Stabbed in the back, for the second time
Malta’s EU ambassador Richard Cachia Caruana tells Christian Peregin he knew there were issues with Dr Pullicino Orlando and had offered to step down, but the PN backbencher wanted more than just his scalp.
When Nationalist MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando voted against you in Parliament, you must have felt betrayed. In 1994, you were literally stabbed in the back. Which was more painful?
Obviously, the physical one. But if we are talking about surprise I must say the day the opposition’s motion against me was presented, I received a message from a Labour Party contact saying: “We had no choice.This came from your side and not from the usual person.”
At that point did you suspect they were referring to Dr Pullicino Orlando?
He was the most likely person. A couple of days later, someone else confirmed it was him. That week, the Prime Minister had a chat with him and was led to believe there were no issues.
What did Dr Pullicino Orlando tell him?
I was not present. But the indications were there was no issue. Over the weeks there were other people who spoke to him and were told: “No one should believe what the Labour Party says because they talk so much rubbish.”
However, after the first sitting at which I gave evidence to Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Dr Pullicino Orlando turned up, looking extremely nervous.
How did you feel about that?
When I saw him there, in my mind I thought there was a problem, so a few days later I messaged him to ask if we could meet. We arranged to meet on June 5. I went to his house and received an extremely warm welcome.
So he was friendly with you?
For the past three years he has always been friendly with me.
But you have had tension in the past.
Yes, because of an episode concerning the 2008 election. In fact I started the business part of the discussion by saying: “I know you testified in court that I attempted to get [columnist] Daphne Caruana Galizia to pressure you to resign after the election but that’s absolutely false.”
So you never called Ms Caruana Galizia to say you think he should resign his seat?
Absolutely not. Dr Pullicino Orlando explained how he remembers their exchange. I pointed out she denied his version under oath. I also told him my position after the election was one of simple arithmetic. The Nationalist Party had been elected to government and he held a seat in a one-seat majority. So as far as I was concerned, the discussion was over.
You needed him...
The government could not operate without his vote in Parliament. And I said if I could draw parallel with the motion in Parliament at the moment, it was also an issue of arithmetic. I told him: “If you believe you should vote for the motion, just tell me and I’ll leave.”
So if he had told you he had to vote for the motion you would have resigned on that day?
Wouldn’t you have put pressure on him to change his mind?
There would have been no sense in doing that...
When you told him this, what did he say?
His response was: “If I didn’t vote against Austin Gatt when he did me so much harm, why should you think I would vote against you?”
So he never asked you about Partnership for Peace?
He says he told you he wouldn’t vote against you for personal reasons. Is he paraphrasing?
If he had put it that way I would have assumed that he was going to vote against me.
Whereas you didn’t...
No. I left his house after more than an hour in what continued to be an extremely good-natured discussion. I left with the impression – which I was obviously meant to receive – that there was no problem.
So he tried to deceive you?
He did not only try. He deceived me and he deceived everybody else. Having said that, after I spoke to him there were still signals suggesting there was a problem, which is why I had a resignation letter prepared.
Why do you think he did this?
His intention all along was to vote in the most damaging way to me and to the party... to hurt or humiliate in the most public way possible. That is the only conclusion one can draw. If I could put it this way, he behaved just like a certain kind of Sicilian... not the sort you would want to do business with.
So you do not believe he voted against you because you advocated a lack of parliamentary scrutiny when discussing Partnership for Peace in your role as EU ambassador?
From the way he spoke in Parliament and afterwards, notwithstanding his claim that it was not personal, it is obvious it was purely personal. You do not adopt Mintoffian vindictiveness unless you want to cause harm on a personal basis to an individual... which implies revenge of some sort. Revenge can only be personal.
He said the way you acted with him before the election and after showed a lack of respect towards Parliament. Therefore, he believed the accusation of lack of respect towards Parliament brought about in the motion. Although you’re saying it was just personal, he did link this to the motion.
His attack went beyond what was necessary to achieve his aim, which in this case was to get rid of me. I had already said to him: if you want my scalp, take it. But that was obviously not his only aim.
So it wasn’t personal. He wanted to inflict maximum damage to the government.
If you ignore the part where he says this was not personal, the rest is basically a personal attack. In Parliament he went on at length about what he saw as slights inflicted on him by me through journalists.
Nationalist MP Jesmond Mugliett abstained from the vote because he said he did not fully buy into the government’s explanation that PfP reactivation did not require parliamentary ratification. Given there was no electoral mandate, the government should have sought Parliament’s approval anyway. Isn’t he right?
The hearings have shown that it wasn’t legally necessary.
But he’s saying it was necessary morally.
The motion was on the basis of what was required. But there is also one simple point to remember. The decision or assessment about whether to go to Parliament or not was not mine. That was made clear by the Prime Minister in his testimony.
So if it was wrong, you should not be the one to take the fall for it?
It’s obvious that it was nothing to do with Partnership for Peace or Wikileaks. That was just an excuse... which blew up in their faces as soon as the Prime Minister testified.
In any case, the interface with Parliament is the responsibility of ministers which is why they are also Members of Parliament.
Is he right, though? Would it have been better if the government went to Parliament?
The process of joining PfP in 2008 was handled directly by government, which takes decisions usually based on whether there is a legal requirement to go to Parliament. In this particular case the opinion was that there was no requirement. It was not mine, I did not give one.
The decision (to join PfP) was taken nine days after the election because there was a Nato summit in Sofia at the beginning of April. The next Nato summit was due a year later in 2008. So the government felt it needed to move relatively fast.
As I understand it, if we had not rejoined in April, we would not have been able to join until a year later.
But the Prime Minister told the US ambassador in January 2008 that he was planning to do this all along.
