Brothers in arms | Michael Gonzi

Backbencher Michael Gonzi praises his brother’s dedication to the country but reveals that back in 2009 he had strongly objected to a reform in primary health care, which was subsequently put on the backburner.

Nationalist Backbencher Michael Gonzi
Nationalist Backbencher Michael Gonzi

Michael Gonzi was first elected to parliament in 2003 when Eddie Fenech Adami was still leader of the Nationalist Party. That means that he was elected on his own steam before his brother became party leader. But is the fact that he is Lawrence Gonzi's brother an advantage or a disadvantage in Michael Gonzi's political career?

"The major advantage is that even due to the physical resemblance, people associate me with Lawrence and this is a plus in elections. The disadvantage is that people expect me to be as good as he is. They expect me that I can solve all the problems of the country and the constituency with a simple phone call..."

One of the problems he faces is that people think that he has a "direct channel" to his brother, which is not the case.

"When we meet in our respective homes, Lawrence is my brother.  But when it comes to parliament and political matters, Lawrence Gonzi is my Prime Minister."

Michael Gonzi finds it very easy to find his brother's best character trait but he finds it very hard to find a negative one.

"His best quality is his enormous patience and his meticulous approach and attention to detail.  He is entirely focused on running the country on a 24-hour basis."

He frankly admits lacking any of these qualities.

"I am the complete opposite.  I find my way in an organised disorganisation... But I still manage to find things despite the general disorganisation."

What were the major differences between the two brothers in their childhood?

"He was much better at playing football than me and was also better in learning languages but although he was good in science, I was always better than him in that."

It was only at the end of the interview that he comes up with a negative trait.

"He is scared of blood and medicinal things in general...if I try to take a blood test from him, I have to restrain him." 

The other awkward thing he finds in his brother is that he has never seen him lose his temper.

"I swear that I have never seen him shout."

Like Franco Debono Michael Gonzi is a backbencher, does he feel cut-off from what Debono refers to as the clique?

"I do not think there is a clique. That does not mean that the so-called clique always agreed with what I had to say and acceded to my demands."

He makes it clear that he never refrained from expressing his disagreement with what was being proposed.

"One case in point was the proposed reform in primary care which I had opposed...even on the final divorce vote I differed from my brother's position.

"But it would never cross my mind to bring the government down as I have maximum confidence in my brother."

Michael Gonzi insists that "nobody knows his brother better" than he does.

"I am sure of his untiring dedication towards the country and his hard work for the country."

Notwithstanding his unswerving loyalty to the government, Michael Gonzi reveals for the first time his objections to a reform in primary health care proposed by Minister Joe Cassar back in December 2009. 

Gonzi's main objection was against the patient registration system according to him would have forced family doctors to change the nature of their practice.  Although he did not speak in public like his colleague Jean Pierre Farrugia, the PM's brother made his voice heard internally.

"I spoke from the perspective of a general practitioner with 27 years' experience."

If the reform passed, patients would have had to register with their family doctor. This would have forced doctors to cater for their registered 1,500-2,000 patients on a 24/7 basis.  This would have forced family doctors like Gonzi to engage in group practice. 

While seeing advantages in group practice if this is done on a voluntary basis, this would have had a negative impact on family doctors.

"I have worked  as a family doctor and I do this alone. I work from 7 a.m. till 8 p.m. I do this alone and I don't have a secretary and a proper clinic."

One of the advantages of this is that family doctors develop a relationship not just with the patients but also with their entire family.

"We do not simply cure diseases. If a child complains of a headache and I know that his family is experiencing problems, I would talk to his parents and if need be refer him to psychological care... It would be completely different if I see the child for the first time without knowing the family."

Gonzi's concern was that the patient registration system would have destroyed all this depriving people of this kind of relationship with their family doctor.

He was also concerned that despite the reassurances in the reform document the new system would have created administrative costs, which would have been passed on to the patient.

Another advantage of the current system is that it keeps doctors on their toes as patients can change their doctor without going through the trouble of registering with someone else.

"This encourages doctors to remain competitive, by providing their service as cheaply as possible and by being accessible to their parents."

But Gonzi is now satisfied that although this aspect of patient registration has not been implemented, the positive aspects of the reform are being implemented.

The most important reform is the IT infrastructure through the My Health system. Through this system doctors will have access to the health history of their patients.

"One basic thing is that a doctor should know what happened to a particular patient while he or she was in hospital.... It does not make sense that I examine a patient released from hospital without seeing the discharge letter which has not yet arrived by post...."

By accessing the patient's record online a doctor can also know whether a patient has undertaken tests in the past, thus avoiding replicating tests unnecessarily.

Private GPs are also now being allowed to conduct certain tests themselves.  This will have a very positive impact on the prevention of diseases like prostate cancer.

Like his brother, Michael Gonzi lives under the shadow of the towering personality of Archbishop Michael Gonzi - his great uncle.

"I knew him very well as I used to be his altar boy when he celebrated Mass."

Yet, despite his Catholic upbringing, Michael Gonzi had no qualms of conscience in voting for the divorce law in parliament despite voting against its introduction in the referendum.

