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No regrets over my open door policy...

Labour leader Joseph Muscat tells Herman Grech he has a clear strategy.

Q: We’re a week away from the Budget. What do you expect from it?

We have clear plans. There are realistic alternatives

A: I’m expecting an honest Budget which gives a true picture and brings stability. Families are concerned about the present and future and the fact that the government’s decisions are not reflecting their needs.

Q: And what do people need?

A: They need a focused Prime Minister. In the past one-and-a-half months, with Malta and the rest of Europe facing difficult times, our Prime Minister seems to be more focused on solving his party’s problems rather than the country’s.

Q: Many would argue that in these times of crisis, the government has done a good job in handling the economy.

A: This government needs to decide what message it needs to relay. If things are going so well, then families should benefit from the economy. The Prime Minister brags about the state of the economy with foreigners, and when he’s faced with requests from families and businesses he says he’s not in a position to respond.

Q: Do you accept the fact that in the current climate, economic growth is reasonable, unemployment is stable, and though our debt is problematic, our deficit isn’t? If it’s so bad why did two of three credit rating agencies give Malta a good report?

A: When you analyse these credit rating agencies they might reach different conclusions, but their analysis is the same. They say there’s less demand in the local market, consumer confidence is down, they’re concerned government won’t meet its deficit targets and debt has spiralled out of control. We pay €550,000 a day on debt interest. And this is meant to be a time when we’re running at a budget surplus. Employment levels in Malta are the second lowest in the EU. The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) has cast doubts on export figures.

Q: Are you implying the government’s dabbling with figures?

A: I’m not saying that. But when a respectable agency like the EIU is asking a clear question, the government should reply. It’s been four weeks.

Q: You’re being selective in the reports you cite. Standard and Poor’s last week maintained Malta’s positive rating and downgraded Cyprus.

A: I can mention Fitch and Moody’s... I don’t want to sound technical but ratings vary between one agency and the other. You should look at the analysis. In a recent report, the European Commission said the implementation of government projects is weak, citing the Smart City project as an example.

Q: Last Sunday you said Lawrence Gonzi was not technically capable of running the economy. What did you mean?

A: I don’t think he understands the fundamentals of the economy...

Q: ...Despite several reports claiming the economy isn’t doing badly at all.

A: If this is the case, we are faring in this manner despite the government, not because of government.

Q: If you were Prime Minister or Finance Minister what’s the first measure you’d introduce in next week’s budget?

A: We need to reduce water and electricity rates in a sustainable, realistic and credible way.

Q: Don’t you think such a measure could wreak havoc in the country’s finances?

A: Not at all. I believe it’s a way of giving some breathing space to families and businesses.

Q: Where will you get the money from?

A: We have clear plans. There are realistic alternatives. This government ignores (EU Commissioner) John Dalli, who suggested investing in technology that would slash water and electricity rates by half. It’s one of the alternatives. If the government ignores Mr Dalli is it going to take note of what I have to say?

Q: You’re also ignoring an EU report published last week that said electricity rates all over Europe have to increase over the next 20 years if they’re to meet environmental targets.

A: You’re only quoting part of the report which deals mainly with fossil fuels. And that’s why we need different technologies. Our government decided to extend our power station to run on heavy fuels. We have serious, technical preparations and when the time is right we will present our proposals, we will explain the cost of the cuts to water and electricity and we will say where we will get the money from.

Q: It’s easy to say you will cut the rates. Something’s got to give...

A: ...When I go to the people with our proposals I’m equipped with the latest calculations.

Q: You’re making it sound so easy. You also say you guarantee free health care, stipends, social services... These cost millions. Where are you going to get the money from?

A: If this government found the money to build a new Parliament, don’t you think I can find money to help families?

Q: But you’re not giving an indication where you’re getting the money from.

A: Is this government indicating where it’s getting this money (for the Parliament) from?

Q: How can you refuse to even give an indication?

A: One of the solutions is being offered from somebody nominated by this government – John Dalli. The government didn’t even react to his proposal. The difference between the two parties in Malta is priority. If I had an extra €80 million I wouldn’t have squandered it on a new Parliament. I would make sure care workers are paid better, reduce waiting lists, and give the disabled more assistance.

Q: You’ve been Labour leader for a while and very soon you could be Prime Minister and yet nobody can extract an answer from you on how you intend to get the funding.

A: Our Prime Minister went into the last election with a massive promise – that he’d substantially reduce the top income tax rate. He promised it 28 days before the election and nobody asked him where he’d be getting the money from. When he was eventually asked, he had a blank face before the Finance Minister replied. We will explain.

