‘Campaigning in poetry, governing in poetry’ | Joseph Muscat

Opposition leader Joseph Muscat, 39, has spent two months spreading a ‘positive’ message and pledging a break from politics past. But is he sure that his ‘campaigning in poetry’ will also be followed by ‘governing in poetry’?

Still hoping he can make the business of government a sonnet... Photo: Ray Attard/Mediatoday
Still hoping he can make the business of government a sonnet... Photo: Ray Attard/Mediatoday

There goes yet another of Joseph Muscat's fetching quotes. Is it telling that he consults the American songbook of political quips when he is about to illustrate the grand future he hopes he will be elected to carve out? "You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose" - that's from New York's Democrat governor Mario Cuomo. And truly enough, Muscat has made poetry his business in this well-oiled, albeit exhaustive campaign: his paeans to a national unity that knows no political tribalism, his messages of 'courage' and 'hope'. Everything is possible, Muscat promises, and he wants us to believe that all the problems the Opposition has been picking away at will melt away.

But governing this island-nation, as Lawrence Gonzi too well knows, is a problematic affair: ministerial accountability, civil servants guilty of corruption and other peccadilloes, the great energy monster, sharing sovereignty with the Brussels bureaucrats breathing down his neck... governing is prose.

Muscat, at 39 hoping to be the next (not the youngest) prime minister, maybe still years away from the crushing reality of governing that can hollow out the greatest of optimists. But he sincerely believes that even after having campaigned in poetry, he'd like to think he will be governing in poetry too. Elder political observers will wince at this romanticism. Voters will be enthralled.

"I'd like to think that I will be campaigning in poetry and governing in poetry. If right now we are saying people will be chosen to public posts based on what they know and not who they know, this will be the case. If today I am pledging meritocracy, then meritocracy it will be. Doing otherwise would only mean returning to the old way of doing politics."

Has Muscat landed at a fortuitous time in Maltese politics? The Nationalists are a spent force ten years after EU accession, the unpredictable Alfred Sant has been exorcised from the new Labour tableau, and the perception of the 'clique' at the PN's Stamperija and Castille has been amplified so much, that the fin-de-siècle odour is too strong to ignore. Enter the politics of the air-freshener.

"You may not agree with us, but you can still work with us," Muscat was often heard saying in his campaign, dubbed 'Malta for all' or 'Malta is everybody's', in what sounds like a poetic, sanitised way of going about the business of governing. Well, the metre and rhythm sounds good so far.

We're in the third floor of the Mile End headquarters in Hamrun. Up above us is the hallowed fourth floor, a veritable bunker of political war rooms where 2013's campaign was mapped out with an army of young volunteers and Muscat's unelected kitchen cabinet - handpicked, business-like peers who have been hidden away from intra-party politics thanks to Muscat's jettisoning of the secretary-general's role.

This is just one of the stark differences between Muscat and his predecessor, perhaps one-time mentor, Alfred Sant. Muscat smiles convivially and his handshake is an invitation to openness. The cerebral Sant always looked too busy to be entertaining the soundbite-hungry press. And unlike Muscat, he had to contend with the men and women running the show because of the party's democratic, if rough, choices for secretary-generals like unstylish Jimmy Magro or the unctuous Jason Micallef. Muscat instead gets James Piscopo, seconded to his post from Air Malta; and businessman Keith Schembri, on whom Nationalist organ Il-Mument has honed in for being the mind behind the Labour campaign, aka 'Man from F.O.U.R.T.H.F.L.O.O.R.' if you will.

So how does Muscat justify his unelected army of men and women leading the campaign?

"Every leader has the right to create the structure he believes is the best to manage his campaign. And time is proving me right," he argues, matter-of-factly. "Everyone will have a role to play after the election," he continues, but categorically refuses to reveal any plans - for example, who will head his private secretariat if elected prime minister.

"Honestly, we are all focused on 9 March, and after that I believe they will all go on holiday," he laughs, acknowledging that the 60-day campaign has worn out everyone. When the clock struck midnight on 7 January, it was a healthy debate on ideas that kick-started the campaign, but 50 days in, and the mudslinging campaign took up most of the second month. Muscat claimed that Labour would keep up its "positive campaign", warning he was expecting worse from the PN.

Was he referring to the not-so-secret rumours of the PN having some dirt on his personal life?

"The PN has mounted a very negative campaign, targeting Toni Abela, myself and others. And I am not surprised by this."

