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‘I do not mimic anyone’ | Joseph Muscat

Gozo? Muscat is in favour of an airport, and a physical overhead or underwater connection. Meritocracy? He defends his political appointments. Simon Busuttil? Out of synch with the public. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat speaks to SAVIOUR BALZAN

saviour_balzan
Saviour Balzan
17 March 2014, 1:30pm
Joseph Muscat, Photo: Ray Attard
Joseph Muscat, Photo: Ray Attard
You’ve been accused of interfering in police business on the Enemalta smart meters issue. The uncertainty with regards to the real number of hacked smart meters added further confusion. In essence, something that could have earned the government brownie points turned negative…

In the case of tampered electricity meters, there is a law that gives the government and Enemalta the right to demand repayment for the stolen electricity, plus a fine, without involving the police. This law was used during the previous administration – consumers were asked to pay Enemalta its dues in addition to a Lm100 fine, and that was that.

When I found out that there were hundreds of people benefitting from tampered meters, my primary concern was to discover who was behind it. There was a case to be made against individuals who were responsible but without the testimony of consumers, it was not a strong case. So we made a decision. Whoever had one of these meters had to pay back that which they stole as well as a fine and, in court, give any information they had about the racket.

Without the guarantee of immunity, those witnesses would not have come forward. In fact, just this morning another Enemalta employee was caught using the information volunteered by consumers. If we had not done this, we would never have discovered the extent of these crimes.

How do you respond to the accusation that the police commissioner, Peter Paul Zammit, is your ‘puppet’, as the Opposition put it, when it came to a decision not to charge people with bribery in the Enemalta meters scandal?

What we did would have been considered interference only if we had broken a law. We followed the law. Each case is being brought before the relevant authorities. The Attorney General determines whether or not those who come forward are referred to the courts after they have paid back what is owed and the stipulated fine, and has given information. That person must then testify publicly against those responsible for tampering. For the first time in such a situation, we are not just catching the ‘small fish’ but the big fish as well.

What we are doing is no different from what happens abroad, where witnesses are given incentives to testify, rather than intimidate witnesses into remaining silent. So far a number of people have come forward and there are many more out there. The deadline we gave is approaching. Once that time elapses, whoever does not come forward will be taken to court and we will use all the tools at our disposal to bring them to justice.

The other accusation is that you do not want to tread on the toes of those families (who have used one of these smart meters) because they could represent potential Labour votes.

I think it is an unfounded accusation. If this logic holds, then no government will have ever done anything because they feared losing votes. We are proceeding according to law without any consideration for people’s political affiliation. In fact some of the earlier cases were brought against people close to the Labour party.

The issue of meritocracy is being brought up regularly. When you were in Opposition, you criticised the way some people were appointed. Do you feel your actions then and your actions now contradict one another, when so many people have been appointed for what appear to be political considerations?

To the Opposition, meritocracy means appointing staunch Nationalists only. I look at a person’s capabilities and whether that person believes in the direction we want to steer this country towards. I too can mention those of a Nationalist affiliation who are working with this government because of this very reason. These people are called deserters and mercenaries, among other things.

The decision is based on capability. There are people who are capable and who want to serve and who believe in the ethos of this government, and we have retained these within our ranks. I believe that this issue was handled badly due to miscommunication. It was one of the first challenges we faced and we could have conveyed our message better to people.

The fact remains that the last press conference by Simon Busuttil was all about meritocracy.

What credibility does the leader of the Opposition have when a few days before the last election, he appointed someone close to him to work with the government, at Dar Malta? And we allowed him to stay on. We obviously felt that that person was qualified and capable and that he was willing to work towards the goals we set. So why should he be removed? That person was not appointed on merit but he retained his position because of it. The leader of the Opposition has no credibility on these matters.

Don’t you think it is time to find a structured process by which important appointments are made, a process agreed upon by all? A specific case is the police commissioner’s post. The reality is that there should not be controversies over such appointments, that there should be a consensus.

It takes two to tango. The criticism directed at the police commissioner from the Opposition is not unlike criticisms I made when I was in Opposition. Just because the Opposition attacks decisions does not mean the system itself is flawed. I would say that the aggressive way the Opposition is making these criticisms is out of synch with public sentiment.

