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‘I’m the voice of the electorate’

Nationalist MP Franco Debono tells Herman Grech everyone is now realising he has something to contribute.

The government survived a vote of confidence you prompted just after presenting a surprise motion on the justice sector. Do you fear your initiatives could be interpreted as blackmail?

The way I speak is the natural political language we will be using in 10 to 15 years’ time

Doing my work as an MP in the 21st century shouldn’t be interpreted as blackmail. What I did happens all over the world. This was not just an issue of the bus service but of democracy in the wider sense.

There was a public outcry and no one shouldering political responsibility. That’s why I had to take a stand. Since then the service has been working better. The minister has assumed responsibility and the Prime Minister is heading a task force to revamp the service.

The perception among many is that the government’s task force is a knee-jerk reaction, taken only to stop you from stirring more trouble.

Absolutely not the case. My stand regarding the bus service issue came at a personal sacrifice; I didn’t do it for my own ends. I did it for the people. The reform unfortunately ended up in the lap of the Prime Minister, who also has to focus on issues like the economy and jobs in the midst of an international crisis.

If the reform was planned properly in the first place it would not have led to all these issues. Ministers have to be more diligent to implement reforms better. Ultimately the electorate will judge a government and ministers’ performance, not the backbenchers.

But this ended up in a vote of confidence in the government. You prompted talk of an early election.

I don’t think there was need to go there. The Labour motion concerned one minister. In the PN executive I made it clear it was a matter of ministerial responsibility.

Political parties do not operate in a vacuum. I was the one who suggested the vote of confidence and I voted in favour.

Do you believe in the concept of party loyalty?

I stood as a candidate in a Labour stronghold for the first time at the age of 24. I have remained within the PN ever since, proving my loyalty along the years. I wasn’t one of those who was put on boards or given retainers. I never asked for it...

...are you insinuating this is what the PN does?

No. But I wasn’t one of them. I showed utmost loyalty to the PN. Honestly, I think everyone’s now realising I have something to contribute. I raised this and other issues, such as the right to a lawyer during interrogation and party financing, for the people’s benefit.

The Nationalist Party has a majority of one seat. Wouldn’t it have been better to raise certain issues internally rather than wash the party’s dirty linen in public?

These things happen normally in other Parliaments. Let’s remember I had been talking about the issue of having a right to a lawyer during interrogation for a long time, internally, in Parliament and in the media, and nothing happened. I had to do it that way because it’s a fundamental right.

Are you saying there’s no internal discussion within the party?

There is discussion but it needs to be broadened. I don’t just have a right to speak but I have also a right to be heard. It’s better to have a backbencher who is voicing concerns, so that a situation is remedied before the electorate delivers judgment.

But the electorate also votes for a stable government and you’re hardly contributing to that.

I’m promoting issues I believe in. It’s the electorate that determines Parliament’s composition. And it’s the electorate who decided our one seat majority. People don’t like huge majorities which give governments the chance to do as they please. If I wanted to take advantage of this slender majority I could have voted in favour of the motion, but I didn’t.

But is your behaviour...

...My behaviour is equivalent to that of a normal MP in an EU country. See what happened in the House of Commons last week, for example.

Do you think those who voted for you approve of this behaviour?

Yes, because the issues I raised were valid, not capricious. The bus reform was wrong, and that’s what led me to speak out.

But you went further than that. On the day of a vote of confidence in the government you proposed a Private Member’s Motion on justice issues. Even if a lot of people agreed with your proposals, did you have to present it on the day of a crucial vote?

I made it clear I was going to give my vote of confidence to the government.

But did you have to present it on the actual day?

I have been writing articles in The Times for the past months, giving the gist of that motion. I spoke in Parliament several times. They’re 22 positive proposals.

But you know strategy plays a major role in politics.

There wasn’t a particular reason why I presented it that day. I was going to present it weeks earlier but the minister was recovering from an operation.

Many are saying you’re acting this way because you want the post of Justice Minister.

Absolutely not. I urge all those arguing this way to look at the issues. If the issues are valid then my actions are justified. There are some things moving slowly and others we must start tackling from scratch.

Are you saying the Justice Minister is failing?

