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The fiery reformer | Franco Debono

The rebel MP Franco Debono opens up on his motivations for bringing government down and his vision for the country.

jurgen
Jurgen Balzan
16 December 2012, 12:00am
Photo: Joanna Demarco
Photo: Joanna Demarco
The Franco Debono I met at his residence in a quiet corner of the quiescent village of Ghaxaq was a far cry from the angry man captured on our television screens on Friday evening.

This Franco Debono was calm, collected, coherent and serene. However, his burning desire to change the country is unmistakable.

Bringing one's government down is no joke. Debono did what Mintoff did in 1998... only without the luxury of enjoying a god-like status. Despite the immense pressure he inevitably was exposed to, Debono is epitome of tranquillity. Yet he was very different on Friday, when pandemonium ruled the airwaves as Debono demanded that he be allowed to face new PN deputy leader Simon Busuttil on Xarabank to make his point over why he voted against the budget on Monday.

Busuttil's encounter with the PL deputy leader Anglu Farrugia had been scheduled two weeks ago, but was cancelled due to personal reasons for the Labour MP, and rescheduled to take place on Friday evening.

But at the appointed hour, Labour's communications coordinator Kurt Farrugia informed Peppi Azzopardi at the Where's Everybody studios in Qormi just prior to the start of the programme that Labour was giving up its participation to have rebel Nationalist MP Franco Debono air his gripes to Busuttil instead.

This forced the national broadcaster to postpone the programme to Saturday and once again Debono was the talk of the town. Explaining his actions, Debono said that after being shunned for months by PBS, he was left no other option but to go to the Where's Everybody studios and face Busuttil.

"It was the only avenue left for me. I had declared my intention to vote against the Budget, which is no simple thing, in July. However I was never invited to appear on PBS since then to talk about this matter. Instead, PBS and Where's Everybody attempted to discredit and ridicule me," Debono said.

"I told Azzopardi that since announcing  that I will vote against the Budget, he invited (British hypnotist) Alan Bates twice, however he never found time for me."

He added that the state of affairs at PBS was one of the reasons why he voted against the Budget and brought government down.

Insisting that he no longer felt part of the Nationalist Party, he stressed that there is no collusion between himself and Labour.

Accusing Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi of being "an agent of division", Debono said: "I will never contest elections on a Labour Party ticket. However if Gonzi has distanced a staunch Nationalist like me from the party, then Gonzi will lose everybody."

At his serene best he comes across as a modern democrat with bagfuls of passion and charisma; at his angriest, such as on Friday evening, he comes across as a furious and ruffled character. Nonetheless the Bard would have said that there is method in Debono's madness.

The MP noted that he was offered the opportunity to appear on PBS and he accepted Labour's offer. "There is absolutely no collusion between me and Labour. The main issue at stake is the fact that I was shunned by PBS for months. It is only the PN's tactic to portray collusion between Labour and myself."

Asked whether he was the one to ask Labour give up its time on Xarabank, as claimed by the party, Debono said: "There was communication between us, lets leave it at that."

The Ghaxaq MP added that the PN deputy leader did not have the gall to face him, describing Busuttil as "hollow" and having no character to confront him.

Love him or hate him Debono has undeniably invigorated Maltese politics over the past few years.

On the Prime Minister's choice of words to describe him, Debono says: "I cannot fathom how the Catholic church remains mum when a party which is declaredly Christian Democrat rubbishes a human being and calls him irrelevant. They tried to dehumanise me, but I remain an MP, I can still contest elections as an independent or with another party, I still have a right to voice my opinion like every other citizen has right to do."

He adds that it is "malicious" when somebody is called irrelevant. "It's wrong. Everybody is relevant. When somebody who is right in many things becomes irrelevant, society will have reached its lowest ebb."

The last months felt like the country was entrapped in a personal battle of wits between Debono and the Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi. What is the MP's verdict on his foe?  "The Prime Minister is dead scared of talent. He feels threatened by talented persons and he therefore surrounds himself with yes men and mediocre persons."

There certainly is no love lost between the two, and Debono adds that others always placed Gonzi in positions of power. "First as speaker, then as secretary general, then as deputy leader, then as leader. When he then was faced with a real test, as happened in this legislature, he proved to have no leadership qualities. I cannot identify one leadership trait in him. He is not assertive, not decisive, not admirable and certainly not capable of bringing out the best in the people around him."

