‘It is up to the electorate to judge me’ | Lawrence Gonzi

Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi admits that mistakes may have been made during his term of office, but insists that he did not renege on his promise of ‘a new way of doing politics’

Lawrence Gonzi has set much store in his ability to maintain economic stability. Photo: Ray Attard/Mediatoday
Lawrence Gonzi has set much store in his ability to maintain economic stability. Photo: Ray Attard/Mediatoday

In what could be one of his last interviews as Prime Minister, a tranquil and good-humoured Lawrence Gonzi answered my questions patiently, in the first of four scheduled interviews yesterday morning.

After light-heartedly explaining his nephew's penchant for dinosaur applications which he downloads on the Prime Minister's tablet, Gonzi unflinchingly says that his biggest regret since becoming Prime Minister in 2004 was his decision to grant ministers a €500 wage rise.

Asked why he did not act more swiftly after MaltaToday's revelation of the Cabinet's intent to increase its pay packet in 2008, Gonzi says: "It is certainly not the case that we hid the decision. The issue was mishandled and as I have already stated it will not repeat itself."

Pressed to say whether he regrets the pay-rise or the method by which it was introduced, Gonzi insists: "I have said whatever I had to say on the matter, many arguments could be made, but it was a mistake which should not be repeated."

The PN leader argues that his 2004 promise on a new way of doing politics translated into the appointment of former Labour deputy leader George Abela and the introduction of the freedom of information act.

Abela's appointment "broke the mould," Gonzi says, adding that the appointment of a Labour politician as President by a PN administration was "the most crucial moment in getting the message through in this sense but overall it gave a very positive message. It took some courage to take such a decision in a country like ours, but it was a good decision, which had a positive effect on the country."

He adds that his government introduced other reforms over the last nine years, which changed the way of doing politics. "We could have done more but we did introduce a freedom of information act and in the last legislature we also published a party financing law and a whistleblowers' act."

While stressing that such laws were not approved because political instability dictated the Parliamentary agenda, Gonzi said that the party financing law could not be approved without a national consensus.

"We did a lot of good work and we made huge strides forward and now much of the ground work is ready for the next legislature. However, I insist that with regard to the party financing law it would ideally be introduced in agreement with all political parties, including Alternattiva Demokratika."

He also shifts the blame onto the Opposition for its decision to withdraw its participation from the Parliamentary select-committee on democratic reform following Labour's claim that one of its MP's vote was registered incorrectly after a government MP had voted with the Opposition.

Gonzi says that in a letter sent to Opposition leader Joseph Muscat in 2008, he made a number of proposals such as introducing Prime Minister's question time in Parliament, and Parliamentary sittings dedicated to the Opposition's agenda.

"However, the Opposition found a silly excuse over an incident on the vote of an MP to bring a sudden end to the talks and the committee was effectively scrapped. I find it strange that Labour stopped these important talks from taking place. From my end, I did my part, but it takes two to tango and the Opposition did not like the tune of it and shied away from its responsibilities."

Asked on the haemorrhage the PN suffered in recent years, with a number of PN exponents claiming that Gonzi was a good listener but did not take action on their grievances, the PN leader brushed off such claims, pointing out that when a complaint was justified he did his utmost to address it.

"However, whether I am successful or not does not always depend on me. I understand that some are disappointed and expect this or that, but the Prime Minister takes decisions in particular circumstances and shoulders the responsibility. Who is not in the seat of power sees things differently and I respect everyone's position but at the end of the day it is up to the electorate to judge me."

Asked whether some persons in business were justified in complaining about the award of government tenders to the usual suspects, Gonzi says: "It would be better to verify the facts first. Things are completely different... huge quantities of tenders were awarded to a large number of companies. I hope that nobody expects that tenders are awarded to companies who do not deserve them. There are serious tender regulations as stipulated by the EU, and we all know that decisions are appealed, companies go to court or tribunals and we have a system which works."

He adds: "There is no reason why I should overturn decisions when these are upheld in court," adding that such a mentality would throw the country back to times when the Prime Minister and politicians took all decisions under past Labour administrations, when corruption was "institutionalised".

"I believe that we should not go back to such practices, there are independent institutions which take such decisions, That's how things should be and that's what is happening.

