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‘Party needs to believe in itself – that’s critical’

Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Tourism and Environment Minister Mario De Marco tells Herman Grech that there are different ways of standing up to be counted.

The Air Malta chairman has just warned that by introducing too many airlines, we could be making Air Malta unsustainable. Do you agree with him?

My initial reaction was one of reservation about the whole idea of having a deputy leadership election

We definitely needed to introduce low-cost carriers. It was one of the reasons we achieved record tourism growth over the past six years.

In the first nine months this year we had an increase of nearly 17,000 tourists.

In 2007, the total tourism expenditure was €1 billion. In the first nine months this year, the expenditure figure has exceeded this.

I can understand the issue of maintaining a balance and that’s why we try to get low-cost carriers to operate underserviced routes.

Do tourism figure gains come at the expense of Air Malta profitability?

The last Air Malta results showed an operating profit for the first time in a while. I don’t think it’s an issue that low-cost airlines were the reason for Air Malta’s problems in the past few years.

During the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association general meeting (last Friday), the Air Malta CEO made it clear that the cause of the airline’s problems was not low-cost airlines, though they might have contributed.

Low-cost airlines helped Air Malta adapt to the new realities of the competitive world.

Do you see Air Malta morphing into a low-cost carrier?

No. Air Malta needs to retain its identity. It needs to be a value for money carrier.

While tourism numbers are up, hoteliers say profitability is down. Do you think we have too many hotels?

We have the right number. What we need to nurture are different kinds of hotels, like the boutique kind. National Statistics Office figures for non-package accommodation show revenue is up from €101 million to €149 million in six years.

Fair enough, their costs are up but let’s remember their energy bill before 2007 was subsidised by taxpayers. We want to encourage operators to reduce consumption and to opt for renewable energy schemes.

Let’s talk about the product we’re offering. There are widespread complaints that there’s excessive construction, dust and tower cranes and we persist in fitting too much in little space. Is this criticism justified?

To a large degree, yes. There’s too much construction taking place though there’s a significant decrease in the number of permits issued.

Construction is taking place for permits issued four or five years ago. There’s a glut of property that needs to be disposed of.

The property demanded nowadays is different. We also need to redirect the construction industry to go for regeneration and restoration projects. We have announced several fiscal incentives to help individuals go for this.

Yet only recently a Mepa policy document proposed a relaxation of height limitations to facilitate the upgrading of existing hotels. Isn’t this contradictory?

Not really. We’re trying to ensure there isn’t a spread of hotels. We’re acknowledging hoteliers’ demands to increase rooms and make them sustainable.

At the same time I’d rather see a hotel build upwards than laterally or see demands for new hotels in outside development zones.

Remember, the proposal is to build an additional one or two floors in tourist areas.

Opposition leader Joseph Muscat said he wants to explore the possibility of land reclamation. What’s your stand on this matter?

It worries me tremendously because I think Joseph Muscat is trying to play to the construction lobby, a very strong lobby.

It’s been vociferous over the past few years because they’ve seen a more restrictive approach from the Government and from Mepa, which hasn’t hesitated in refusing permits where there was over-development.

Muscat is trying to justify certain projects in our marine environment, similar to Dubai’s. I’m wary of this because I feel we have enough space in our development zones and we don’t need to build outside.

The moment you start building within our marine areas it’s the equivalent of building in our rural environment.

Our marine environment is unique, unlike Dubai’s where there is little vegetation in the water. That’s why we attract 70,000 divers.

Joseph Muscat is saying he will look into land reclamation because we have a problem with space...

But where is the problem? Our development zones are not at full capacity.

We have capacity in built-up stock and undeveloped land. I can’t understand the justification.

You also indicated he’s trying to appease the construction industry...

Presumably.

Presumably or do you have proof?

I presume people in the construction lobby are talking to him about some projects they have in mind, which may involve land reclamation to build units on a large scale.

You’ve tried to reform Mepa. Do you think you’ve managed to change the public’s perception?

No. It’s an extremely big challenge. Mepa means different things to different people. If you’re a contractor you want a flexible Mepa that gives you a permit in no time, irrespective of the considerations.

If you’re an environmentalist you want to avoid that at all costs. There are a lot of reasonable people who expect a permit to be issued in a reasonable time.

I have full faith in the board members who are now full-timers. We managed to increase efficiency and transparency. We have sitting on boards people like Giovanni Bonello and Philip Manduca, who have a love for the rural and built-up heritage environment.

Martin Scicluna, who is often cynical, said he’s never had as much confidence in Mepa as he has now. Former Mepa auditor Joe Falzon said the number of complaints fell significantly.

We have increased efficiency in processing and sticking to timelines. We’re doing something in the right direction but it’s still a work in progress. We need to ensure we have the right policies in place.

Turning to the political arena, we’re days away from the PN deputy leadership election. Why did you choose to stay out of the race?

Why should I get into it? Honestly though, my initial reaction was one of reservation about the whole idea of having a deputy leadership election, literally a couple of months before the general election.

So you disapprove of the actual contest.

Not disapprove – it has to take place. But I had my reservations on the need to have a contest. I thought at this point in time it was more important for the party to focus on the general election than to have the organs of the party concentrating on an internal election.

Secondly, I think it’s much more important for us to go around convincing people on the importance of voting for the Nationalist Party than me going around trying to lobby my Nationalist councillors to vote for X, Y, or Z.

Having said that, definitely, like any election, there’s an opportunity to rejuvenate and regenerate the party.

Did you relay these reservations to the party administration?

I made my views known in no uncertain language. But at the same time I do realise that it had to happen. I think Tonio Borg has all the right credentials to be a fantastic EU Commissioner. So at the same time it was not something that could have been avoided.

