Walking the walk | Franco Mercieca

Franco Mercieca, Gozo’s first candidate to contest on both islands, speaks about the challenge the Labour Party faces in Gozo, his candidature for the forthcoming general elections and the PL’s promise of job creation

Labour candidate and eye surgeon, Franco Mercieca
Labour candidate and eye surgeon, Franco Mercieca

A few months ago, Sunday newspaper Illum carried a story in which former Labour Prime Minister Dom Mintoff, 96, had visited an activity in Gozo. So far, nothing out of the ordinary. In 2011, Mintoff had visited the island at least twice.

He took pictures with the attendees, joked with the young one and shook hands with the adults.

But it soon transpired that Mintoff's visit might have had an ulterior motive: he started insisting that he wanted to see his eye surgeon. A phone call here and a phone call there, ophthalmologist Franco Mercieca soon descended at the Tokk in Rabat.

Mercieca, 43, is the youngest out of four children. His father Horace used to teach in a state school and is Mercieca's idol. He had always wanted to become an eye surgeon, so after he graduated as a doctor, Mercieca left his hometown of Qala to study in London.

In 1993, Mercieca immigrated to the United Kingdom for six years. There he lived with his wife and his first three children were born. Today, Mercieca is father of four. Back on the Maltese islands in 1998, Mercieca continued with his profession. He was influential in introducing the eye cataracts operation without stitches. In 2005, Mercieca set up an Eye Bank which helped mitigate the cataracts waiting list problem.

Well-known in Gozo, it comes as no surprise that Mercieca has decided to contest the forthcoming general elections. Mercieca will be the first Gozitan to also contest in Malta, on the 12th district - facing the competition of Labour MP Evarist Bartolo and new PL candidate and former IVA movement chairperson Deborah Schembri.

While Mercieca has never been politically involved or active in any political party or organisation, he has always favoured a socialist party. But it had been Labour Leader Joseph Muscat who actually approached Mercieca and urged him to contest the elections.

"This has been the most difficult decision so far in my life," Mercieca admits. "All algorithmic trees of reasoning were telling me to decline. But when Joseph Muscat invited me to contribute I wholeheartedly accepted. I felt like it was a duty call. I am honoured for having been chosen."

There's nothing new or exaggerating when saying that Gozo has always been instrumental for the Nationalist Party during the elections - something to which Mercieca also agrees:

"Gozo was and still is a Nationalist stronghold. But lack of proper policies, wrong decisions and false promises over the last decade has led to a lot of hardship for many families who have to survive with either low paid jobs or social security."

Mercieca insists that Gozitans were deceived by the "false promise" of EU regional status.

"Now they are being taken for a ride with the Eco-Gozo joke," Merceica said. He adds that the Labour Party is being perceived "as a breath of fresh air" by many.

Mercieca doesn't stop short at adding that "clientelism is the preferred political tool in Gozo and, with months of power of incumbency looming, there is no forgone conclusion".

Conscious of this, do you feel confident contesting with the PL?

Mercieca's first reply is to comment on Joseph Muscat's role as Labour's leader: "He [Muscat] comes across as a very honest and down-to-earth politician with a sincere innate ambition to leave a positive lasting impression on the Maltese society.

"Joseph is proposing a new way of doing politics that does not distinguish between blue and red but unites the whole country."

Mercieca adds that the PL has always been the party closest to the truth: "PL calls a spade a spade and there's no beating around the bush."

He also believes that if it weren't for the Labour Party in the seventies to open up subsidized tertiary education for all, he wouldn't be in the line of careers he is in today: "With the introduction of student worker schemes to avoid us being a burden on our families who couldn't afford paying for tertiary education, I would have never had the opportunity to graduate as a medical doctor let alone an ophthalmic surgeon."

Mercieca feels that it is now his time to "pay back my dues to my country and the Labour Party".

Mercieca's profession gives him first-hand experience with the Gozo General Hospital. According to the ophthalmologist, the main issue with the health services in Gozo is that they fall under two ministries.

