When democracy fighters shift sides

When democracy fighters shift sides

Labour leader Joseph Muscat tells Herman Grech it’s time to turn over a new leaf - beyond the election.

Joseph Muscat:“I’m not underestimating the Nationalist Party.” Photo: Alan Carville

Joseph Muscat:“I’m not underestimating the Nationalist Party.” Photo: Alan Carville

We’re two weeks into the electoral campaign and many believe Labour is setting the agenda so far. Do you fear Labour is once again peaking too soon?

I don’t feel sorry that Malta is in the EU today

I’ve been hearing we’re peaking too soon for five years now. We’re not expecting any favours from GonziPN. We’re doing what has to be done and reflecting the people’s views.

Labour started campaigning a minute into the campaign. Could the PN be doing things slowly to make you run out of steam before they make a big push at the end?

I’m not underestimating the Nationalist Party. They have a well-oiled electoral machine which will do us no favours. We have a positive campaign, the themes are clear, but the election result will be close like the others have been.

You are trying to maintain a positive campaign. What happens if the PN brings up some major scandal in the weeks before the election?

Our agenda is positive and it will remain that way.

Even if the PN starts throwing mud at you?

We will keep talking about our proposals. The Prime Minister hasn’t made a single proposal yet. We’re geared to continue this way.

The term ‘Labour Party’ and the Labour torch are conspicuously absent from the campaign. Are you ashamed of the party’s past?

The Nationalist Party should be ashamed of what happened in the 1960s, when it hurt several Labourite supporters. The Labour Party has blots in its 1980s history. At least we’ve learnt from the lessons of the past. We acknowledged our mistakes, we listened to people and changed. The fact that 1987 PN activists who fought for democracy have now joined our movement is proof we’ve changed. We’re reflecting our values of being progressives and liberals who believe in social justice.

These people were fighting for justice and democracy against a party which didn’t really embrace such core values. How do you feel fronting that same party today?

It was a party which also suffered huge injustices and lack of democracy. Its voice was stifled, it couldn’t hold public manifestations and was threatened with hell in the 1960s. Everyone’s history has its blots. We learnt our lessons. Nowadays, I’m proud to head this party which has become a movement incorporating individuals who actively campaigned against it during important parts of our history.

Your history stopped with the ‘blots’ of the 1980s. Just 10 years ago, Labour was at the forefront campaigning against EU membership. Was that a mistake?

The important thing is the way Labour reacted afterwards...

...when it failed to respect the referendum result?

When without any hesitation my predecessor Alfred Sant respected the result of the general election, which he had said would decide the matter. This explained why Eddie Fenech Adami went for an immediate election. It’s very different to the divorce referendum, when the Prime Minister voted against its introduction. I think our historians will evaluate those times.

If you had to write history, what would you conclude about Labour’s behaviour 10 years ago?

Things could have been done differently.


We could have listened more to the people.

But you were at the forefront campaigning against EU membership.

I’ve always respected the party’s structures. The things I used to say internally, the arguments... that’s history. I’m proud we’ve moved on, unlike the British Labour Party which continued campaigning (against membership) for two legislatures after joining the European Community.

The changes you’re making to the party are evident, but many are saying the changes are merely cosmetic. You’ve eliminated any semblance of the colour ‘red’ and you’re fronting everything. In 2008 we had GonziPN, in 2013 we have Joseph Muscat without any mention of Labour. Is it because your party is a one-man show?

I disagree with this analysis. You have to see the team spirit in this movement because we rediscovered our values. We have internal discussions. We managed to go well beyond the image. During our meetings I’m impressed when I see people who militated in the 1960s with Labour together on the same platform with those who campaigned for EU membership 10 years ago, former Alternattiva activists, and so on. They don’t feel part of a faction. There’s a genuine feeling of a movement.

You keep using the word ‘movement’ not Labour Party.

