‘The Labour Party does not protect criminals’ | Ramona Attard

In recent weeks, the Labour Party has been rocked by numerous revelations, from ongoing court cases, suggesting collusion between government officials and organised crime. Nonetheless, PL president RAMONA ATTARD puts up a combative defence of her party’s imperilled legacy

Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday
Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday

From the point of view of those who voted Labour in 2013 and 2017 – especially middle-of-the-road voters, who were attracted to Joseph Muscat’s ‘progressive, moderate’ mantra – the latest developments are bound to cause disillusionment: if not an outright sense of betrayal. Yet the Labour Party still refuses to condemn the behaviour of the Muscat administration. Do you still think that Muscat’s legacy can be salvaged, in spite of everything?

Let’s put things into context. First of all, you are suggesting that middle-of-the-road voters feel ‘disillusioned’ for ‘betrayed’ over the legacy of the Muscat administration. I disagree. Because that legacy also includes a strong economy; free childcare; improved education; a strengthened healthcare service; a robust infrastructure; civil rights… all that, too, is part of the legacy of the Labour Party in government. And nobody can take it away….

But recent evidence suggests that members of the Labour government were involved in criminal acts… including, possibly, the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia. Don’t you think this casts a shadow over the legacy you have just described?

Hold on: the Labour Party was in no way ‘involved in the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia’. God forbid. On the contrary: there are court procedures going on at the moment, which have led to the arrest of 11 people – including the ex-chief of staff of former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat – so there can be no doubt that the institutions are working…

That case, however, is unrelated to the Caruana Galizia murder. I was referring to the pardon request by the Degiorgio brothers, who claim that the crime itself was commissioned by ‘a former Labour minister’… and, separately, that a sitting Cabinet member was also involved in the 2005 HSBC heist…

Let’s look at how those allegations surfaced, though. Two weeks ago, Jason Azzopardi mentioned the HSBC allegation in Parliament… protected by parliamentary immunity. The same goes for the allegation about the murder. It started with claims made by the Nationalist Party… which then got carried forward in this new context. Personally, I don’t feel comfortable with the fact that the Nationalist party has become the mouthpiece of criminals.

As for the Presidential pardon request: that is something to be discussed by the Cabinet. In this case, one also has to take into the consideration the position taken by the Caruana Galizia family.

Certainly, pardons are not to be dished out in the way Bernard Grech is now proposing: when, in a recent meeting, he suggested that he would even give a pardon to the alleged mastermind behind the Caruana Galizia murder [Yorgen Fenech]…

But if we’re going to talk about this crime: let’s stick to the facts. The facts are that – just 50 days after the murder – people were arrested and charged in court. This, in a country with a long history of unsolved crimes. Meanwhile, those court procedures are still ongoing.  So if anything, this shows just how strong our institutions are… and how they carry out their functions without fear or favour.

It also shows – and I want to make this clear – that the Labour Party is not going to protect anyone.  If nothing else, the latest developments prove this beyond shadow of doubt. It shows that the institutions are working; that the Labour Party does not protect criminals… in a nutshell, it shows what we really stand for.

With all due respect, you seem to be minimizing the issue. Are you suggesting that all the revelations from the Caruana Galizia trial, and all the details now emerging from the arraignment of Keith Schembri, are nothing but a fabrication by the Nationalist Party?

No, I’m not saying that.  And I’m certainly not minimising the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, ether: it was a crime that shocked and disgusted all of Malta and Gozo. Of course, I wouldn’t take it lightly.

What I’m saying, however, is that I have full confidence that the institutions are functioning: in this, and other cases. I also take note of the statement by Police Commissioner Angelo Gafà, who said that all the arrests, in connection with the Caruana Galizia murder, have been made.

Now: if there are other issues concerning Presidential pardons to be discussed… they will be discussed at Cabinet level. But as President of the Labour Party, I can safely say I have the peace of mind that – for the first time in the history of our country – we are actually getting results from this kind of investigation. Things are moving forward. The case is on its way to being solved.

And I hope it is solved, sooner rather than later; and that all the guilty parties are brought to justice. Because as I said before… the Labour Party does not protect criminals.

Nonetheless, our surveys had already started registering a decline in support for Labour, even before these latest revelations; and this might suggest that the Joseph Muscat brand has now been irreparably damaged. Do you think it’s possible for Labour to retain its electoral advantage, without also distancing itself from the Muscat legacy?