He claims that Gonzi was well protected by the sections of the media and adds that if a foreign Prime Minister was as error-prone as Gonzi, he would resign. "However here he is not shamed by The Times or other supposedly free media such as the public broadcaster."

Despite all his criticism, Debono admits to voting for Gonzi in the 2004 PN leadership race and when quizzed on this, Debono insists that unlike others he was loyal to the Prime Minister and only brought his government down after giving the Prime Minister ample time to turn things around.

Debono adds that he was branded as irrelevant because Gonzi "is scared of confronting the ideas I advocated in the last months."

Insisting that he was dubbed irrelevant in an attempt by the PN to make his causes its own and take credit for them, Debono says: "Do they really have the gall to go the people and present these reforms as their own after refusing my reforms outright and gagging me? Former minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici had to resign because he did not implement the necessary justice reforms and today everybody recognises this fact."

Turning his attention to justice reform, Debono lays claim to the title of a reformist.  "There is clear evidence in Parliamentary records. My speeches and my proposals cannot be deleted by anyone, they are recorded in Parliament. Although they attempted to manipulate parts of the media they cannot conceal my legacy."

This week, the Prime Minister cast doubts on the financing of the Labour Party. Asked what he thinks of Gonzi's statement, the dissident MP says: "The Prime Minister should be ashamed. I have proposed and drafted a [party financing] law but it was sidelined. Being a southern Mediterranean country I have a hunch that Malta is in same situation Italy was in before Mani Pulite, a nationwide Italian judicial investigation into political corruption held in the 1990s."

He says journalists should not waste time asking why Gonzi did not introduce the law because the PN had 25 years to introduce such a law but never implemented it.

Asked whether he felt alone in Parliament, Debono says: "Yes definitely. With the exception of Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, who did speak on certain issues such as party financing, I was alone."

The MP's pet subject is democratic reform. "Democracy is not only about majority rule. Democracy is not just having elections every five years, although even in that respect there is much to be desired."

He says that the electoral commission is incapable of supervising the electoral process and serious allegations of vote rigging were never properly investigated. He adds to his list an electoral law which practically makes it impossible to have third parties or independents to get elected to Parliament, as he points out that Malta is the only country in the whole of Europe with only two parties in Parliament.

"The failure of the GonziPN system and this legislature was the fact that the changes promised in the 2008 election never materialised and the people who engineered the GonziPN model are today behind Simon Busuttil," Debono says.

"These people need to be removed. You cannot have a handful of persons pulling the strings behind the scenes and treating everyone as puppets. This system has been translated into the way the country is run where these same people want to destroy the democratic institutions to strengthen their hold on the country."

Debono says that in recent years we had judges, local councillors, civil servants, and a minister's secretary found guilty of wrongdoing, however no minister was ever found guilty of any illicit behaviour.

"It is hard to believe," Debono says as he explains that ministers and politicians are above the law since the secret service's phone interceptions fall under the home affairs minister.

"Just to cite an example, I ask: would the Prime Minister approve investigations on his own finance minister?"

Debono passionately argues that Parliament has no autonomy and says that Speaker Michael Frendo claimed that the institution is crumbling and has no resources.

"What did Gonzi do? Please do not mention the international crisis as an excuse. We survived the crisis because our banks are and always were cautious and our entrepreneurs were diligent and cautious."

Although by and large the MP's ideas have been met by universal approval, he has come under fire for his apparent excessive personal ambitions. Is this justified? "Everyone has legitimate ambitions to implement his or her ideas. For all my limitations I must say that I achieved more than some Parliamentary Secretaries such as Clyde Puli and Mario Galea." Debono lists the introduction of Parliamentary live streaming, digital recordings in court, legal assistance to arrested persons, Parliamentary Assistants and the split between Justice and Home Affairs ministries among his successes.

Debono confirms that he still is a Parliamentary Assistant since he was entrusted by the Prime Minister to draft the party financing law, which was nonetheless discarded.

He even reveals that the Prime Minister had offered him a chauffer and four employees to work for Debono within the structure of the Parliamentary committee for the recodification and consolidation of laws, which he both created and chaired.

He explains that this was offered to him by two emissaries just before he voted against Mifsud Bonnici in May, adding: "It was nothing else but an offer to become a Parliamentary Secretary by another name. I refused and I had told him (Gonzi) that I would not be bribed."

Debono also reveals that Gonzi wanted to make him his special delegate for constitutional reform in February 2011, when Gonzi had also nominated Simon Busuttil as his special delegate to bridge out to the people.

