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‘I have been a victim of orchestrated criticism’

Video: Paul Spiteri Lucas

Home Affairs Minister Manuel Mallia recently landed in hot water on a number of issues. Though he admits to some mistakes, he tells Christian Peregin the media can misguide people.

There has been a lot of talk about the first 100 days of this Government. What do you think of your own performance so far?

Those who are orchestrating do not yet know that the public is intelligent and although you try to create this perception, the bait is not taken

I hate to judge myself. I prefer to humbly let people judge me themselves. Obviously I can say what has been done. Then the assessment is up to others.

The editorial of The Sunday Times of Malta described it as “one gaffe after another”. How do you respond?

Obviously everyone has the right to their opinion but I don’t agree with such conclusions. With all due respect, I think that editorial was part of an orchestration of attacks against my ministry.

Don’t you think there were moments where you showed poor judgement or political immaturity?

To err is human. Not to err is divine. And I am not divine. In truth, you won’t find a minister who says that from all the decisions taken every day none could have been handled differently.

Give me an example.

On matters of substance I think we did a lot. You must remember my ministry has many departments. If we start at the Citizenship and Expatriates Department, we found a scene from the Third World. There were thousands of backdated applications. We are relocating things to Evans Building in a new wing so that foreigners who come to Malta to invest are welcomed in a better ambience. There were also thousands of euros being forked out to certain companies for secretarial services, whereas employing people could result in a better service.

Let us speak about your first controversial decision: granting an amnesty to prisoners to celebrate Labour’s victory. Are you still convinced it was a good idea?

We know there would be people against and in favour, and some who would jump on the bandwagon very hypocritically. We took this decision at Cabinet after there were many requests from associations involved in the rehabilitation of prisoners.

What about the way it was done? We witnessed celebrations and you hugging prisoners who may have even been clients in your past.

This is where the media can misguide people. First of all, I did not go to the Corradino Correctional Facility to celebrate the amnesty. That activity was organised months before – even under the previous administration – because at Christmas the prisoners earned a Guinness World Record for baking the biggest cake.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said the whole episode got out of hand and there should have been more sensitivity. Don’t you agree? What about the fact that prisoners started chanting “(Labour’s electoral slogan) Tagħna Lkoll”?

I can agree with him and even with you but you must also see this scenario. I arrived late because I was in Parliament. I was told to make a statement at the end of the activity which was held in a courtyard filled with prisoners, workers and volunteers. After I gave my speech, I walked down and found myself surrounded by people telling me “well done” and shaking my hands. I didn’t tell them what to chant and I don’t think I should interfere in what they want to sing.

You mentioned a hug. There was only one hug... Basically there was a former colleague of mine from the legal profession who unfortunately ended up in prison. He came and gave me what the Italians call an ‘abbraccio’. I didn’t go around hugging prisoners, as the impression was given.

Do you deny that you or members of your party promised an amnesty to prisoners or their families before the election?

I never promised an amnesty to any prisoner.

Neither to their families?

Not even.

After just three months, the Prime Minister removed justice from your portfolio. Do you deny there were clashes between you and parliamentary secretary Owen Bonnici which led to this?

Yes, I deny it. In fact, I asked the Prime Minister to remove justice from my ministry.

Why?

For many reasons. First of all because I always believed justice and home affairs should be separate. Fine, they were separated from one another by having two politicians responsible. But I still felt...

Was that arrangement not working out?

It worked because Dr Bonnici is very hardworking and took this department very seriously. We used to meet every Monday morning to discuss for hours. Our relationship was optimal.

So what happened?

I have a ministry with many departments, about 22 in all.

In life I try to act with humility

Did you not have enough time to cope?

I did not have the time. Now there is more time to dedicate and within a ministry that is not responsible for home affairs, Dr Bonnici can also act differently. I assure you that this was a request I made.

So you were happy with the decision?

It is not an issue of happiness. The Prime Minister had already told me he was looking into my arguments and would take a decision within the first 100 days, following my suggestion.

Recently we learnt that police were used as waiters at a reception of the European Broadcasting Union organised by your ministry. Within a few days you said that with hindsight you would have acted differently. What exactly would you have done, and why?

First of all, I must explain that a minister does not have the time to organise dinner parties. My political role in this was to make sure the conference comes to Malta and to give a speech at the event. But if you think I got involved in the menu, the music and the lights...

About the police, I was simply informed that there were certain quotations and the ministry took a decision to use the police... I only recently found out that the police have specific officers in charge of catering. They have chefs and waiters and everybody is licensed...

Whose idea was it?

It was not mine.

Was it your chief of staff’s?

Not even. It was the police. They wanted to offer this service for this occasion and the ministry said yes.

So are they going to start tendering for catering jobs?

I said “for this occasion”. But as I said in Parliament, there is nothing wrong with someone being humble and using good sense. If I have similar requests in the future I would probably decide differently.

Because you think it is degrading for police?

Not at all.

Because you were insensitive to how the public would react?

It is not degrading. I checked if this had happened in the past and yes, under Nationalist administrations, the St Vincent de Paul kitchen was used for many parties... There were parliamentary questions asked about this where criticism was made. So I feel that in this particular aspect, the function of police could be different to what it was.

Did you accept the offer to save money?

Not at all. The police were paid and they were paid well.

So there were no savings?

There were savings over the other quotations but I assure you that they were paid well.

How much?

I can’t tell you off-hand but I will check and tell you. It is not something to hide. But I assure you that I was there. The food was fantastic, the service was fantastic. Those who were serving wore the police tie-clip...

Were they in uniform?

No, no, they were plainclothes policemen. Also, the director general, president and vice-president of the broadcasting union on my table were aware that those who were serving were police. What I feel damages the country is a TV station that approaches delegates asking them if they knew they were served by policemen. These were serving dishes, not placing microphones to hear what was being said.