I’m saying there’s still a lot of work to be done. And it has to be done urgently. As the Chief Justice said, justice needs to be given as much importance as the economy. We’re talking about human rights. My Private Member’s Motion simply says these issues should be on the parliamentary agenda.

What if they’re ignored? Will you abstain in another vote?

No. With 15 months to go, this legislature is nearing its end. I don’t think the motion will be ignored, especially after the positive comments of the Prime Minister and the Chamber of Advocates. Those people who attribute ulterior motives should realise that they too stand to benefit.

We’re some 15 months away from the next general election. Do you think there should be a reshuffle?

That’s not my business.

I’m asking for your opinion.

I won’t give my opinion. That’s the Prime Minister’s prerogative.

Do you think the government is operating at its optimum?

That’s a different question. Can we ignore the fact we lost the 2009 MEP elections by 35,000 votes? The electorate sent a strong message in the recent divorce referendum too. Party loyalty means having the courage to raise issues before you’re judged by the electorate. Party loyalty means a minister shouldering responsibility to make sure he stops embarrassing the government.

It’s also important that party loyaltyis understood in the context of other constitutional notions. I think a lot’s been done, however. The Prime Minister tackled the economyexcellently.

Don’t you think your colleagues are wondering what your next move will be?

Absolutely not. Just look at what happens overseas. Parliaments are alive, they’re a control mechanism on the executive.

Many had criticised the Prime Minister when he appointed parliamentary assistants. Some said you were put in the Office of the Prime Minister so he can keep a close eye on you.

Remember, some people who never spoke out were also appointed parliamentary assistants. Many countries have parliamentary assistants. I’ve declined invitations to accompany the Prime Minister somewhere if I don’t feel I can make a contribution. I don’t accompany the Prime Minister simply to appear in his presence.

As parliamentary assistant I have been working on one of the most important laws of this legislature, the law on political parties and party financing.

Did you speak to the Prime Minister about your ambitions?

The Prime Minister can confirm I speak to him a lot about constitutional reforms, which I think are very important to strengthen our democracy. I have no ambitions except to contribute positively to my country and I have shown even from the backbench one can contribute a lot, and even bring about reforms.

Did you ever put pressure on him to give you a post?

Never. Absolutely. And never will do. And he can confirm this. I only speak to him about the issues I have mentioned, and about others such as the environmental deficit in the south.

Do you think your party trusts you?

I believe in the party’s democratic credentials... I’ve shown loyalty but it has to be balanced. A party official’s loyalty is towards the party. But once you’re an MP, you have dual loyalty towards the constitution and the people who elected you.

The Transport Minister only assumed political responsibility and a major overhaul in routes was announced after I declared I would abstain in the vote of confidence.

But many are interpreting this as a publicity stunt and to wreak havoc in the government in order to land a Cabinet post.

These things don’t help you land a Cabinet post...

...not if the government is relying on a single seat.

A backbencher spoke in favour of the people after a botched reform. I could have chosen to do like others and remain silent.

But you also picked on a populist issue. Many people use public transport.

What does populist mean? If it means it impacts people then OK. We are there to represent people. If people were crying out for help then it’s not populist but popular – it is an issue of the people.

Do you trust your party?

The party is a dynamic organ. Maltese political parties need to move forward. Our generation needs to change the spectre of politics the same way politicians before us did. Thanks to people like Eddie Fenech Adami, we overcame the polarisation of the 1980s...

...but then again a week ago you shocked people by comparing the state broadcaster to the one in the 1980s. Do you still believe this?

Of course I do. I was talking about one particular issue. There are a lot of good programmes – I took part in Xarabank and Dissett.

But you referred to PBS, not one particular programme.

One bad programme is still part of PBS. I wasn’t referring to PBS as a whole. If you present a programme on state TV I don’t think you should attack a person while politically endorsing someone who is responsible for this fiasco.

You’re referring to Manuel Delia, who plans to stand on the same district as yourself. And this obviously triggers off suspicions you’re doing this to ruin his electoral chances.

