Of birds and fireworks | Michael Falzon

He has sounded his voice on home affairs several times. He is a declared avid hunter with a lifelong passion for fireworks. But what would shadow home affairs minister Michael Falzon have in store if he becomes minister?

Falzon says, “If Italy and France have the right to defend their interests, so do we. We shouldn’t feel inferior to them.
Falzon says, “If Italy and France have the right to defend their interests, so do we. We shouldn’t feel inferior to them."

With Labour still jealously guarding its electoral programme for a general election that is said to be looming on the horizon, there's a sense of impatience about what the Opposition is proposing, and what it can effectively do. Trying my luck with Labour MP Michael Falzon, shadow minister for home affairs, I pick his brains on some controversial issues, like immigration - which is part of his portfolio - but also the issues which in this case turn out to be his passions: hunting and fireworks.

For all its talk on alternative governance, immigration has represented one of the common grounds between government and Opposition, which remains a supporter of the detention policy. But on those rare occasions where Labour criticises government for not doing enough in its insistence on European burden sharing, it has so far failed to provide the public with a clear roadmap of its immigration policy except for a 20-point plan that somewhat outlines the Labour 'feel' on immigration.

At times - with leader Joseph Muscat suggesting Malta should make use of its veto at EU level, and also supporting the questionable sagacity of the Italian blockade of the port of Lampedusa to asylum seekers rescued by Malta - questions arise on whether Labour will live up to its 'progressive' tag name when push comes to shove.

So I ask Falzon what is the PL's position on illegal immigration.

"We should be tough with the politicians, but not tough with the immigrants," Falzon says, as he shuffles in his seat. "Immigration is a fluctuating problem. Our position is that we should insist with the EU on receiving more help. Immigration is not only a problem for frontier States."

Falzon insists that while Malta should continue to push for more burden sharing measures, immigrants should not be the victims of this political argument.

But at the same time, he says Muscat is correct in his arguments: "Take the Lampedusa case: it couldn't handle more immigrants and it defended its national interest [at the time of this incident, the Berlusconi government closed off Lampedusa to a Maltese patrol boat carrying rescued migrants]. As politicians we have legal, moral and international obligations, but we also have the obligation towards our electorate to defend the national interest.

"Malta shouldn't feel bad in taking certain decisions, when the problem becomes a crisis, to defend the national interest."

But one cannot deny that Malta cannot do without the help of other EU Member States to solve the problem. Wouldn't a stand, like the Italian blockade or a veto in Brussels, backfire against us?

Seemingly ruffled, Falzon appears defensive. "So should we let them treat us like a doormat just because we are small? We are European citizens just like all of them. The fact that we're a small country doesn't change anything from the fact that we have the same rights.

"It's the government's problem if it thinks we should be treated as second-class citizens. But I am not comfortable being treated this way. If Italy and France have the right to defend their interests, so do we. We shouldn't feel inferior to them."

But Labour's stance on immigration has at times failed to mirror the example set up by its European counterparts, or the Party of European Socialists. For example, Labour never condemned Italy's illegal pushbacks. Falzon replies by saying that Malta has never allowed pushbacks, and the Opposition had always been four-square behind government's stance... which admittedly has been one of silent consent.

Labour has reserved more criticism on the government's stewardship of the police force, where Falzon - a co-signatory of a motion calling for Home Affairs Minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici's resignation - says is suffering from a lack of motivation.

"The police lack motivation. There is no management structure and decisions are taken without considering how they will be effectively carried out and what effects they will have."

Falzon reports a divide between district police and those working within the departments. "The district police feel they are treated less better than those working in the departments, who on the other hand feel theirs is a cushy job."

He adds that police education and training in general has to improve: "At one point, government had allocated less than €2.33 per officer in its budget."

Falzon wants to see more specialised sections in the Corps: "Crime is only one step away," he says. "I believe in education and training which are crucial. And we should start considering the role of police officers as prosecutors - a reform which will not be an easy one."

But although he makes the rhetorical question of whether time has come to have a specialised prosecution unit - separate from the Attorney General's office - rather than leaving prosecutions in the hands of the police, Falzon goes no further in stating what Labour is proposing.

"We have more ideas but these will be made public when we launch our electoral programme. But it is one of the main issues that need to be addressed. What also is definitely needed is investment in the technology used by the Police."

At the time of writing, little did Falzon know that less than 48 hours after this interview, Mifsud Bonnici would unveil a new €1.2 million fleet of mobile squad cars and maritime assets.

Labour has also put much store in pursuing the new inquiry into the death of Nicholas Azzopardi, who passed away in hospital of injuries incurred after being found at the foot of the bastions beneath the Floriana Police Headquarters in 2008.

"There are several serious allegations that need to be cleared. It would be a severe blow for the Police force if these allegations turn out to be true," Falzon says of the Azzopardi family's claims that Nicholas was beaten up by police officers while in custody.

Falzon doesn't rule out that a Labour government would reopen the inquiry if deemed necessary. Joe Azzopardi, Nicholas's father, has insisted that the new inquiry should be "independent" or at least start from scratch. "Let's wait for the outcome of this inquiry first," he says. "What I can say is that, if new facts emerge, it would be a shortcoming on our part if we do not open another inquiry."

The Sliema MP is also highly critical of how much the Corradino prison is living up to its name as a 'correctional' facility, especially when it comes to reforming drug abusers. "That prison wardens are understaffed is a fact that must be tackled. There's no question about that. The second issue is the removal of the dog section from CCF. How can you not have an anti-drug squad when everyone knows the problem there is with drug smuggling?"

Falzon insists that it is "superfluous" to think that drugs are being taken in only by the visitors to CCF. "We need first-class vetting of those working in the prisons," Falzon says, adding that Labour will "overhaul" the prison system to address overcrowding and educational programmes for inmates.

