[WATCH] Graham Bencini: ‘PN still has a long road to convince people, but we believe’

A former footballer, Graham Bencini was elected to parliament for the first time in the last general election. The PN MP now shadows the finance portfolio after a recent reshuffle in Opposition spokesperson roles. He talks to Matthew Farrugia for his first interview. 

PN finance spokesperson Graham Bencini (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
PN finance spokesperson Graham Bencini (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

The Nationalist Party’s new shadow minister for finance, Graham Bencini, acknowledges the party has not been successful in convincing the electorate it is an alternative government. 

But he believes that the party can still convince people it is the best choice despite the long road ahead. 

Bencini denies the Prime Minister’s audacity to lure back former Labour MPs like Rosianne Cutajar to the party is the result of a weak Opposition. 

He insists the Prime Minister is attempting this move to try and recoup the Labour Party grassroot vote. But he also speculates that this could also be a calculated bid by Robert Abela to instil apathy in the electorate. “Maybe that’s the Prime Minister’s aim; to decrease the number of voters,” Bencini says. 

I sit down with Bencini a few weeks after PN leader Bernard Grech tasked him to shadow the finance portfolio in a shakeup of spokespersons aimed at countering the Prime Minister’s Cabinet reshuffle. 

The PN MP, a former footballer with Sliema Wanderers, was elected for the first time in the 2022 general election and was previously spokesperson for sports and national broadcasting. 

We speak about his vision for the portfolio and the PN’s current state as it prepares for the MEP elections. 

When asked if a PN government would cut income tax, Bencini says that if public finances are well-managed, personal taxes can be lowered. On the suggestion put forward by the Chamber of SMEs for the VAT rate to be cut to 15% from 18%, Bencini notes it could be considered, but says the impact on Malta’s finances must be considered. 

Asked whether the PN agrees with energy and fuel subsidies, Bencini says his party agrees with all measures aimed at easing the burden of the rising cost of living. 

He argues that the IMF’s recommendation for the phasing out of such subsidies is not something that can be achieved in a simple way. Despite the recommendation, Bencini insists a PN government will not roll back the subsidies. 

The following is an excerpt from the interview.

The full interview is also availble on Facebook and Spotify.

You’ve stepped into this new role as shadow minister for finance at a time where inflation and the cost of living are at the centre of many discussions. Firstly, what’s the PN’s vision in terms of the country’s finances? 

Let’s talk about inflation. Inflation is a problem where the Maltese are finding it difficult to keep up with the cost of living. We have a very high inflation rate. Our inflation rate according to January’s figures was 3.7%, while the average EU inflation rate is 2.8%, so our inflation rate is one percent higher. 

When we see countries like ours, for example Cyprus, which has similar logistical challenges, taking drastic measures to bring down the inflation rate to 2% less than ours... [we have to ask ourselves] what should we do to decrease inflation? 

Inflation is a complex subject, and so we need the best thinkers. An example of how we can lower inflation and the cost of living is by looking at how public funds are being spent. We’ve seen for a long time that government is wasting public funds. What’s happening is government outlines a budget for a project and then overspends by millions. 

The Ta’ Qali National Park’s original budget was €20 million, but now this has risen to €80 million, as was shown in the media. The AFM went €14 million over the original budget when it bought a patrol boat.  

We cannot keep wasting public funds. When we waste this much, you lose out on money that you can spend on subsidies. And so, when you have this waste of money, you cannot help to decrease inflation.

They say that the electorate votes for the party that takes care of their wallet. The elections during the past 10 years suggest that the electorate trusts the Labour Party more in this regard. Do you think that the electorate has lost faith in the PN’s capability to manage finances? Is Labour doing it better than the PN? 

When the PL got elected in 2013, we have to remember that we had about 25 years of PN governments; that’s the first thing we must consider. Secondly, at the time, Joseph Muscat promised a lot of things. They used slogans like ‘meritocracy’ or ‘the environment comes first’. They were good slogans, but we then saw that these were all contrary to… 

But when it comes to finances during the past 10 years there were no tax increases for example… 

I was getting to that. The PL chose to base its economic model on quantity. It was a model that brought results, the numbers show that economic growth did happen. But the problem was that we paid a price for that type of economic growth. 

We saw our quality of life declining after 2015. We were once in the sixth place when it comes to quality of life, now we’re at 49th place. They say we’re one of the worst countries in the EU to live in, there are the statistics that confirm this.  

So, if you tell me that with regards to our GDP we progressed, I will agree with you because the statistics back this up, but we’re paying a price…

It appears that the electorate will continue to choose to pay this price, if you look at our surveys… 

Not necessarily, there’s a large chunk of people who’ve totally lost faith in politics and won’t vote for either party. I think that is where an election can be won. There are reasons which I can understand behind the lack of faith in politics. We see scandals every day, people would tell you they’re tired of constantly reading about corruption. 

On the other hand, we [the PN] must see why these people aren’t joining us. It’s obvious that there’s still much to do from our end and we’re determined to keep working to convince the people. The road is long, but we believe that we can succeed.

Recently we’ve been seeing very unexpected news. We’ve seen Rosianne Cuatajar who is likely to be back in the PL’s parliamentary group. Don’t you think government is able to pull this off because of a lack of a strong Opposition?

I disagree with you. I think Robert Abela is seeing that he is bleeding out support within the Labour Party, the hardcore Labour supporters. That’s why I think he’s making these moves, by reintegrating these people who were involved in various scandals. Frankly, what the Prime Minister does in his own party is his business. I'm interested in the effect of this on the country. We’ve just said that there is a large bracket of people who are disinterested in politics due to the numerous scandals we’ve seen.

These manoeuvres are a disservice to the entire country because the more manoeuvres he makes and the more people involved in scandals he welcomes back, there more people there will be who lose interest in politics. Maybe that’s the Prime Minister’s goal, to reduce the number of voters in the election. I completely disagree with these manoeuvres from a national standpoint.

I believe that the people should get out and vote and use their right because their vote gives them strength, and with this strength they can change the course of this country. I encourage all those people dissatisfied with the status quo to use their vote in whatever way they deem fit because it is their democratic right to express their opinion on the country’s current situation.