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‘I’ve no problem biting the bullet’

Opposition leader Joseph Muscat tells Herman Grech he’s managed to rebuild harmony in his party.

Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

You managed to unseat Carm Mifsud Bonnici from his minister’s post? Do you see it as a success?

I don’t make any promises. I listen to everybody and I tell them if they have a just cause they will get what they’re entitled to

The aim was not to unseat a particular minister. Despite the government’s attempts, we wanted someone to assume ministerial responsibility. It was a rare moment in this country’s history where it happened.

Do you think Dr Mifsud Bonnici was incompetent for the job?

I think he failed to deliver results during his tenure.

MEP Simon Busuttil described your motion as a witch-hunt. He said: “We had the opposition pushing a vote of no confidence in a minister for no apparent reason except that it could muster a majority to do it”. Is this the new way of doing politics?

Dr Busuttil forgot that his own party had voted against the setting up of the Malta Tourism Authority simply to score a political goal. We wanted someone to be politically accountable. Nobody’s disputing the fact that Dr Mifsud Bonnici isn’t an affable person. Now I’d like to see the way the government is going to vote on Franco Debono’s motion, since it’s further condemnation of the way things happened in the justice ministry. We are comfortable backing Dr Debono’s motion. Is the government going to support a motion which is so similar to ours?

Would you go for any other minister’s throat if you know you had the parliamentary majority?

Not if there are no valid reasons. We presented motions irrespective of the results. We presented a motion calling for somebody to assume responsibility in the education ministry even though we knew it wouldn’t go through. We presented the motion against Austin Gatt well before any PN exponent spoke out.

For many it’s very clear the Labour Party is jumping on the Franco Debono bandwagon to try to secure a parliamentary majority. Is this the new way of doing politics?

I disagree with your assertion. If we wanted to jump on the band-wagon we would just have pushed for Franco Debono’s motion. We had our own agenda. When an official makes mistakes he has to shoulder responsibility...

... but certain arguments that your party made – that some police cars failed their VRT test or that some police officers weren’t promoted – were absurd.

It’s a caricature of that debate. We raised serious issues. We mentioned that courts found the government guilty of implementing certain laws which breach the Constitution or fundamental rights. We mentioned the case of a police informant who was found dead following a drug overdose in his cell. That’s not puerile.

Don’t you think certain shortcomings in the justice ministry have been ingrained for several years?

I think they got worse in the last few years.

Former minister Lino Spiteri has condemned the way Labour behaved in Parliament in recent weeks. Doesn’t it set you thinking that there’s something wrong with your strategy?

I have huge respect for Lino Spiteri but I disagree with him on this issue. Lino Spiteri said our motion dented our popularity but I argued it would have sent a very wrong message about the accountability we want to introduce in this country (if we didn’t tackle it).

Parliament’s about to vote on Richard Cachia Caruana’s role in the Partnership for Peace process. Apart from the issue being raised in a Wikileaks document, everything seems to contradict your case that rejoining PfP required ratification. Your arguments are getting out of point to the extent that you’re now asking how much he earns. Why don’t you just admit it was the wrong battle to pick?

Mr Cachia Caruana is trying to be judge and jury. Who’s saying we’re not proving our case? Mr Cachia Caruana.

And the Attorney General.

Hang on. It’s Parliament which decides that. The Attorney General’s opinion was that there was no need for ratification. We’ve been given a different opinion. We’re not disputing we’re members of PfP even though there could have been an honourable way out to agree (on rejoining). There was a clear decision to enter PfP (in 1995), there was an electoral campaign to get out of PfP (in 1996)...

... but the Labour government in 1996 never approved its exit through Parliament.

But politically it was clear. George Vella made a statement in Parliament.

I’m telling environmentalists there will be times when tough decisions will be taken, where we need to draw a line

But there was still no parliamentary ratification.

The Prime Minister was politically wrong when he reactivated this application two days after winning the election, even if he was legally correct to do so.