"I understand that persons who lose an appeal are disappointed but this does not mean that they are right. It's not true that one person is awarded all contracts, it is obvious that there is a political agenda behind such claims and when somebody such as (construction magnate and PN donor) Zaren Vassallo is awarded a contract as part of a consortium nobody says anything, when Zaren Vassallo is not awarded a contract nobody speaks up, but when he is awarded a contract then everybody speaks up."

Gonzi makes it clear that whenever reports of irregularities reached his desk, he took action by passing on such reports to who has the power to investigate.

"This is another worrying thing which really scares me. If under a Labour government investigations are to be carried out by politicians we would go back to the scandals of yesteryear. I always insisted that if an accusation is made the report must be passed on to the authorities which by the powers vested by our laws have the power to investigate, arrest people and hold you for up to 48 hours. That is how investigations should be carried out."

According the PN leader, political intervention would take Malta "back to the dark days of our past, and some wish to bring back those days".

This leads the Prime Minister to attack the Opposition over its deputy leader Toni Abela's involvement in the Safi Labour club drug case.

"We have just seen the Labour deputy leader go to a police station, pick a Labourite police officer and tell him not to proceed with charges. They want to take us back to the ugly days when the justice police and courts were used to obstruct justice itself. It's a terrible mistake and creepy that in 2013, Labour hangs on to such beliefs. What makes matters worse is that that Joseph Muscat himself has divested himself of political responsibility in such a scandal."

Is the negative campaigning experienced in recent weeks helping the PN's cause, I ask?

"I do not understand why stating real facts is deemed negative. Is there anyone in the country who wants us to hide the fact that a person who aspires to become Prime Minister knew of a case of drug trafficking and did not take any action? Does anyone want us to hide this fact in this critical moment? Does anyone think that we should have remained silent on the fact that somebody decided against taking the obvious decision to report the case to the police. Muscat did not take that decision. I do not consider such a thing as negative but we just shouldered our responsibilities to expose such things."

He adds that the PN's emphasis on the drug case was not negative because the party was only shouldering its responsibility and exposing the facts, noting that he expected the media to be on the front line, and not a political party.

Pressed to explain whether he believes that Labour leader Joseph Muscat and his deputy Toni Abela were protecting drug trafficking, Gonzi says: "I am saying that they had a case of drug trafficking and they did not report the case to the police, despite having evidence. This is very serious. It could land you a life sentence. You cannot reach a lower ebb. It is the least you expect from anyone, more so from the person aspiring to become prime minister who would be required to take decisions which are much harder than that. Muscat did not recognise and understand that he had a duty to report such serious matter to the police, with the result of persons involved are still free to traffic drugs."

Since the subject turned to mud slinging and scandals, I ask the prime minister whether the commissions-for-oil scandal had hurt the PN's popularity.

"It should not hurt our popularity because we showed courage to take it head on. I made sure that the presidential pardon is granted and it is now evident that Labour was also directly or indirectly involved. Without delving into such matters because the investigations are ongoing, all I can say is that I delivered; and I put the money where my mouth is."

He insists that his controversial decision to grant oil trader George Farrugia was now accepted by all as a powerful tool, which is allowing the Police Commissioner and the Attorney General to carry out their investigations. 

Unlike Labour's decision to conceal the Safi drug case, Gonzi says that he not only asked Police Commissioner John Rizzo to investigate but "I also granted him the best tool possible. Pardons are not issued on a weekly basis, it's a rare thing, but I have not shied away from issuing it as long as it produces results. The government has nothing to be ashamed of and we are committed to fighting corruption, wherever it comes from whoever it is.  I have stated that who ever plays with fire with me will burn himself and some did get burnt".

He stresses that he was never directly approached by anyone who had any information on Frank Sammut, the former Enemalta consultant implicated in kickbacks stemming from oil purchasing agreements related to Enemalta.

"I am now aware that persons received information who took it straight to the competent authorities, as expected, but I never had any direct or indirect information specifically on Frank Sammut or anything else. If I had such information I would have taken immediate action, as I did."

Asked whether he knew oil trader turned State informant George Farrugia or his wife, Gonzi says: "No I never knew them. I rarely...rarely did I meet or have any contact with the Farrugia family, which is a well-known family in Hamrun and in business circles. The only times we met were public events, as evidenced by pictures published showing the open day at the Aviation Park where I met thousands of people including George Farrugia and a relative of his. It's just a picture, which does not mean that I knew with whom George Farrugia was that day."

