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Still defiant | Franco Debono
With four days to go there is no indication yet whether Franco Debono has changed his original position or that he will not support a no-confidence vote.
16 January 2012, 12:00am
"I have been loyal, I have been loyal to my constituents and to the principles of the Nationalist party," Debono says of his final decision to turn his back on the Prime Minister.
He is unrepentant, and off the microphone he castigates me for asking him the million-dollar question of whether he will be voting against the government in a motion of no-confidence from Labour, describing it as a 'stupid' question to ask. "I have not changed my position... My principles are not up for sale. They have tried to break me but I will not be broken."
The 40-minute interview - which is divided into three segments - will be aired on Favourite TV this Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 7.50pm.
In the interview, he argues that people should avoid being fickle, and turn their attention to fundamental democratic issues. "Knowing who finances political parties may not be a very romantic concern, but it is central to having a transparent and accountable democracy," he says.
He says excuses about the international economic crisis that are being put forward by Lawrence Gonzi as an argument against early elections, are irrelevant - democracy could not wait, he says. "I have heard no one question the arguments I have brought forward. They are fundamental to a modern democracy and yet, our 'new way of doing politics' did nothing about them."
There is clearly very little love lost between Debono and Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi. If there ever was any, by now it has evaporated into thin air. Debono insists that if Gonzi resigns, the crisis would be over. That realisation is of course hardly realistic, and it is evident that he is not expecting it to actually happen.
He says that the time has come for a new generation of politicians - like himself - to take over. But he emphasises that he is not attached to his seat in parliament.
Debono complains about the breed of politicians who say "yes" to everything and never question anything. "I was sick and tired of being told that things would change by the Prime Minister and then realising that nothing would effectively change."
Visibly under pressure, a tired but resolute Franco Debono insists that he is determined to do his bit for a healthier democracy. Franco Debono, the man in the eye of a political cyclone, attributes the current impasse to "insensitivity and hard-headedness."
He argues that government's procrastination on essential reforms - coupled with blatant nepotism and the existence of a clique which is holding the Prime Minister hostage, and is hell-bent on retaining the status quo for its own benefit - has left him with no option but to take the stands he has taken in the interests of preserving a democracy that is under threat.
Throughout our interview at his Ghaxaq home, Debono repeatedly insists that he is "a victim of a flawed political system."
"And it's not just I who am a victim... I am accompanied by the rest of the people. Because, if you have a weak political system, if you have a weak democracy, it's the entire population that suffers. Democracy is the most fundamental principle of any country; it's as fundamental as the economy, so let's not come up with any excuses... Let's not say that, because there is an economic situation, it means we can neglect democracy..."
Echoing his earlier comments during Tuesday's Bondiplus, Franco Debono reiterates his basic tenet that "democracy is not something you achieve once then go to sleep."
"It is alive, dynamic; you have to nurture it, you have to take care of it. You have to be vigilant, to always keep it up to date. I am not happy with the state of our democracy. This was said even by the president of the republic, by the speaker of the House... even by the prime minister himself, who has on many occasions said - and everybody agrees with him - that there is need for radical reforms on the constitutional and political front. If these reforms are not affected, the whole population will be a victim..."
As an example of areas where our democracy is deficient, he begins with the lack of regulation concerning political party financing.
"First off, the state of political parties in Malta is determined by the law. The law is above everyone. But what is the state of the law with regard to political parties? Basically, there is no law at all. As I have often said, political parties are the most unregulated bodies at Maltese law. So we have to start from here...
Debono insists that such regulation is fundamental for democracy. But to this day, "in spite of my determination, in spite of my pushing so that our country, like the rest of the countries of the EU, enacts this law", nothing has been done about it.
"The law itself is already drafted... but they sent the wrong law, drafted by someone else, to GRECO [the Council of Europe's anti-corruption watchdog]. I had warned them before they sent it... but, probably because there was no communication between the different organs involved: the AG, the drafting unit... they sent the wrong law, and nobody told me anything before they sent it."