But this so-called negative campaign was bolstered by recordings broadcast by a sock puppet YouTube channel in which deputy leader Toni Abela was revealed to have been aware about a drug possession incident inside the Safi party club. While the PN has incessantly called for Abela's resignation, Muscat insists that he has already shouldered his responsibility. But what responsibility has Abela exactly shouldered?

"He was the victim of the worst form of character assassination I've ever witnessed. You can call him whatever you like, but certainly not a drug pusher or the criminal he was almost described to be by the PN. This is not on and I believe he has suffered enough.

"But I do find consolation in the fact that people are realising all this... people are not as gullible as they think they are."

Muscat says Abela will still be deputy leader after 9 March. "He has covered his role with ability and has carried out much work which is not viewed by the public eye."

What about Anglu Farrugia, the deputy leader he forced out of his position allegedly on his disparaging comments on a magistrate (just days after his disastrous Xarabank duel with Simon Busuttil had revealed him as Labour's Achilles' heel)?

"There is a role in the PL for Farrugia if he wishes to take part. Obviously I would first have to discuss the issue with him."

An ambassador perhaps? "I would first have to discuss the issue with him," he repeats, although the rehearsed reply gives no hint as to what kick-upstairs will appease the hurt Farrugia.

Muscat kept his veteran shadow ministers like Karmenu Vella, Evarist Bartolo, Leo Brincat and Marie Louise Coleiro Preca close to him even in this campaign dominated by new, youthful candidates, although the same cannot be said of the less agreeable protagonists of 'old Labour' - international secretary and former foreign minister Alex Sceberras Trigona for one, and Joe Debono Grech, or one-time deputy prime minister George Vella.

"It's not the amount of time one has in the media that counts, but the base a candidate builds with his electorate," he says when questioned on the clear attempt at 'hiding' some Labour faces. "The media can help you, but it won't get you elected if you don't have a strong base with the citizens. TV provides an advantage but it won't parachute you into people's lives. It's no substitute to the connection people build when you stay in contact with them."

The possibilities of new cabinet members in the form of Konrad Mizzi (energy) or Manuel Mallia (justice), supplanting the familiar shadow ministers of the past five years, has given the impression that Muscat's cabinet will be a big one.

Muscat wants to describe it as "realistic" in size. "It will reflect Malta's reality as a member of the European Union and a country preparing for the EU presidency of 2017. This will mean that we would have more people who have to be present in Strasbourg and Brussels on a regular basis. My Cabinet members would be a mix of individuals all capable to hold their posts."

Seated in power, Muscat wants to kick-start his natural gas terminal plan, get Budget 2013 passed by the House in the first week, draft bills for the whistleblower's act and party financing laws, and remove the period of prescription on political corruption. He loftily claims he wants to lead "the most feminist government" the country has ever seen, an identification that the next President of the Republic might be a woman going by the hints he drops.

Lawrence Gonzi did set something rolling when he appointed former Labour Party deputy leader George Abela as president. But Muscat says it's time to start considering an appointment from outside the political sphere. "It shouldn't be simply a matter of red or blue; not necessarily a person from politics; and not necessarily a man.... I'm not saying I have someone in mind, but it's impossible for a country whose majority of its population is female not to have at least one single woman who could be candidate for the presidency. These are the criteria I believe one should follow. And the fact that Malta only ever had one female President will form part of our equation."

On the same lines, his pledge for meritocracy also comes with an invitation for scrutiny. "It's the media's job to scrutinise me. Today, there are both people who are fit for the job and others who have been chosen because they are either friends with some minister or knew someone already in the job."

And how will he appoint trusted persons? "They must be qualified individuals who would truly and genuinely share a Labour government's vision for a particular entity. But most of all, they must have the energy and will to drive it forward."

The flipside to meritocracy is that Muscat's new breed of appointees will skirt the problems faced by predecessor Alfred Sant, who faced internal criticism for retaining individuals appointed by the previous PN administration, in the spirit of reconciliation.

"Our point of principle is that you may not agree with us but you can work with us. This is the change in direction we are advocating. We will not carry out some sort of ethnic cleansing. There will be situations where we will ask whether they would be ready to work with us and whether they share our vision.

"My goal is to see individuals with the credentials to continue serving to continue doing so irrespective of their political beliefs... we don't have a priori placements."

