Labour’s moderating influence | Leo Brincat

Leo Brincat speaks on issues which suggest he is one of Labour’s more moderate MPs, but then he is regularly the target of the PN’s campaign against 1980s survivors. So who is the real Leo Brincat?

Labour MP Leo Brincat.
Labour MP Leo Brincat.

As parliament votes tomorrow on the Opposition's motion calling for the resignation of Permanent Representative to the EU, Richard Cachia Caruana, ostensibly for authoring the reactivation of Malta's participation in the Partnership for Peace programme, shadow environment minister Leo Brincat has been one of the key members of the foreign affairs committee that grilled Cachia Caruana over his ambassadorial role.

As one of Labour's frontbench MPs, Brincat has straddled the legacy of 'old' Labour and the great white hope of Labour's 'progressive' vision, although as it turns out this MP is clearly at the moderate end of the centre-left spectrum. Brincat is passionate about environmental health, but is less vigourous on land use issues and speculative development, a subject that political parties often shy away from; he defends his party's motions against Carm Mifsud Bonnici and Richard Cachia Caruana, refusing to betray his party's intention of exploiting the whiff of government defection on these two motions.

As part of the PN's campaign to rekindle ugly memories from Labour's turbulent 1980s administration, Brincat is regularly targeted for having served on the Labour benches briefly as parliamentary secretary for housing. The MP rejects the admittedly unfair 'extremist' label (here Brincat tends to be guilty by association more than anything else). "I'm proud of the fact that despite the attacks, many Nationalists, even MPs, think I am a moderating influence in Labour. I wonder whether this is some split personality of mine," he jokes.

Brincat is frank in admitting - "with the benefit of hindsight" - that Labour should not have served a full term after the 1981 result.

"Constitutionally we had every right to govern, but governing the whole five years was a mistake... still, the fact is the PN is intent on talking of the past because it has no vision for the future."

To bring matters back to the present, I ask the MP whether his question to Cachia Caruana to reveal his financial package in the foreign affairs committee, when this was not linked to the motion's motivation, was a touch tenuous.

Brincat argues that although this question had "no direct relevance" to the case, it is tied to the perception of Cachia Caruana "as a larger than life figure".

"I told Cachia Caruana that rightly or wrongly, there is a perception even on the government's benches and not just among rebels like Franco Debono, that he had a larger than life influence, and that he wielded much more power than any minister."

Brincat links Cachia Caruana's salary with the disproportionate power he wields, which could explain his role in the reactivation of Malta's membership in PfP. "The point at issue is that if it transpires that Cachia Caruana's financial package is totally disproportionate, it would be easier to conclude that the power he wields is also disproportionate."

Brincat insists that the main thrust of the motion is the bypassing of the House on reactivating PfP, contrasting this with government's attitude on the recognition of Kosovo when it kept the Opposition constantly informed on this issue.

"The point is that on Kosovo we were taken on board at an early stage before a decision was taken by government. This was not the case with the PfP issue."

Brincat also insists PfP was still a divisive issue when the decision to rejoin the NATO programme was taken after the 2008 elections, when parliament was still dissolved. "Labour only changed its position against PfP membership when Joseph Muscat was elected leader.

"I didn't expect a full-blown parliamentary debate on such a sensitive issue while government was still in negotiations, and would not have been advisable, but an in-house meeting where views could have been expressed in confidence."

Perhaps the most clamorous of statements to emerge from the Cachia Caruana hearings was listening to the perm rep's claim he had been unaware of the prime minister's intention to finally reactivate PfP after the March elections: when Gonzi himself is said to have told US ambassador Molly Bordonaro, according to a leaked embassy cable despatched from Valletta to Washington, as early as 31 January that if re-elected he would take Malta into PfP.

Brincat finds Cachia Caruana's declaration hard to believe. "I do not question the veracity... because his declarations were made under oath. But I personally find it hard to believe this. I am not saying that he is lying but I personally took it with a pinch of salt."

