[WATCH] The new radical | Simon Busuttil

Opposition leader Simon Busuttil bills himself as the person who can bring the country out of a blind alley when it comes to good governance. And since ‘Panamagate’, the PN leader has been riding high…

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Matthew Vella
20 March 2016, 11:40am
 
 

We have a minister who owns an offshore company in Panama hiding his beneficial ownership, a situation that suggests tax avoidance at the very least. You say there is corruption here: can you tell me what the corruption is?

The main question is why have Mizzi and Schembri not been sacked. It is obvious to everyone else that they should have been sacked. So who is the real power in this country? Is Joseph Muscat or Keith Schembri, the real prime minister? When a minister or the PM’s aide opens a secret company in Panama, it elicits a suspicion of corruption. You don’t open such a company to keep it empty, or to deposit Mizzi’s declared income. The suspicion of corruption is great. And I’ve called on the Commissioner of Police to investigate. Why hasn’t he already taken steps?

You said in parliament that ‘millions’ were being held offshore. You’re one who believes MPs should not have immunity from libel: should voters demand for some hard proof or can we rely on your allegation?

These companies are not used for a minister’s salary, but for millions to be deposited in them. But then again you don’t even need to see the cash to know that opening a Panama company is wrong. You don’t need an audit to see that this is wrong. An investigation is superficial after their admission: it shows their intentions. Even if found to be ‘empty’ it only confirms that they intended putting money there.

Muscat won’t sack Schembri, and won’t sack Mizzi unless the tax investigations find money stashed offshore. Do you think he’s put his mind at rest that the people out there are not responding to what you are saying?

On the contrary. I think everyone is paying attention. Everyone – except the Prime Minister – believes it is wrong for a minister to open a Panama company. Even in Brussels, people I met said they were amazed how they [Mizzi and Schembri] had not yet resigned.

Over 40% of the so-called ‘switchers’ polled by MaltaToday say they trust neither leader. Do you think this is setting Muscat’s mind at rest, that he can weather the storm?

"People expect action and this is a turning point on Muscat’s credibility. Unless he takes action, the people will not believe him anymore"
I don’t agree with this assessment. People expect action and this is a turning point on Muscat’s credibility. From now onwards, unless he takes action, the people will not believe him anymore, as much as they don’t believe the mud being thrown at me, at Ann Fenech, Mario de Marco and now Beppe Fenech Adami. They have realised that these are deviations from the central issue of why Mizzi and Schembri are still there.

The PN uses strong words on the Labour government: ‘crisis of corruption’ is one, ‘Mafia inside Castille’ is another. Do you really believe that the Prime Minister is on the take or corruptible, or that Castille is the site of ‘organised crime’?

Who does not work against corruption, is complicit in corruption. The prime minister should remove [Mizzi and Schembri] if he believes in fighting corruption.

Labour defends its record by saying it introduced a Whistleblower’s Act and removed prescription on political corruption…

And at the same time Labour swallows up the institutions and prevents them from functioning. The Times has removed its director [Adrian Hillman] and appointed judge Giovanni Bonello [on a board of inquiry over allegations by Daphne Caruana Galizia that Hillman was bribed by Keith Schembri]… and the government does nothing.

Is it not strange that The Times have not forwarded these allegations to the police?

That’s their business. From where I stand, the suspension and the board of inquiry are an example of good governance; and on the other hand you still have Schembri in his position.

Do you see Muscat as a corruptible person?

Who doesn’t fight corruption, is corrupt. Undoubtedly.

You have asked for police investigations into the privatisation of a 33% stake in Enemalta, the ElectroGas contract that was recently verified by the European Commission, the hospital privatisations, and Mizzi’s ministerial instruction to hedge fuel with SOCAR. What are your suspicions in each of these cases?

When a minister is caught lying – his half-admission to MaltaToday over his New Zealand trust is tantamount to a lie – and is the same man who signed multi-million contracts, I certainly want to have them investigated.

