[WATCH] A vision for a new Malta | Bernard Grech interviewed by MaltaToday

PN leader Bernard Grech has an alternative vision for Malta but he finds himself looking at an insurmountable gap of voters who still cannot see in the PN the solutions the country needs. Matthew Vella sat down with the Opposition leader to pick his brain about aspects of the PN’s 2022 election manifesto

PN leader Bernard Grech. Photo: James Bianchi
PN leader Bernard Grech. Photo: James Bianchi
A vision for a new Malta | Bernard Grech

Dr Grech, it looks like a strategic choice has been made in this election by the PN not to make corruption a central theme of the election campaign, despite the importance it holds for mainly PN voters...

I think it was a natural choice, not just strategic. Today nobody is in doubt that the people who have captured Labour and have been in power for ten years, have brought about unabashed corruption. They are the personification of corruption. In 2017, Simon Busuttil had the job to convince people that there was in fact corruption. Today, greylisting is the mark of that corruption – one does not need much to convince people about that. We have a confirmation there, and also from the courts, that the State was instrumental in the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

I didn’t need to tell voters that these people are corrupt... my duty was to address this corruption, which is why I presented the PN’s omnibus bill on a silver plate to the prime minister, giving him the opportunity to fix our reputation well before the election. But they voted against, because they are happy with this state, with absolute control of the institutions, abusing of public funds during an election to buy votes, and to be associated with criminals and mafia-types.

Today, the choice the people have is: Robert Abela, who did not change things or accept my hand in friendship to change them, and a change in government, if they want to clean up the country.

And still the polls are showing a substantial gap in voters who seem to be uninterested in this appeal. Labour might lose its ‘super majority’ but it is bound to retain an unprecedented majority anyway. And abstentions from Labour pockets are still not favouring the PN with their vote. Is that your failure?

No. I recognise the difference I have made in the party, in the sense that it is better organised, a regenerated party, treating politics from a different angle, a warmer party and closer to people. This is who I am, and that’s my wish to be authentically close to the people. Yes, there is a gap, substantial indeed, but I won’t speculate on voters’ wishes. But I can tell voters it is useless for people to be frustrated by Labour, sorry about the death of Caruana Galizia, or worried about the future of this country if they don’t vote... on 27 March, it will be another Abela administration, the continuity and arrogance that has marked these last years of his administration, him as the former consultant to the Muscat Cabinet...

But what is your target... what’s a decent result for the PN in this situation?

My target is putting forward the PN’s vision. Labour’s is just proposals – ours are proposals that bring about solutions. Corruption? It’s a change in government that can solve that. We’ve been over a year since the Ombudsman’s tenure has expired; Abela ignores my advice on who to appoint, and retains the status quo nonetheless. PBS: controlled by Abela, not free to broadcast the news as it really is, discussion programmes removed from prime-time on TVM and thrown into a less watched channel. Why does he want all this power? I want the opportunity to change this country, together.

Let me jump to some proposals, particularly one on which neither party is eager to commit itself to: a raise in the minimum wage. Labour says it is in favour, but does not say by how much; you prefer a living wage or living income, and promises tax credits to businesses that would do so. But don’t you think that a rise in wages is what is needed now – you even proposed a four-weeks’ salary bonus for health and education workers... why not raise basic wages now?

We can’t confuse that bonus with the minimum wage. We want to recognise frontliners by giving them a bonus, which is what Abela won’t do, except for perhaps a theatrical applause... we’ll put money where our mouth is.

What’s the living income exactly?

It’s not defined yet, because that’s something we must decide together with stakeholders. When you are in government you have the money and consultants to decide this...

It’s not a mandatory increase, right?

It is not...

I think that’s the problem right there. And with a carrot-and-stick approach such as the ESG criteria you are proposing, it is giving businesses the benefit of the doubt as to whether they would actually raise wages...

We can arrive to a higher minimum wage. It is useless giving you a decent pay without a guarantee that you would not be working a substantial number of hours. I can’t pay you more without giving you the amount of hours necessary to earn a living. Remember we have other proposals: tax credits for employers who raise wages by €60 a month. I don’t believe in forcing people, but incentivising them. With ESG criteria, I am offering a 15% tax if a business reinvests up to €500,000 of their profits in the company...

But is it true that the absolute majority of Malta’s SMEs and micro-businesses are already not ESG-compliant and they are yet to achieve anything close to that status?

Labour too wants companies to be ESG-compliant. I am saying that we should incentivise this status with tax credits and fiscal incentives – and that this comes with obligations towards the environment, good governance, and workers, because workers are not commodities but people worthy of their rightful wage. But then I turn to workers to say that they have to give their service and work to earn their justifiable salary...

But aren’t workers in Malta already working for their rightful dues? Shouldn’t wages be raised to fend off inflation and help people buy homes, without depending on the State’s charity of cheques and ad hoc payments...

