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‘Gonzi repeated a lot of the same mistakes’

In a week’s time Joseph Muscat could be the Prime Minister. He talks to Mark Micallef about his election campaign experiences.

A week away from election day, how would you describe the past five years?

If we don’t want a change in direction it means we want growing unemployment

These last four years were characterised by a government and a Prime Minister who promised a lot, who asked people to give him another chance. He repeated the same mistakes... there were things which were done well but, in reality, a lot of people who gave Dr Gonzi a second chance in 2008 are realising that nothing or little of what was promised to them was done.

Do you regret anything in this campaign?

You always have things which you feel should have been done better. However, I am happy overall. On the eve of this electoral campaign, people were thinking that the Labour Party could trip up on the energy proposal... In reality, we came up with a detailed proposal which received the most scrutiny of any proposal ever presented, at least as long as I can remember.

You could be Prime Minister in a week or so, what would your first act be?

To reassure people that it’s a day like any other and that the idea of Malta for All has not ended with the electoral campaign – but it is a new way of governing.

What will you do if you suffer defeat?

This eventuality is something that I prepared for even before I decided to put in my candidature for the Labour Party leadership...

I am serene and the only thing that comes to mind, whatever the result is, is that we did our best.

In The Times debate on Tuesday you said you would not consider a referendum on hunting. Why not? Why dismiss it out of hand?

Because minority issues would end up being decided by referendums.

This is not some human right here or some fundamental minority right, it’s about managing resources: the environment and birds.

I disagree; I think this is a minority issue. I for one am not a hunter, never went hunting... but I think it’s only fair that something which is allowed in other European countries should not be extinguished here just because a majority imposes its will on a minority. I can come up with 100 issues which would end up with the rights of some minorities being denied.

There is a flipside through which a minority of hunters is undermining the rights of the majority. Isn’t your Malta for All slogan also about access to the countryside for all and about not having to endure illegal hunting as well?

Some people were not happy when I said, during a visit to Birdlife, that we would stand with conservationists on the question of illegal hunting... that there would be proper enforcement. But this does not mean that legal hunting which is allowed elsewhere in Europe should be allowed here.

Birdlife says it suspects you have an agreement with hunters...

There is no need for suspicion; we said clearly two years ago that we would engage in talks with the hunters’ federation at a technical level.

The question is, have you reached an agreement with them?

Yes, we have and the conclusions will be published before the election. But we didn’t do anything behind people’s backs.

Can you give us an indication?

Discussions have led the FKNK to accept that EU rules cannot be re-negotiated and cannot change... The FKNK also accepted that we need to strengthen enforcement and that they would help with this. We also agreed that there would be the correct application of the derogation on spring hunting.

Does your agreement say you will attempt to increase the number of birds that can be shot?

No, there is nothing of the sort... with regard to the derogation, this should be done in a correct way, we heard arguments to the effect that there were occasions when this was not applied correctly.

I’ll take you back to the debate. You said the decision to privatise the Malta Shipyards was a bad one. This means a Labour government would not have privatised...

First things first.

I think the Prime Minister made a Freudian slip when he admitted that he closed the Shipyards as opposed to his previous insistence on having privatised it. Secondly, the shipyards’ problems did not start in March 2008. Its problems were known but the Prime Minister sent a letter to workers before the last election, assuring them that if they voted PN their job would be safe.

Beyond the political argument about the promises what you would have done if you were Prime Minister?

If there is need for privatisation, let there be privatisation, but first of all, don’t take people for a ride... secondly, you should consider different models. I won’t go into what Fr Peter Serracino Inglott used to say at the time – it has been written and people can look it up... but there are other ways in which the Malta Shipyards could have been brought back to its feet with a different input from the private sector.

We have nothing against the private sector and nothing against privatisation of the shipyards, what we were against is the closure of the shipyards.

What is the difference between closing the Malta Shipyards and privatisation?

Our concern is that we have lost an important skill set in the maritime sector, in the yacht repair and ship repair but even in other areas. The SR Technic management, for instance, was telling me that part of Malta’s attraction came from the skill set of former Dockyard workers, who only needed some adaptation to do the work they needed. My concern is that now we won’t find this skill set because we are not fostering it anymore and government is not addressing this.