Again, the MP confesses his scepticism is informed by the eminence grise's large than life role in Maltese politics, where he serves in three different capacities, heading the inter-ministerial committee on EU affairs, attending Cabinet meetings, and then serving as permanent representative to the EU. Added to this is Cachia Caruana's role as a key strategist of the PN.

So if the Opposition believes it's the House that has been circumvented, why not present a motion against Gonzi himself, rather than 'RCC'?

Brincat diverts the question, turning the tables on the government when he accuses Gonzi of going out of his way to defend Cachia Caruana. "We have already seen the difference in the way Gonzi shored up Austin Gatt on the Arriva debacle, and the way he shored up Carm Mifsud Bonnici.

"That difference is even more blatant when comparing Gonzi's speech in the debate on the motion calling for Mifsud Bonnici's resignation and Gonzi's defence of Cachia Caruana. Did he defend RCC because he happens to be an efficient permanent representative or because he happens to be very close to the highest echelons of the PN?"

I turn my questions to the other motion that succeeded in ousting Mifsud Bonnici, challenging Brincat on the fact Labour had indications from the government benches that the motion could pass, to which Brincat insists that the motion was discussed by Labour before the unruly Franco Debono threatened to withdraw his support from government in January.

"I was very vocal within the parliamentary group that it would have been insensitive to move the motion at a time when Mifsud Bonnici was still undergoing medical treatment. We only finally triggered the motion into action once we knew that he was fully recovered. So the fact that Franco Debono had tabled his motion before we did, is completely unrelated."

But even RCC motion's timing comes into question: the Wikileaks cable revealing the so called 'procedural bandaid' to revive PfP which he is alleged to have authored, was published back in September 2011. Why call for his resignation now?

Brincat meekly suggests it was up to the motion's proponents to decide the timing, but does this not confirm the Opposition's strategy to trip the government upon any indication of dissent from the other side?

"Is this a motion asking the government to step down? I don't think so," Brincat retorts, while admitting that if it does pass, the motion "would embarrass government".

Brincat says the Opposition is being effective in parliament, while also having shown itself propositive on issues such as the setting up of trusts for disabled persons. "We're accused of not having policies when we don't propose anything. Now we're being accused of turning disability into a political football when we have the support of non-partisan, key players in the field of disability assistance. You can never win with some people."

So how about answering on Labour's plans to reduce utility bills? Brincat comes back with a standard reply.

"I am sure this will be explained in detail in the coming days. It is in Labour's interest to explain it well... otherwise we wouldn't be credible, and we must convince people our proposal is sustainable, doable, and without a negative impact on the country... in these difficult times, the sustainability of every proposal is imperative."

Brincat, shadow minister for environment, is however wary on committing on the proposal for a carbon capture and storage (CCS) facility by Norwegian company Sargas to reduce utility bills through the export of trapped carbon produced by the Delimara power plant.

"While I do have an open mind on CCS, I refuse to commit myself on any proposal made by a particular company... this would be irresponsible. We make this clear in any meeting we have with potential investors."

And he adds that just because Sargas came up with the €1 billion proposal, it does not mean a future Labour government would necessarily choose it. "We cannot go by the maxim that who alerts us first gets any preference. There has to be an international tendering process."

Much abhorred by environmental organisations like Greenpeace, CCS has had its ups and downs in the global industry. Brincat takes heart from statements by physicists and energy experts like Edward Mallia who have also appreciated the silver lining of this 'dirty' technique.

"The process still needs to be tried and tested, but CCS is rising up in the agenda of agencies like the International Energy Agency," Brincat points out.

"You have countries like Germany who strongly oppose CCS, while the UK is increasingly interested in because of its native coal industry. Before crystallising our views, we should take on board the pros and cons of CCS. Let's carry out a S.W.O.T. analysis... it would be a bit fundamentalist to just say yes or no."

