Marlene on the wall | Marlene Farrugia

In between jellyfish stings and online attacks by supporters of her own party, Labour MP Marlene Farrugia has had a rough 2014 of it so far. She explains her reservations on the citizenship scheme, and why she is retiring from politics

raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo
28 January 2014, 12:00am
Marlene Farrugia has suffered flak from Labour supporters for daring to question her government's actions
Marlene Farrugia has suffered flak from Labour supporters for daring to question her government's actions


Few members of parliament have attracted quite as much attention of late than Marlene Farrugia; and none in quite so bizarre or unusual ways, either. New Year's Day brought with it the curious incident of how the Labour MP from Qrendi had to be rescued by the AFM, after finding herself stranded on a rock in Gnejna Bay surrounded by jellyfish. And this week she would appear to have been stung in different ways, too: namely, an angry Facebook backlash, over comments in which she seemed to criticise her own government's much-maligned IIP (cash-for-citizenship) scheme.

Her precise words were: "We all agree that we could have created an investment scheme of this nature without making our country look ridiculous ['jaqa' ghaz-zuffjett'] This would have been possible had both sides of the house genuinely sought and found consensus on the best scheme, for the HONOUR and economy of Malta."

This marks the first instance of a phenomenon only too familiar to the preceding Nationalist administration (though it surfaced only after the PN had been in power for more than two decades): that of a government publicly contradicted and/or criticised by one of its own backbenchers.

And as we meet for this interview, the war of online comments is already at full tilt. Marlene Farrugia has been branded a 'traitor' - a word that has been rather overused of late, I might add - by Labourites who reacted furiously to a rap on the knuckles from one of their own.

And naturally, many Nationalist commentators came flocking to her support.

So the first question practically asks itself: how did she really end up on that rock in Gnejna, anyway? Just kidding... there's been enough talk about that already, and in any case most of us would probably prefer clinging to the conspiracy theories regardless. So onto question two: what prompted her critical remarks towards a scheme which, in many ways, is proving to be her own government's most glaring Achilles' Heel? And why precisely now? 

Farrugia is keen to instantly dispel misinterpretations of her comments as being against the scheme in principle. She even contends that up to a certain point we can still talk about 'consensus' surrounding its broader aims - there is disagreement only regarding the mechanics.

"I don't think you can fault Joseph Muscat's intentions, which are to provide a much needed boost to the country's finances. On this level, the Nationalists agree, the country agrees, Europe agrees, everyone agrees. And there is even broad agreement on the idea of investor programmes as a method, too. How it is done, however, is another question..."

So what does she think the government did wrong? The reply comes in a flash. "There wasn't enough consultation with the stakeholders beforehand."

The result, she adds, was that the scheme had to be amended afterwards, and this means that things that had already been approved in parliament also had to be changed.

"And when you look at the amendments, you can see why the major stakeholders had to be consulted. The new requirements now include investment in bonds, job creation commitments, investment in property... these are all things which affect every sector of the economy. All the players should have been on board from the very conception. But unfortunately the consultation happened only afterwards. The scheme got off on the wrong foot. This should not have happened."

Another thing that 'should not have happened' was to keep the Opposition out of the planning stage, only to spring the scheme onto them as a fait accompli. "If you ask me the PN panicked and went running to the European Parliament to beg for help. To me, it is a shame it had to come to this. We only managed to unite our competitors against us..."

Farrugia here points towards the emphasis on 'consensus' in her original remark. "Unfortunately we still have the mentality of a divided nation, which also means we think of ourselves as competitors. We tend to forget that Malta is in a global market, and that our competitors are in fact other European countries."

She argues it would be fatal for either side to adopt a unilateral approach on broader issues of national convergence. But she also concedes that securing Opposition approval through prior meetings would not have been easy.

"My fear is that even with meetings there wouldn't have been any desire to achieve consensus from the Opposition's side. They showed this during the consultation afterwards. And it's a pity, because if there was consensus from the outset we would have had the best scheme possible, and it would have been to everyone's advantage..." 

Meanwhile it remains slightly unclear why government seemed to be in such a rush to push this scheme through. One possible explanation was that Joseph Muscat felt strong enough with his nine-seat parliamentary majority to be able to withstand even the most daunting of challenges. Does she think the prime minister may have been lulled by the electoral result into a false sense of security... enough to grossly underestimate all opposition, both local and foreign? If so, isn't this reminiscent of the type of arrogance the PL used to criticise when in Opposition?

"If this was the reason, there may be repercussions. Five years pass quickly - in fact we're already down to four - and if the government is already suffering from this alleged 'arrogance', it would be short-lived. But I don't think it was a question of arrogance myself. Initially I did get the impression that Muscat had dug his heels and decided to press ahead with the scheme regardless, even after the EP vote. But it doesn't look that way now. We are in negotiations with the Commission, the scheme has been amended... I think it was more a case of trying to give people what he thought was needed in the first term of office."

Among the things that are needed is a vital cash injection into the economy. "All this must be seen in the context of what we found when we came into power. The country's finances were stable, yes, but you can't ignore the issue of the national debt. I think Muscat realised this, and was so single-minded in his attempt to deliver on his electoral programme that he may have overlooked other considerations."

