I’m no ‘Super Woman’... | Miriam Dalli

Expectations of a major Cabinet portfolio for MIRIAM DALLI – who gave up a European Parliamentary seat to engage in local politics – are high. But what are her own expectations from this career-change?

Miriam Dalli
Miriam Dalli

Prime Minister Robert Abela is rumoured to be planning a major Cabinet reshuffle; and your transition from Labour MEP to local parliamentarian, at this stage, has raised expectations for a ministerial appointment. Am I right, in interpreting the topics you raised in your maiden speech – ‘climate change, the green economy, the blue economy, and industrial transition’: all areas you worked on as an MEP – as an indication of the portfolio you are hoping to land?

At the end of the day, it is up to the Prime Minister to decide whether, or how, to distribute Cabinet ministerial portfolios. But more than anything else, I talked about those issues because that is what I’ve been working on, as an MEP, for the past seven years.  And I worked on them because I believe that that is the way forward at EU level: and also, at our country’s level as well. I’m not one of those who preach one way in the EU; then another way back home.

So if you’re seeing the same line of thought, it’s because – and this is one of the reasons I came back – I believe that, as a country, we can effect positive change. The Prime Minister has also spoken about his vision for the coming years: one of the things he talked about was the target to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.  It’s not an easy task; but if we start planning towards it from today, it becomes doable.

That is why I chose to talk about those topics; and also about the environment, also as source of economic and industrial opportunity… so that we can start preparing our children, and the future generations, from now…

Nonetheless, the present government is under fire over its handling of environmental issues. There is widespread concern about over-development; and the government’s reforms of the Planning Authority (among other things) seem to have only exacerbated existing problems. Is your emphasis on environmental issues also a reflection of concern with environmental degradation under Robert Abela?

I think it’s only fair to say that, in the past few months, there has been marked progress as well. You can’t change everything in a few months. But recently, I believe there has been the will to start changing things.

You mentioned development, for instance. As for myself, I try to see opportunities in all things: so when we speak about development, and the construction industry – and we hear everyday how important it is for the economy; but we are still with the mentality that it works against the environment –I see it as an opportunity as well. And I’ll tell you why.

At present [the construction industry] contributes around 40% of our greenhouse gas emissions; and there are a lot of things that can be done in that regard. If we introduce more energy-efficiency measures; implement the rules of the Energy Performance Building Directives; refitting, the renovation wave… these are all opportunities that could create more jobs; and open up new niches in the sector. At the same time, we would be helping to reduce pollution…

But the environmental impact goes far beyond greenhouse gas emissions alone. Over-development is also eating into precious, irreplaceable open space. Construction dust contributes to Malta having the highest rate of respiratory problems in Europe. It’s all well and good to introduce those measures in future: but what do you propose to deal with the immediate concerns today?

If I’m talking about these measures today, it is precisely because I don’t want them to be introduced ‘in the future’. I want to start working on them from now. And the work has, in fact, already started. Prof. Simone Borg, who heads the Climate Action Board, has convened a group of stakeholders; as an MEP representing the EU perspective, I was a member for the past few months… so I know that they will shortly be coming out with a number of proposals.

Some of these proposals will be things that can be implemented immediately; others will have to be implemented over a longer time-frame. But that is what needs to be done. We cannot carry on talking only about what happens in the longer term; it has to be a mixture of both…

At present, however, we are seeing neither any long-term plan; nor any immediate measures…

I acknowledge that things are not perfect. If they were perfect, I probably wouldn’t have come back at all. In fact, I came back precisely because I want to change things for the better…

On that note: your return to Malta also coincides with recent polls indicating a noticeable dip in Abela’s trust ratings. As such, it seems to fit into a pattern – which includes Simon Busuttil on the eve of the 2013 election, and also Joseph Muscat in 2008 - of MEPs coming back from Brussels, at a critical moment, to ‘save the day’ for their party. Do you see it that way yourself?

[Laughing] I’m no ‘Super Woman’, if that’s what you mean…

But you are a very high-profile Labour politician; and you have been touted as a potential future PL leader in the past. Wouldn’t you say, then, that your decision to quite the European Parliament for local politics, at this stage, is symbolically significant?

Let me put it this way: first of all, Robert Abela’s ratings are not exactly ‘low’. Regardless what polls say, he certainly doesn’t need me to ‘save’ him. But yes, he did contact me to come back, because he wanted me to participate more proactively in politics at a national level. I have no illusions that I will ‘save the day’, however… I wouldn’t even want people to have that expectation of me; or to think that I have that opinion about myself.

I only came back because I support Robert Abela’s vision; and because I think there is room where I can contribute positively. And I’m looking forward to getting started.

