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We’re ready to be in government

Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

The timing of the vote of no confidence is being interpreted by the PN as a sign of hunger for power on your behalf. Don’t you think this PN strategy could eventually work against you?

Whatever happens on Thursday, this government remains unstable and unsustainable

The only thing that interests me is the country’s stability. The country has waited long enough. We’ve given the Prime Minister enough time. It would be the easiest thing to watch the GonziPN spectacle caving in. This issue needs to be settled at once.

It’s the PN that is accusing you of causing instability because your motion of no confidence prompted the possibility of an early election.

People are intelligent enough not to reason out this way. The instability has been generated because of the PN’s instability.

But there is also a precedent. Dom Mintoff repeatedly voted against the Budget in November 1997. The PN only called a vote of no confidence the following March and that was linked to Mr Mintoff’s abstention to a vote on foreign policy. You’ve pounced at the opportunity after a couple of weeks.

I was aware people would give that interpretation. Maybe at the time it was in the PN’s interest to let Labour’s infighting grow – and it did. If I had to do the same, I think the PN’s infighting will continue growing and it would be convenient for the PL. That’s not a responsible choice. The Prime Minister should have sought a vote of confidence at once.

So you’re saying the PN should also have called a vote of no confidence in late 1997.

You test things straight away.

At the time...

I was an executive member and I had written about the way you have to nip such problems in the bud.

How will the Labour Party react if Franco Debono abstains from Thursday’s vote?

Whatever happens on Thursday, this government remains unstable and unsustainable. The PM should take the right decisions.

So do you think an election should be called anyway?

We’ll wait for the result. But from the reactions I’m seeing, this government is unsustainable.

If Dr Debono votes against your motion would you still believe there’s the need for an early election?

You have to see the context and the declarations made. I won’t speculate – but investors can’t put their minds at rest that this government has the power to take decisions.

Are you saying the situation will remain unresolved even if Dr Debono supports the government on Thursday.

After all that’s been said, you wouldn’t be living in the real political world if you think investors won’t question the longevity of this government.

Would you consider a coalition government until the actual date of the next election?

Coalitions in this country have never worked. Minority governments were never stable. We need stability and you get there if you have a clear mandate.

The PL has evidently jumped on the Debono bandwagon. Be honest, do you think Debono’s demands and ways are justified?

The problem is the system of leadership of GonziPN. Let’s remember other MPs said the same thing – maybe in different nuances – that the Prime Minister is hostage to a clique.

Is Debono being logical?

What I do know is that certain suggestions made by Franco Debono were taken up in the past few weeks. If the Prime Minister is saying Dr Debono’s demands are illogical, does it mean he’s adopting illogical proposals?

Parliamentarians are expected to work as part of a team. If they don’t like it, they resign. Lino Spiteri quit when he disagreed with his government’s VAT measures.

Spiteri remained a government MP and voted according to party lines.

How would you react if one of your MPs acts this way when you’re PM?

I believe we’d never reach this stage. The root of this problem is not Debono. Other government MPs have raised different issues in public. Are they always to blame? I’m not attacking the PM personally. I’m attacking his leadership.

A Prime Minister needs to take decisions, and MPs need not always agree with you.

Even in Opposition, we have such tests – we discuss, we consult. For example, we had internal dissent on divorce but ultimately we managed to reach agreement.

So you’re saying it’s the Prime Minister who has led to this situation, not Dr Debono.

Do you think Dom Mintoff and Eddie Fenech Adami didn’t face internal issues with a one-seat majority? I’m sure they did, but they never had a problem.

Maybe they didn’t have Franco Debono in their midst.

I’m sure they didn’t have easy people.

Considering the global problems, does it pay the PL to go for an election now?

We’ve been hearing so many things about the problems and the datelines by when we’re meant to recover. I have no say over the election date. I will only say we’re ready for an election. More importantly, we’re ready to govern.

At what point has your electoral manifesto reached?

We’ve taken everything into consideration, even the prospects of an early election. Our electoral programme, coordinated by Karmenu Vella, is constantly being updated according to the economic realities. If there’s an early election, we can present everything to the electorate. And yes, we’re taking into consideration the national and international circumstances.