As a result of this laissez-faire attitude towards essential issues, the same unacceptable state of affairs has been allowed to fester for decades.
"The PN will soon have spent 25 years in government... it has won various elections, but this does not mean that it doesn't need to revise some of its practices which have come to be taken for granted over the years."
And yet, Debono insists that though many of his proposals have been well received by the party and even beyond, there has been any actual initiative or drive to implement them.
"When I took certain positions, everybody agreed with them - regarding the right of legal assistance, on the power station, on Arriva. On the division between justice and home affairs... these are all fundamental issues for democracy, and everyone tells you: yes, we agree with you, you're right...
But then, despite agreeing with the proposals, the government constantly leaves them on the backburner. Meanwhile, the same government which ignores proposals it claims to agrees, also defends under-performing ministers who clearly do not deserve being defended: undermining another vital pillar of democracy, meritocracy.
"There were others who transgressed, but they were never made to shoulder their responsibility," he says, pointing towards a clear case of two weights, two measures... depending on whether you are part of the 'select few' or otherwise.
"We cannot continue like this. It's like going to court, and being told: yes, you're right, you've won the case... but the compensation goes to someone else. Things don't work that way."
Debono however admits that his crusade for party financing has failed to fire up popular imagination.
"It's not 'romantic' to the people, true," he concedes. "But that's because people don't make the link between all the things they usually grumble about - the lack of transparency, the way contracts are awarded, and so on - and this law. The trouble is that people have become a little... not exactly lazy, but they need to go and inform themselves more. Democracy must also be based on an informed electorate..."
Debono views the issue of party financing in the context of a wider constitutional reform that he hopes will change the way politics is done in this country. But he insists his aim is not to eliminate party financing altogether.
"Let's start from here: one needs to thank the bona fide contributors - and there are thousands of them - who throughout the years contribute to their preferred parties: not just financially, but by participating in their events, helping out behind the scenes. That is something good and praiseworthy. But then there are donors who are not bona fide, and it is these that must be provided for at law... these are one of the fundamental factors that add up to a serious shortfall in our democracy."
The situation also makes our country an anomaly in the broader context of a European Union built on precisely such principles.
"In Italy 20 years ago, there was a whole earthquake on the issue of party financing," he says with reference to the 'tangentopoli' scandal that had spelt the end to four decades of Italy's Democrazia Cristiana.
Debono insists that Malta cannot pretend it is more 'saintly' than other countries, and deceive itself into thinking that legislation to regulate these issues is needed elsewhere but not here.
"In a political party it is important that there is transparency. And yet political parties are regulated everywhere except here: it is as though political parties mark the point where accountability all breaks down... where there is no accountability at all. This way, the chain of political responsibility is corroded... you have a missing link."
Debono reveals that his efforts to raise these issues within the party structures were rebuffed by objections such as 'merely having laws won't solve the problem completely'.
This is true, he counters, but it is certainly no reason to postpone enacting the law indefinitely.
"Look at it this way: even in countries where you have these laws, the problems have not been entirely eliminated... But just imagine, then, the situation where you don't have any laws at all."
So an example he argues that theft has always been a crime - and still we have always had people who steal. "Just imagine how much worse it would be if theft wasn't even against the law..."
But party financing was not the only issue Debono tried to raise within the structures of the party. "I raised fundamental issues that nobody was discussing - things like the separation of inquiring and judicial powers. It is heresy to have a magistrate conducting a police enquiry, and then presiding over the case brought forward by the police. So why was no one ever talking about it?"
In fact it was on a similar issue that Debono's disgruntlement first came to the fore: the right to legal assistance while under arrest.
"I am proud that this right came about as a result of my initiative... from the backbench. And let's not forget that this is supposed to be the responsibility of other people," he adds in a clear reference to Home affairs Minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici. "But I didn't just bring it up within the internal structures of the party. This was a law that had been approved in parliament seven years earlier. I used to talk about in court before I was even elected, because I was surprised at the total elimination of the lawyer from the entire interrogation process. But magistrates would tell me that they could only apply the law as they found it..."
