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‘Perception not reality’

Transport Minister and Nationalist heavyweight Austin Gatt tells Herman Grech his party can still win the next election... in spite of the highly criticised bus service.

More than three months on, what do you make of the new bus service?

It’s still disappointing. It’s definitely not up to the levels we contracted, though the problem is getting smaller by the day. Today, it’s practically limited to seven main lines, which we’ve been alerting Arriva to constantly.

We totally underestimated the resistance to change

It’s also mainly restricted to the early morning rush hour, though Arriva are still very, very far from what they promised to deliver.

And what are they doing about it?

We understand they’re sending back the UK controllers who decide who to deploy and when. They’re also increasing the number of buses.

Figures just released show an increase of 22 per cent in bus patronage. Yet the figures have been met with cynicism by many.

This is not a head count. In every bus there are sensors that count people and there’s no doubt about the accuracy of figures.

There’s no doubt that in the old ATP system there was an amount of fraud (in tickets sold) – some say it was between six and seven per cent. I don’t think you can say 22 per cent is all fraud. More people are using buses.

The perception is that traffic has considerably increased since the introduction of the new bus service.

The diversions we’ve put in places like Marsa because of roadworks have increased the bottlenecks in traffic; the same thing with Ċirkewwa.

But we’re seeing massive traffic, especially during rush hour, all over the place, including Sliema and St Julian’s where there are no major roadworks.

You always get spillovers. I think it’s more a perception than anything else. The number of cars on the roads will basically always remain the same because we’ve reached saturation point.

So do you disagree that the poor bus service has exacerbated traffic?

The only figure I have is a 22 per cent increase in bus patronage.

The ministry has issued the 22 per cent figures...

No. Arriva gave us those figures...

...And the ministry published them.

Obviously. And we will keep publishing them every month.

But you’re taking credit for something good. When something went wrong you told reporters to direct questions to Arriva.

Exactly. And I will keep telling them that. I will take full responsibility for the routes. We always did, since they were designed by us. We’ve retracted our former decision, but the way the bus service is delivered daily is Arriva’s responsibility.

This is the same system used in every democratic country. Transport Malta regulates. Arriva delivers the service under contract. When Arriva doesn’t deliver it gets fined. Under contract it could start being fined by November 4.

Fair enough. But it wasn’t Arriva that insisted on overhauling the system at once, rather than doing it gradually.

I assume responsibility for the routes. You can’t do it gradually. You have to have a contract, which can’t be open-ended. We thought the time was right – patronage on the old system was down to 12 per cent.

We needed a system to help people go to places they wanted to. We wanted an interchange to get people from Żejtun to Sliema, for example. And that’s what the new system did.

We totally underestimated the resistance to change. We never thought the 12 per cent would influence the system so much.

But you have to acknowledge the fact there are people spending hours on end on bus stops or else going on a tour of Malta once they board.

We have altered 95 per cent of the routes. There are no longer tours of Malta. On November 6 we will have the last route change. When the bus doesn’t arrive on time it’s a scheduling and capacity problem which Arriva has to manage.

If they don’t get their act right on November 4, we will impose maximum fines for waiting time.

Could it be the fact that the government had imposed a number of the old drivers on the new operator?

We didn’t impose anyone. In the agreement we had said Arriva has to offer employment to these drivers, provided they were acceptable.

The first problem in July was caused by the drivers. Today there are no more than 28 ex-ATP drivers.

Arriva’s problem today is middle management. They don’t have enough trained people to call the shots and call in extra buses when they need them.

You seem to be exonerating the role of the ministry and Transport Malta. It was the ministry which drew up the new routes. Is anyone accountable from your end?

I’m taking full responsibility for the routes.

Has any action been taken against the people who drew them up in the first place?

We’ve changed them all (the routes). We wanted a new system. We underestimated the reaction.

There’s no blame. It’s a matter of choosing this system. Now we put in a hybrid system.

We shouldered the responsibility because we tried something new.

Do you refuse to assume the political responsibility for the tens of thousands who say they simply cannot rely on the bus service three months on?

I love the way reporters work. Journalism today has become a way of inventing statistics. ‘There are tens of thousands’ out there. Do you have any idea how many people out there use the bus service?