Asked specifically, whether he knew Farrugia's wife, Gonzi says: "I don't know who she is, I would not recognise her were I to meet her. It could be, maybe yes, maybe not, but I never had anything to do with her."

After earlier this week refusing to rule out that a member of the Malta Security Services had attempted to pass on to him invoices and documents pertaining to oil trader George Farrugia's activities in the summer of 2011, Gonzi said he was misreported.

"Whenever I had information I passed it on to the Police Commissioner. But it does not mean that anyone ever passed on any documents related to the case to me.

"After the thing became public I verified the facts and I was informed that somebody spoke to a security services member, passed on some documents to the security services member, who in turn passed them on to his superior who went on to pass them on to the tax compliance unit. These never got to me. I never got this information, directly or indirectly."

Asked whether there were other ministries involved in the summer of 2011, Gonzi says that as far as he knows it was only the finance ministry which was involved, noting that that it also went through the security services, which forms part of the Office of the Prime Minister.

Has there ever been any kind of political pressure on the police in such investigations? "Absolutely no, never. At least not by myself. The Police Commissioner can surely confirm that every time I passed information to him, I always instructed him, sometimes in writing, to investigate, whoever it is and whatever the consequences are. I hold the commissioner in high esteem and results speak for themselves. From judges to clerks results speak for themselves. I challenge anyone to compare this legislature to other legislatures from Independence onwards and see whether there have been more proceedings and action taken against individuals who were accused of wrongdoing in this legislature."

On the PN's apparent inability to match the creativity, manpower and efficiency of past campaigns and Labour's superiority in the current campaign, Gonzi said: "Anyone in his right mind, knows that Labour has discovered a mysterious source of financing. We know how much a campaign costs, and it very clear for all to see: the billboards, the streamers in our streets, the ads on the newspapers, these cost millions and it is pretty obvious that Labour has found a mysterious source of money. A good investigative media has a story to dig up there."

Asked whether he does not have himself to blame for this, following his government's failure to introduce a party financing law, Gonzi says: "Yes, yes but the fact remains that the law was not introduced and Labour has a mysterious source of financing. It would be interesting to know where the money is coming from. What obligations does it have? The party financing law is needed and important but the question remains...where is Labour getting its money from?"

Do you know anything the media does not know? "I have no information, I just make the questions which the media should be making," Gonzi quips.

After reminding him of his pledge that his party and government would remain close to the people, after winning the 2008 election by a whisker, Gonzi admits that his administration faced great difficulties such as the economic crisis and the Libyan conflict, "but I recognise that the party had no other option but to take decisions which harmed its popularity".

Yet, Gonzi says that he preferred to lose popularity rather than having thousands of people in the unemployment queues, reminding me that Malta is among the best performers in terms of employment in the EU.

But why did he leave it so late in the day to nominate MEP Simon Busuttil as his special envoy to reach out to the people?

"I accept the fact that we were not sensitive enough to some people's daily concerns. After asking to be reconfirmed as leader in 2012, I appointed Simon Busuttil and Paul Borg Olivier to address this situation and we have reaped great dividends from this exercise. We become more sensitive to what was happening at ground level and the PN electoral programme clearly shows that we are addressing people's concerns. There is much more to do and if we are returned to power by the people this will be a priority in the next legislature. If Simon is elected and is PN deputy leader, as I hope he will be, he will be responsible that the PN government will not only get the bigger picture right, we will also strengthen the interface with the people."

Looking back at the situation in public broadcasting, accused of a heavy bias in favour of his administration, Gonzi says the people at the helm of PBS and journalists working on TVM included former Labour Party media employees and insists that the national broadcaster "made a quality leap" and fulfilled its obligations in the past few years.

Turning to the environment, Gonzi explains that some of the owners of the illegal boathouses in Armier might be eligible to compensation if the buildings had to be removed.

"Some acquired rights exist because contracts were made and complicated legal matters exist. We are a democratic country and not a dictatorship, so we have to respect the rights of citizens. Before taking decisions we must recognise that rights have to be upheld and respected."

Even if the boathouses are illegal?

"Yes, it could be that past illegalities were regularised by previous governments and courts recognise this, so much so that there is a cut off date, 1992, and it could be that previous buildings have acquired rights while those that where built at a later stage do not."