"While the payroll emanates from the Gozo Ministry, the same ministry has limited or no funds for equipment or refurbishment. This explains the rather dilapidated state the Gozo General Hospital is in.

"Funds for any structural works or new equipment emanate either from Eco Gozo funds or voluntary organizations."

He adds that continuous medical education (CME) is of even more importance for the medical and paramedical staff in Gozo because of the limited pathology one encounters as a result of the limited catchment population.

Furthermore, Mercieca adds that certain specialist services are lacking as an interventional cardiologist or neurosurgeon - which could mean saving lives - apart from urologist, plastic surgeon, gastroenterologist, endocrinologist to mention a few.

According to Mercieca, a solution could be found by resolving the grey areas between the two ministries.

"A systematic serious refurbishment needs to be implemented as soon as possible and a reorganization of patient segregation instituted in order to replace the simplistic and archaic segregation based on sex and age only.

"Basic equipment needs to be purchased. New operating theatres that have been in the pipeline for the last three years need to be competed as quickly as possible.

"I sincerely do hope that at least three theatre suites instead of the current compliment of two are built in order to cater for definite future increase in surgical demands."

Mercieca adds that the medical and paramedical staffs need to be encouraged to rotate on a regular basis with respective sections at Mater Dei Hospital in order to actively cultivate the practical aspect of CME.

The Ministry for Gozo was set up in the 1987 under the Fenech Adami administration. Between 1996 and 1998, under a Labour government, the Gozo Ministry had been demoted to a Parliamentary Secretariat.

In this day and age, how relevant is it that Gozo is treated as a separate entity from Malta?

"As things stand at the moment nobody can argue that Gozo - with its double insularity - is not a separate entity from Malta and therefore has peculiar social and economic hurdles which require specific tailor-made solutions."

However, Mercieca argues that with certain issues like education and health, the overlap between the respective line ministries and the Ministry for Gozo, can do more harm than help.

"Due to our double insularity, we have peculiar problems that need tailor-made solutions. We all agree with the need of a Ministry for Gozo. However. the current set up of a horizontal ministry has failed us miserably and more input from certain line ministries is desirable. Such scenarios are those for education and health services where duplication or overlap of specialized management structures may not be justifiable. Therefore a matrix type of administration in these niches should be more effective.

At the same time, he acknowledges that certain areas in Gozo need a different approach from that received in Malta: "Sectors like tourism, agriculture, and employment have specific features which are different for Gozo and therefore need a different approach and solutions.

"Gozo needs its voice heard where it matters," he said, adding that a case in point is the inclusion of the Gozo Business Chamber in the MCESD forum. "Unfortunately GonziPN voted against their inclusion. Also the Gozo Tourism Association needs to be further empowered to at least advertise Gozo as a separate destination."

There's no second-guessing when it comes to ask Mercieca what are Gozo's everyday problems.

"Jobs. Jobs. Jobs. The current administration has failed miserably on quantity and quality of job creation in Gozo. Unfortunately they also seem to lack insight and therefore refuse to address the problem," he insists.

Joining Malta's chorus, Gozitans also worry about high utility bills, high cost of living and less disposable income.

Mercieca promises that a Labour government would focus on the creation of more jobs, which are of better quality.

"Gozo is currently experiencing a huge drive from the current administration to erase people's names from the unemployment register by placing them in some form of part-time job or other short-term measures," Mercieca says.

He however claims that these are measures are only causing more heartache and disgruntlement among these individuals.

Echoing his leader's words, Mercieca says that the PL is committed to create more jobs by decreasing bureaucracy. "This alleviates the difficulties that local and foreign investors encounter when it comes to setting up or expanding their businesses in Gozo. Such investments need to be sustainable and have least negative impact on our environment."

Mercieca was also part of the consultation group drafting the Labour's electoral programme. But he doesn't indulge in elaborating what his proposals are: "Putting forward proposals on various sectors is a continuously actively growing process and not a one-off exercise.

"These are scrutinised by a working group and the final recommendations will be published in due course when the electorate will be asked to choose."