Let’s focus on one on your chosen topics: the ‘green economy’. Ironically, resistance comes mainly from lower income brackets (I.e., the Labour Party’s traditional support-base). Electric vehicles, for instance, would put all mechanics out of a job. Not everyone has a garage where to recharge their battery; or can even afford an electric car at all, at current prices. So doesn’t all this fine-sounding talk about ‘environmentalism’, also come at a high social and political cost?

There are two things I’d say to that. Firstly - and this is something I have learnt from my experience as an MP – Is that, if you talk about the environment only in terms of environmental benefits… you will not engage with the stakeholders; and you will not convince anyone else, either.

I witnessed this first-hand when I worked on the European regulations to decrease CO2 emissions.  As long as the discussion was only about environmental issues, there was enormous resistance from the industry. But when the discussion shifted to one about competition with other countries – for example, the fact that European automotive industries where relocating their investment in green technology to other, non-EU markets: in China, and other parts of Asia… and when people realised that the longer we remained inactive, the more Europe would lose its competitive advantage, and the more jobs would be lost… that’s when those who were resisting started looking at the issue from a different perspective.

The same applies to Malta; human nature is after all no different, from one country to another. We might not have a local automotive manufacturing industry; but we have importers, mechanics, electricians… there is an entire industry currently revolving around ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles.

Secondly, we need to clarify one thing: people seem to think that they will wake up one morning, and… that’s it. No more internal combustion engine. From now all, all cars have to be zero-emissions; so they’ll have to either garage, or scrap their own cars…

But there’s a reason why they think that: Malta is bound by international targets to phase out the internal combustion engine. It’s no longer a question of ‘if’, but’ when’…

But it’s not going to disappear overnight. I am chair of the Cleaner Vehicles Commission; and the idea behind that is to come out with a plan for when to increase alternative, non-ICE vehicles on Maltese roads. Now: we could have taken the easy way out, and come up with a date that makes sense only from an environmental perspective – to reduce pollution, etc – and just stopped there.

But apart from the environmental implications, we also have to look at the social impact. What will become of mechanics whose skills are limited only to the internal combustion engine? What will car importers do? How will it affect the car rental market? And so on…

This is why the CVC is currently holding a number of stakeholder meetings; there is also a lot of research to be done, to see how to strike a balance between the environmental, social and economic aspects.

But these are all things that require a plan. It is no use stamping our feet, and insisting that ‘the number of cars must be reduced’. It will not happen from one day to the next…

The concern, however, is that it may not happen at all. There was supposed to be a national fuel station policy, aimed at phasing out new fuel stations ahead of the transition from ICE vehicles. Yet the opposite has happened: the PA is granting more, not fewer, fuel station permits. Doesn’t this mean that there is a gulf between this ‘plan’ you’re talking about… and the direction we’re actually moving in as a country?

Fuel stations will sooner or later have to adapt anyway. Not just because of any regulations imposed by governments, or the EU… but because the automotive market is changing. The number of electric vehicles on the roads is already increasing; there will come a time when most vehicles will no longer be ICE. This is a reality that fuel stations will soon have to face, regardless.

But this is also why the issue cannot only be viewed from one angle . Don’t get me wrong: I love the environment. But much as I love it, the reality is that I cannot just wake up, one fine day, and tell people that: ‘by next year, you have to change your entire way of life… at your own cost.’

At the end of the day, we [Labour] are a social-democratic party; so my first thought always has to be about that man or woman, who earns a very low salary… and what can be done not to add to their financial burdens. For while it is true that, in the long term, electric cars are more economical… if you’re on minimum wage, there’s no point in telling you to spend E35,000 on an electric car. It’s unaffordable.

This is why another other thing the CVC is looking at is price parity: when the cost of alternative energy vehicles – because we can’t limit ourselves only to ‘electrification’; other technologies could emerge tomorrow – becomes comparable to the cost of ICE cars.

Coming back to your decision to quit the European Parliament: in the EP, politics is mostly about forging alliances between different groupings; in Malta, it is mostly about confrontation between two parties. Are you concerned that all the experience you gained as an MEP might be wasted, in such an environment?

In the European Parliament, if you want anything to go through, you have to reach a compromise. I won’t say ‘with all eight political groupings’… but at least, with the majority. And if you don’t get the whole grouping on board; you can at least try to convince individual members.

And yes, I know that it is very different in the local political context. The fact that we are bipartisan doesn’t help the situation; nor does it help that confrontation is so often the first course of action, either.

But from my end, I will still try and work for compromise over confrontation. Though having said that: it takes two to tango; and if the person you’re trying to reach a compromise with, doesn’t want to listen… [shrugs].