was suddenly propelled into the limelight. But the ‘honour’ also meant he was suddenly served with the biggest Constitutional crisis – in February 1982 the Nationalists had boycotted the opening of Parliament in protest at the way the Socialists had doctored the electoral districts to secure victory.
After failing to convince the Nationalists to change their minds, Dr Micallef unseated all 31 PN MPs three months later. Even though the Nationalists at the time disagreed with his interpretation of the Constitution, Dr Micallef insisted he was obliged by law to make the historic statement in April 1982 that the seats belonging to the PN were vacant.
He had said in Parliament: “If the Nationalist representatives decided to remain stubborn in their attitude not to attend parliamentary sittings, the responsibility is theirs alone.”
Nobody, he insists, pushed him to take such a stand.
But despite saying at the time it was not his business to intervene in solutions of a political nature, he now says he was instrumental in eventually roping the Nationalists back into the House.
Weeks into the boycott, Dr Micallef sent for his “friend” Guido de Marco, then PN deputy leader.
“I told Guido: ‘Do you think I’m happy operating with half a Parliament, and most of it is corrupt? I told him the PN were silent accomplices for what was happening in the country. I’ll never forget that.”
Eleven months later, the Nationalists reassumed their seats in Parliament and the Speaker was relieved.
Dr Micallef says he was fully conscious of the reputation of the more notorious members of the Socialist regime. Asked whether he ever did anything to confront the people he believed to be corrupt within his party, he says:
“I kicked (former Works Minister) Lorry Sant out of Parliament after he insulted me. Despite Mr Mintoff’s request to call him back in, I refused. I chased after him, calling him corrupt.”
How could he relate to his colleagues, some of whom were acting like thugs?
“Maybe I wasn’t mature enough? Maybe I could have worked in a different manner?” he ponders.
Dr Micallef says he always tried to fight for what was right and was well aware he was punching above his weight – he says Mr Mintoff was wary of him because he feared he could topple the government.
He says Mr Mintoff was playing with political fire when he gave the go-ahead to a controversial building steered by Lorry Sant close to Mount Carmel Hospital, which would have ruined a green area in Attard.
“I said I wanted the building demolished. Mr Mintoff came up to me and warned I risked being shot if I forged ahead with the threat. I said I would be honoured if they shot me.
“I had the courage to threaten my government – I told them the building had to be gutted or else the government itself would be gutted. Nobody in the PN ever did that.”
Fighting the party from within, Dr Micallef nevertheless was determined to soldier on, even after Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici took over as Prime Minister and the situation in the country deteriorated.
“I was sincere. Integrity is essential. I forged ahead and did what I believed was right, though, of course, I was confused.”
Dr Micallef held the Speaker’s post until 1986 when his dream was finally fulfilled with his appointment as Minister of Education, Culture and Environment.
He felt education was the key to life but he was well aware his dreams were yet an uphill struggle as his government was still reeling from the botched Church schools saga.
He speaks with pride when he recalls his decision to set up IDEA, the Institute for Design and Environmental Action, for which he was eventually awarded a National Order of Merit for his concept of a holistic environment.
But his dream was shortlived. The Nationalists won the 1987 election and Dr Micallef found himself on the opposition benches as spokesman for the environment.
He is quick to accuse the Nationalists of “destroying” the environment, by scrapping IDEA and setting up the Planning Authority.
His passion for the environment was clearly manifested during one particular incident in Parliament. He had alerted then Environment Minister Michael Falzon about the fate of a unique crumbling Roman wall uncovered in Rabat.
“He insulted me by telling me to shut up and to go see to some crazy old patient because that’s the only thing I was good at. I lost it. I crossed the floor and slapped him in the face with his papers.
“Uproar ensued and Speaker Lawrence Gonzi suspended the House. Alfred Sant, then a backbencher, immediately approached me and told me my actions were wrong and asked me to apologise, which I did.”
But he takes comfort in the knowledge that Mr Falzon eventually acknowledged Dr Micallef’s major role in the restoration of the former Santu Spirtu hospital into the national archives.
He takes even bigger comfort in the fact that he was always respected by his political adversaries. He recalls with pride and in detail the day Eddie Fenech Adami asked him to be acting president in 1998.
“How could I accept the post when I knew the Labour Party wanted (former Social Welfare Minister) Edwin Grech for the role, and when his daughter Karin was sitting on my sofa two weeks before she was killed by a parcel bomb (in 1977)?”
Many decades on he believes the political situation in Malta has improved and he still keeps track of parliamentary proceedings.
He raises questions about the way Parliament operates today and has serious concerns about the quality of some MPs from both sides of the House.
Dr Micallef smiles cynically when it is suggested that he must envy today’s less rowdy and more civilised parliamentary sittings. It was déjà vu for him as he sat in the strangers’ gallery last May watching the uproar and the walkout in Parliament when Parliamentary Secretary Mario Galea erroneously voted with the opposition on the power station extension contract.
He says he has utmost respect for some members of Cabinet today, citing in particular Justice Minister Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici and Chris Said, who recently resigned as parliamentary secretary to defend himself against a charge of perjury.
Dr Micallef believes the Labour Party is on the right track, saying he had singled out Joseph Muscat as a potential political asset when he was just 16. Dr Muscat had approached Dr Micallef for his endorsement before he contested his first European Parliament elections in 2004.
Today, the doctor from Rabat still attends Labour Party conferences and says he is contemplating chipping in to select the new party emblem.
“I believe in the Labour Party as long as it’s clean. While I used to see six of them (MPs) as demons, now I see maybe four. A number of them have realised they made mistakes and the attitude of some of the old faces has changed for the better... Today we need change. It’s not right to have the same party in power for so long.”
Why does he think anyone would want to become a politician nowadays?
“Normally it’s personal ambition. But some people do want to be of service,” he points out.
Is politics still relevant to younger generations today?
“As long as there’s humanity, it will always be relevant,” he replies.
But he underlines the need for spirituality in politics, something he says he advocated to Alfred Sant – whom he had backed in the 1992 Labour leadership election – in the middle of the 1998 general election campaign.
He also speaks of the importance of moving on and of forgiveness in politics. When Lorry Sant was on his deathbed in 1995, Dr Micallef visited him in hospital, hugged him and pardoned him.
Dr Micallef went on to apply his medical experience in a humanitarian aid project in Albania and today is still sought after by many residents for his alternative remedies.
“I could spend hours talking to you – there’s so much more to say. But one day I will say it all in my memoirs,” he muses, as he once again walks into another room to exhibit photos, newspaper clippings and books.
On the way out of his home he stops in front of a large frame of a poem he wrote back in 1968, three weeks before the birth of his youngest son.
Titled Is-Sur ta’ Tfuliti (The bastion of my youth), Dr Micallef’s eyes well up with tears as he reads out the long poem reminiscing about the things which still fascinated him since childhood.
His voice cracking as he reads the last line of his magnum opus, he turns to his wife and says: “That poem means so much to me...”
Watch excerpts of the interview on www.timesofmalta.com