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Gonzi: calling an election would be the easy way out

The Prime Minister tells Herman Grech that he is determined to serve out a whole five-year term of office – just as long as that decision remains in his own hands.

Many were surprised that Franco Debono helped to bring down Carm Mifsud Bonnici. Were you?

There was no horse-trading. I tried to understand how Franco (Debono) could contribute

Unfortunately I wasn’t. He was clear about his position. He was antagonistic and critical of the minister. As I always try to do, for several months I tried to find a solution right until the last minute.

So did you make contact with him on Wednesday?

Yes. I also made contact through third parties. We were meant to meet a week earlier, but he didn’t show up.

What was the solution? To offer him something to buy his silence?

Certainly not. This is not an open-air market. But if an MP feels he can contribute and wants more space, why not, provided he works in line with party policy.

Did Debono want to be appointed Leader of the House?

He didn’t tell me that.

Do you think he wanted the post?

That’s a question you have to ask him. A lot was said by him to a lot of people: that he wanted the post, that he didn’t want the post, that he would have refused it if it were offered. It wasn’t offered to him, however. In any way.

Why did you replace Tonio Borg as Leader of the House last January only to reappoint him last week?

The January reshuffle meant the justice ministry was transferred to another minister and I wanted Carm Mifsud Bonnici to assume responsibility for parliamentary affairs. After his resignation, I had to redistribute responsibilities. Tonio Borg has the necessary experience for the job.

Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi. Photo: Matthew MirabelliPrime Minister Lawrence Gonzi. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

But Dr Mifsud Bonnici quit his post as Leader of the House before the vote of no-confidence. To many, it appeared as a move to appease Dr Debono.

One of Labour’s unjust accusations was that Carm (Mifsud Bonnici) was manipulating the parliamentary agenda to suit his means. Joseph Muscat has lost his dignity because of these personal attacks. He is the biggest loser in all this.

Many would say the government is the biggest loser.

The government has done what is right at all stages of this unhappy story. I admired Carm Mifsud Bonnici who was prepared for all eventualities. He fulfilled his duties till the very end. He consigned his ministerial car the minute he walked out of Parliament. When I called him the following day he didn’t realise it was me because he had even given up his ministerial phone. This is an example of sincerity which belittles Muscat.

You keep mentioning Joseph Muscat, but it was ultimately one of your MPs who tilted the balance. Aren’t you angry with him?

If you’re driven by anger in politics you will make one mistake after another. Look at Dom Mintoff and Alfred Sant’s periods as Prime Minister. Every elected MP should have the Prime Minister’s attention. But let’s keep everything in context. We’re discussing these issues while everyone outside Malta is discussing disasters in their countries.

Franco Debono told The Times: “We were so close and yet so far.” Should you as a Prime Minister be involved in such horse-trading with a backbencher?

There was no horse-trading. I tried to understand how Franco (Debono) could contribute and identify space for him to work, while coming in line with the government. But ultimately he is an MP, and there was no reason for a no-confidence vote in Carm Mifsud Bonnici. I hope people understand just how false Labour’s motion has been. One of the reasons given was because three police cars failed their VRT test. The criticism was superficial and that’s why I can’t understand why one of our own MPs voted in favour of a motion which is unjustified and hypocritical. This has upset me greatly.

Why did you take on the home affairs ministry yourself? Is there nobody competent in your group to take it on?

I respect our democratic institutions, so once the vote was taken there were three consequences. Muscat went on TV right away thinking I’d ignore the outcome of the vote. Firstly, Carm (Mifsud Bonnici) had his resignation letter ready, which I sadly had to accept. Secondly, I called a vote of confidence for Monday. Thirdly I had to pass Carm (Mifsud Bonnici’s) responsibilities to others and in the circumstances it made sense for me to take over home affairs. There are important immediate issues which need to be tackled on immigration.

Does this mean someone else will be given the post once these meetings are over?

We will see. We need to concentrate on Monday’s debate.

You’re being criticised for taking on the Home Affairs Ministry not to upset anyone in your group.

No. The Home Affairs Ministry is one of the most important, delicate and demanding. It would be irresponsible if I had to decide that way not to upset anyone.

Aren’t you busy enough?

The reality is that in January’s re­shuf­fle I appointed three new ministers and offloaded major parts of my portfolio, like environment and social policy. My first duty is to the country.

But for continuity’s sake, couldn’t you have appointed Home Affairs Parliamentary Assistant Beppe Fenech Adami to the post? Many believe he’s competent enough.

The first thing I did on Thursday was to meet up with the ministry staff together with Beppe (Fenech Adami). I hope he continues doing his duties well.

But not as minister?

We will see. We have a lot of competent people in our group who can assume ministerial responsibilities – but those are decisions I take in the interest of the country.

Is Franco Debono still a parliamentary assistant?

Yes, he is.

Does he report to work?

He does his work like other parliamentarians. But more importantly, it’s not about whether Franco (Debono) is still parliamentary assistant, it’s about Monday’s vote.

Can you continue working with him in your team?

In politics you need to work with everyone, including the opposition. (Joseph) Muscat has taken the wrong decisions when the interest of the country required otherwise. His main aim is to bring down the government...

...with the help of one of your MPs.