What about the way forward? Throughout her outburst this week, Farrugia has consistently hinted that the scheme may still be salvaged to everyone's advantage. Is this still possible?

"Government has to reconsider its position. I would go for confrontation only if we had no intention of ironing out problems. But that is not what is happening, so the position has already changed. Muscat has signalled that he is willing to listen, and there is no reason the problems can't be sorted in a way that is acceptable to all parties. This can happen if we move forward with a positive attitude."

Positivity doesn't seem to be in over-abundance, however. The recent European parliamentary vote can itself be interpreted as a symptom of how divided and confrontational our nation really is. On one level we had a government which, to outward appearances, simply ignored or defied all complaints, including a legitimate call by the Opposition for more prior debate; and on another, we saw Opposition MEPs mustering unprecedented international support to secure condemnation of their own country.

All this may have ripple effects on the local electoral landscape. One possible repercussion is that it might take us back to a time before the 2003 EU referendum, when the Labour Party was campaigning against membership (and was badly bruised as a consequence). The recent European Parliament experience can't have strengthened confidence in the EU among Labour voters. On the contrary, it may have served to fuel latent euroscepticism, which - in the context of an imminent EP election, as well as the broader political backdrop against which all this plays out - may also further divide the country, and offer the Opposition more ammunition to use against government.

Marlene Farrugia had herself campaigned in favour the EU, and only joined the PL after it formally changed its previous policy on accession. Is she concerned about the implications for the party's future?

She nods. "Yes, perceptions of the EU have been damaged, no doubt about that. You can't blame the people for feeling this way. Their experience tells them that the EU only ever seems to agree on blocking initiatives and tripping us up. It unites to attack us, yes, but never to help us."

Here she fires a shot at the two Nationalist MEPs who went to such pains to secure a colossal vote condemning Malta. "With all due respect to these two individuals, it was a pity they managed to combine so many voices in the European parliament only to criticise their country, but not to assist."

Farrugia reasons that the way the citizenship scheme issue panned out managed to bring to the surface "all the sore points of the EU": exposing flaws in the way it works at various levels.

"But it doesn't mean we are against the ideals of Europe. We share the values of the EU - solidarity, freedom, justice, and so on. It's just that we don't see those values put into practice very often. Our immigration experience has not been one of an EU based on solidarity, for instance. And the Europarliamentary vote will certainly have reinforced this impression. All this can only foment anti-EU sentiment. Still, I would say the Maltese still believe in the concept of the EU as a whole. Our role is to make our voice heard so that those values are always in place... and not selectively, as happened now."

But it would seem that Marlene Farrugia will not be adding her own voice to that effort for very much longer. Recent press reports suggest she may be considering hanging her political boots when her government's term is up in 2018. Is this true? And if so, is there any connection with her apparent exasperation at the administration's mishandling of the IIP issue - and possibly other issues too - not to mention the tirades of insults from her own party supporters?

"Yes, I can confirm that I will not be contesting the next election," she promptly replies... but just as promptly adds that it has nothing to do with the ongoing altercation over the IIP scheme, or any form of disenchantment with her party or government. "It's a decision I took before. I've done my 10 years in parliament, it's now time to make way for new blood..."

Paradoxically some might consider Marlene Farrugia herself to be new blood, at least within the ranks of the PL...

"Oh, I'm always new blood," she replies with a smile, "because I keep myself interested in things. But there are other things I want to do in life; I can contribute in other ways apart from politics..."

At the risk of echoing corner gossip, there have all along been rumours that part of her apparent disillusionment with politics stems from her own omission from the Cabinet of Ministers, having been passed over - as it were - in favour of her husband Godfrey Farrugia (now Health Minister). According to legend, Joseph Muscat had approached them both separately with ministerial offers, and both had accepted...

Marlene Farrugia smiles as she corrects 'legend' on a few details. "I was never offered the health ministry," she asserts. "We had spoken about it, and I had suggested to Joseph Muscat that he appoint Godfrey. He's a hard worker, incorruptible, devoted to patients..."

At this point I think we can safely exclude that the jellyfish encounter had anything to do with her decision to leave politics, either. But there is another possibility. Being one of the very few politicians to have militated in both parties and on both sides of the house... could it also be that she is disillusioned with Maltese politics as a whole? And will she take any regrets with her when she goes?

"I'm not disappointed, no. But there is one sore point. I find it a shame that we've remained so divided as a nation after all these years... it's as though we're constantly stuck, and have to keep bringing up things that happened 20, 30 or 50 years ago. Do we really want to go back there, time and again? We are still feeling the wounds that were inflicted on society to this day... We should remember what unites us, and not only what keeps us divided. We can't forget that, either; it's too important to forget. So let's remember, forgive and try to learn something from it all."

But her own recent experiences also seem to suggest that old prejudices die hard.

"I will dedicate what energy I have left to try and neutralise that... and I think I've already shown it is perfectly possible to remain the same person, regardless of political affiliation."