I have no problem with the strategy the Opposition is adopting but I believe that the leader of the Opposition is not in synch with what the Maltese population is thinking and feeling. This does not mean that we shouldn’t look for more common ground but it takes two to make that work.

This issue of appointments is problematic in such a small country, which is characterised by stark political division. Do you think there is scope in reassessing the suitability of people occupying positions of trust?

Aside from the police – I believe that politicians should not involve themselves there – I think that being trustworthy is not dependent on political affiliation. They must be competent and willing to work with the administration.

I think that there has never been a government that has extended the hand of friendship to the extent that we have to people who might not share the same political thinking, so that they can serve in different capacities. An example is the board overseeing PBS. There was a time when that board was composed solely of people close to the current government. Looking at the board now, one can see that it is made up of people with minds of their own who are willing and able to criticise both the government and the Opposition if they see fit.

In the past there has been a trend that people chosen for the judiciary have been close to the current administration. The judiciary is dependent on nominations from politicians. In this particular area, shouldn’t we revisit the way these appointments – which require trust and integrity – are made?

This is something that [judge emeritus] Giovanni Bonello’s report is proposing. It is something I am open to, though perhaps not exactly in the way reports by Bonello, Philip Sciberras, Michael Frendo and Kevin Aquilina suggest.

I anticipate that you will say that the proof of your support of women in politics is the presidential nomination. But statistically speaking, you have appointed fewer women to government posts than the previous government. You have frequently stated that you want to see more women appointed to decision-making positions. Realistically, how do you propose to implement this idea without resorting to tokenism, something you yourself denounced when defending your nomination of Marie Louise Coleiro Preca?

Firstly, I think that there should women in decision-making posts. One of the things we could improve is the gender balance, in a practical way, and I am committed to creating a better gender balance.

But I argue that it is not just a matter of numbers. It is also a matter of the suitability of the positions. For example in the judiciary so far, this government has promoted one magistrate to judge, appointed two magistrates and will appoint one other judge and one other magistrate. Out of these five, three are women. So I think that is a good sign.

The presidential nomination is another example. After all, in the past 25 years, there have been no major constitutional posts occupied by a woman. With the exception of Miriam Spiteri Debono in 1996, no woman has occupied a major post derived from the constitution. Actually, that makes it 32 years.

This choice we made – regarding Coleiro Preca for President – gives a stronger message than the number of women in other posts. Of course this does not mean I will ignore the importance of these statistics, but a presidential nomination is worth more than a board appointment.

Let’s talk about the reshuffle. The media has piqued people’s curiosity over this issue. There appears to have been a correlation between your choice of ministers and the votes they received in the last election. This time, what are the criteria you’ll be using to decide?

The choice was not solely based on the number of votes, but their popularity was something that was taken into consideration.

Will that be the criteria you will use in the coming reshuffle?

No – I will employ the same criteria. And I know this might shock some people but if these changes need to happen every year, they will happen every year. If there is a need for change, it will happen. For me, it was obvious that once the presidential nomination would remove a minister from the Cabinet, the speculation would begin.

Everyone in politics knows that if you can’t stand the heat, you should get out of the kitchen. This is something I often discuss with others. You cannot pay attention to the speculation. You must keep working, and truth be told, I saw some people working a lot harder in the past weeks when this speculation was rife.

With the exception of Franco Mercieca and Marie Louise Preca who, for different reasons, will be leaving the cabinet, will you be keeping the same people in the Cabinet, or is there the possibility that some people will lose their ministerial posts?

If I answer that, I’ll be fuelling the speculation.

Do you feel that, as Prime Minister, your mistake was in selecting someone who was not a doctor for the post of Minister for Health?

Firstly I would say that in the health sector, a lot of work has been done over the past year, some of which may not be immediately evident, some of which may not have been made clear by us as a government. However, I am not one to blame others. The buck stops here. I am responsible. And I think that a lot has been done in this first year.

You brought up the fact that the minister is not a doctor. Does someone in the ministry of justice need to be a lawyer? The point is – and a lot has been written on this – that I believe that it is a matter of where we want to take the sector and that is not necessarily dependent on who the minister is. It is a matter of all the stakeholders needed for this sector.