Let’s start with the surveys, before going on to the issue of electoral support. As we all know: there are surveys, and surveys. There was the survey of MaltaToday; another by It-Torċa… and what they both suggest is that the Labour Party is, in fact, still very strong. So if Bernard Grech is content with having the same trust rating as Simon Busuttil. In 2017… well, what can I say? We’re content with that, too. So everyone is happy…

But let’s not lose sight of reality. At the end of the day, the only truly important survey is what the people out there are really feeling. Because in a survey, you can get people saying they’re ‘going to vote Labour’ in the next election – or in every election, for that matter – but it doesn’t mean they won’t also be hurt by certain decisions taken by the Labour government. It doesn’t mean that they don’t also want us to improve in certain areas.

That is why we have to maintain our contact with the people. We must be humble; and where mistakes were made… yes, certainly they must be corrected. And if the party needs to reform or restructure – as it is, in fact, in the process of doing – then yes, the process has to continue.

Ultimately however, what really counts is how people feel in their own homes.  And right now, people are concerned by other things apart from what you’ve been mentioning. There are people who are struggling to cope with rental costs. There are people whose businesses – hairdressers, restaurants, shops – have been forced to close because of COVID-19. And yes, they’re angry. Of course they are; of course some of those people feel they’ve been treated unfairly…

But it is our job, a party, to listen to those concerns, and do what we can to provide solutions to their problems. Are we doing that perfectly? No, obviously not. There is a lot of room for improvement. God forbid I were to say otherwise, because it would mean that my place is clearly not in politics.

But I also feel that a majority continues to believe that the Labour Party is, in fact, the only one capable of offering solutions to those problems, and that can really turn those challenges into opportunities…

And yet, the details now emerging from court appear to contradict that very belief. Keith Schembri, for instance, is accused of paying 5.5 million euros in bribes. He is also implicated in other corruption scandals, involving much larger sums of money. Rather than ‘solving people’s problems’, then, it seems that Labour government officials were becoming multi-millionaires at the people’s expense.  Isn’t there some truth, then, to the perception that the Labour Party has lost its Socialist soul?

As far as I can see, the charges in that particular case concern a business transaction between two private entities – which started under a Nationalist government, and continued under Labour. Just to put things into their proper perspective.

But I can’t comment much about an ongoing court-case… other than to say that it is now up to the law-courts to eventually reach a verdict, on the basis of all the evidence, once the due process in completed.

I can, however, say quite a lot about the Labour Party’s social conscience.

The people know that Labour has a social conscience… not because of any details from a court case, but because we lowered the cost of water and electricity; because we introduced free childcare centres; because we increased pensions, and children’s allowance… and the people know this. They can see the difference between the two parties, on issues of social policy.

So no matter how much criticism is thrown at us – and people have every right to criticize – everybody knows that the Labour government did not leave the National Exchequer empty. So when it came to our moment of greatest need: the government found it had strong, healthy finances to resort to.

And what did it resort to that money for? To make itself rich? No: it was to issue wage-supplements; to finance the voucher system, and give a much-needed push to the economy. All this, in stark contrast to how the previous [Nationalist] government had acted, when there was a recession.

Does this mean we can’t be criticized on other things? No, of course it doesn’t. But no matter how much we get criticized: what I can say, hand on heart, is that the Labour government has always remained consistent with its Socialist ethos.

That very question has meanwhile been raised in this week’s European Parliamentary debates: which featured calls (coming from the EPP) for the Party of European Socialists to dissociate itself from the Malta Labour Party. As President of that party… how do you respond to those calls?

Those calls were actually made by two vice-presidents of the EPP: both personal friends of Simon Busuttil, Roberta Metsola, and David Casa. And as far as I can see, they remained at the level of ‘calls made by the EPP’. They were not followed up on; there was no discussion about it afterwards.

On the contrary: I take note of the fact that the PES President – far from ‘distancing the PES from the Malta Labour Party’ - praised the efforts that are being done to strengthen institutions, under Prime Minister Robert Abela.

But for what it’s worth, this is how I interpret it myself. For some reason, the Nationalist MEPs chose to have this discussion, precisely at a time when we are already in the process of reforming national institutions – and that’s fine: they can discuss as much as they like.

But what actually happened is that, instead of discussing the real issues affecting our national institutions… it ended up becoming a political football.

Clearly, then, these people are motivated by party-politics… not by any real concern for Malta and its institutions. And what it also means is that the ones who are setting the agenda for the EPP – i.e., Simon Busuttil, Roberta Metsola and David Casa – are not really interested in ‘truth’, or ‘justice’, or anything like that. They are only concerned with exploiting the issue for political mileage.

And yet, they should know by now that the people are tired of all these political games. They don’t like seeing their country’s name dragged through the muck, out of sheer political opportunism. And this has been reflected in one election result, after another, after another.

So the Nationalists should have realised this by now. But it seems that they just never learn…