Q: When?

A: When the general election approaches we will be spreading out our plans. In a changing world, considering the eurozone and the fiscal situation, I can’t bind myself to certain details today. I can’t change my position in 10 months’ time.

Q: What if oil prices remain unchanged?

A: I think with the current outlook it’s sustainable to keep promising a cut in water and electricity rates.

Q: Even if oil prices keep climbing?

A: In the current situation, I’m still positive it can be carried out.

Q: Do you expect the government to carry out its pledge to cut the maximum income tax rate?

A: The Prime Minister made this promise knowing the state of finances. It was a last gasp measure to win the election. He even said he would carry it out in the first Budget, aware of the real situation and that there was a storm brewing. Families have been denied three years of promised tax cuts so far.

Q: Are you saying the tax cut should be implemented in this Budget?

A: I think the Prime Minister should be honest and stop blaming the economic situation. He should say he didn’t tell the truth before the election.

Q: On Dissett last Saturday, Karmenu Vella, who is coordinating the PL’s electoral programme, said it was not the right time to do so.

A: That’s why I said the Prime Minister should decide the issue.

Q: But there’s a contradiction. The person who’s coordinating the PL’s programme...

A: ...Not at all. The Prime Minister should stop blaming the international situation. He knew what was going on. He should tell people he took them for a ride.

Q: Do you think it would be irresponsible to give this cut? Can’t a Prime Minister admit such a thing, despite the promise?

A: The most irresponsible thing was to promise it knowing he would have problems implementing it.

Q: You recently said a Labour government is prepared to take ‘controversial’ decisions on Gozo. Can you quantify that?

A: I believe we need a government which stops hiding behind bureaucrats and playing chess with institutions. Where capital projects are concerned, the government should be honest. Instead of raising contractors’ hopes, we should make our position clear at once.

Q: You must have something in mind.

A: People keep telling me they spend tens of thousands in consultancies to try to win projects and then they’re kept in the dark. Then they see the government afraid to take certain decisions. If a project proposal matches our vision, irrespective whether it’s controversial or not, we should be frank.

Q: Some have suggested the PL is ready to run roughshod over Mepa and pander to contractors at any cost to the environment.

A: Environmentalists will find in us an honest and straightforward government. We won’t tell environmentalists and developers what they want to hear and then desist from taking the decision. I will shoulder responsibility and not hide behind any bureaucrat.

Q: Would you consider an airstrip for Gozo?

A: While I believe most decisions concerning Gozo should be taken by Gozitans, I think we need to commission a study on Gozo’s accessibility. We’re discussing a tunnel to Gozo and nobody is talking about the repercussions. We might need to start talking about better sea connections.

Q: What do you think about an airstrip?

A: I’ve always been sceptical about whether an airstrip provides a solution. An airstrip would be the most problematic from the environmental perspective and I’d like to avoid it. Then we hear claims that a tunnel between the islands would cost between €60 and 70 million, a figure deemed ‘super conservative’ by experts.

Q: It was proposed by a Labour candidate.

A: Franco Mercieca did the right thing in proposing it. It’s the government which is costing it.

Q: Several arguments have been made about the e-mail leaks issue. The exchange with Sabrina Agius read more like correspondence between a journalist and a policy coordinator than with the Leader of the Opposition. Do you have a problem with delegation? Do you feel you’re a one-man show, the person to ‘go to’ for anything, even the most trivial matters?

A: Joseph Muscat is Joseph Muscat. For our generation, a computer is not a typewriter hooked up to a television. It’s a means of communication. If a person is expressing her pain, I don’t want to ignore it because I’m the Leader of the Opposition. I answer everybody and I want to continue doing so. I have no regrets about my open door policy. I’m not used to formalities in my writing. I’m happy that I receive hundreds of messages, letters, phone calls from people who want to share and make suggestions.

Q: On Bondiplus last week you said e-mails between members of the anti-divorce movement’s strategy group had been leaked to It-Torċa. The members denied leaking this private exchange of e-mails and insisted the correspondence was stolen and given to the Labour media. You still haven’t replied to their statement.

A: The information I have is that these e-mails were leaked. I never referred to these e-mails in my speeches. It’s the newspaper editors who published them who have to answer. The first time round they weren’t published in the PL media. I commented on what was common knowledge and I was surprised the members didn’t report it at the time.

Q: Parliament (has voted) on a no-confidence motion in the Transport Minister over the public transport issue. What would Labour have done differently?