With the general elections drawing closer, both government and opposition have started their drive to gain as much as votes as possible. While several infrastructural projects are underway, which gives the Nationalist Party a head start over the Labour Party, Muscat promises commitment to provide Gozitans with quality jobs, at the same time respecting Gozo's natural heritage.

To solve Gozo's glaring problem of lack of work the buck doesn't stop with simply alleviating red tape for investors: "One has to boost the back office services, call centres and stimulate creation of high value added jobs as web related businesses.

"Gozo lends itself as an ideal place for a Research and Development Centre in green energy production. Gozo University and MCAST need to be revamped with the possibility of video-conferencing as an additional tool."

At the same time, many question how investment could be attracted without impinging on the natural environment. Gozo's idyllic environment is the island's battle cry for attracting tourism.

Mercieca argues a balance could be found: "Proper consultation with all major stakeholders who are willing to contribute in the betterment of our current situation, is of top priority."

He stresses that attracting smart investments that will not necessitate threats to Gozo's environment is a must: "High value added jobs will require only a limited infrastructural work in an already unutilised industrial zone."

On his last trip to Gozo, Muscat said the PL would be taking a number of controversial decisions with regards to job creation. So what are exactly these controversial decisions?

"Joseph Muscat has promised to move on from the talking the talk of GonziPN and moving on to walking the walk by PL," Mercieca insists.

"Gozo needs decisions and quickly as otherwise its economy will remain in tatters. Most decisions can be referred as 'controversial ' as there is always an 'if' or a 'but' for every decision taken. PL is saying 'no' to the status quo."

The concept of proposals is a continuously active process that will be discussed and analysed internally within the party structures till the time comes when the electorate is asked to choose, he insists.

"More jobs in Gozo for Gozitans is however an electoral promise."

For a Labour government it "will only be satisfied when all individuals who wish to work find a decent employment and have abolished the many ghost jobs created by this administration."

Of tantamount importance is to stop the continuous brain/skill drain to Malta and overseas in order build a better future in Gozo.

"The youths are Gozo's future and their loss is Gozo's loss. Official figures show that over the last 4 years over 1000 had to emigrate for better pastures. Unofficial figures are much higher. This is the true picture of unemployment in Gozo."

Like the majority of his political counterparts, Mercieca is in favour of better connectivity between Gozo and Malta: "Past experiences prove that when we improved access to Gozo everyone benefited.  If one can come up with a solution that a ferry service operates on a frequent and regular schedule irrespective of time of day or night and weather conditions then I'll be satisfied with that."

Knowing that this solution is highly unlikely, Mercieca is keen on a permanent link.

"Such permanent links would solve a huge degree of problems that Gozitans face throughout their lives - be it for our education, health or employment."

He admits that there might also be drawbacks for having permanent links, but overall, the balance should be positive.

"Obviously talk of airport and tunnels should be preceded by detailed impact assessments on how this will effect Gozo's natural environment, the undisputed gem in our crown.

"As a person who contributed in reigniting the permanent link discussion, I am surprised by the sudden silence of the current administration after the flare up of activity and media talk immediately after my contribution."

Mercieca says they had been promised a Mott MacDonald report by end of last October - "but nothing happened".

"We were promised proper consultation, but apparently even the Ministry for Gozo were left out. This shouldn't be the way things are done. We shouldn't taint projects with political tints or personal agendas as otherwise we risk losing time and energy, something that Gozo can't afford."

mhux ta b'xejn ta gonzi qed jghiru ghalina.Meta tara dwan in nies hergin maghna bilfors tiguhon l-ghira.Proset tassew.
Well I hope that should he ever be appointed Minister he runs his Ministry more efficiently than those patronising his private clinic. I once set an appointment, arrived fifteen minutes before the appointed time and was informed that there were some 10 other patients before me i.e was supposed to wait at least for another 90 minutes or so. Very respectful of his patients time I thought... I just took off as did some others. So not quite impressed about his management efficiency promises.