Debono set to work on this issue immediately upon election to parliament in 2008. "Did anyone take notice? No. In March 2009 I issued a press release urging government to implement the law. I even initiated constitutional court cases. As a lawyer I could have stopped there, but as a parliamentarian I wanted to do my job properly. So in December 2009 I felt the need to send a message: not only about this situation but also about other things, like the fact that backbenchers felt excluded, that parliament needed more resources, etc."
Franco Debono sent this message by abstaining on a parliamentary vote, sending his government into a flurry of panic. He now hints that this is the only tactic that ever works in getting the government's attention.
Government's reaction? "First they assured me that they would implement the legal amendments... but still they didn't do it. Do you know when they finally introduced the law? When Labour tabled a motion, and they suddenly realised that we were in the state we were in. This is a snapshot of the government's attitude. It has to be forced into taking action by the opposition..."
On the subject of the Labour Party, Debono rejects out of hand the criticism that he is currently being used by the PL for political ends.
"First of all I am not the type to be used, and anyone who knows me will confirm this. I am a person of principles and convictions. What Labour is using, is not me - it is the government's procrastination, the government's incompetence. They use it to turn to the government and say: just look at what a mess you're making..."
And despite having forced the entire country to sit up and listen, Franco Debono insists that he is "the opposite of outspoken."
"I talk about things internally before bringing them up in public. If I talk about these things in public at all, it will only be after months of being ignored internally..."
We turn to the subject of loyalty - currently the topic of many a veiled and not-so veiled insult levelled at Debono - and the backbencher dismisses any notion that he has 'betrayed' the party.
"I consider myself to be one of the most loyal people in the Nationalist Party. But loyalty does not exist to suppress reason. It should not suppress constitutional principles. It's one thing to be loyal to a band club or a football team. But political loyalty to a party that functions within the context of the constitutional principles of accountability and individual ministerial responsibility... that is something else."
He also reasons that there is a difference between a party delegate and a parliamentarian.
"As a party delegate your loyalty is exclusively and unconditionally to the party. But as an MP - once you have entered your candidacy and gone before the electorate to ask for its endorsement as a representative - your loyalty is divided between the party on one hand, and the electorate on the other. You are a representative of the people elected on a party ticket. Ideally there shouldn't be conflict between the two. But there can be..."
As an example on such conflict he cites the extension of the Delimara power station.
"I spoke on behalf of my constituents, especially residents of Marsaxlokk and Birzebbugia. It's not in their interest to have a power station running on heavy fuel oil, which pollutes more, which causes more health problems. But that's what my government was proposing, so I objected on behalf of my constituents."
Here Debono hits out at the generally submissive culture among his colleagues in the party.
"What's the alternative? To just say 'yes' to everything?"
It is this attitude, he argues, that results in institutionalised mediocrity.
"Party loyalty is no excuse for ministers to ride roughshod over everyone, including parliament. Otherwise we'd be in a situation where a government minister can simply do whatever he likes, knowing that the backbench will always support him. That would be corroding the system..."
Debono also rejects accusations that his loyalty was made conditional on a Cabinet appointment: insisting that his successful candidature in the fifth district came about only after 10 years of hard work to win the party an important and difficult district.
"To aspire to contest the fifth district today is easy," he says, in a veiled barb at his district rivals Herman Schiavone ad Manuel Delia. "Now that Louis Galea is no longer there, and Helen Damato looks like she won't contest, and Ninu Zammit is no longer a minister... the fifth district is now an attractive proposition. But it was less attractive in 1998 and 2004. I contested when there were three cabinet members, all elected from that district. This, too, is an example of party loyalty: to contest, knowing that you will not be elected; but to keep at it, working harder to improve the PN's chances in a Labour stronghold..."