Why didn’t you raise the issue in 2008?

For GonziPN it’s no problem to pick on issues that happened 30 years ago, while we’re criticised because we speak about something that happened last year...

... or because Franco Debono raised certain reservations about Mr Cachia Caruana now.

There’s no connection. It was also not credible for Mr Cachia Caruana to say he was unaware of the reactivation of PfP two days after the election.

He’s insisting that’s the case.

Mr Cachia Caruana is one of the main PN strategists.

This interview is taking place on the day Greece goes towards a crucial poll. How do you see the European economic situation shaping up?

It’s worrying, but maybe Europe is waking up to the fact that no reduction in the deficit is sustainable without economic growth. The Social Democratic family has been saying that for years. Luckily, the French election has changed the European narrative;Germany might follow suit. We need to be careful how to spend money but we need to understand mounting debt is no solution.

Many governments have introduced austerity measures.

The problem is when you introduce austerity measures without taking economic growth into account.

Don’t you think the economic and social scenario has changed so dramatically that nowadays most governments have no choice but to increase the retirement age, for example? You might have no choice but to bite the bullet once you’re Prime Minister?

The decisions I took in the last few weeks show I have no problem biting the bullet. But let’s put everything into context. In Malta, retirement ages changed in 2006. This government has certainly agreed to accelerate the retirement age...

... even if the government said this was not the case.

If you look at the National Reform Programme agreed in June 2011, the European Council recommendations mention the need to accelerate retirement age.

And you’re saying you will not increase the pension age, even if Europe’s and Malta’s problems worsen. If the far left wins the Greek election, there’s a good chance Greece will exit the euro.

Our government is constantly saying we have a good economy and denying it will raise the retirement age. Why do you want me to say I will raise the retirement age when I believe there are other solutions? We need to aim for economic growth, more female participation.

You seem to be taking everything for granted. Economies, out-looks change.

We can meet our objectives by reducing bureaucracy, basic costs for enterprises and families, by using our potential, and by prioritising. If we have €80 million to spare, we shouldn’t build a parliament which doesn’t generate work. We should spend it on capital projects which produce work. I’ve just been to Methode, a company which is performing very well and wants to expand its premises. It doesn’t make sense to build showrooms and offices on scarce land rather than use it for industrial means. I hope the government drops the absurd idea to build a corporate village.

The Prime Minister accused you in an interview with The Sunday Times that you were promising everything to everyone.

I can never aspire to reach the level of absurd promises made by this Prime Minister until the very last minute of the last general election.

Do you categorically deny you’re making promises to developers?

I don’t make any promises. I listen to everybody and I tell them if they have a just cause they will get what they’re entitled to.

If they have a just cause or will they get what they’re asking for?

We’re not going to be ignoring the institutions.

There are rumours you’ve promised permits to certain developers, which were turned down by Mepa. Are they false?

A lot of people who speak to me do so not because they haven’t obtained permits but because they don’t get answers. On the contrary, I know certain government exponents who have approached these people to grant them a permit as soon as they realise they came to speak to me.

So do you reject claims that you’re promising everything to everyone?

Obviously. On the contrary, some people are disappointed because we tell them we can’t help them.

You’re telling the environmentalists that you will take care of the environment...

... I’m being very clear with environmentalists. I’m telling them there will be times when tough decisions will be taken, where we need to draw a line. I’m not very popular with certain NGOs because I tell them so. I talk about accessibility to Gozo. I talk about the need for agritourism projects, which are hosted infields, and of course these involve construction. If we’re going for these kinds of markets we need sustainable development.

Isn’t it ironic that the Labour Party is moving towards a policy of construction, the same policy it used to criticise until a few years ago? You even visited the Chambray project, an initiative your predecessor used to constantly lambast.

When we criticised Chambray it was because this prime site was given to an Italian speculator with a bad track record in 1994 for €23,000 a year. The project got going when a Gozitan investor bought him out.

How do you view construction in general?