The suspicion is corruption. It is common sense… these contracts are not public and for three years he has refused publishing them. That Panama company is a smoking gun.

You believe there is a link between these contacts, and his Panama company…

It’s not my work to investigate Mizzi… it is common sense to suspect corruption for a minister who signs these contracts to have this Panama company. Can I be clearer? Everyone knows this. What I want are the supposedly independent institutions to investigate. I want politicians to have the moral compass to take action.

Should you be the one to actually file a criminal complaint?

It is their job to take up the initiative, on the basis of information that is out there. Take The Times affair, which has taken steps on the allegations, and the government has not. It is doubly serious: the PM is either impotent or unwilling to take steps against corruption, and the institutions’ hands appear tied.

MaltaToday’s surveys show your trust rating doubling since Panamagate. You could be prime minister in 2018: would you nationalise Enemalta so that it retakes the BWSC power station sold to the Chinese?

The first thing I’ll do is give moral direction to the country, to put people’s minds at rest that steps will be taken when something is wrong. Secondly I will see institutions empowered to take all necessary steps. Three years since the privatisation, we haven’t yet seen the contract; when I met Shanghai Electric Power, they said they had no problem publicising the contract.

Will you stop the 18-year LNG contract with SOCAR?

I was clear in the last Budget speech, I publicly committed myself to buy electricity from the cheapest source, whether from ElectroGas or from the Malta-Sicily interconnector. I don’t have the published contract, but my policy position is clear: I’ll buy the cheapest electricity. And I will give consumers the liberty to decide from which source they get their electricity – the interconnector, BWSC, or ElectroGas. Muscat is binding himself to ElectroGas’s price.

You are a critic of Malta’s relationship with Azerbaijan as a recent poster issued by the PN on social media showed; should we expect you to make a commitment that you will not deal with this country or its state corporations?

Azerbaijan is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. What I can control on what we do – and that’s the guarantee I can give, that the Maltese government will not be corrupt.      

In the past Lawrence Gonzi met with Ilham Aliyev – bilaterally at a Warsaw summit. What will you do differently as prime minister: refuse to meet with anyone not democratically elected or whose regime falls foul of accepted international human rights standards?

I will be ready to meet any country[’s leader] that has relations with the EU – as Azerbaijan indeed does – but if I meet a thief, it doesn’t mean I am ready to be a thief as well.

Are you referring to Muscat here?

No I am not. I’m saying that if there are doubts on someone I meet, I’m not ready to do those same things.

Your party’s slogan is ‘honest politics’, you have published a very important document on good governance, and you regularly denounce the systemic abuse inside government. You have been part of a PN government that had its record tarnished by accusations of nepotism and corruption – I mention your role in the context of the 2009 MEPs’ campaign, meeting stakeholders with Lawrence Gonzi in the run-up to 2013, and then as his deputy leader; do you feel that voters have not yet seen you earn redemption for the former PN government’s actions?

You know I have never been part of the government. I was an MEP up till 2013.

You have accompanied Gonzi during his 2008 electoral press conferences, been part of the PN’s strategy group, and were close to Gonzi before 2013. I’m not saying your record is tarnished. But you were part of that Nationalist leadership… there’s a certain systemic abuse inside government that comes from decades of the way of ‘doing government’ in Malta.

I don’t think that saying I was ‘part of the government’ is correct. I’ve been in the Maltese parliament for just the past three years. I have nothing to be ashamed of and I’m proud of the PN’s legacy. We’re certainly not perfect. In 2013 I said that 36,000 people could not be wrong, and I repeatedly recognised past mistakes on good governance and on the environment. But let’s move on, let’s change our policies, and change ourselves. My good governance package recognises both our past mistakes and this government’s mess.