Quizzed why he is now opposed to holding a referendum on spring hunting, Gonzi explains that the Maltese law stipulates that referendums are held if enough signatures are collected to abrogate a law.

"Its not a matter of agreeing with the referendum question, but the law must be respected, I always did my utmost to uphold laws and I have always been at the forefront to fight for the country's rights in the European court and that decision must be respected by all," Gonzi says on the spring hunting derogation.

Earlier this week, the Prime Minister said he would not resign if the PN loses the 9 March election. Asked to qualify his candid reply, Gonzi is less economical and explains that the PN statute demands that the leader must submit the leadership to the party members' confirmation within three months of every general election.

Asked whether he would follow in the footsteps of his predecessor Eddie Fenech Adami, who resigned days after the 1996 electoral loss, Gonzi says "I'll only remain if I enjoy the trust of PN councillors and the electorate. Obviously, if I don't enjoy their trust I'll be first to make way for the sake of the country, the party and democracy.

"However, I will not escape in front of defeat. I will shoulder responsibility to the very last minute, but in but politics its people's trust which keeps you going, without their trust you're worthless."

Does he expect to carry the can alone? "No, not alone...I expect everyone to shoulder the responsibility, it's the way it has always been and that what has to be done in politics."

Emmanuel Mallia
Dr Gonzi, Did we benefit from the so called domestic gas distribution privatization ?? Are the shares & equities , quoted at the Borza, really reflects a true, free market price ?? Or are they controlled by your government ? Despite the recent scandal, the price of petrol from the pumps is still the same. It still includes the illegal commissions !! According to your manifest, you will be introducing no taxes ??? We simply, do not believe in you anymore ! Nationalist
Emmanuel Mallia
Malta is not in the same position as Greece, Italy, Spain etc etc, simply because our local banks have domestic loans and debts, NOT BECAUSE OF ANY POLICY MADE BY GONZI. Gonzi actually increased the government deficit. Muscat never mentions this because he will also would like to take the credit if he is elected ! !!!
We have already judged you Dr. Gonzi. Please make some space.
Emmanuel Mallia
He is already feeling the frustration of a looser !!
Emmanuel Mallia
a new way of doing politics ? now !!!!! Perhaps some dialogue will do, like Fenech Adami
Emmanuel Mallia
You are trying to mend everything in the last minute You are interested in making money, that is all You talk just like a lawyer- going round the mulberry bush You pretend to be catholic ?? You treat us like chicken heads, as if we do not understand between the lines !! Now its the time to pay for your lack of attention to what the man in the street really thinks and wants!!! Now is the time for the trio G,G,C to face the truth after making the PN a totalitarian regime !!! Where is the dialogue at PN ?? A true nationalist. (not a Gonzipn regime)
Gonzi, you can cry till the 9th march, it will not help. ‘It is up to the electorate to judge me’ and that is what we are doing. game over.
.......Obviously, if I don't enjoy their trust I'll be first to make way for the sake of the country, the party and democracy...... Democracy? Like you did in the divorce Issue ? If I remember correctly you voted in parliament against the "WILL OF THE MAJORITY" or Taking 500/600 euros behind our backs. It seems that you not only don't trust the Maltese and Gozitans people Judgement, but also don't give a s..t about what we think (3 threes have passed to revert your choice for the countrie's sake)
Fuq dan l-iskandlu tal-wahx fuq il-commissions taz-zejt hija raguni bizzejjed biex il-poplu jqactek il-barra, ga la darba ma tlaqtx min jeddek. Kif jista Prim Ministru Ewropew, jigri kaz ta korruzzjoni bhal dan taht imniehru, u ma jirrezenjax? Kif jista' l-poplu jafdak? U tghidilna li se tkompli more of the same ukoll. X'wicc infurrat irid ikollok?
Paul Sammut
"did not renege on his promise of ‘a new way of doing politics’. Ha ha. Tridx tmur? What cheek.
‘It is up to the electorate to judge me’-- Oh yes Gonz, we will judge you alright. Starting with your secret and obscene €600 a week pay rise. The rest of your mismanagement is too long to list here, but the electorate know full well your sordid history.
A week is too long in politics. On March 3 Gonzi said to the crowd "Let's go for it". On March 10 Gonzi will tell his Cabinet "Let's go"