But contrary to you maybe, reporters are the ones receiving daily reports and complaints from people.

The Times has an inside story on this because one of its reporters lives in Fgura and one of the (bus) problems lies in Fgura. (None of The Times’ reporters reside in Fgura).

That’s irrelevant. We have reporters who catch buses from all over the place.

A reporter from a rival paper always says he goes to his office in San Ġwann in a much shorter time than he used to.

(Valletta Labour councillor) Valerie Borg, who doesn’t like me too much, writes in The Times praising the service.

There are about 82 different lines. We know we have major problems with seven major lines.

Have you considered cancelling the Arriva contract?

Yes, we threatened them twice and it’s still on the cards.

What will it take to do so?

There are provisions in the public contract.

The criticism is widespread. Even a fellow MP, Franco Debono, now said he won’t support you in the opposition’s motion calling for your resignation.

The Labour Party has asked for my resignation as well. We will discuss it in Parliament.

But this is coming from within your own party. Can there be a stronger sign of no confidence?

The Labour Party has asked for a vote of no confidence, yes.

What if it gets the backing of an MP from the government side?

Everyone is free.

Don’t you find it worrying?

Everyone’s free to do what his conscience dictates.

You’ve been roads minister since 2008. Are you happy with your achievements in this sector?

Am I happy? Yes. Am I happy with the state of the roads everywhere in Malta and Gozo? No.

We also seem to have gone back to a situation where it takes more than a year to rebuild a road…

You cannot build a major road in less than 15 to 18 months.

But why are there people working on the Valletta City Gate project seven days a week and you can’t find any workmen on major arteries on Sundays.

Because we have no permit to work round the clock or on Sundays. When they gave us 18 hours a day permit to work on the Żurrieq road, we did.

Do we have the knowhow to rebuild roads?

Yes. We’ve proven it. Go on the Marsascala, Żurrieq, the Italian Protocol roads – they were all Maltese contractors.

But somehow roads still remain slippery whenever it rains, there are no junctions or flyovers, we keep building roundabouts...

You’re generalising. All major roads built in the past 10 years were built up to EU standards. Flyovers are used when there’s very heavy traffic. It’s projected for Kappara but we have all hell breaking loose from neighbours. It’s eventually projected for Marsa. The rest you manage by roundabouts. I don’t question technical decisions. A lot of people assume they’re good road engineers.

But in terms of policy, it’s very clear that the government wants to slow down traffic, reduce parking spaces, disincentivise people from using their cars. Meanwhile there is no proper bus system in place.

I contest that. There’s no policy at this point in time to disincentivise car use. Do we have any low-emission areas which forbid you entering with certain cars or to pay a fee? Do we have pay parking on the road? Do we have bus lane priorities apart from a few roads?

While construction at Smart City is on target, the problem seems to be with job creation since the project has until now failed to attract substantial companies…

The problem is nobody read the contract that has been there for eight years. It explicitly says there’s a timeline to be observed by the government and the obligation for Smart City to start employing. There was some delay in delivering the project which treats the sewage treatment plant which opened in March 2010.

Some of the companies opening shop there were already operating in Malta. They will simply be transferring existing business to Smart City, not creating new jobs. Will these be included in the 5,600 jobs that Smart City should create?

There is no way you can count who is here and who isn’t. That’s not the point. The reality is these guys have invested €26 million of their own money. It’s all shareholder funds.

Mention one other project in Malta which has generated so much shareholder funds.

We’ve been attacked that this was a speculation project yet there’s been no villa creation. They’re building office space.

But who is occupying all this office space?

Do you think they’d want to build this space and not sell it?

Of course not, but let’s be realistic. You promised 5,600 new jobs…

…Over nine years.

The Nationalists used this for electoral purposes in the last election.

I’m confident they will come.

So do you have no reason to believe Smart City will turn into a white elephant?

Worst case scenario – Is it better to have a white elephant in Ricasoli with everything built or would you prefer the old ‘industrial park’?

We have enough vacant properties as it is.

Isn’t it better than what we had? It definitely is.

Reporters have been asking you where the financing of the City Gate project was coming from and you said it wasn’t in your hands.

