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From union to party man | Gejtu Vella
Former UHM secretary general Gejtu Vella insists that the PN is closest to workers’ needs and aspirations, and that is why he chose to stand as its candidate.
29 July 2012, 12:00am
Vella was directly approached "several times" by the Prime Minister to contest the next election on the PN ticket. He reveals that he will be contesting the first district, which includes his birthplace Hamrun, as well as Santa Venera where he used to live and Floriana where he was based in his long spell as UHM general secretary.
"Although I was always interested in politics, I had put the decision whether to join the fray on the back burner."
Vella insists that he is interested in politics because he would now be in a position to make changes which effect "the life of people."
Before taking this step Vella has also embarked on his own private consultancy business giving his advice on industrial relations to both public and private entities.
Through new business activity as a consultant on industrial relations, Vella now finds himself being paid for consultancy work by government as was the case when he was awarded a 22K consultancy from the Ministry of Health.
Despite being known for his Nationalist sympathies Vella never refrained from criticising the government in the past. Will his new role as paid government consultant condition him, limiting his freedom to speak his mind freely?
Gejtu Vella adamantly insists that this is not the case arguing that his role as consultant is limited to giving advice on industrial relations.
"My relationship with the Minister of Health is one of giving advice on industrial relations, a sector in which I have some experience..."
The Malta Union of Nurses and Midwives has questioned his role as a consultant on industrial relations on the basis of past trade union rivalries in the health sector between their union and the UHM.
"I respect their opinion but I disagree...as secretary general of the UHM I did my best to protects the interests of workers I represented. Now I am no longer in that role and I do not carry this responsibility. In my new role I will simply seek to protect the best interest of whom I represent."
Vella recognises that there is a great difference between involvement in trade unionism and being part of a political party.
"As a trade unionist I always used to propose things which the politicians had to implement. My role was to put pressure on politicians to make changes in the social and economic sphere to benefit workers, pensioners and their families. Now that I have crossed to the other side, instead of presenting proposals to politicians, I will have to listen with attention to the people, so that together with my colleagues in the party, we can implement what they are telling us."
There has been criticism from various quarters that the PN has lost its social conscience and has not paid sufficient attention to the impact of austerity measures.
In an interview with MaltaToday in September following his decision to leave the UHM's helm Vella called on the PN to do some soul-searching and reconnect to what it is supposed to stand for. On that occasion he observed that while in the past the PN was a much more centre-left party now it has a more defined centre-right leaning.
But when asked now whether the party has lost its social conscience, Gejtu Vella insists that the PN has always had the "needs and aspirations of the people at heart." But he still thinks that trade unions should keep up their pressure on government so that it gives priority to the social aspect.
"My experience as a trade unionist always showed that the government does listen to criticism. On various occasions the government reacted to our criticism by taking initiatives aimed at protecting the most vulnerable categories in society. Therefore this criticism is essential as trade unions have a direct link to their members"
Gejtu Vella promises full loyalty to the party, which he has joined while promising to emphasise the social and economic aspect in the party's internal debate.
"It is only by providing the best opportunities to both workers and investors, we will be in a position to sustain the social infrastructure."
Vella also insists that he could not choose the Labour Party despite its traditional association with the working class and trade unions.
"The Labour Party no longer identifies with workers," he claims.
As proof of this he refers to legal action taken against the UHM in 1998 when Alfred Sant was still in government.
"In 1998 the PL in government took us to court for exercising the right to strike at the Freeport. In the first instance we lost the case as we were deemed to have acted abusively but we won the case in an appeal. Had we lost this case, the Labour Party would have been responsible for undermining the right to strike. I can never identify with a party like this."
He also accuses the Labour for undermining the principle of fiscal morality by proposing the abolition of VAT before the 1996 election,
"We have to understand that all the social benefits and the health system we have today depend on the income the state gets from taxation. But to win in an election the Labour Party promised to remove VAT and in so doing in government it ended up committing a disaster."
But why resort to example dating back to 15 years ago when Labour is now led by a new young leader who does not question VAT or Malta's place in the European Union?
Vella is far from impressed.
"I remember Joseph Muscat in the various TV debates we had before the EU membership referendum, in which he was vociferous against membership and in favour of a Switzerland in the Mediterranean when all reports on the economy, the environment and the social aspect showed that EU membership was the best alternative. I ask what would our economic situation be now had we not joined the EU?"
The PN still lacks a battle cry as democracy was in the 1980s and Europe in the 2000s. But Vella thinks that the PN's identity is now bound to its role "as a protagonist in recent political history from independence to EU membership."
The Nationalist party's strength according to Vella is its role as a popular party able to reconcile different classes: "a veritable rainbow representing different categories; including workers, pensioners and the self employed."
He attributed this to the party's ability to change.
"In the 1960s we were criticised as the party of the elite and the rich. But the party has changed and has become the workers' party."
Still central to the party's hegemony according to Vella is its ability to generate consensus by raising living standards.
"Many people identify with the Nationalist Party because they see in it the opportunities to improve their quality of life. This is possible because most innovative ideas come from the Nationalist Party."