We don’t need to beat around the bush. For example things written in John Dalli’s report were considered too forceful by some. But I would say that that’s a good thing. They set the ball rolling by making the situation public. I’m more interested in where we want to go rather than who is directing the sector.

Did you regret being so critical of MPs’ honoraria increase? The fact is that some ministers and yourself have salaries that do not match up to their responsibilities.

I do not regret it. We had tasked the Ombudsman, the Chief Electoral Commissioner and the Auditor General to examine these salaries. I see no reason why these salaries should be adjusted in the legislature. When the time comes, we will publicly discuss this and everyone can make his or her position clear.

Are you bothered by the fact that there are CEOs and people appointed by the government who earn more than the prime minister and the ministers?

If I were interested in making money, I would not have become a politician.

Let’s talk about referenda. There may be a call for a referendum on hunting. You supported the referendum on divorce. How do you view the principle of referenda as a democratic process?

Well it depends what the referendum is about. I do not feel comfortable with a referendum being called on such subjects as human rights. This type of action shook up the Swiss referendum process recently. As a concept, the idea of the referendum is a good one but it depends how it is used – a double-edged sword. I agree with the concept but one must be responsible in its use.

The environment is another point this government has been criticized on. Where in other sectors it takes a liberal position, such as on gender and LGBT issues and the separation of church and state, when it comes to the environment, the perception is that the government’s pro-business stance comes at the cost of environmental protection. When you are faced with these issues, the government says that is pro-business.

But that is not the full answer. I have no problem in saying we are the most pro-business party in Malta. However, there are other issues including that of credibility. There was voracious criticism from environmental groups in 2006 when development zones were expanded. However an Opposition which allowed such expansion has no credibility when it attacks us on the same issues.

The government’s policy is that development zones do not increase. There may be adjustments but these will be minor and there will be compensation in that other zones will not be developed. My point is that while other governments have expanded the development zone, we have no intention to keep expanding it. That is what counts.

We are being accused in this way because the decision-making process has become more robust, taking decisions where in the past decisions were not taken at all, giving the impression that the environment was actively being safeguarded, which is untrue. We found many instances of decisions not having been taken. An example is when an outline for development remains pending for years because no one has the political guts to take a decision that needs to be taken. Of course once that decision is taken – after having been pending for so long – we look like the bad guys.

On to the issue of vacant dwellings, which Astrid Vella brought up last Monday during Gvern li Jisma. Vacant dwellings exist and we need to ensure that new development does not create new buildings but uses that which is already there. On the other hand, people are not chickens. Many of the new buildings that lie vacant are crammed. They were built in a time when permits were issued for crammed buildings and no one wants to live there. We need schemes that allow for these places to be torn down and rebuilt to better standards. That statistic (40,000 empty vacant buildings) does not mean that further development is not needed.

What do you think about the possibility of a bridge or an airport between Malta and Gozo?

I agree that there should be a better connection between the islands. I would need to look at what the most feasible option would be – whether it is an underground tunnel or a bridge – but one of those needs to be implemented.

With regards to an airport, I agree with that. That is something I said before the election. The study into this possibility has begun. We also need to take into consideration a green field type of runway – as opposed to tarmac – that is more environmentally sustainable. Before this happens we will need to study the sustainability of an air connection with fixed wing planes.

Are you against the Environmental Impact Assessment (on the gas power station) being discussed further in parliament?

No. In fact we are proposing parliamentary discussion. However, the decisions on certain projects are not taken in parliament. They are taken by MEPA. If we want to change the system by which these decisions are made – i.e. handing them to parliament – we would have problems with the EU.

Another question on the environment. There are accusations that those behind the decision to pursue natural gas as an energy source were financiers of the Labour party. I refer to the comment by the CEO of Gasol. “The success of the project depends on the recent landslide victory of the Labour party who came to power in March”. This comment that can be interpreted in different ways. How do you react to the accusation that a deal was struck with Gas Oil before the election?

It is simply not true. I interpret that comment to mean that if the Labour Party were not elected, there would not be a party in government that was reducing electricity and water bills by means of such a project.

If the Prime Minister had to come to a decision between a pristine valley and a development that would bring in €100 million, what would your response be?

The valley.

On to the matter of citizenship. Of course only time will tell how this political gamble will play out. When you began thinking about this scheme – quite soon after the election in fact – did you anticipate such an aggressive reaction to this proposal?