The Opposition recently reacted strongly to your involvement in the Security Service. You even had to call a meeting of the security committee. What issues were discussed?

I don’t think the question is correct. It was the Opposition Leader who asked for the committee to meet, as was his right. In this meeting, the Opposition Leader asked questions which were all answered. He was satisfied with the explanations and answers and, as you know, he and the Prime Minister spoke to the press after the meeting, to say they were satisfied and had confidence in the Security Service.

Prior to the meeting, Dr Busuttil said you and your chief of staff should not have been present at the interviews of this department. Isn’t he right?

I don’t want to get into this issue. Here we are talking about national security.

But we know you interviewed the new staff.

I assure you the reasons for that decision were explained. But I think here we are speaking about national security and I don’t think I should comment any further.

Would you do it again though?

I don’t think I should comment more on this subject. Whatever was asked was answered during that meeting and it had the result it had.

There were claims of politically-motivated transfers. Don’t you think your participation in such interviews helped to fan those flames?

My answer is like those I gave before because your question is the same. I will not comment on something that has to do with national security.

The food was fantastic, the service was fantastic. Those who were serving wore the police tie-clip

You’re not even going to say if you will do it again?

What I can say is that everything was discussed and answered and the result was what it was.

Was the Opposition right?

I cannot tell you because otherwise I have to get into the details. What I can say is that what had to be explained was explained.

Moving beyond the Security Service, did you look into the claims that there were politically-motivated transfers in the police force?

I deny there are transfers of a political nature and I already said this in Parliament. There are people who even go to members of the Opposition to get their transfers. If they want a transfer and we can accommodate them, we will. Don’t forget that transfers are done according to the exigencies of the service. I believe change is very important. People in the field have to be agile and of a certain stature... I am not going to chase a criminal in my physical state and at my age. Then you have other transfers that are requested by police themselves and you try to accommodate them.

What sort of relationship do you have with the Police Commissioner?

A very good relationship. He was a legal procurator. I knew him as a lawyer even when he was in the force. I knew him in court when he practiced criminal law. So our relationship is a good one.

If your relationship is too close, would there be enough autonomy?

No I don’t agree with you. I took an oath to serve the State and I am doing this, not for reputation or fortune but to give a service to country. I want to do a good job. I think I can give recommendations to the Commissioner even about the force should be managed today...

The police are investigating the incident between your chief of staff Silvio Scerri and a security chief at Isle of MTV. Has power gone to his head already?

No. I think our newspapers, some of them, are orchestrated.

That’s a serious allegation.

Orchestrated? It is no big deal.

Orchestrated by whom?

Someone who wants to play a certain tune. If you want to play a certain tune, what is better than using the media? When I got to know about this case I asked my chief of staff for a statement. Not only did he provide his statement but six affidavits of other people who were with him, some of them who are important in this country.

They did not describe the things alleged in the newspapers that he behaved like a cowboy. He was invited to the VIP area for MTV. There was a woman who left to go to the Catholic Institute and when she tried to return, the security would not let her in. She tried to explain that she was there before, her husband was there and she should be let in.

Is it true that he tried to get the security guard arrested?

Not at all. From the facts given to me, this does not result at all. In fact, the police are investigating contrary to what is alleged. Mr Scerri was practical and got another tag to wrap around their hand to be let in. This [security] person threw the tag to the ground... My latest information is that this person wants to apologise to the chief of staff for what happened.

You said some newspapers are orchestrated. Who is the maestro?

You are saying that. All I am saying is that there is a certain orchestration. You do not always know the maestro. It could be a hidden hand. But yes I saw some orchestration.

I have met with foreign diplomats who asked: where is all this criticism coming from? Even the editorial you mentioned, ‘one gaffe after another’, as though I am good for nothing. You know what pleases me? The fact that people have started to reject these things. Otherwise Labour would not have won with 36,000 votes. The pity is that those who are orchestrating do not yet know that the public is intelligent and although you try to create this perception, the bait is not taken.

In the previous administration there was another minister who often spoke about perception and unfair criticism: Austin Gatt. Many people say you are his equivalent in this administration. Do you agree?

I don’t know who these “many people” are but someone told me that a high-ranking person in your newspaper said these words to someone else. It is a real coincidence that you are saying the same thing.

I don’t know where this is coming from. I have my character and Austin Gatt has his. In life I try to act with humility, if a situation is not as desired, I inform the public of the position. I think in this way, the leadership is not arrogant at all.

The Prime Minister called European Council President Herman Van Rompuy this week to put his foot down on immigration. Don’t you think you and he were being alarmist? Can’t this country process 300 immigrants?

This is not a question of processing. Our country has its geographical and population realities. We cannot keep up with the amounts that come. The EU talks about common asylum policy but you cannot speak about something common if the countries are not helping in the problem.

When we have countries with financial difficulties, we helped them. The Maltese public and the Government are compassionate with those who left their families to embark on this dangerous voyage but the EU needs to understand where the problem is coming from. Perhaps it can help with the borders of Libya which also faces this influx.

What are you expecting from the EU?

First of all there is the issue of burden sharing. We are members of the EU but we must also be Euro-realistic.

After your first experience of saving human life, do you appreciate the realities faced by the previous government any better? In the past, Labour told the government to emulate Italy instead of saving people’s lives.

Each case has its own story. There were other cases where we gave fuel to let them continue on their way to Italy. This particular case was exceptional because the report was that there were people with gunshot wounds so it is a serious situation. Then you have a situation where there is a boat sinking and it is closest to you, so you have to save their lives. The point is that summer is here and you expect an influx, but the reality of our country is that we cannot cope with such numbers. We cannot accept this situation so we need to voice our concerns.

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