You said the PL is the underdog in this election.

Without any doubt.

A party that is well ahead in the polls...

In the last election we were ahead in the polls...

...with a new leader and after years in opposition, you cannot be the underdog.

Of course you can. Ultimately, people decide their vote in the polling booth. I’m expecting a fierce campaign. A party that has lost six of the past seven elections has to be the underdog.

The timing’s in your favour. There are no issues of EU or euro membership...

I take nothing for granted. The people owe us nothing. Every election has its story.

You might say you’re not taking things for granted, but in the party there’s strong optimism. MP George Vella has even referred to you as the “Prime Minister”.

That was a genuine mistake on his behalf. In my party, there’s realism, not optimism. We’re giving a clear choice.

You said you will have the best Cabinet any government has had. What do you mean?

I will not complain with any ambassador that I have a dearth of talent. If you look at our candidates, both established and the newcomers, we have people with technical expertise.

How are you so sure your ‘star’ candidates will get elected?

I’m not referring to any nomenclature that the media has referred to. It’s the electorate who will choose the best candidates. We will have the best Cabinet in the history of any government.

Does it mean the old faces will not be given a Cabinet post?

Let’s mention one of the ‘old’ faces – people in the business refer to Karmenu Vella as the best tourism minister this country has ever had.

Political observers said you’re trying to do your utmost to project yourself as a PN clone to win power. Are they far off the mark? Even the red background seems to have disappeared. Are you ashamed to associate your party with its past?

Joseph Muscat is Joseph Muscat. I come from a family of different political beliefs. I might not be your stereotype Labourite some love portraying. I don’t treat anyone as my enemy. I believe in social democracy and moderation. I don’t get carried away with reds and blues. Whoever argues this way is trapped in the past.

MEP Simon Busuttil said: “Muscat walks like a Nationalist, talks like one. He even dresses up like one. But he does not have PN policies. Correction – he does not have any policies.” Do you have policies?

If he looks at my track record in the European Parliament, Dr Busuttil knows I can negotiate with strong lobbies, I stick up for my country. And I’ve never distinguished between fashion senses of the Nationalists and the Labourites.

But the electorate will look at policies. The PN has a track record in a number of sectors...

... such as what?

Low unemployment...

I recognise the positive way the PN led the country between 1987 and 1992; they introduced long-called policies, as well as certain civil liberties and liberalisation. Between 1971 and 1976, the Labour Party did the same. This government is ruining things, it’s ruined the heritage.

Where unemployment is concerned, we have the second lowest employment participation rate in the EU. The EU recently told the government that its budgetary figures don’t make sense and ordered it to slash €40 million from expenditure. I still don’t know where these reductions are coming from.

Austerity measures have been introduced around most EU countries.

Isn’t a cut of €40 million in expenditure an austerity measure?

Malta is now among just four eurozone countries with a public deficit lower than three per cent of GDP.

International observers are taking note of the government’s game. It’s managing to keep the deficit in check by increasing its debt. It is meeting the deficit criteria not by reducing expenditure and increasing revenue but by increasing its debt.

But unless we eliminate our deficit, the debt will always go up.

We have already exceeded the figure of debt forecast by the Budget presented just last November. It’s a dangerous game.

So are you saying the government’s track record on the economy - which is its biggest propaganda call - false?

Ask the people out there.

Nowadays, you can’t play around with official figures.

I’m not contesting the official figures. It’s shameful that Enemalta Corporation’s accounts for 2009 have only just been published. The corporation’s debt is not being registered anywhere. We still don’t know how the new Parliament and open-air theatre are going to be financed. The people will ultimately foot the bill. Ask people about their purchasing power.

A top IMF official warned that the eurozone faces a “downward spiral” if it fails to get its governance in order. Do you fear the people might ultimately vote for continuity, a ‘safe’ government for the economy?

This government has ruined the economy. The people will look at the fact that the EU didn’t believe the figures presented in our last Budget, the people will look at our competent team. Our team has credibility with international institutions, and they will look at our track record.

What track record? You’re in Opposition and you only get a track record when you’re put to the test.