Yes. I knew that there would be strong reactions. I did not think that the Opposition would let its partisan sentiments become overwhelmed so dramatically.

I anticipated an adverse reaction from countries that would be our competitors. I was led to believe, after talks between our party and the Opposition, that a consensus would be reached in some way.

There seemed to be some self-inflicted damage in this situation, perhaps damage you did not expect.

No, I did in fact expect it. When you do something innovative, you cannot expect everyone to accept it immediately. Our position now is, more or less, the position we wanted to be in. You cannot approach negotiations with only your final position.

This type of citizenship scheme is based on an important premise: once you enter into the scheme, you will have enormous tax advantages.

I disagree.

If that is not the reason – a reason I believe is important – is it the access to Europe?

I think that Europe, despite its current economic problems, has a very attractive lifestyle. Along with its culture, it is the idea of living in Europe that makes it so appealing. We as a country can maximize on that and Europe as a continent should maximize on that.

Despite troubles in industry and other areas, the idea of European citizenship is highly attractive. It is not a matter of taxes but of talent. The way these people (potential applicants to the scheme) think of themselves as international citizens is perhaps difficult to grasp immediately. I think that once more people come in and mix with Maltese society, this will offer a very rewarding learning experience.

I am told that there are a number of French nationals interested in this scheme. These already have EU citizenship and are interested in Malta purely because of tax reasons. Do these represent the majority of applicants?

Absolutely not.

Does your conscience prickle when people who have lived here for years – some having fled conflict in Bosnia and Serbia, others from Africa – have never been given the opportunity to become citizens? These people who have given back to society and deserve to become Maltese. They have spent years living here and continue being treated like outsiders.

I would like to make a statement that you might not agree with. To me, the crucial question is how one came to enter the country. If one enters legitimately and spends the amount of time required by law, I have no problem with granting that person citizenship. In fact I think we should do more to welcome these people because they are assets to us. What I do not agree with is granting citizenship to someone who entered the country illegally.

The president-designate talked about the fearful way the Maltese regard immigrants.

I agree with her. But I think that just because there are issues that arise from such situations does not mean that there is hatred towards an entire race. I think that is a stereotype, putting people into boxes. It is not about that. I have concerns about security. One of the things Coleiro Preca and I have talked about is my concern about our detention policy, particularly when it comes to minors. Do you think that, as a father, I do not worry about such things?

But on the other hand we cannot condone a situation where we do not know who is entering the country. We have had reports from intelligence services saying that there are people who use this route to infiltrate Europe. In the face of this information, we cannot risk not having the detention policy as a buffer.

I think we can find a better balance, in particular with regards to minors. But we must also keep the country’s security at the fore.

Do you feel you have failed in convincing the EU that burden sharing should be mandatory?

I proceeded according to the Labour party’s electoral manifesto.

I am aware of that. My question was whether you felt you failed when you approached the EU.

None of that was in the manifesto. What is in the manifesto is the destination we want to reach. We now have a task force in the Mediterranean but there is more that needs to be done.

There was a case of a Syrian man escaping Malta, one of the Lampedusa survivors, being apprehended in Italy and returned to Malta with a six-month prison sentence. Does something like that bother you?

Of course it does. But it should bother the EU more. The EU imposes more burdens on us with regards to similar cases – and rightly so – but on the other hand no one talks about the Dublin policy. If we do not do what is prescribed in that policy, we would be breaking EU law. There are some in Europe who are comfortable with this situation.

On the decision of the European Court on human rights, which says that 18-month (a six-month extension to the 12-month detention period for failed asylum seekers) is illegal – what is the government going to do next?

We follow what the Courts say but we also have to consider the viability of policies in our country and the effect they will have.

The Opposition will vote in favour of Coleiro Preca’s nomination for president. Do you feel you made a mistake in not consulting the Opposition? You have been criticized for this decision.

I proceeded exactly as Eddie Fenech Adami did.

Do you feel you should continue in this way if you have another five years?

I proceeded exactly as Eddie Fenech Adami did.

Nominating Coleiro Preca means you have lost a minister who is more Left-leaning than most in the Cabinet. Did you do this to remove someone who is more ‘Labourite’ or because you felt she was the person best suited to the role?