A: We would have chosen consultants based not on their political allegiances but on their skills. Secondly, we wouldn’t have thrown money at a problem. The government bought industrial peace at a cost of €52 million. The reform was needed. I backed the government against the 2008 strike. Yet, despite the claims that it took two years of planning, we were told there were no trial runs.

Q: The government accused you of not contributing anything to the reform.

A: Since when have we become transport consultants? We raised to the fore the people’s problems. The government’s attitude nowadays is to ask us how we’d solve this mess. Irrespective of (last Friday’s) vote, the government’s political problem is not Franco Debono but Lawrence Gonzi. This exposes his lack of leadership. He’s bouncing from one crisis to the other – from divorce to honoraria to Smart City. Our Prime Minister is more concerned with keeping his group together than caring about the needs of society.

Q: On the other hand, you’ve been accused of trying to lure everybody into your party by promising everything to everyone – Mintoffians to disgruntled Nationalists, even Norman Lowell at one point was cosying up to your party. You meet with hunters and then say you’re an environmentalist. You’re in favour of social services but you want to reduce taxes. Your message appears contradictory.

A: Not at all. Yes, you can favour social services and incentivise the economy. What’s contradictory in telling hunters you will get a fair deal but it cannot be a free-for-all?

Q: Because some things aren’t possible now that we’re EU members.

A: Of course it’s possible. I’m a moderate. For example, hunters and trappers feel betrayed and I feel it’s their right to enjoy their hobby in a regulated manner – but they don’t have the right to do as they please.

Q: You accuse Lawrence Gonzi of lacking leadership. You describe yourself as a moderate but sometimes you need to lead with strength.

A: Gonzi is an extremist, and this makes him weak.

Q: Extremist?

A: He was an extremist on divorce, by assuming collective responsibility on the public transport vote... That extremism is not reflected in strength. He’s very weak. He’s losing one battle after the other.

Q: It’s easy to unite when there’s a government to fight. You’ve had an open door policy since you’ve been elected leader. What happens with some of the characters once this common enemy is defeated? Don’t you fear you’re going to have bigger problems than Dr Gonzi’s if you become Prime Minister?

A: I have never feared challenges. If we’re in government we need to govern as a movement. One of the PL’s biggest challenges is to understand this. Other Prime Ministers, like Dom Mintoff and Eddie Fenech Adami, managed stable governments with a single seat majority. This Prime Minister is failing.

Q: Certain characters could be problematic for you. On the euro bailout vote Alfred Sant headed one way and you headed the other.

A: How did Alfred Sant vote?

Q: He voted in favour but after dragging out marathon sessions.

A: I declared from the outset that the PL was united in favour (of the bailout). Alfred Sant saved the government’s blushes. We could have ended up in a situation where someone could have challenged the procedure in court and Malta would have been embarrassed on the European stage.

Q: Shouldn’t you have flagged the issue?

A: Why? Am I the beginning and the end of everything? We’re a team and it’s not made up of prima donnas.

Q: So you’re saying Dr Sant didn’t embarrass you.

A: Not at all. He did his duty as MP.

Q: The Nationalists are pouncing on the fact that the PL still has within its ranks people like Alex Sceberras Trigona. You were forced to issue a retraction when (One chairman) Jason Micallef said Peppi Azzopardi should be removed from the state broadcaster. How can you control these people?

A: We only have only one party spokesman. It’s in the PN’s interest not to divulge the names of other people joining our ranks who were never involved in politics, from Deborah Schembri to Manuel Mallia...

Q: ...to Cyrus Engerer.

A: Why not?

Q: Doesn’t it bother you that he faces serious charges against him?

A: The biggest issue I have with Cyrus is what the judge declared: that the charges against him were accelerated straight after he decided to quit the PN.

Q: The perception among many is that though you might want to change this party, you simply don’t have the people and the resources.

A: I believe we have a good base of resources. I have approached other people who will eventually declare their candidature. By the election, people will see a new team with massive capabilities, people we’ve never dreamt of seeing in politics, blended with experience. It will echo the team with different competences we fielded for the European Parliament elections in 2009.

Q: Are you convinced of a Labour victory?

A: I’m convinced we’ll do our best.

Q: Do you think you could simply win by default?

A: I’m convinced by what my team and I can offer. (Dr) Gonzi’s party will do its utmost to win the election. We will work until the very last minute. The upcoming election is as open as any other.

This interview was carried out on Friday morning, before the parliamentary vote.

Watch excerpts of the interview on www.timesofmalta.com

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