If anything, Mr Delia’s performance will be assessed by the public through this bus reform. So I didn’t need to speak and could well have remained silent. I consider Mr Delia a valid person. But is it acceptable for this PBS presenter to endorse Mr Delia – one of those responsible for bus reform – and then refrain from making any reference to him during a programme on public transport while unleashing an attack against me?

It’s not up to me to answer because Lou Bondi isn’t here to defend himself.

When it’s subtle it’s even more dangerous.

Do you think the electorate will vote for Franco Debono again?

If I was the voice for the electorate... I believe they appreciate I was their voice. The electorate is the commuter, the person who never had a right to a lawyer during interrogation and now because Franco Debono spoke out he has that right. That’s why party loyalty has to be seen in a broader context.

Do you think the PN will work behind the scenes to ruin your chances of re-election?

I don’t think it’s the case. In the last election I contested a district which fielded Louis Galea, Ninu Zammit and Helen D’Amato. I got elected despite the tough circumstances. During the last election I persuaded hundreds of disgruntled voters to vote PN.

We’re on the eve of the Budget. Can you guarantee you won’t vote against it?

I can give every guarantee I will vote with the government in favour of the Budget. The bus reform issue concerned individual ministerial responsibility. Let’s keep in mind I not only voted with my party on the vote of confidence in the government, but I was even the one to suggest it.

Can you guarantee you will not vote against any government measure until the next election?

The MP’s role is to represent people. I can’t foresee the future. A week is a long time in politics. But I have formed part of this party and I believe in its general programme so I will vote with the government. Each issue I spoke about was within the parameters of the government’s programme.

But can the Prime Minister put his mind at rest with you around or is he, as the Labour Party now states, a ‘hostage’?

Be careful. That claim by Labour is not made in my regard but with regard to the Transport Minister. I was not the one responsible for the shortcomings of the reform, and the motion of no confidence did not concern me.

It’s better to have a backbencher who is voicing concerns, so that a situation is remedied before the electorate delivers judgment

Don’t you think you are being used by the Labour Party in a subtle manner to suit its means?

In what way? If anything, it’s the people who use me as their voice.

For example, last year, the power station extension issue came to the fore in another no-confidence motion, and that directly impacts my constituents.

I spoke then and still maintain we need less polluting fuel for the power station. I criticised the operations of (Austin Gatt’s) ministry but I still voted with the government. Enemalta was removed from minister’s portfolio.

It’s good to see the new buses don’t cause pollution, but it’s no excuse for the bad routes mapped out. We can’t expect the opposition to remain silent.

Are you putting a lid on the public transport issue now?

Certainly. Parliament has delivered its verdict. The case is closed.

And despite what happened, you still won’t comment on whether a reshuffle should take place.

It’s the electorate which will judge the government’s performance. I discuss and raise issues. The issues I raise especially regarding constitutional changes fundamental to our democracy, is the natural political language we will be using in 10 to 15 years’ time.

Is the PN understanding this ‘language’?

I think it’s understanding it, but until it absorbs it... You see there are constitutional aspects that transcend party lines. When you discuss the dignity of Parliament you are discussing the rules of democracy within which parties operate. For example, I suggested we should change the way judges and magistrates are appointed. And the parties need to agree about this.

The PN needs to evolve. It’s been in government for practically 25 years and after such a long time you need to carry out a more profound examination of your conscience.

Are you saying the PN hasn’t evolved?

Of course it has. But it needs to continue evolving.

Do you feel comfortable in the PN?

I feel comfortable. When you’re in a party you’re not just a passive spectator.

But every club has its own rules.

But you can work to change the rules. That’s how parties evolve...

...by fighting your case internally.

And externally. Internally as a member of the party, but you’re also a representative of the people...

...elected on a party ticket.

Definitely. The issues I raised were always in line with the PN credo. In 1987, the historic PN slogan was ‘work, justice and liberty’. Justice and fundamental freedoms are at the core of the PN.

If you look at the 22 recommendations I made for the justice sector and the police, they all fall under the umbrella of the PN’s beliefs. So yes, I feel comfortable in the PN.

The visionary is a person or a party that foresees things others can’t. This is why the PN has always been the visionary party, and must strive to continue to be so.

Watch excerpts of the interview on www.timesofmalta.com

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