Despite his measured words on various issues, Brincat stands out on the Opposition benches for keeping the government under constant scrutiny over environmental health.

He recently revealed MEPA's internal investigation of national waste agency Wasteserv over the alleged incineration of animal carcasses that may have suffered foot and mouth disease in North Africa. Brincat, whose call for a magisterial inquiry was taken on by the Rural Affairs Ministry, rebuts the allegation that he was being alarmist. "It is a very delicate subject but I only would have been irresponsible if I had spoken without any clear leads. I spoke out only upon learning that MEPA were taking action against Wasteserv."

What he finds unacceptable is that environment minister Mario de Marco only learnt of the matter after the MP revealed it. "MEPA did not feel the need to alert the minister," he points out. "I have full trust in the board of inquiry [chaired by a retired judge] but I have concerns on its terms of reference."

Brincat draws parallels with the Mercaptan leak inquiry, pointing out that again MEPA was the regulator and its silence on the issue is cause for worry. "MEPA's role has been downplayed, and if they had been alerted unofficially on the animal carcass incineration they should have still been proactive.

"MEPA took a back seat, deliberately, because at one stage they claimed they were seriously taking legal action, but failed to do so. The fact that at some stage they were considering this shows they had sufficient proof to go by. It is only now that they are contemplating legal action, after the report was published, when it is clear that the case is now time-barred."

The MP says the agency must lead by example by treating government entities in the same way it acts with private misdemeanours and offences.

He cites as an example the invocation of economic arguments, by MEPA, to justify something as harmful as heavy fuel oil (HFO) to fire up the Delimara extension. "It is just unacceptable for MEPA to recommend the issue of a permit on primarily economic considerations."

So how would a future Labour government create a firewall between MEPA and government? According to Brincat, it all boils down to political will.

But could the problem be derived from the system of political appointments?

"Rather than a question of political appointments, it is a question of direction. A Labour government commits itself to lead by example. We cannot expect the corporate sector to abide to certain rules, when government does not lead by example."

On the other hand, Labour is often culpable of focusing on environmental health issues - where the culprit is government - at the expense of land use issue or cases of speculative development, where businesspeople and construction entrepreneurs are often the culprits.

Brincat chooses to turn his attention on environment NGOs, saying they tend to be too silent on environmental health. "While I understand their concerns on speculative development, I get the feeling that some of their members could be holding back on issues directly related to government entities because they are afraid of stepping on government toes."

Brincat rebuts criticism by Alan Deidun, once a Nationalist MEP candidate (whom Brincat praises for his "environmental credentials"), who accused Labour of focusing on environmental health because of its populist appeal.

"I reject this accusation... it is an issue which affects people more than abstract issues which might be equally as important."

But over the past years Labour has been painfully silent on land use issues, sometimes even sending mixed messages with regards to development issues. For example last week, Labour leader Joseph Muscat said that he would not exclude an airstrip in Gozo even if the reactivation of the helicopter service will be Labour's preferred solution for an airlink between the two islands. So is this a way of appeasing everyone? Appeasing the business lobbies by not excluding an airstrip, and environmentalists by saying it is not the preferred solution?

Brincat disagrees, insisting that by singling out his preference for a heliport Muscat is showing that the airstrip is not a Labour priority. "It's a positive signal."

Brincat was also the first MP to raise the issue of solar rights, a legal concept developed in California, the introduction of which would ensure people's access to solar energy is not hindered by surrounding developments. He is disappointed that this has not been included in the National Environment Policy, but when I point out that the Strategic Plan for the Environment and Development (SPED) proposes a revision of the policy allowing penthouses on the third floor, Brincat is very cautious.

Does Labour agree with the revision of this policy, which allows penthouses on any three-storey building?

"Rather than agreeing or not, we have an environment and planning committee in parliament which should discuss these issues... I feel these issues should be addressed in this forum."

This issue will also be addressed in the forthcoming party manifesto.