He explains that he refused the offer because there was no genuine goodwill. "They offered things to gag me but I was wise enough to be two steps ahead of them. I always made sure that my moves were proportion and effective. All I wanted is to have space and time to implement the changes I championed. In justice I had years of experience in the courtrooms practising as a lawyer. I had the necessary ideas, experience and ideas to implement the much-needed reform."

"I dream of a modern country and that is why I believe that my budget vote laid the foundations of modern democracy. Whoever is in government next year cannot ignore and fail to implement the reforms I championed because the people are now demanding these changes."

He underlines the fact that his ambitions were only borne out of the desire to implement these reforms. "My greatest hurt was when Gonzi passed on my ideas to my dear friend Chris Said. Even Chris was startled by Gonzi's decision at first. He knew they were my babies and passed them on to my friend. If Gonzi recognised the validity of these ideas why did he leave me out of the equation?"

Asked whether he would have accepted the role of a Parliamentary Secretary alongside Chris Said in the January reshuffle, Debono retorts, "At that point in time I would not have accepted but at least Gonzi would have shown some dignity. I would have refused because I am a man of principle but we would probably have not arrived to where we are today if he showed some dignity."

So did his ambitions overshadow his good intentions? "No. I had legitimate ambitions and I expected the Prime Minister to practice meritocracy. If I am giving you good solutions to the crumbling justice and home affairs portfolio then I was useful.  However I was never recognised."

On his intentions for the future, the MP and criminal lawyer said that he had intended to keep a low profile in the electoral campaign and shut down his thriving blog: however he could not stand silent in front of the Prime Minister's affront. However, he added that he is seriously considering moving abroad to practice law in Italy. Describing this project as his "dream," Debono said: "It's more than an idea. I have already made some moves in this direction."

Yet he says that he is fed up with the negativity in the political scene. "I would like to be part of something positive. I want my legacy to be centred on the positive reforms I championed. I wish to see this country move forward."

Insisting on the need to reform the Constitution, Debono says that this should be a rights-based constitution and points out that he would not refuse attractive propositions such as heading a Constitutional reform process if this arises. He adds that he would accept it even if it requested by a Nationalist government.

"I have been a catalyst for the political and democratic revolution. These reforms now have their momentum and they will transcend my stay in politics," an optimistic Debono says.

The MP who has led a crusade to introduce such changes will most probably be watching from the sidelines if they ever do come to fruition. But he shows no signs of grief. "The next government will face a Hobson's choice. The new government cannot ignore the reforms now. And they will not believe that Gonzi will carry out these reforms because he had five years to carry them out but instead gagged the person who promoted these changes."

Asked whether the oligarchy he claims kidnapped the Nationalist Party will be removed after the election, Debono says: "They will not let go of the party even in defeat. I have given up on the party changing. I am still a member but I will not play any games. I have lost hope in ever seeing the party change and I have no interest in undertaking such a struggle."