Let’s turn to the economy. The Labour Party is saying the country needs a change in direction. What sort of change?

For the past 11 months unemployment has been constantly rising.

If we don’t want a change in direction it means we want growing unemployment.

We average well with EU countries on our key indicators...

It depends on which indicators but my point is different. My point is that with all this talk of 20,000 jobs having been created, unemployment is on the rise. That’s the trend, it’s a fact and it’s indisputable. If the Prime Minister is saying we don’t need to change direction, it means there will be growing unemployment.

You say you want a change in direction but you are committed to introducing this Government’s Budget, plus there isn’t some radical change being proposed in your electoral manifesto.

I disagree, I believe that our manifesto... opens the door for private enterprise participation in an unprecedented way in areas of land reclamation, energy and all other areas...

This Government has embarked on privatisation programmes...

I’m not talking of privatisation...

Even on public private partnerships

Give me examples?

Old people’s homes...

...and roundabouts and that’s as far as it goes. Is that all we can do? We are resolute on having partnerships between government and the private sector as the modus operandi because we want to stay within the parameters of EU rules and this means that a number of projects need to be done in partnership with the private sector.

Going back to your slogan and this idea that black and white politics is passé. You often make token references to good decisions made by this Government but then launch into a critical analysis that is not reflected in how people see things out there.

First of all, I think that people are feeing the pinch in their pockets. But this is also reflected in Standard and Poor’s analysis of our economy. Any government can balance the books in whichever way it wants.

Not with the EU overseeing you, you don’t.

The parameters aren’t only the deficit.

Yes, they include the debt.

If, to score the right numbers on the deficit, you end up increasing your debt every time, it’s a pyrrhic victory...

Though the debt is on the rise, it’s not at the level that can land us in trouble.

It’s at the level where if we keep heading in the same direction, it will land us in trouble. There is a problem and this is why we need a change in direction. Because if we keep going down this road we will be in trouble with the EU and this is also being said by Standard and Poor’s...

But there is the other problem of the PN’s economic growth projections being far more optimistic than those of the EU, the IMF and the Central Bank...

That means you would have a problem too if elected, since you are pledging to introduce this Government’s Budget, projections and all.

We will not have this problem because our package of proposals is far more conservative than that of the Nationalist Party.

Over a legislature perhaps but for this year you are pledging to introduce the same Budget.

But the system does not work year-on-year but over a legislature.

Do you think you have managed to convince people out there on the economic front? My impression is that the question that lingers, despite your polished campaign, is whether Labour can deliver on the economy.

We showed that we know how to lead and that we know how to make our arguments forcefully both financially and economically. We have among the best people in the country to lead in this field and the biggest blow to the government in this regard did not come from our end but from the rating agencies. If there weren’t these problems the country would not have suffered a downgrade and this time it had nothing to do with the international crisis.

You have given an interview about this subject but some questions linger: Anġlu Farrugia made a mistake and paid a price, Toni Abela made a mistake and did not pay the price.

I think that this is a case where everyone shouldered responsibility. I won’t go again into the Anġlu Farrugia case. Contrary to the Nationalist Party, we answered the questions.

Throughout this campaign the PN built a wall around it whenever it was involved in a controversy...

On the oil scandal, both AustinGatt and Tonio Fenech gave press conferences...

Labour gave press conferences but we also answered the questions that journalists had, and even gave them interviews.

And now I have this question...

I think we said what we had to say. People appreciate, even more than I expected... that a politician accepted that things could have been done better. I think Toni Abela has already paid a political price...

There is no need for suspicion; we said clearly two years ago that we would engage in talks with the hunters’ federation at a technical level

How?

With the character assassination that was launched on him... Toni Abela is being portrayed as one of this country’s worst criminals...

By that argument (Labour’s Financial Administrator) Joe Cordina also paid the political price of finding himself in the midst of a controversy and he admitted no mistake.

That was his choice. I believe that all of these cases are now for the people to decide.

Don’t you feel that on the eve of an election, this issue might mark your potential government? You have two identical scenarios, two people made a mistake, one of them paid for it, and the other one did not.

I think people will judge. And they will also judge the fact that the Prime Minister has a situation where nobody ever assumed responsibility for anything. I think in all of the cases you mentioned, the people involved assumed their responsibility.

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