The traditional meaning of a political party is outdated. The political party is an electoral instrument which gives the democratic and institutional basis to govern. But you can’t keep thinking like a party. Society is evolving so much that you need to think in terms of a movement.

Parties automatically promise the earth on the eve of an election...

That’s what you’re saying...

...But reality creeps in the day after the election. You’ve promised to retain the PN Government’s Budget, introduce free childcare, reimburse VAT refunds on cars, and build a new power station, among other promises that still need to be unveiled. How much will it cost?

We’ve put a cost to everything and we’re saying where we’re sourcing the money from. For the power station we’re going to the private sector.

Child care centres will help introduce 9,600 women to the workforce and the net outlay in the first year will be €3 million. By the fifth year, the Government will make a profit.

What about the VAT refund on car registrations?

We’re talking of a VAT refund for the period 2004 to 2008.

And it will cost you €50 million.

That’s your estimate. We’ve heard different estimates. We’re committed and we’ll find the money. Remember this is money unjustly taken from consumers. We’re not giving away any goodies. What we’re proposing is mainly based on economic growth.

Governments of the biggest countries in the world have seen their economic projections go haywire. Sometimes you can’t forecast growth because of external forces.

I disagree with you.

We’ve seen it so many times.

But let’s not give the impression that governments go off target. When there are variances they are manageable. In Malta’s case the variances sometimes double!

What kind of growth are you forecasting?

We’ve carried out an economic analysis which we will discuss publicly.The estimates of this Government cannot be met with today’s attitudes. Our estimates will show how the economy will grow.

So I’m assuming you’re projecting positive figures.


What is ‘realistic’ for you?

For me, a good figure is anything over four per cent. At the moment it's not realistic.

Will you consider introducing new taxes?

It’s not our priority to introduce new fiscal measures on the country. We have enough. We’re going to tap new means of financing, like the private sector. Private-public partnerships will be taken beyond the remit of roundabouts and old people’s homes and used in strategic areas like energy.

And the health sector?

Yes, we will continue what this Government has started. We need to continue strengthening services like operations and the provision of ambulances in conjunction with the private sector. My first preference is to operate something through the private sector.

The PN government might have been rife with infighting but many will tell you it managed to keep the economy stable in rough times. On Xarabank, the Prime Minister kept questioning what change you would bring. You failed to reply. Could it be that all you’re bringing is a change in style?

I believe the economy remained the way it is despite Government, not because of Government. It’s the resilience of the private sector which delivered. Government performance left much to be desired.

Deficit and debt shot up and the Prime Minister keeps saying debt is not an issue. Standard and Poor’s says it’s a big problem. The private sector is disillusioned because the market is open only to the few. I feel manufacturing has been neglected.

The manufacturing sector is disappearing all across Europe.

I don’t think it is. We can’t go for low-cost manufacture where we don’t have a competitive edge. There’s another type of manufacturing.

Like what?

Pharmaceuticals, high-end products, precision engineering... Such manufacturing has stalled over time. We can attract business for the maritime sector. I think the PN in the last few years has abandoned its creed of private enterprise.

It became almost a statist government and treated the private sector as nothing more than a sub-contractor of services. We will unleash unprecedented potential in the private sector.

Labour’s energy proposal has so far dominated the campaign. Do you think you’ve managed to convince?

So far it’s the only proposal we have. The Prime Minister was meant to release his plan last Monday. I suspect he has no plan for energy.

What about your plan?

The feedback I’m getting is that it’s credible. I have no problem with seeing our plan scrutinised. But now we’ve seen an almost paradigm shift. Until three weeks ago, the Government was insisting nothing could be done about energy. Now they’re saying something could be done, but it could cost more, that we won’t stick to datelines, and so on. The Government needs to come clean on the fact that former Enemalta manager John Pace revealed that (Italian energy giant) Eni had offered a free gas pipeline to Malta 10 years ago.

John Pace also told PBS news that your energy proposal was practically impossible to carry out.