"I have a clean conscience on this," Gonzi insists.

Gonzi makes it clear that before the referendum he believed that divorce would create more harm than good.

"Although I did not exclude the introduction of divorce at some later stage, I felt that not enough had been done to safeguard the family.  Why not address these problems before taking the plunge?"

But the moment the country spoke in a referendum, he felt duty bound to respect the will of the majority.

"I always believed that what the people say is sacrosanct.  This is a political principle we cherished since the time of Eddie Fenech Adami when we constantly referred to the will of the people...There I always felt that I should either respect the will of the people with my vote or resign."

But Michael Gonzi insists that he never called his brother a dictator as claimed in the Labour press.

"This was not the case. I was simply expressing the way I felt about myself."

Yet his brother still voted against divorce despite the result of the referendum. How does he interpret this vote?

"It was a vote of a father.... He knew that the will of the people had to be respected.  He also knew how I was going to vote.  He voted according to his conscience and his beliefs but he knew that in the end the people's will was going to be respected.... This was the most fundamental thing."

From divorce I shift the focus of the interview to the current instability following a vote of no-confidence in parliament which saw the Opposition failing to bring the government down but which clearly exposed the fact that the government does not have a majority in parliament unless it relies on the vote of the Speaker.

Gonzi frankly thinks that in the absence of a rapprochement with Debono, the government cannot keep relying on the Speaker's vote till the end of the legislature.

He praises Debono for his "good ideas" but questions his method and lack of diplomacy.

"If the government falls the good ideas Debono has in mind will not be enacted.  This is not diplomacy."

He questions the sustainability of the present situation in parliament.

"Parliament is currently discussing laws and parliamentary committees are working as usual but votes are not being taken... Can things continue like this?  The answer is No."

But Gonzi is hopeful that discussions with Franco Debono can result in an agreement, which would ensure that the government completes the legislature.

"I hope that there are discussions and that Debono realises that he can't keep the country guessing."

But if Debono keeps on abstaining is there an alternative to an early general election?

"It is obvious that one cannot keep going on forward with an abstention followed by an abstention and another abstention..."

Gonzi points out that the country is already facing enough uncertainty because of far graver economic problems.

Gonzi makes an interesting argument linking the political crisis to the Euro zone crisis. He contends that the people are already worried by the uncertainty coming from abroad because of what is happening in Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal. He also praises the government for keeping the country's finances intact despite the surrounding turbulence. But this makes it all the more urgent to resolve the political uncertainty in parliament,

"People have too many negative things to think about. We have to show the people that so far the economy is in good hands despite the difficulties. As regards parliament we can still go ahead through discussions to resolve this impasse."

He warns against sacrificing the country's economic success simply   because of a failure to resolve political matters.

"What is important for the country at the moment?  Should it not be our priority to keep going forward despite the storm around us? Can we afford to create a storm of our own in this already turbulent environment?"

Still isn't there a risk that continued political uncertainty risks undermining the government's economic accomplishments?

"That is why the political problem has to be solved as soon as possible."

But did Lawrence Gonzi's decision to call for a leadership contest in his party help in anyway to resolve this problem?

"The first thing a leader has to be certain about is that his soldiers are with him... But what counts most is that my brother is calling for a secret vote.... people can smile at him but still vote against him in the secrecy of the ballot box."

But what sense does it have to hold a contest in which Lawrence Gonzi is the only contestant?

"It still makes sense because there will be a secret vote. In this way councillors still have the option to vote against Lawrence Gonzi. In this sense it makes no difference whether there are 10 or one candidates as councillors can still vote against him."

Shouldn't Lawrence Gonzi have resigned before the contest?

"Why should he have resigned? What difference would this have made?" Michael Gonzi replies.

I point out that as party leader he still controls the party machinery.

Michael Gonzi rebuts this argument.

"Let us just assume that one loses control of the party machine simply by resigning... but even if that was the case the most important safeguard is that councillors will have a secret vote after analysing Lawrence Gonzi's track record."

But does it make sense to solve a problem in parliament by resorting to a vote of confidence in the party?

"If I am the leader of a party, the first thing I have to check is what the grass roots actually think about me."

Irrespective of when the general election will take place, one of the main issues of the campaign will be whether the country should have a change of government after two decades of PN administrations.

Gonzi counters this argument by challenging the opposition's credentials of a government in waiting; rhetorically adding that he would accept the need for a change of government if the opposition proved that it had better proposals on running the country.

He refers to three proposals made by Joseph Muscat in the past years. He notes the living wage proposal made two years ago was so half-baked that we have never heard anything about it since than.

"He also said that he would decrease water and electricity bills and he has never shown how he will do this despite rising oil prices." He also refers to Muscat's promise to reduce fines on VAT infringements. While acknowledging that these fines are too high, Gonzi questions the fiscal morality of such a proposal.



Do you remember when you said , that whoever votes against the wish of the people expressed in a referendum is giving a sign of dictatorship . Are you still of the same idea , Dr. Michael Gonzi .