But despite it happening, I still felt my contribution to the party could be greater to carry on as a minister and as a candidate for the next general election, giving 101 per cent focus and dealing with constituents.

I’m convinced and satisfied that in Tonio Fenech and Simon Busuttil we have two candidates who have all the right characteristics for a PN deputy leader. So if I had to contest I would not have added more than the choice we have in the two candidates.

Whoever wins this deputy leadership election is going to end up in an uncomfortable position. Practically the entire Cabinet is backing Tonio Fenech against Simon Busuttil, who has his own endorsements. Should the majority of ministers have aligned themselves behind Tonio Fenech?

It’s only natural for people to have no problem endorsing somebody with whom they work on a regular basis. I was asked by Tonio Fenech to endorse his application. I had no reason to object to it.

I’m bench-mates with Tonio, we both got elected to Parliament in 2003. In the past five years, he’s the minister I’ve worked closest with. He was always forthcoming with budgets and assistance.

I credit Tonio as one of the reasons why we’ve registered success in tourism in the past five years. In the cultural sector, he’s understood the importance of developing the cultural and creative industries.

Everyone sticks their necks out in different ways

But there’s still the reality that if Simon Busuttil wins the election, he’s up against an entire Cabinet that sanctioned his so-called rival.

I don’t think he’s going to be up against anybody. The endorsement is not against Simon, who I know personally and who I know is a very capable person who’s done us very proud in the European Parliament.

He was crucial in helping to convince the Maltese electorate before the 2003 election to vote in favour of EU accession.

In no way does it mean if one endorses Tonio, he is automatically saying Simon won’t be a good deputy leader.

Since the endorsements were made public there are rumours doing the rounds, among which that there’s a deal between the other so-called frontrunners – like yourself, Chris Said and Beppe Fenech Adami – to back Tonio Fenech in return for the bigger prize: the PN leadership. Is there some kind of deal?

I love rumours and these ‘deals’ remind me of the famous Tony Blair-Gordon Brown deal we’d be curious to know if it ever existed. I can assure you there’s no such deal.

Will you throw your hat into the ring once there’s a vacancy for leader?

Everyone says a week in politics is an extremely long time. We have one leader – Lawrence Gonzi – and I will back him to the hilt for all the days to come.

Simon Busuttil said he’d rather contest the election now that the party is facing an uphill struggle to try to beat Labour in the upcoming election. What he’s implying is that he’s sticking his neck out, while others will do so when the party is picking up the pieces.

Everyone sticks their neck out in different ways. Five years ago I was asked to become a member of this Cabinet when I was in the middle of a professional career. I can assure you it wasn’t the easiest of decisions to make at 43 to abandon my profession to go for a very precarious life as Cabinet minister.

At that point in time I said I wanted to stand up to be counted. There are different ways of standing up to be counted.

The party can rest assured that though I didn’t contest the deputy leadership, it’s got my 101 per cent support. Each evening I’m out doing home visits until late.

Many believe the PN needs to be revamped from its very core. What does the PN need to do to win the next election?

I don’t think any administration has faced as many challenges as this Government has done during the past five years.

It faced the worst international crisis in 100 years. It faced restructuring in key industries like the drydocks and Air Malta.

We had to deal with moral matters such as IVF, divorce and gay rights.

They all came to the fore. We have managed to overcome these issues.

The latest EU report should make us proud. We’re one of the few EU countries to curtail its deficit below three per cent. We have the sixth largest economic growth in the EU.

We have the highest level of employment ever. Our graduates find jobs fastest in the EU. We’re an island state. Our economy is technically and academically the most open in the EU.

Tourism is up, manufacturing and the financial services are on the increase.

What does the PN need?

It needs to believe in itself. That’s critical. The PN was never the party of one class. It was a party of opportunity for everybody. We believe in opportunities for young people, especially through education.

During home visits in the first district, which is probably one of the poorest districts, you will see pictures of a son, a nephew, a grandson who graduated.

And whenever you ask them ‘is your child working?’ – the invariable answer is yes.

So why is the PN trailing so heavily in the polls?

We’ve been in government for a long time. We’ve perhaps made mistakes, as you inevitably do, when you’ve been in power for a long time.

And when you’re in a position to make decisions, you make more mistakes than someone who doesn’t need to make any.

The issue is not so much how long we’ve been in government, but how capable we’ve been at governing.

In truth, if you look at us we’ve regenerated and rejuvenated ourselves more than the Labour Party.

If you look at the people contesting the next PN election, there’s nobody who’s been elected since 1987, save one.

I don’t believe in the politics of appeasement

There’s hardly anyone from the 1992 and 1996 elections. The party is new and fresh...

And it’s a party rife with five years of infighting.

Yes, and that’s most unfortunate.

Do you think that the Prime Minister mismanaged it?

I don’t believe it’s mismanagement. Any leader would have had a hell of a problem handling the situations that he has had to handle.

How would you have reacted to it if you were Prime Minister?

I’m not Prime Minister. I cannot answer that question.

If you had members trying to trip you up in the most humiliating manner, how would you react?

Let me put it this way: the Prime Minister has succeeded in bringing us towards the end of this legislature. Let’s not forget many people thought this Government would fall apart after two years.

In March 2013 we would have completed five years. So I think the Prime Minister has handled the matter excellently.

Has he tried to appease along the way? I think he’s kept a very delicate balance.

Presumably people are annoyed at him because he didn’t appease to the extent these people wanted to.

Maybe others think he appeased them too much. It’s always easier to criticise from the back seat.

What’s your view about appeasement?

I don’t believe in the politics of appeasement.

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