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‘I feel that Debono has betrayed me’

PM Lawrence Gonzi goes on the offensive as he faces down Nationalist MP Franco Debono. He talks to Steve Mallia.

How did you get to the situation you are in today?

We’re talking about an MP who has suddenly decided that he will not support the government unless he becomes a minister. It’s a very strange crisis

It depends what situation you’re talking about. Malta has come out of a recession relatively strong. It is now facing 2012 which is a very challenging year. Other countries went through much worse. There’s 20 per cent unemployment in Spain and austerity measures all over the place. Here in Malta we’re talking about a Member of Parliament who has suddenly decided that he will not support the government unless he becomes a minister. It’s a very strange crisis, but we have to deal with it.

Has he actually said those words to you?

It is very clear from what he has been saying publicly. The only reason he reacted the way he did, immediately after I announced the reshuffle, links the two together and no argument can possibly deny this. Whenever he spoke to me, he kept telling me ‘It’s your decision, I do not want to become a minister’. But it is clear that if that was the case, then his reaction yesterday simply does not make sense.

How do you feel about this?

I am very worried about the country because this situation will create problems for the stability of the country, for investment and for jobs.

Do you feel he’s betrayed you?

Yes. I feel he’s betrayed me because since the beginning of the legislature I’ve been working as closely as possible with him. We’ve been in constant contact. I’ve taken him on board as parliamentary assistant with me – at his request – I’ve entrusted him with specific jobs of major importance and I’ve had to deal with a number of crises like this. So this is not the first time we are facing this situation. We always managed to find a way forward and at the end of the day the country benefitted... I feel now Franco Debono has painted himself into a corner with the statements he made (on Friday)...

Do you feel the private exchanges you’ve had with him have reflected his public pronouncements?

No. I’ve had a lot of private conversations with him. I’ve had hundreds of SMSs from him.

What tone have they taken?

It depends. When we had a crisis coming up, the tone was very aggressive. But that’s not the point and I wouldn’t like to go into details. What is worrying me is that I am Prime Minister of a country and thousands of jobs depend on what I decided. When I announced the reshuffle on Friday I was hoping that the message would be that we are facing a very challenging year. We have been in contact with the EU on cutting expenditure without touching obvious expenditure such as education, health and social services. So we are embarking on a project in 2012 that is fundamental for the country. In 2009, thousands of jobs were at stake and everyone recognises that we saved those jobs and I’m talking about very large companies that have an impact on our export markets. I am sad that today these jobs are being put at risk by Franco Debono. They are not being put at risk by me...

Why didn’t you bring in any new backbenchers into the Cabinet?

What I did was redistribute duties to people in Cabinet who have already experienced this. I did not want in the last 18 months of the legislature to introduce new elements – which although capable and I would have loved to do so – because my priority was 2012... which will be an extremely difficult year for all economies. It is irresponsible of anyone to do anything to complicate matters. What is at stake here is not my position as Prime Minister or Franco Debono’s position as an MP. What is at stake are thousands of jobs. And if we get this wrong, we will get it very wrong. I am trying my best to get it right but I must say that Dr Debono is doing his best to get it wrong.

You split justice and home affairs, which is something that he wanted. Did you do it because he wanted it?

No.

It looks like that.

Well, people can think that. The MHRA at one stage said it wanted to have a Ministry for Tourism. Did I do it to please the MHRA? The GRTU said it wants to have a minister for self employed. Did I do it to please the GRTU? The answer is no.

The difference is that he holds the crucial vote in Parliament.

Yes, of course, that’s clear. I upgraded three parliamentary secretaries, not to make them happy nor to leave them on a shelf in a showcase. I did it to give them responsibilities. So I split three ministries: I removed social policy from education and took it back to where it was, linking family affairs with justice...; I consolidated tourism, environment and culture by upgrading it to a ministry; and I placed the small business area under a new ministry. There were people in Cabinet who were not happy with what I did but they understood that it was my duty to decide...

Carm Mifsud Bonnici must be very disappointed given all the publicity.

He understood what I was trying to do. He retained home affairs, which includes the immigration problem which I consider to be of major importance. I removed justice, but gave him local councils and he has been elevated to Leader of the House. I think the formula there worked nicely. Added to this I removed everything from my desk to be able to concentrate in 2012 on what is crucial for the country. It is clear that this displeased Franco Debono because he is not part of the ministerial team.