Still, for the past few years many have experienced a deterioration in their living standards. Has this not weakened the party's appeal to generate consensus around its policies?
For Vella the government's actions in the past four years confirm its role as a party, which guarantees people's living standards.
"We should simply look at what is happening in European countries around us... The reality is that the country is moving ahead not without difficulties, but this proves that even in difficult time the Nationalist Party is able to lead the country forward."
He acknowledges that the country is not experiencing the same rhythm of growth as in the early 1990s.
"The reality is that if the countries with which we trade face difficulties, it is inevitable that we will be affected. What we produce here is not consumed by us but depends on foreign markets. The PN is right in explaining that we do not live in bubble and that we are affected by what happens beyond our shores."
Vella warns that whoever ignores this reality to raise expectations, as Labour is doing now, will face serious problems in the future.
The PN has been in government for nearly 25 years. Doesn't the party need to go back to opposition to regenerate itself?
Vella rebuts this argument insisting that the PN has shown an ability to "regenerate itself while still in government".
"It has done so not without facing serious difficulties but it has managed to constantly regenerate itself while in government by always coming up with policies aimed at improving the quality of life of the people. As long as we continue creating opportunities by coming up with the right policies, the PN can continue to win the people's mandate and remain in government."
As UHM leader, Gejtu Vella always insisted on the need for reforms to ensure greater transparency and accountability. Will he remain doing so as a politician?
"It is essential to strengthen all regulatory authorities to ensure that consumers are protected. Regulators should be there to protect citizens and not the government of the day."
Over the past months the PN has appeared divided with three of its MPs condemned by the party's executive and forbidden from contesting on the party's ticket in the next election.
Gejtu Vella agrees with the steps taken by the party against the rebel MPs. "I believe in the value of collegiality. I believe that this applies to any organisation be it a trade union or a political party. I grew up in organisations where following an open discussion, a decision by the leadership is taken and following that everyone toes the line. In the absence of this, chaos will prevail."
For Vella it was inevitable for the party to censure the MPs after they put themselves outside the "collegiality of the party."
But now one of the MPs involved Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando has resigned from the party and has no obligation to toe the line. In reaction to this the Prime Minister said that he would continue governing in a so-called "coalition" with the MP. Is all this sustainable?
"Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, who has decided not to continue forming part of the party, has declared that he will still recognise Lawrence Gonzi as his Prime Minister and will be constantly consulting with him... This is not desirable, but these are the circumstances."
What advice would Gejtu Vella give to the Prime Minister; should he continue doing everything to keep the government afloat till the end of the legislature or should he go for an election?
"I am still a political novice and I do not feel am in a position to advise the Prime Minister on this matter."
Gejtu Vella refuses to give any details in his mediation between Gonzi and Franco Debono in the initial days of the crisis before the government was saved by the abstention of the rebel MP in a confidence vote in February.
"I always try to do what I can to help in any circumstance." But he would not reply when asked whether his mediation was fruitful or not.
Gejtu Vella has chosen to contest with the PN at a time when the party is trailing behind Labour by more than 10 points. Has Vella embarked on a sinking ship?
"I want to give a contribution because the PN is the party which is closest to workers, pensioners and the self employed and this has nothing to do with the party's standing in opinion polls... The party has always shown that it is able to deliver on the social and economic front."
For a long time Gejtu Vella personified the Union Haddiema Maqghudin. Hasn't his decision to stand as a candidate with the PN a few months after leaving the UHM confirmed the perception that this trade union is an appendage of the Nationalist Party?
"The facts speak for themselves. All ministers can attest to the fact that the UHM has always stood up for the interests of workers irrespectively of who was in government...we have always passed the message, sometimes very strongly to governments and particular Ministers to defend workers."
In the past Gejtu Vella found himself arguing with Minister Austin Gatt on various controversial issues like the introduction of the park and ride scheme before the 2008 election. What is his assessment of the abrasive Minister?
"Austin Gatt has his own way of weaving things, something which he does with his strategists...whenever he thinks that something is in the national interest he is always ready to get down to business to get things done ..."
He praises Gatt for always keeping the "bigger picture in mind". Yet according to Vella, "difficulties" are inevitable in the process of getting things done and implemented,
"What is important is that in this process, the minister involved - irrespective of who he or she is - listens to the grievances which result from any decision without losing the bigger picture."
As a former trade union leader Gejtu Vella carries a baggage of strife with other unions, particularly with the Forum of Maltese trade unions, a third voice in Maltese trade unions which for years was deprived of a seat at the Malta Council for Social and Economic Development.
Forum officials have blamed Gejtu Vella for vetoing Forum's request to join the council. Vella denies that this is the case insisting that his position was not one against Forum joining the MCESD but against Forum being the only body to join MCESD without changes to the law to facilitate the entrance of other bodies.
"Through recent amendments to the law, this problem has been resolved and other organisations have joined. The point was not whether Forum should join but whether others who were making similar demands should join too."
James Debono is MaltaToday's chief reporter on environment, planning and land use issues, ...