‘I will not rest, until Hondoq is truly safe’ | Paul Buttigieg

Qala mayor PAUL BUTTIGIEG reminisces over 20 years of ‘pressure from behind the scenes’ and reiterates his call to protect Hondoq ir-Rummien from all future threats of development

Qala mayor Paul Buttigieg
Qala mayor Paul Buttigieg

In our last interview, you told me that your 20-year crusade to save Hondoq had taken its toll, on a personal level. You hinted at ‘pressures’ placed on you politically: including a conspiracy to have you removed as Qala mayor. Now that the saga is finally over, can you expand on those pressures? Did they ever extend to issues such as ‘threats’, or ‘intimidation’? And if so: by whom, specifically?

I never received any ‘threats’, as such – at least, not directly – but there are other ways in which people can make life difficult for you, from behind the scenes. Let me give you just one small example: even because it’s actually quite funny, with hindsight.

Some time ago, the council received a complaint about a ‘bad smell’, originating from a particular field. So I went to inspect the site myself, with a workman; and what I found was a small [dead] pig, which had been dumped there in a garbage bag. So I got hold of a shovel; and – wearing a mask (because I always keep one in the car, just in case) – I buried the carcass, there and then.

But first, I took a photo of the dead pig, and sent it to the person who had made the complaint. And as a joke, I told him: ‘You can say a Pater Noster for it, if you like…’

Now: even at the time, it occurred to me that – in so doing - I might have technically ‘done something wrong’. So I asked the council secretary afterwards, and the answer I got was: ‘No, in those circumstances you should have informed the Public Health Department; and they would have disposed of it through the proper legal process’.  Which is what I did, straight away; and they came within a few hours, and removed the dead pig to be incinerated (or whatever the correct procedure is).

Anyway, to cut a long story short: two days later, I ended up on the front page of In-Nazzjon… in an article about how ‘Qala’s mayor had broken the law’…

If I’m understanding you correctly: the person who filed the complaint, was all along trying to ‘frame’ you for a breach of sanitary regulations?

Well… I won’t go as far as to say that that person was trying to ‘frame me’; but it’s an example of the sort of things people can do – even little things, sometimes – to make your life difficult, for whatever reason. And let’s just say that this sort of thing has happened a lot, ever since I started speaking out against certain things that were going on, in Qala and the rest of Gozo.

But to answer you more directly: yes, there was also political pressure… including whispering campaigns to have me removed as Qala’s mayor, before practically every local council election. At one point, I was even hauled up before the local councils’ Board of Vigilance, accused of having a ‘conflict of interest’:  you might remember the case; it was widely reported in the press around two years ago…

I don’t recall the details; but I do remember you arguing that it was “more spin targeting me because I will not allow developers to destroy what little is left of the countryside in Qala.”

Precisely. Because that’s what it was. Everyone here knows that there is only one printing press [A&M Printing] in Qala; that it happens to belong to my sister; and that the Qala local council had always contracted A&M for its printing needs… even from long before my own time as mayor. 

Likewise, everyone knows that my daughter is a soprano; and – if I say so myself – that she is talented enough to perform in both local and international operas, to a lot of acclaim.

And yet, I ended up being ‘tried’ by the Board of Vigilance – where, if found guilty, I would have been forced to resign as mayor; and not contest local council elections for another five years – simply because I approved of a direct order of just €60, to a company that happens to include my daughter; and because my sister was contracted to do printing work for the council… when she had been already doing that, for over 25 years.

With all due respect, however: aren’t there obligations to issue a public call for tenders, for that sort of contract?

Yes; but only if the contracts are worth over a certain amount. Now: the ones we’re talking about, were reported in the press as being valued at €4,000 euros… but what they didn’t say, was that €4,000 was the amount spent over four years.

And besides: we DID ask for estimates. But then again: if A&M Printing is the only printing press in Qala; and has also provided the cheapest estimates, for good quality service, for all these years… what’s all the controversy about? Isn’t it obvious that the purpose of all this fuss, was simply to ‘get me out of the way’, as Qala mayor?

Now: having said all this, I admit that I may not be perfect – no one is, at the end of the day. But when you consider that other people have been known to get away with all sorts of much more serious ‘conflicts of interest’, than that… yet in my case, they always focus on every single little trifle [ċuċata], and make it out to be some kind of ‘enormous scandal’… there’s only one conclusion you can reach, really.

None of this ever had anything to do with ‘conflicts of interest’. It was all part of a consistent strategy, to ‘get me out of the way’ so that I would stop defending the interests of Qala’s residents…. and upsetting certain business interests, in the process.

I don’t deny that it’s a very convincing argument; but is that the only reason some people might want to oust you as Qala mayor? You are, after all, a politician; and it is in the nature of local politics to be ‘confrontational’ and ‘divisive’. Could it simply be, then, that your success as a politician has made you enemies: including within your own party?

I see what you’re saying, but… personally, I believe it is all down to certain well-known contractors, and business people, exerting pressure from behind the scenes.

And I’ll tell you why, too. Because I am very popular, here in Qala. Bear in mind that – before the first local council I ever contested, in 2007 – the Labour Party had never managed to elect even a single councillor, from Qala… let alone, end up with a majority of seats in the council, as it has today.

In was in the first election that I contested, that Labour managed to elect two councillors – myself, and one of my colleagues – and, on the top of that, after just two years as mayor, the Labour Party also managed to obtain four whole quotas, in the last election.