Indeed cheques do help. A bonus is something extra – a €100 cheque that helps you extend a week’s wage is no bonus, it’s a necessity. I want to help people have a comfortable standard of living, so that cheque truly is a bonus. We cannot fight the cost of living just by raising wages, but also by creating new jobs that pay better, with new economic sectors, but also by quelling the reasons for the rise in cost of living, such as our €40 million fund to assist businesses address their costs, and open up the European market to our manufacturing industry which are hampered by our small-island status.

Let me turn to your tax proposals: the people who earn less than €20,000 will get a 10% tax credit on the tax they pay, but those earning between €60,000-€80,000 get a 25% tax rate. I see this as being socially regressive: those who earn less get a tiny tax credit, those earning the most are getting a hefty tax cut, almost €2,000.

No, because then you have a vast amount of benefits that go to the people who earn the least. That is why we want a living income that is more sustainable for these earners...

What I am seeing is that high-income earners are getting a structural change in their tax contribution with a 25% tax rate, while low-income earners get benefits and bonuses...

Don’t forget that low-income earners also get access to a vaster range of services and payments...

Why do high-income earners deserve such a tax cut? We’re talking about 10,000 taxpayer here, at a possible cost of €21 million according to the finance minister Clyde Caruana...

Because we believe we should reduce income tax rates and I don’t think we should discriminate against those who earn more... I don’t want to prejudice low-income earners, but neither discriminate against high earners.

But there is a discrimination here in terms of the level of tax cuts...

You could say that... but I don’t really agree, because I would be incentivising people to earn more and reach those higher brackets. I want people, who today might not be declaring their entire income, to pay their rightful tax. Every time we reduced tax brackets in this country, we had higher rates of declared incomes, and higher state revenues.

Let me pivot to the environment, specifically on the 2006 extension of building zones, and of course Labour’s subsequent expansionist planning policies. Why doesn’t the PN bite the bullet on this reality, whose effects we are still feeling today, and admits the error to propose the scaling back of the building zones?

On this Abela and I agree: there are legal commitments and people’s property rights to be respected. The error was made. The difference is that Labour wanted more land to be included in the building zones; from 2013 to this day, Labour had the chance to change this. So it is hypocritical of Labour to criticise something it had every chance of rectifying. Doubly hypocritical considering that Robert Abela had been the PA’s lawyer all this time, with his own hefty pay-cheques earned throughout all these years from the PA.

Consider the status of the privileged lobby of hunters in Malta, now married to the Labour Party and even endorsing its very own minister of the environment, why does the PN still want to retain spring hunting instead of choosing a bias in favour of the environment and ally itself with the environmental lobby?

We will give the environmental lobbies a stronger voice, apart from returning public land to the ODZ; I don’t think being a hunter means being against the environment, and I do believe as much. In my meetings with the hunting community, I advise them to pratice their tradition legally, because if not, their shortcomings could penalise them. It happened under Labour: the season was closed by Joseph Muscat. What is crucial is that hunting is practised within the confines of the law.

Labour is now proposing a national debate on euthanasia. Can one be a PN member and be in favour euthanasia? I think it was taboo-busting for the Prime Minister to speak about abortion, for the first time in a debate without any recriminations about the subject or about being pro choice... you yourself once advocated for a wider debate on abortion, then you categorically declared that no PN member could be pro choice. Let me put it this way: is the PN a victim of some sort of Maltese exceptionalism?

I truly disagree. I am proud that the PN is pro life. Without life, you have nothing – no wealth, no chance to embrace your children, no work, no right to protest, you’d have nothing... this is what guides us.

But you’re a big-tent party. You have a diversity of voters. Can the PN ignore this broad church while Labour is still opening up new fronts on these issues?

I know what Labour is doing. And I will say that we must keep speaking to these people who are thinking of abortion services. We cannot be pro life when we know people are committing an abortion. To me that’s bigotry. I want to see how I can help, to reduce that incidence. Maybe it’s a lack of access to certain services. I am ready to discuss and explore this. But not to introduce abortion, but to help reduce its incidence. And if there’s someone in the party who wants to have that discussion, we are ready to have that discussion, but not to campaign in the party’s name for the legalisation of abortion.

You see that Roberta Metsola as president of the EP is ready to uphold values that go beyond the mere ‘partisanship’ of the Nationalist MEP... is this not the future of the PN, to become a true Europeanist centre, centre-right party which goes beyond this sense of exceptionalism?

Well, I object to this. Being against abortion does not mean one is not ‘modern’.

No, not ‘antiquated’. We are talking about women’s rights, and these are not just ‘modern’ values...

Look we started talking about hunting... if you shoot a bird, then you are against the environment; and if you kill a baby, you are antiquated.

Let me put it differently: the debate on hunting is about a privileged lobby; the one on abortion is about women’s rights and health, and not the killing of babies.

To me it’s the baby’s life that is privileged. It is a defenceless person. As a human being, I have the obligation to defend that life.

This is an abridged version of the full interview