But there is a smell of change in the air... do people like the Commissioner of Police and the head of the Security Services enjoy his trust? "As a state of fact, I have faith in all the country's institutions. I don't think that as the leader of the Opposition I should undermine these institutions," he replies.

But will he retain John Rizzo as Commissioner? After years of accusing Castille of manipulating the police force, can he see himself seated at the same table? "My vision is not one of politicians intruding in the work of the police force. But yes, across the board, we would sit down with the institutions to see what their vision is, and we will work with anyone who share our vision."

Rizzo included, I ask again? "Everyone," he insists.

But Muscat raises questions over the integrity of the work of the Security Services, and doubts over the powers on data retention and phone-tapping. "I'm not privy to the details of these reports and I have no access to the cases, for example when two MPs [Evarist Bartolo and Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando] raised suspicions over their mobile phones being tapped."

And he questions how in 17 years of 'investigation', the Permanent Commission Against Corruption failed to find guilt in any single case of corruption. "Not even one person. One may well argue that no cases were referred to it, which would prompt me to say that probably people didn't trust it enough."

In his plans for a 'Second Republic', Muscat wants to see through a national convention that will review the Constitution, and with a reform in national broadcasting and its regulator, with wider civil representation.

Let's put these plans aside: after years of broadsides against the political manipulation of the Public Broadcasting Services and accusations of intimacy between directors and presenters, and the PN, I ask Muscat what the future is for PBS and its trusted partners Where's Everybody.

"I don't see the need for PBS to be answerable to parliament. I don't see why it's a problem for PBS to remain under the responsibility of one minister... everyone will be given an equal opportunity to carry their production on PBS. No company or individual will be favoured over others."

So is there a place for Peppi Azzopardi and Lou Bondì, the purveyors of the pro-government propaganda according to Labour?

"God forbid we end up in a situation where it's the prime minister who decides what should be aired on PBS. All I see is a situation where we appoint persons with the responsibility of assuring that a level-playing field is offered to everyone."

And the same level-playing field, he says, will be offered to Where's Everybody, whom he points out started out in their dominance of the airwaves under a Labour government back in 1996.

He looks over at the reforms that took place inside Labour TV station One. "We've had a good diversification of revenue generation there, but we will still have to continue seeing it as an ongoing concern. I believe people are becoming more sceptical of party-owned media, and if a political station does not embrace a pluralism of ideas, it will be doomed to fail."

Beyond his talk of fairness, there is another side to Muscat, and it's the suspicion of his populist appeal and 'we can work it out' attitude, promising something small to everyone, irreconcilable as it may be. Take his stand on migrant pushbacks, which he sees as legitimate in the case that Libya is declared a safe country of origin.

Muscat refutes the suggestion that his so-called electoral "roadmap" has been poll-driven. "This is an issue-driven document: a clear roadmap," he says, while refuting the suggestion that the lack of integration policies in his programme's poor section on migration, was down to the conservatism of his Labour vote.

"I think we have been extremely responsible not to exploit this issue. We are being extremely clear that we will be humane with the victims of human trafficking and tough with the [Brussels] politicians."

Take hunting: not only have Labour candidates like Rabat man Sandro Craus and patron saints like Michael Falzon been meeting the hunting lobby's members in various districts; Muscat confirms that in the coming days, Labour's "technical committee" (read: Labour people) will hammer out some form of agreement with the FKNK after "months of meetings". New promises include a review of the moratorium on the issuing of trapping licenses.

"The only promises we'll keep are those written in black and white on our manifesto... people saying otherwise must shoulder the responsibility of what they are saying."

We turn to the economy, where Muscat pours cold water over growth figures bandied about the Nationalist government. "The European Commission has reviewed its workings for 2013 and 2014, showing that there is a far cry between what the PN is pledging - a €1.2 billion programme based on a 2.3% economic growth - and what is feasible. Brussels is forecasting an economic growth of 1.5%... a far cry from what the PN is saying."

As to his own growth plan, reducing electricity tariffs is an essential ingredient if not the mainstay of his electoral programme. "Businesses do not complain of not having enough cash, but of not having enough work, of excessive red tape, and the high utility bills."

Dear Mr. Muscat, a scape of paint on an old facade is not a new beginning but a disguise of the old deep rooted methods of dictatorial governance. I am sure you will get your ten minutes on stage but the 'fresh' paint will wear off soon enough and the ugly face of politics will prevail yet again.