I alone got two quotas; and in around 200 of those ballot sheets, I was given the ‘number one’ preference… with all the rest of the preferences going to Nationalist candidates. You can check this for yourself, in the Electoral Commission’s data.

Now: what does all this mean? Certainly, it does not mean that I am a ‘problem’ for the Labour Party. And yet: where did all these attacks, and conspiracies, come from? Why would there be internal manoeuvres to have me kicked out, as Qala mayor…  if not because my actions had annoyed certain people, who have a lot of power and influence?

Judging by your own examples – which involve national institutions such as the law-courts, among others – these people also wield a lot of power over government, and the mechanics of the State in general. Do you think their influence extends that high up the political ladder?

Yes, I do. Even that case of ‘conflict of interest’ I mentioned earlier, is proof enough. Let me put this way: when I contacted one of the newspapers that printed the story, back in 2020, I was told that: “Listen, we know that it was a ‘cucata’; and if we were up to us, we wouldn’t even have run a story about a direct order for just €60. But we were ‘under pressure’, to print the story…” 

Excuse me for interrupting, but you keep referring to ‘certain people’ – and now, ‘certain newspapers’ – only in a generic sense. Can you be more specific? Who do you think is behind all these manoeuvres, anyway?

I would rather not mention any names, for now. But what I can tell you is that… if the worst comes to the worst, I will certainly reveal everything I know – names, and all – about every single case. For now, however, I would rather keep that information to myself.

Fair enough. Meanwhile, in our last interview, you also talked about a ‘culture of fear’ that exists in Gozo: whereby people are afraid to speak out openly; but then, make their voices heard when in the privacy of the voting cubicle. Do you think that the Hondoq decision may pave the way to a gradual lifting of this fear? That – encouraged by the halting of such an unpopular project – people might be less intimidated by this seemingly all-powerful business lobby?

For starters, I wouldn’t say this ‘culture of fear’ exists only in Gozo. It happens in Malta, too. But the fact remains that Gozo is a very small place; and as such, there are inevitably going to be repercussions, for speaking out in the open.

There could be many reasons, why Gozitans are afraid to speak up. Some might be reluctant to talk about certain contractors… because they once bought a property from them; or because their son or daughter is employed, within a business that has connections with them; or because they themselves fear being transferred, in their own jobs…

And this is not something that has only cropped up recently.  Truth be told, it’s always been this way; and I doubt it will ever change in future, either.

On another level, however: as you yourself put it, the Gozitans – and Maltese, too – then use elections, as a way of ‘giving politicians an answer’. And it’s not the only way they express themselves, either. Ever since the Hondoq decision, I have received countless messages of congratulations, coming from all sorts of people. And they always say the same thing: “I wish I could tell you this in public, but… you know how it is. I can’t.”

And just to give you an idea of how extensive this pressure is: I even know of people whose online chats on social media – all their ‘likes’, and comments, and so on – were monitored; and they were approached afterwards, and told to ‘be careful’ about what they say in public.

There were even cases were people first commented positively; then deleted their own comments a little later. But in the words of one of those people, who spoke to me afterwards… he told me: “I had to delete that comment, because I was afraid; but you can rest assured that when the time comes, I’ll be voting for you again.”

Turning to your efforts against overdevelopment: the Hondoq permit may have been rejected… but other threats remain, such as the Gozo-Malta tunnel project. Recently, a group of Gozitan businessmen urged the government to resume this project: arguing that it would not bring about the predicted catastrophic effects; and also, that the tunnel is ‘needed’ for Gozo’s economic development. How do you respond to those arguments?

I can say a few words, on that. First of all, I believe that a tunnel between Malta and Gozo, would only result in the continued destruction of our beautiful island. Because: OK, it’s true that having a tunnel might save people a few minutes, to cross the Channel… but, for heaven’s sake: doesn’t it also mean that the traffic that is already such a problem in Malta, will simply end up affecting Gozo, too? 

And another thing: as mayor, I get approached by a lot of people – including foreigners: some of whom are experts in such matters – and to quote one of them, recently: ‘You’ve got to be crazy, to even contemplate such an idea’.

Having worked out all the figures, in front of me, on a piece of paper: he concluded that a tunnel is not viable, for the amount of people who will end up using it. Considering how much it would cost to actually build; and how much it can be expected to generate in revenue… it’s simply not worth it.

That’s not to mention all the difficulties that will no doubt arise, during the construction process. Let’s face it: even here in Qala, when the council undertakes some kind of excavation work… on paper, it might look like a low-cost project, to begin with; but then, you encounter a little clay, under the surface… and just like that, your costs suddenly shoot though the roof.

Can you imagine, then, what they will find when they start tunnelling under the seabed between Gozo and Malta? And how much the costs will go up, with each new unexpected ‘obstacle’ that they uncover?

No, no: a tunnel between Malta and Gozo will not just be the ruin of Gozo… but of Malta, as well. Because it will end up bankrupting the entire country…

Lastly, the Hondoq decision may have halted that particular project: but there is nothing stopping the developers from trying their luck again; and they might also sell the land to third parties, who might be interested in developing it themselves. How convinced are you that Hondoq has, in fact, been saved?

As I said on many occasions in the past: the threat to Hondoq will always remain, so long as it remains possible to ever develop the area in any way. This is why I have consistently argued that the government must either buy Hondoq; or expropriate it; or else, designate it as an ODZ area, or a national park.

As for myself: I will not rest, until Hondoq is truly safe from development...