jurgen
Jurgen Balzan joined MaltaToday in 2011, specialising in politics, foreig...
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Paul Sammut
@ericam01.....you said that The Maltese should be proud of having these type of people that speak out so that future governments won't do the same mistakes. MAY I REMIND YOU THAT IN 1998 THE LABOURITS CALLED MINTOFF TRADITUR. in 1998 sant lost the election because of his mismanagement. the case of mintoff has worked in his favour and that is why he lost the election marginally. there is no need to reply to franco saying because that is now irrelevant. and again the case of debono will boost the popolarity of the PN.
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George Busuttil
Dear Fenea, the fact that you are contributing to this article shows that the chapter Franco Debono is far from closed and he will continue to be the nemesis of this PN long after this election is passed. A bit of arrogance has never hurt a politician (austin gatt is a prime example) and yet I have to admit that FD's vision of reform is intriguing to anyone who is fed up with the rampant hypocrisy in today's politics.
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simon vella
@ fenea That is what the Labour Party used to say in 1998, that what Mintoff said is irrelevant u 'skadut'! But the Labour party was going into one of the biggest defeats ever. Should someone explain me why no-one from the PN side ever stopped Franco from mentioning corruption and ministers that had to resign because of it? I have a decision- All that Franco is saying about the PN and government is true! If it was not true I bet that Austin Gatt, Tonio Fenech and the Prime minister himself should have at least did some kind of press release and clarify his allegations, but no they just said he is irrelevant. The Maltese should be proud of having these type of people that speak out so that future governments won't do the same mistakes.
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Paul Sammut
the chapter of franco debono is closed. he and what he says is irrelevant to the PN. we have been hearing what he has to say for one year now. he is now sufferring and thinking that every body is an enemy. the more he repeats the saying and the more he shows arrogance and envy against his colleagues the better the PN goes.
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roderick degiorgio
I pity all in this country of ours,the double face politictions have been constant lying since ST PAUL came to Malta.
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Yanika Chetcuti
"Gripes" is not the correct description worthy of Franco's many legal and democratic deficit areas which he brought forward so as to enhance Malta's electoral laws. Franco would wish to update all these deficient areas for the benefit of Malta's citizens and democratic credentials. As far as I am aware, no party has said Franco is not making sense. However, it is typical of GonziPN to speak with a forked tongue. At a time, praising these efforts, but doing all possible to leave them on the shelf. Who should be afraid of these constitutional and other amendments GonziPN or Franco? No wonder the recently elected Deputy leader, Busuttil, did all in his minders powers to avoid a debate with Franco. No boyish demeanour can cancel that out. I an sure that terrified look and whitish and pale face of Simon Busuttil will be hitting the billboards soon.
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Rebecca Muscat
Question . Who's afraid of Franco Debono ? Answer . Lawrence Gonzi and Simon Busuttil. They are just a pair of cowards that have'nt got the balls to face him .
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Debono is a disruptive force and can never be trusted. If he was a team player, he would work for change and reforms from the inside. What he has done now is to destroy his platform and will become a political non entity unless of course he joins or forms another party. But at the end of the day he will never be trusted and that is the long and the short of his CV.
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Better Future
Dejjem kond nirreferi ghal Franco bhala l-bniedem u mhux b'ismu ghax kont inhoss li kien qed jagixxi skond il-mument, biss ikolli nibla kollox u nsostni li hu politikant ta' l-affari tieghu u utli ghal kull Parlament. Jidher xi kulltant bombastiku izda s-sustanza hemm qeda. Nipparagunah ma politici ohra li huma ta' stoffa izda minghajr karizma.
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Marcelle Agius
Franco the Maltese people will come to understand your present stand only in about 10 years time ... too late, by then the country will have gone to the dogs!
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Marcelle Agius
Franco the Maltese people will come to understand your present stand only in about 10 years time ... too late, by then the country will have gone to the dogs!
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Roderick Spiteri
If I had a son like FD I would be proud that I have a loyal son with balls 8)
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edel attard
I feel so sorry for his mother,she must be very worried about her son Franco! doesn't he care, how much worried she must be, I have a son, & if he do like he does I be worried sick!!! He's like a small boy, doing all this tantrums, if he don't get his way!!! small children do that , not an adult & a politician at that!!
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joanne zarb
was the current adminstration cut short of its term? why all this hype. elections are being held after a full 5 year term in government.
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Isabella Camilleri
I sympathise with Franco and can very well understand his feelings. Unfortunately Franco brought this on himself; if he were in a state to see things clearly he wouldn't be asking why his party is treating him the way it is, but action and reaction are equal and opposite. Surely he shouldn't expect a different treatment from his party after the contemptuous way he treated his party, particularly the PM. Does Franco expect someone he called Hitler to treat him with kid gloves? Does Franco expect the PN to treat him with respect, after his disrespectful behaviour to all and sundry? I can't understand why Franco is surprised that his party is ostracising him and calling him irrelevant; why nobody is prepared to debate with him. If Franco were to analyse the situation he brought himself in, he would conclude that this was completely of his own making and was bound to come about.
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Nikki Petroni
Those who may have read any of my contributions on these pages will attest that I am no Gonzi fan. The actions of Franco Debono should also not be condoned. He keeps saying that the media shunned him in the last few months: how many other backbenchers from both sides were given more air-time? I think I can assure you that none is the answer. In fact he probably got more air-time than all back-benchers put together. ... And what I saw on Friday was not impressive. He was pacing up and down like a caged animal screaming into any microphone the same sentences without giving anyone else a chance to be heard or reply to his demands. Sorry these are not the actions of a mature politician and I am glad the media is sparing us these charades. Who does he think he is to simply appear in the studios and demand air-time?! What would happen if just anyone did what he did?! He is simply an ill-mannered loud-mouth caccarun and a bad example and influence to younger generations. ... The PL gained nothing from giving debono their air-time and would do good in future to leave the PN fight amongst themselves - getting involved will only detract attention from their fight and help them reunite against their common enemy the PL ...