Anybody. In the eight years I’ve been Prime Minister, the Labour Party has been playing the same tune – political uncertainty, early elections...

In an interview with The Sunday Times last January, you accused Dr Debono of acting this way because he wanted to become a minister? Do you still think the same?

Unfortunately, what should be a natural desire for a politician appears to be too strong.

You persist in keeping such a pacific tone, days after one of your own MPs managed to bring down one of your most seasoned ministers.

In politics and everyday life you can’t take action when you’re angry. I can’t afford to do that. If I make mistakes, thousands will suffer...

The government has done what is right at all stages of this unhappy story

...or lose Monday’s vote.

No. If I lose that vote I will simply bow my head to Parliament’s decision. It’s better for me to suffer than endanger thousands of families. If everything around us was calm, there might be more flexibility. A mistake by someone in my position can put this country back years. I will do my utmost to remain calm.

Onto the vote of confidence, Franco Debono said he will not vote against the government. Will you call an election if he abstains?

I will not speculate because it would be a mistake. I hope there will be a clear vote in favour of the government.

Constitutionally you can continue governing...

...that’s not the issue. I want a clear vote to know the government has the majority to permit it to move ahead with stability. On Wednesday, everyone was speculating about Dr Mifsud Bonnici’s vote.

Don’t you think the public has the right to know what you would do if the vote of confidence goes through with the Speakers’ vote?

I will decide when I know the result.

What about the political ramifications? You’re losing parts of the car as you drive along. Everyone’s expecting a long parliamentary summer recess; since January Parliament hasn’t approved any laws. In this economic scenario is it tenable to continue governing this way?

The laws that need to be passed have all been enacted.

Like Croatia’s EU membership bid and the Greek bailout.

There were also motions related to the EU that have passed. As well as the Budget measures, related laws were implemented, the Special Purpose Vehicle... Parliament has met at the same rate as previous years.

Parliament is often meeting to discuss crises created by one of your own MPs.

Perceptions are different from reality. One of the most important laws relates to education. The opposition first declared it would vote in favour but then decided it was a moneyBill. It ended up voting in favour. Laws in Parliament are implemented even without divisions. The government does not have a backlog in its legislative programme.

If the vote of confidence goes through does it mean it’s business as usual? Will you ignore the Debono factor?

I have to recognise the serious political implications of what happened on Wednesday. But I do need to take into consideration the importance of avoiding an early election. If I’m forced to call an election, so be it. But I have been tasked by the electorate to carry out a five-year programme and I will continue to try to do this. I would naturally bow my head if there is a vote of no-confidence in the government.

Economic stability is essential, but many would argue that so is political stability.

Yes, I can’t ignore that – but let’s keep it in context. Labour claims we had four-and-a-half years of political instability but then we have among the best economic results in Europe. We need to give families what they need, not newspaper front pages – work, health, pensions... Though some see politics as the be-all-and-end-all, my priorities are jobs, factories, investment... Our track record on work, schools, the hospital, quality of life speaks for itself despite the political instability of this legislature and the previous one.

You’re being criticised for prolonging calling an election because the party is suffering heavily at the polls.

It’s correct to say we’re lagging behind at the polls. But this is not the issue at all. If the PN wins the vote of confidence, it has the moral duty to continue governing.

We will not shirk our responsibilities. Sometimes the easy way out is to go for an election. Fortunately for this country, my party has never gone for easy solutions.

History will show the importance of leaders taking important decisions, even unpopular ones

So you’re saying you are prepared to run the whole term.

I’m not just prepared, I’m determined to run the whole term – as long as that decision is in my hands.

So it would only be a vote of no confidence which would unseat this government.

That would definitely unseat this government.

The only thing?

That would definitely unseat this government – which is a different answer.

Regardless, the election is approaching. What is the PN doing to ensure it fields candidates who will remain in line with the party?

That has always been the case and will remain so – now more than ever because politics is changing. Our candidates need to be more involved than ever before. Our entry into the EU brought about major changes, you need technical skills more than ever.

This is why the Labour leader and his main speakers worry me – they’re so superficial.

Worse than that, I’m being told of wild promises La­bour is making to developers that permits would be issued, while environmental groups are being told otherwise.

But turning to your party, how can you ensure you don’t have another Franco Debono in your midst?

You have to be careful. We need to have a good selection process, where names are approved in the executive committee.

Do you think Franco Debono should be a PN candidate at the next election?

It’s the executive committee which decides on all candidates.

What do you think?

My personal opinion doesn’t make a difference and I shouldn’t express it. During the divorce debate, I told nobody how I would vote to leave everyone free to do as they please. Unlike Labour, when we hold a free vote, it really is a free vote.

This legislature will remain known for the Debono factor. How much energy have you wasted on him?

This legislature will remain known for the way Malta created jobs in this dreadful economic scenario. History will take note of this, other things are forgotten. History will show the im­portance of leaders taking important decisions, even unpopular ones.

The fact that we took certain decisions meant we dented our popularity, but we saved the country. We joined the EU in 2004 and the euro in 2008, and took tough decisions to bring the deficit down when the international economic environment was not good.

How difficult was it to deal with your own team?

Not easy at all. It was a challenge like the others. But did I, or my predecessor, have a single easy job?

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