Historically, Labour governments never had problems in managing finances. In 1996 it immediately tried to tackle the problem of deficit and debt...

...by increasing water and electricity bills heftily despite the cheap fuel prices.

The government was trying to pay back the Delimara Power Station, which remains unpaid till this day. But anyway, two wrongs don’t make a right. The Central Bank governor had shown at the time that the deficit was much higher than projected. I believe today the people we have to manage the economy are among the best in the country. A new Labour government will be safe for finances, the country and business.

Does the international situation worry you?

Of course it does.

What’s the first thing your government will do for the economy?

We need to give a stimulus. We can’t squander money but we need to tackle the cost structure of the country to address purchasing power. We’re not going to make lots of promises. Our principal pledge is to reduce the cost of water and electricity, which will make industry more competitive. We won’t be increasing subsidies. We will be more efficient.

Last November, you had told me you will divulge the plans on how to slash rates when the time is right. With an early election looking likely, is it the right time?

I will repeat, I will divulge them when the time is right.

There could be just a few weeks to go till the general election.

When the time is right, the people will have the details of our policies. We will reduce the tariffs in a realistic and sustainable manner.

‘When the time is right.’ When is the time right?

The time is right when it will be right.

When? Weeks, months before the election?

We have to look at the priorities. At the moment it’s stability. Let’s see if this government can continue this way.

Since we last spoke, there was an important EU summit that agreed the European Commission has a right to directly intervene in member states’ economies to keep finances stable.

And we agreed with it.

What will you do if the Commission says your planned reductions can’t take place?

It proves the point that you can’t speak about your plans well in advance because the situation keeps evolving. We need to be realistic according to the latest (figures). In our roadmap, we factored in the results of the EU fiscal pact. We examined the way it impacts our decisions. It would be irresponsible to state otherwise. We are convinced of our calculations. We’re not going to increase subsidies or our expenditure...

... at the expense of the deficit?

No. These will savings from a technical side.

Savings from which sector?

The government could have saved from at least one private-public partnership project we know about. I can’t understand why the government refused to examine an energy proposal for three years.

Do you think the water and electricity bills are the main preoccupation of the people?

It will be a priority, but it’s not a matter of perceptions. The Sunday Times survey might not reflect it (that energy tariffs are the biggest concern). If we were survey-driven, we would have dropped that proposal and planned something else. It’s a fundamental problem of our economy which made enterprises uncompetitive and is impacting jobs.

Almost always, elections will also be fought on the strength of the leaders. Will your young age put you at a disadvantage with voters?

I’m certain the Nationalist Party will try to use the idea that Joseph Muscat is too young. Of course, it’s part of the scare campaign. GonziPN’s only strategy is to scare. People make their judgements on substance and on whether I did my utmost when I was tested. My testing ground was in the European Parliament, where I was elected when I was 30. Voters can judge whether I managed to negotiate well with big lobbies in the EP for the benefit of my country. People have to decide whether to close off an era – an administration which was initially good (in 1987) but has now degenerated with a Prime Minister who destroyed what he inherited. We could have a chance to work in a new way.

Last week you revealed you would be standing on the second district. I’m informed you will also be contesting the Gozo district. Is it correct?

All the other 12 districts are still open.

Are you saying a decision hasn’t yet been taken?

Correct.

Did you choose to contest the second district to face the Prime Minister?

If he chooses that district, why not? I think there is also some historical justice to my choice. A Labour leader hasn’t contested for 31 years the district where the Labour Party was conceived. It might be the final step to close a wound.

To what extent can you exercise control over the party to avoid electoral gaffes during the campaign?

It’s a question of having a team on the same wavelength. There’s still a lot of work to do. It’s never enough. It’s not about being a control freak. We need a team which has to understand the direction but you can’t control every word that comes out.

What would you tell those voters who are saying the PL cannot guarantee the continuity they clamour?

We first need to see the stability of this government. The PL will be a safe government, if it’s given the mandate. It will be safe for policies which need continuity. We won’t overhaul the taxation system or EU policies. But we need a change in direction. We need to stimulate the economy. We need better leadership.

And you are ready to govern.

We’re ready.

Watch excerpts of the interview on www.timesofmalta.com

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