I feel she is the right person and I feel we have lost someone important from the Cabinet but we have gained a president. If you want to get rid of someone, you put him or her where they are not relevant. The president is very relevant. If Marie Louise had to say something as a minister it has a certain weight but saying something as President of the Republic, it has enormous political weight. If anything, we have elevated that agenda, not removed it.

Do you feel that giving the president the power to form policy was a sort of parting gift on leaving the ministry?

It’s not a question of a gift. It is a question of where I want the presidency to go. And in these five years, we’ll be working within a system where the presidency is given the tools to work. Marie Louise has a lot to contribute. I do not see the role as ceremonial but as actively pushing ideas, and we have given her the tools to make that happen. It is not a constitutional change but a political one, which I feel will have a huge impact on presidency in future. It will be a very interesting five years.

You made a lot of promises in your electoral campaign.

And I am keeping them.

Among them is refunding those who lost monies in the La Valletta Fund. It has 2,500 investors.

We will be keeping our word with them too.

It seems like BOV is against this.

I will not comment on that. The bank is an entity with private shareholders, the government has its policy. The government will keep its word to these people.

But it makes a difference whether the bank or the taxpayer pays up. If the bank refuses to pay them but the government pays them to keep its electoral promises, do you think that is fair on the taxpayer?

I believe that there is a solution. And I don’t think it is the one you are suggesting.

When in Opposition, the Labour party was critical of decisions that impacted the taxpayer. I refer to the case of Café Premier, where the government bought the establishment for €4.2 million. The company had not paid rent or VAT, had debts…

It is a company that has rights over the property as well. When we were presented with this possibility, there were a number of considerations. First, it is one of main squares in the country (Pjazza Regina). There was concern from a number of entities about having a restaurant beneath the National Library, where so many treasures are housed. Experts were called in to assess this risk, as they had under the previous administration but nothing came of it. The government decided that, given the right price (and at this point an independent evaluator was called in), we were ready to reclaim this place to protect our heritage and to use it as it was meant to be used.

But are you not sending mixed messages to people passing through difficult financial times who are treated completely differently?

My concern is not the company, but the premises. It is a historic place of national significance.

Will people in similar financial situations encounter the same understanding from the government?

It’s not a matter of charity or understanding. It is a matter of a business proposition that makes sense. In this case the government felt that this place, in one of the main piazzas of the entire country and sitting underneath the National Library, should not be used for just anything and that we could find a much better function for it. 

The situation in Libya is very serious. Do you think Europe is conscious of how serious the situation is?

Very much so. It is very concerning. Europe is conscious, certainly. The question is not whether Europe is aware but whether or not it will react. And I do not think there is the will to react.

From a security standpoint, the country is very close to us and we have no means to defend against any military troubles.

What I can tell you is that we have spent weeks making contingency plans and putting them into place to react to anything that happens in Libya. As people who are familiar with Libya know, the political scene there is unpredictable and erratic. But we are prepared for any eventuality and are in talks with other countries that have sought our help. I am hopeful – perhaps naively – that the situation will not escalate to the extent that some experts predict. It may be wishful thinking from my end but I still hope that Libya can solve its issues internally.

Your wife has been criticized recently for comments she said on women pressured to stay at home instead of seeking a career. How do you deal with that and what do you understand your wife’s role to be?

If you are in the public eye, being criticized is normal and should not be an obstacle. Of course one must understand how genuine that critique is and why it was made. Oftentimes criticism is made with the intent to wound, not politically but personally.

I see Michelle’s role as something she is working very hard at. There was a question from the Opposition about whether my wife was being paid by the government. The answer is no. She is not paid by anybody. When I tried to find out why such a question came up, I was told that she works so hard and is so visible to the public that people suspected that she has a job with the government or is taking a salary.

Michelle takes her role very seriously. She meets with people, with NGOs, is very empathetic and very passionate about her work. We do not model ourselves on others, we do not mimic anyone. This is how we are.

We often say what we think and criticism does not bother us, as long as it is not personal or aimed at our children with cruel intent. We always strive to improve what we do. Both of us are at peace with this.

saviour_balzan
Saviour Balzan is the founder and co-owner of MaltaToday. He has reported on Maltese poli...