I did not know what the Prime Minister had said. I was not present.
Was he aware of the Sofia meeting?
I do not know if the Prime Minister was aware of the Sofia meeting then. I heard about it after the election.
And at that stage you agreed with the government’s strategy of joining now so we do not lose a year.
So do you think Mr Mugliett’s vote was also personal?
What I have learnt over many years is that some people will transfer their hatred or contempt of an individual to a person they associate with them.
Given the facts, I believe Jesmond Mugliett used me, in part, as a proxy for the Prime Minister and in part as a proxy for Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Did he give you any indication before the vote?
I know Jesmond (Mugliett) was spoken to the day before and said he was not expecting any issues to arise. He has since explained somewhere that he took the decision that evening. In other words it could have been an opportunistic decision...
Dr Pullicino Orlando interpreted the Wikileaks documents as exposing the real reason behind Malta’s favourable stance towards Turkey’s EU accession bid.
In Parliament I showed how Foreign Minister Michael Frendo announced Malta’s support for Turkey’s bid before there was any discussion with the US or Turkey on our status regarding PfP. So there is no link.
However, Turkey wanted to secure Malta’s support for a vote that was to be taken in December 2004 so they wanted to keep us happy and find a solution to the blockage on EU-Nato discussions.
So why did they refuse the procedural band-aid proposed?
Because it would have created another category of PfP membership they were not comfortable with.
Dr Pullicino Orlando argues that while the public was kept in the dark, you were discussing with the Turks.
At the end of the day Parliament has a right to know, and the government has an obligation to inform, in certain situations. The government did not believe this was one of those situations. However, when you try and blame me for that, it is nothing but an attempt at a trumped-up charge.
How do you feel about Malta’s support for Turkey?
My position on Turkey is precisely what makes Dr Pullicino Orlando’s comments the ultimate falsehood in a list of false accusations. I follow government policy 100 per cent and have always done so and although I must remain circumspect in what I say, I have certain concerns.
So you weren’t the one proposing it to the government?
Absolutely not. Is that clear enough?
Do you think Nationalist MPs had a duty to tell you how they were going to vote?
No, but there’s a parliamentary group and they have a duty to tell the whip... We are all supposed to belong to a democratic structure so if anybody disagrees with somebody in the party structure there should be a discussion.
Do you believe Dr Pullicino Orlando when he says there were around 10 MPs who were uncomfortable voting for you?
I have seen nothing but respect – reciprocal respect – from the whole parliamentary group and even previous parliamentary groups. That has to be factored in to the reality of what Franco Debono and Dr Pullicino Orlando have said about me.
Did you notice a difference in the way the party reacted to your beheading with the way it reacted to Carm Mifsud Bonnici’s? You didn’t receive any e-cards for instance...
I think you would agree that, with hindsight, the e-card initiative was not ideal. But to give one example, Louis Galea, who has been involved in politics for many years, described what happened to me as the worst day of his political life.
Dr Mifsud Bonnici is a Member of Parliament with a public following, but do not mix that up with whether people thought what happened to me was right or wrong.
Dr Pullicino Orlando said there weren’t many MPs willing to speak in your defence?
Since the debate was limited to one sitting, the Prime Minister and Leader of the House had decided to restrict the number of speakers.
What consequences should Dr Pullicino Orlando and Mr Mugliett face?
It’s not my place to say. My message to everybody is that I accept the right of any MP – or anyone else for that matter – to not like me. But using your seat in parliament, given to you by Nationalist voters, as a tool for personal vengeance, is a gross abuse of power. Also, the deliberate misleading of the Prime Minister and parliamentary colleagues is not acceptable behaviour.
Do you think Dr Pullicino Orlando told Labour leader Joseph Muscat how he would vote before the motion was presented?
The way things developed makes it quite clear that Labour knew what the outcome of the vote would be even before the motion was presented. And I find it very sad that a person who hopes to be Prime Minister – a role requiring a person of the highest integrity that you can basically trust with your life – associated himself with an act of vindictiveness we have not seen in Malta in 30 years.
In one of your very rare interviews, in 2009, you said Dr Pullicino Orlando was victimised by the Labour Party during the 2008 election and described him as a “much-valued political colleague”. Do you regret those words?
I regret only that he found himself unable to overcome his own insecurities and failures.
Ostensibly, Parliament passed this motion because the majority of MPs expressed the opinion you showed a lack of respect towards it. Yet you are here still doing your job. Are you proving Parliament right?
Absolutely not. I have a duty and obligation to serve the government as it deems fit.
But Dr Mifsud Bonnici renounced his mobile phone and driver immediately after the vote.
Dr Mifsud Bonnici was a minister, answerable to Parliament. When ministers lose a confidence vote in Parliament, they have no choice but to resign. Ambassadors are not answerable to Parliament. I resigned because it was the correct thing to do, not because Parliament had a legal right to remove me. Also, ambassadors are based overseas with a residence and effects there. Their moves cannot be made overnight.
The Prime Minister asked you to remain for some weeks until a replacement is found. How long will that take?
My farewell dinner and ceremony are already scheduled for July 11.
So after that you will pack your bags and leave?
I will obviously have to pack my bags before. But appreciate that there are bags to pack. In fact, I consider the recent comments made by Dr Muscat about my departure to be in very poor taste, not fitting of a future Prime Minister – although they are classic Mintoffian sentiments.
Do you believe you are irreplaceable?
Absolutely not. It is true I have over 14 years of EU experience, which is not easy to duplicate. And to combine that with the skills I have is not necessarily easy.
But we have extremely good people in our structures.
What sort of qualities does your replacement have to have?
If my replacement does the two jobs I have done over the past eight years, he or she must first have to be mad.
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