Why isn’t he part of the ministerial team?

I think his reaction in the past 24 hours clearly indicates why he’s not a minister. The way he has reacted shows why he’s not able to occupy an executive position.

People see what you did on Friday as a move to get Franco Debono to declare his ministerial ambitions in public...

...that is not a correct assessment. I would be irresponsible if I were to do such things. I know that Dr Debono said that what I did yesterday was a panicked reaction to what he said. He is very incorrect and he knows it. From the first day I spoke to him, I said his idea of splitting the ministry was worth considering and I would consider it among a number of other changes during the Christmas period... Dr Debono’s comment that this was a reaction is totally false and incorrect and once again proves why I have not made him a minister or parliamentary secretary.

You did make him a parliamentary assistant within the Office of the Prime Minister. Was this a mistake?

This was done at his request. I don’t think it was a mistake. I believed he could contribute in a constructive manner and I recognised when he came out with ideas and I acted upon them. Whenever there was an issue, I intervened to try and smoothen things out. I also encouraged him to focus not just on justice but also on the economy to understand what politics is all about. Politics is not about your profession as a lawyer. I recognise that he’s an established lawyer and that courts and justice interests him. But one doesn’t become a politician just to discuss his profession and his work. You need to understand how the economy works, how education fits into the economy etc, and how to move the country forward. Clearly I must have failed in this task as throughout these four years he has focused purely on justice which is linked to his profession. And I think that is wrong. This is another mistake Dr Debono has made.

Was it a mistake on your part to tolerate this for so long? Some people say you should have nipped this in the bud when the trouble started. You didn’t.

People forget that two years ago we had a recession in this country. Factories were going to close down. I had employers coming to speak to me. Last year I had the Libya crisis and employers were telling me to try and save the millions they’d invested. Anyone who expects me to confuse priorities doesn’t know me.

Franco Debono has absolutely no right to usurp the trust that was put in him when people voted him into office

So you don’t have any regrets over the way you’ve handled Franco Debono?

I always have regrets and I always ask myself ‘could I have handled it better?’ I believe I’ve tried my best but that doesn’t mean I was always correct.

Should you have been firmer earlier on?

Yes, it could well be I should have been firmer. But what does firmer mean. Does it mean I give in to blackmail? (On Friday) I proved that I do not. I don’t accept being blackmailed. I don’t accept being put into a corner. And I do this not because of any pride on my part. I would be doing a disservice to the country and to whoever is Prime Minister if I were to establish this ridiculous scenario where a Prime Minister can’t impose or can’t decide on a reshuffle because one particular MP who happens to be a single seat majority holds the government by the throat. It is precisely because of that that Dr Debono is not part of the Cabinet and it is precisely because of that that we need to make it very clear that at stake is the future of the country.

He’s called on you to resign. Will you?

I will not resign. I consider that statement to be a party issue, so I will raise it within the party structures.

In what sense will you raise it?

We have already scheduled a meeting of our Executive Council for (this) week and I will bring to the council this state of fact: that Franco Debono in a press conference (yesterday) insisted that I should resign as leader of the party.

He said he will serve under any leader but you.

I took note of that. But that means the crisis we have is not a government issue. We don’t have a crisis because the deficit has exploded or because we have mass unemployment, or a crisis similar to those other countries are facing. We have a crisis of an individual. It is his crisis. His crisis is that he cannot accept me as his leader. Fine. That is a party issue and I will, as always, face the challenge and take it in the forum where it deserves to be treated. Now I hope he will remain consistent and not change the rules of the game once again. If he’s made this statement, I will hold him to his word. I will take this issue to the party and deal with it there.

Will you resign if that’s the only way the Nationalist Party can stay in government?

I would not put it that way. If it were the only way to see the country moving forward; if it were the only way to see Malta avoiding the humiliation that I’ve seen taking place in other countries; if it is the only way where Malta can avoid having to go through what other countries have gone through, then I will do it. At the end of the day I am in politics to serve the country – not to control the country. In the present circumstances, perhaps Franco Debono needs to understand this. He entered politics to serve the country not to serve himself. He entered politics to serve the electorate who voted for him and it was the Nationalist electorate that gave him the seat in Parliament. He has no right to usurp that. He has absolutely no right to usurp the trust that was put in him when people voted him into office.