While on the subject of drugs, I ask Falzon for his take on the recent calls for the decriminalisation of cannabis.

He laughs: "On the legalisation of cannabis I cannot in any way compromise the party... the party has its policy."

What is this policy?

"Frankly, it is something we still have to discuss. However there are different studies with different opinions. Personally, I don't agree it should be legalised."

But he concedes that cannabis, just like morphine, could be used for therapeutic or medical reasons: "If it's purely for medical reasons, I undoubtedly agree."

And what about growing it for personal use? "I don't wish to compromise myself. However, in countries where cannabis was legalised, the public drive is against it. But even if it remains illegal, I believe there should be a difference in the law between someone who grows it for his personal use and between those who make money out of it."

As already declared, Falzon is an avid hunter - but one who no longer hunts in Malta, opting to hunt abroad instead.

His spirit dampened by the "absurdities" in Malta, Falzon says he now goes hunting abroad, to countries like Argentina - witness of this is a video on YouTube featuring Falzon on a hunting expedition - and several other countries in Europe such as England, which allows an all-year round hunting season for so-called 'pest' birds.

"One of the reasons I don't hunt in Malta is that hunters are treated like lepers. This is the attitude people have towards hunters, and I feel I shouldn't have to be subjected to this attitude," he says.

"Hunters, by some act of government vindictiveness, are always left until the last minute to be informed when the season is going to open," he says, insisting Malta is probably the only country where there is no preset hunting season.

"What sense does it make for hunters to pay their licences every year, when another fee is charged to be able to hunt when the season opens?"

Falzon explains the limits hunters encounter due to the restrictions imposed by the Birds Directive on Malta's spring hunting season. "Our geographical reality is that Malta's small size means only migratory bird species can be hunted. The European Court of Justice proved us right that the autumn hunting season cannot be an alternative to the spring season.

"Muscat's argument that we shouldn't be treated any less than others. If other member states can apply derogations, so should we. Even if we'd be the only country in Europe... if we have the right to apply a derogation, why shouldn't we?"

Falzon reserves no soft words for those who hunt in breach the law: "Any illegality is always condemnable and there's no beating about the bush on that. Let me make it clear: I don't agree with any breach of the law. Whoever shoots protected birds must bear the full penalty of the law."

He adds that even if someone would argue that Malta was the only country to allow spring hunting, "no other country has the same conditions as Malta's, and if it's that particular derogation that Malta needs, then I believe that it should get it by right."

Is this a way of saying that hunters can rest assured that a Labour government would guarantee a spring hunting season?

"It's not a question of putting their mind at rest. As a country, the European court proved us right. So we should be committed that we insist on what is ours and permitted to us."

He quickly adds: "On the other hand, it would be highly irresponsible if I promise something which I cannot keep if the laws change and is no longer permitted."

Falzon decries the Ornis committee as a puppet in government's hands: "The government plays around with it in the way that it suits it best. When it was convenient it followed what the committee was proposing, when it wasn't it ignored it."

Asked whether he agrees with the deployment of more police officers to monitor the spring hunting season, Falzon says it is more a question of equipping the Administrative Law Enforcement Unit:

"Rather than increasing the volume of police officers in the countryside, I would ensure the ALE is equipped substantially to be able to carry out its duties."

Falzon also rubbishes suggestions that there could be a potential conflict of interest if he were to be become the minister responsible of the police: "A conflict of interest would be if, one way or another, I would be in favour of breaching the Law."

Falzon turns his attention to the recent drone-flying case over Malta by the German-based Committee Against Bird Slaughter. An incident that raised much criticism among the Maltese - including non-hunters like renowned tenor Joseph Calleja - the Prime Minister revealed in parliament that the hunting watchdog had no permits from either Transport Malta or the Police to fly the drone.

But Falzon is arguing otherwise...

"The drone [which he says is an "insult to the Maltese"] could have never been used, and entered Malta illegally and was used illegally. The rules are clear even on where one should fly a model plane, let alone one equipped with a camera.

You have to be ridiculous to say the police will investigate the case, when police officers were present a number of times while the drone was being flown.

"They knew the drone was flying over private property. They knew it was landing on private property. They knew it didn't have the necessary permits... if not they should have... all regulations have been broken and nothing happens."

To add to the passions of Falzon that are also subject to much controversy, the MP is also the legal adviser for the Malta Pyrotechnics Association, having publicly opposed a moratorium on the production of fireworks, after the deaths and incidents of the last years.

Falzon says there's no questions he would resign from the association if appointed minister.

But the fact is he remains defensive on the subject and digresses on the subject by boasting of the successes Malta obtained during the international fireworks festivals.

I point out the sad reality to the production of fireworks, when enthusiasts lose their lives in explosions.

As soon as the question is asked, promptly comes Falzon's claim that a Labour government would fund the fireworks associations to make their place of work safer.

"It's impossible to completely eradicate firework deaths - just like we cannot avoid other deaths.

"However I believe that the existing facilities need gradual upgrading... and this should be also be done through state aid," he says.

While on the subject of drugs, I ask Falzon for his take on the recent calls for the decriminalisation of cannabis. He laughs: "On the legalisation of cannabis I cannot in any way compromise the party... the party has its policy." What is this policy? "Frankly, it is something we still have to discuss. However there are different studies with different opinions. Personally, I don't agree it should be legalised." So first he claims that the Party has a policy...and then, once asked what this policy is, informs that this is something they still have tpo discuss. Which means there's no such policy. Which also means that they can's still not be taken seriously!
Immigration is a massive problem which will be overcome if our politicians grow a pair and send all illegal immigrants back forthwith and if possible not even letting them set foot in Malta. That would send the message that they will be sent back whether they or their bleeding hearts in Malta like it or not.