It has to be sustainable. If we think someone, somehow is going to owe us a living if we sit still and do nothing, we’re living in another world. We don’t need to spoil the environment. We don’t need to build blocks of flats we don’t need. But if we can create innovative projects which lure investment, why not? Why shouldn’t we consider land reclamation? Why did Mepa say land reclamation isn’t feasible? I believe it’s one of the things we need to deal with seriously – and fast.

Don’t you think that in the past 30-40 years too much damage has been inflicted on the environment and someone needs to say ‘that’s enough’?

We’ve gone from one extreme to the other. Nowadays, we need to be realistic. If Mepa was set up during the Knights’ time, it would have probably barred them from building the President’s Palace. We need common sen­se. We can’t hide behind bureaucracy. This government blames Mepa when a permit isn’t issued – and then someone pulls a string to see it through.

Aren’t these comments going to worry environmentalists who are saying we’re heading towards another government which favours construction?

With us, you know where you stand. We’re not going to be a ‘government of construction’, we will be a realistic government if we’re given the mandate. Scandals like building a villa in Baħrija valley can never be justified. If a project makes sense and is sustainable why should we reject it, only to then go on moaning that we have no economic growth, jobs and a mounting deficit? We don’t want to construct the entire country. We need to use our resources better.

The days of political parties are over

We’re heading towards a general election. The PN is clearly going to capitalise on Labour’s past. Meanwhile you’ve embraced liberals, Socialists, you’re clearly trying to attract Nationalists, now even Mintoffians. You’re welcoming reds, blues and all shades of colour in between. Can you really be a party for everyone?

I smile when I recall the way the PN used Alex Sceberras Trigona in 1998 when they put up a billboard saying Alex, Lino Spiteri and George Abela will not work with Alfred Sant. Now will they erect a billboard saying these three people will work with Joseph Muscat? It’s a question of team-building. We’ve rebuilt harmony in this party, based on principles, and we’re managing to lure people who never dreamt of being in the Labour Party. I strongly believe in the concept of a movement. The days of political parties are over. For a party to remain relevant, it has to act as a tool within a movement. It was difficult to introduce this concept within my party; it’s going to be difficult to introduce it as a country. We won’t pigeon hole ourselves the way we normally do.

Don’t you fear the same moderates you’re trying to lure are going to be put off by the hardliners you have embraced?

This is the PN’s demonisation campaign. We look towards the future. Some of the criticism levelled out at us goes back to days when I wasn’t even born. It shows you have no vision for the future.

The PN’s main problem in this administration appears to be that some MPs have different agendas to the Prime Minister’s and different ways of expressing them. Don’t you fear you can have the same pitfalls? For example, at least four candidates will be vying for the justice ministry if Labour is elected.

I have the same luxury with the finance portfolio. I will certainly tellno ambassador I don’t have enough people to select.

Don’t you think certain candidates are expecting a ministerial post?

Nobody’s been promised anything. I’ve made it clear from day one. It’s the Prime Minister’s prerogative. The first hurdle is to win the people’s faith. Nor will I be sending any SMSs to anyone to tell them they haven’t been selected.

The PN media has reported that (One Productions chairman) Jason Mic­allef has been promised a very senior position at PBS. Do you deny it?

Yes.

Has Jason Micallef been promised anything?

When Jason heard these claims, he told me he doesn’t see how he can work for a competing organisation.

Could Jason Micallef still stand for the general election, despite claiming he wouldn’t?

He decided to stand. He decided not to stand.

Will he?

Ask him.

Would you accept his nomination as a candidate?

Is there some opposition to this? What’s sure is we have a good team of candidates, new people are approaching us. As far as I know it’s not the same with the Nationalist Party.

Some have suggested it’s looking increasingly likely this will be a presidential election – Gonzi vs Muscat. How would you beat him?

It will be an election of ideas. It will be an election between someone who talks about the future against someone who only thinks about the past. I plan to talk about the future.

Watch excerpts of the interview.

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