And you believe he is doing that.

With the statements he has made in the past few days, yes, he has usurped, he has betrayed the trust of those who voted for him because they believed he would serve the country – not serve himself.

Should he resign as an MP in your opinion?

I believe he has put himself into that situation. I think he has no option...

What if he decides to remain in Parliament as an independent?

I’ve always told him that whatever he decides he has to shoulder the consequences. He knows this. Just as I know that I must shoulder the consequences of my decisions.

But you will have to shoulder the consequences in terms of you no longer having a majority in Parliament.

I will face that situation, but I repeat: at this point in time if it is an issue, as he has stated, that he will serve under everyone but me – then it is clear that he has shifted the focus onto the party. We will go to the party and resolve it in that forum.

Are you going to continue in government without a majority in Parliament?

I will continue shouldering the responsibility and doing what I think is best for the country. Whether I have a majority or not remains to be seen.

He’s said that he won’t support a government headed by you, so you don’t have a majority.

Yes, of course. But we’ve had statements by Dr Debono on a number of other issues and then going to Parliament and voting. Ok, fine, I don’t expect that to happen to tell you the truth but I’ve faced this already. Dr Debono has said ‘I will not vote in favour of this motion’ and yet we found a way forward. I am not saying he gave in, I’m saying we found a compromise way forward. I will always try my best if that is in the best interest of the country. In this case I think it’s going to be extremely difficult; however, I think the country needs to go through 2012 and take the difficult decisions that need to be taken.

I never reach a point of no return. I’m afraid he’s reached a point of no return...

But you without a majority means an election.

Me without a majority means an election. Which means as well that the opposition will have once again betrayed its major duty to be of service to the country. The Leader of the Opposition in the days leading up to Christmas and New Year delivered a number of public messages. He said, ‘It’s time for us to work together. It’s time for us in the challenging times ahead to be constructive and serious.’ Fine. Those are nice words. Now prove it.

The Nationalist Party didn’t work with the Labour Party in 1998 when Dom Mintoff was voting against the government.

It was Mintoff himself taking a position against Alfred Sant. What Dr Sant did was to make the issue related to the Cottonera project a vote of confidence. George Abela, who is today our President... had disagreed with Dr Sant. He was his consultant and because Dr Sant did something Dr Abela didn’t agree with, Dr Abela decided to leave. Joseph Muscat is asking me to do what Dr Sant did. My answer to him is you should remember what George Abela did. What I’m trying to do now is to try and make DrMuscat understand is that he has a duty as much as I have to put the country’s interests first.

In politics that’s pie in the sky.

If you look at other countries around us, political parties are trying to work together to find a way forward in these difficult times. This is what we require at this point in time. If Dr Muscat is trying to be an accomplice with Franco Debono, then it’s his business. Or if Franco Debono wants to be an accomplice with Dr Muscat, then it’s their business. They will shoulder the responsibility of the consequences in the country.

Presuming Franco Debono votes against you and the Labour Party – as expected – also votes against you, it means an election will be held pretty quickly, right?

It’s part of the democratic process that if there is a loss of confidence in the government of the day, I will have no option but to take the consequences of that. And the consequences of that will mean that an election would have to be called.

Would an election be held soon?

At this stage I would avoid the hypothesis of this and that. I think it’s best if we are clear and honest with our electorate. And honesty with the electorate at this point means that Dr Debono needs to understand that this is a party leadership issue. Let’s take it to the party and address it in that forum and avoid creating the instability at government level and at national level.

But if the party this week discusses it, asserts its confidence in you – as it would be expected to do – then the situation remains as it is today.

It’s Dr Debono’s call. The ball is in his court. He must remain consistent now. Once he said it I expect him to keep his word...

Franco Debono showed his Form 2 school report on television. Did he ever show it to you?

He did show it to me. But what I found bizarre is that at this point in time, with the issues we have in our lap, the issue is not what school report he had when he was still a teenager. The issue is his responsibility as an MP towards the country, towards those who voted for him and towards the thousands of jobs that are at stake...

Have you reached the point of no return with Franco Debono?

I never reach a point of no return. I’m afraid he’s reached a point of no return...

So the Nationalist Party won’t expel him.

We’ll see. I understand his statement in his press conference (yesterday) morning that he will serve under everyone but me. I will bind him to that statement. It goes to the party. We’ll handle it there.

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