It’s public.

Is it?

It was in the Budget speech. Finance Minister Tonio Fenech is setting up the national investment fund which is going to have a number of government properties in it. They will create a revenue stream which will finance the building.

It sounds so easy. But in reality...

…Schonbrunn in Austria was financed like that, for example.

Considering the financial scenario, was there need for a €2.5 million bridge to nowhere in Valletta?

We are replicating a bridge which existed. It’s not a bridge to nowhere – we need it to maintain the breakwater. Now we won’t need to work off boats. We could have lived without it, but it complements the harbour. Hopefully, it will become an icon.

Last week you made the headlines after an undergraduate hurled abuse at you. Does it bother you that many perceive you as a brash, arrogant minister?

I personally have no problem with the way people perceive me. Politics, whether you like it or not, is made of that, otherwise don’t go for the game. The girl can call me all she wants, I wouldn’t use the same language or I could use the same language easily if I wanted to. But she was called a ‘heroine’ on the front page of The Times. Imagine the treatment I would get if I called you a ‘f****** w*****’.

Secondly, what really annoyed me was that a month ago, she insulted my dead mother. And that I don’t expect anyone to do.

We’ve won two elections in the past 10 years with Austin Gatt being ‘arrogant’ all the way. People don’t vote for Austin Gatt

It’s less than 18 months till the end of this legislature. You were recently reported saying the PN will be in government for the next 20 years...

I didn’t say that. I said if we continue paying attention to what our grassroots are telling us, and if we continue to deliver serious solutions and not simply (propose) solutions which sound nice, we can win elections for the next 20 years.

You’re a seasoned politician. Don’t you think you need to choose your words more carefully because it’s making your party sound very arrogant?

Perceptions.

Not reality?

Do you think I have personally changed in the past 10 years? We’ve won two elections in the past 10 years with Austin Gatt being ‘arrogant’ all the way. So? People don’t vote for Austin Gatt.

The last election showed how pre-conceptions go out of the window when election-time comes. No one ever thought Lawrence Gonzi was going to pull off a third election (win) in a row, including 95 per cent of our party. He did. Do you think he did because Austin Gatt did this or that?

Today, people get their information from all kinds of sources. It’s completely personality based on the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. Qualitative research clearly show it.

The team is also important.

But when you come to an election, people don’t judge the past team, but the one that comes in future. People vote for a future not for a past.

Is this why you’re stepping aside?

I already said I’m stepping aside.

Many would say the current team will also determine the next election. Infighting has been rife among the PN backbench for the past three years. Some of them have openly criticised you. Do you feel comfortable?

I don’t feel uncomfortable.

Do you feel comfortable? Can you work?

I don’t like it. (But) I’m still working.

Would Eddie Fenech Adami have tolerated this kind of behaviour?

Ask him.

You’ve worked with both Dr Fenech Adami and Dr Gonzi.

I can’t judge. I know (Dr) Fenech Adami tolerated certain disruptive attitudes, especially when we were in opposition.

Do you think Dr Gonzi is doing a good job?

Definitely. We are practically the only country delivering the economic goods. You can complain about the bus system, roads, and so on, but our basics – health, education, economy – are working.

Do you think the electorate would ultimately take note of these things come the next election?

That’s a different thing. In 1996, we got a very perfect lesson. The economy was doing great, we had practically fully employment. We introduced VAT and lost the election.

We have no guarantee we’re going to get re-elected because people are living well. There’s a theory that when people are living well they become more adventurous and try out different parties. There are others who say it’s inevitable that a party loses after 25 years. The same thing was said after 20 years. In reality, in a small electorate like ours, where it’s normal to win with a small majority, every election is different to predict.

Do you think the PN has a good chance of winning the election?

If it plays its cards well in these last 18 months, it can win the election.

By doing what?

Despite the economy, we need to face the distribution of income issue, the part-time work issue. We need to iron out infrastructural problems – the bus service is one of them. We need to see where the party is taking the country? I don’t agree with people who say it’s become all utilitarian.

I think a party still needs a vision, a track record and concrete action to convince the 10,000 who are crucial to an election.

Watch excerpts of the interview on www.timesofmalta.com.

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