"I will be ready to meet any country ['s leader] that has relations with the EU - as Azerbaijan does"
We know we’ve committed mistakes, we’ve learnt from them, but this government has gone the other extreme: there have never been such high-level accusations of corruption before against a prime minister’s deputy leader and his chief of staff.

You call for a separation of party and state in your document: no party officials as persons of trust or on public boards, and persons of trust limited to ministerial secretariats. What about party officials employed as consultants according to expertise? And businesspeople on public boards and companies?

I don’t agree that top party officials get a government position. Someone in a top-ranking party position should not have one foot in the party, and the other in government; a PN secretary-general should not be a government consultant. You cannot eliminate everyone, otherwise no government could function, taking as an example some party member who is not an official, but is a legal expert. It’s already difficult finding good people in politics.

I will be pragmatic. I want to clean up the system, but I would use a businessman with proven competence as long as there is no conflict of interest; we’ll make rules limiting appointments to just one board with a maximum of two terms.

I will also reduce persons of trust to the bare essential. What I don’t accept is to have a janitor or dog handler being appointed on person-of-trust basis.

You also want to stop ministerial staff in the private secretariat from presenting TV programmes on party media; there was a similar situation under the PN but it has worsened under Labour. Let me turn to an opposite example: do you think it is acceptable for one of your local councillors on the party radio station, David Thake, to ‘doorstep’ a Labour Party journalist, Janice Bartolo, for the sake of having a live tiff on radio?

The rule for someone who works in government was that they stopped working for the party. Today you have the Prime Minister’s aide writing a blog targeting people and a [radio] programme, being paid out of our taxes. My clear rule is that people who will work for the government must be cut off from their [party] political role.

Is David Thake right in what he does? Of course, the Opposition should keep the government under scrutiny.

He’s calling a One News journalist, not a government official.

There’s no difference between a One News journalist and the government.

She’s not paid from the State, but from a party…

You’re being too kind… David Thake’s aim was not to get at that individual. The point was to ask whether the government, and One News, are right in lying about Ann Fenech [Labour has hit out at the PN executive president because her law firm had registered an offshore company in Panama back in 2003] in their attempt at putting her on the same level as Konrad Mizzi and deviating attention from the story.

You described the Prime Minister’s statement in favour of gay marriages as a non-issue: you were once ideologically opposed to giving civil unions the same rights as marriage, but since the PN’s abstention you say that chapter is closed and you have moved on, that civil unions are today ‘gay marriage’ in all but name. Do you also believe that a gay couple should have access to IVF, which implies the donation of gametes and embryo freezing?

The current IVF law, which permits egg freezing, is a good law, that is also giving results as good as in any other country. You don’t change a winning horse. It is evident that a gay couple cannot have children naturally and therefore the IVF law does not permit this. I don’t agree that IVF is offered to gay couples but our law already allows gay adoptions. Even this issue is behind us. We will respect this law even if elected in government.

Today you propose yourself as a standard bearer for honest politics. Before 2013 even Joseph Muscat portrayed himself as a leader who could change politics; why should people trust you?

Even I am disappointed with Muscat, and surprised at the new lows he’s reached. I have recognised that the PN is not perfect; I have taken steps on people and their actions, even those broken in MaltaToday, which is why I put myself forward on good governance; and because I have radical proposals on good governance.

I am here to make a radical difference. Enough of more of the same. Only one of the two major parties can make this change: let’s change one of these two parties from within, to arrive at where we want to. All I want is the chance to prove to people that I am genuine in what I am saying.

If you lose the election, will you resign or go for the party delegates post-election vote of confidence?

My aim is going to the election. Nobody would imagine the kind of steps the PN has made in three years. I want to be focused on the country. It’s the country that has to come out from this blind alley; what happens to me is secondary.

You always say you started at ‘minus 36,000 votes’ – would there be an ‘acceptable electoral loss’ for you?

I’m not thinking about that. I want to win the next election to save the country from the situation it is currently in.

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Matthew Vella is executive editor at MaltaToday.