However, Debono feels his loyalty was never acknowledged. Nor, he argues, was his contribution to the PN victory in 2008.
"In my district there were many people - and I mean hundreds - who were not going to vote at all. Many of them were disgruntled... some were tired of always seeing the same old faces. As a candidate I concentrated mainly on this category of voter: and remember that when you win by only 1,500 votes, each candidate's effort can make a difference."
Franco Debono argues that the rationale behind the GonziPN slogan was because the party knew that people wanted to see new faces. He was willing to do his bit, but resents the way the party reneged on its promise to the electorate to promote young blood.
"But don't just use me to win votes for the party, and then just carry on taking the same old decisions behind the scenes..."
A prime minister is always entitled to have his consultants, he adds. But decisions still have to be taken by people who were elected by the people. "I can safely say, without any hesitation, that this is not happening today."
Turning to the issue public appointments, there is a widespread perception that public posts such as chairpersons of government boards tend to be occupied by people close to the government of the day, or to an individual minister....
Debono nods. "It is something that has to be stamped out as soon as possible. This is a symptom of a malaise that is percolating through all levels of society..."
He concedes that some progress has been made in this regard, at least of a nominal nature. "There was an electorate promise to make public appointments through a call for applications, for example... but we could have advanced twice as far as we have come."
Debono is scathing about the blatant nepotism that has underscored the government's entire modus operandi. "Let's not beat about the bush. There is a handful of people, maybe half a dozen, who keep getting appointed to fill all available positions, who keep turning up everywhere..."
Further evidence, he suggests, of the deep-seated rot that permeates the current system. "Our system is in such a bad state, that not only do the people who are responsible not shoulder their responsibilities... but we now insist that, because someone disagrees (with the lack of responsibility), it is he [the person who disagrees] who has to resign. We have reached rock bottom..."
Predictably, Debono's stand against what he calls a 'network of evil' has prompted a whole series of savage personal attacks, aimed not only at himself, but also his family.
Debono is categorical that this is also the outcome of the fact that the Nationalist Party has been hijacked by a 'clique', which has placed its own interest above that of the party, country and everything else.
"It's no longer a case of whether you're Nationalist or not... it's now a case of whether you're a member of the clique or not. We cannot go on like this."
Anybody who threatens the status quo, Debono argues, finds himself under attack "the moment he tries to get things done."
"Obviously, this is because there are people who want to remain clinging onto power. Who want to keep everything as it is. That's the long and the short of it...."
Debono here turns the tables onto those critics who have accused him of holding the 'prime minister to ransom.
"I am certainly not holding the Prime Minister hostage... but it seems that the Prime Minister is being held hostage by somebody. How can I therefore support a Prime Minister who is held hostage?"
Reminding that democracy is defined as 'government by the people for the people', he contends that decisions have to be taken by the people's democratically elected representatives... and not "by unknown persons in a darkened room somewhere, without any accountability."
"The Nationalist Party needs to change, and we need a totally new way of doing politics."
Asked if he feels he has sacrificed his political career through his recent actions, Debono insists that he is not 'stuck to his parliamentary seat.'
"Everyone has realised that what I have done was not for myself... I will not get anything out of this for myself. I just hope that some good might come out of this ordeal I am going through... that the country derives some benefit from it."
But if, in spite of his efforts, no such improvements are brought about, Debono admits it would be tragic.
"God forbid nothing comes of this, because otherwise we would really have reached rock bottom... to have to go through this sacrifice just to pass on a message that our democracy is not in good shape... our democracy is not in a good state of health..."
Debono argues that the time has come for a younger generation of politician to play its part in the building of a better Malta, like the older generation play its part in the past.
"This was my dream - I have ideas about how Malta can become a modern state - how to draw up the structures to turn us into a modern state, for the next 20 or 30 years.
The time has come for a younger generation of politician to be allowed to do their bit to build a Malta we can all be proud of."
Saviour Balzan is the founder and co-owner of MaltaToday. He has reported on Maltese poli...
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