What he said about our proposal is an informed opinion, what he said about the gas pipeline is a fact. The Government has to explain why it opted for heavy fuel oil twice.

Your energy proposal has elicited scores of reactions and analyses. In the last few days there seems to be a climb-down on the time frames to deliver the project.

I’m optimistic on the timelines, especially because companies and consortiums are expressing interest in this area. They’re telling us it’s feasible.

Are you optimistic or convinced about the time frames you’ve given?

I’m convinced these things can happen. I’m also convinced we will reduce tariffs and deliver; and that’s why we’re proposing it.

I’ve been hearing we’re peaking too soon for five years now

If you say no company has been identified how come you’re so sure of the time frames.

Because we asked for time frames from all those we have held discussions with and we obtained an average. We know we can carry out this pledge to reduce tariffs by 25 per cent – and this appears to have been accepted now.

On Xarabank, you implied you had an energy report the Government was keeping under wraps. What does it say?

I was asking the Prime Minister if he has published all reports related to Enemalta, and he failed to reply.

Of course, you must have the reports.

It’s up to the Prime Minister to respond if he’s published all Enemalta reports.

When will you publish these reports?

We will wait for the Prime Minister.

What do the reports say?

We will wait and see if the Prime Minister admitted he made a mistake. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.

We have a precedent to this kind of pledge – Alfred Sant said he would remove VAT in 1996 – and the result was a mess. Don’t you fear the same outcome with the energy sector?

Absolutely not. I’m convinced.

And you said you’re prepared to resign if the project doesn’t take place.

Yes, I will shoulder my responsibility.

What’s the first thing you will do if elected Prime Minister?

Kick off our energy plan from day one.

Will you replace government-appointed chairmen?

There is a protocol for all those serving as chairmen (that they have to tender their resignation) whenever there is a change in administration. There are some individuals I believe should retain their posts...

...Even if they’re Nationalists?


Do you have anyone in mind?

Yes I do.

Like who?

I don’t think I should mention anyone because I don’t know if they want to work with me. There are competent people who can continue serving because they are there on their merits. Others are there simply because they’re part of GonziPN’s fan club and I believe there are much better people to take their roles.

Are there lots of these?

I won’t quantify them.

You worked as a journalist, became an MEP, then party leader and could potentially be Prime Minister in March. You spent a long time criticising the Fenech Adami administration but you have sometimes waxed lyrical about the former PN leader, especially his early days. Doesn’t this undermine your claims to be a conviction politician?

I criticised Dr Fenech Adami on certain aspects of his leadership. I believe Dr Fenech Adami and Dom Mintoff were our two best prime ministers – it doesn’t mean they were perfect. Like Mr Mintoff in 1971, Malta needed Dr Fenech Adami in 1987. From an outsider’s point of view, I think he was disappointment in other things. I was a Church school student in 1985 and had to go to parents’ homes to get my education. The Labour government’s crusade against Church schools was a massive mistake. It was time for Dr Fenech Adami to come in. Likewise, in 1971 Malta was crying out to get rid of the colonial mentality.

With the benefit of hindsight, was Dr Fenech Adami’s decision on the EU good for the country?

I think Dr Fenech Adami managed to gather a movement around him. He didn’t do it alone. I worked in the EU. I feel very comfortable working in it. Every politician makes good and bad decisions. I don’t feel sorry that Malta is in the EU today. And we have to work to ensure we’re not just members. This is where I draw similarities.

Mr Mintoff reached his apex by declaring Malta a republic in 1974 and then Freedom Day in 1979 – then things spiralled out of control and the country lost time.

In the same way, Dr Fenech Adami reached his apex with Malta’s EU membership. He left the reins to Lawrence Gonzi in 2004 – and the time could have been used better. It’s time to turn over a new leaf. What I’m proposing goes beyond the election. Mentalities are changing. We need to make our country truly European. This is coming from someone who argued against EU membership, it’s coming from someone who feels as European as everyone else.

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