The proof of the pudding… | Joseph Muscat

Joseph Muscat is brimming with confidence ahead of an election which cannot be more than a few months away. But does he expect to get elected simply by default? Does he have an electoral programme of his own? And if so… what’s taking him so long to make it public?

Labour leader Joseph Muscat. Photograph: Ray Attard/Mediatoday.
Labour leader Joseph Muscat. Photograph: Ray Attard/Mediatoday.

These are busy times at the Centru Nazzjonali Laburista at Mile End. I meet Opposition leader Joseph Muscat in his office at the end of what must have been a tiring day... most of which, he later explains, was taken up by meetings and final preparations for the Labour Party Congress which kicked off the following morning (Friday).

Though visibly fatigued, Muscat nonetheless projects a certain enthusiasm about this exercise. All along, however, his enthusiasm is overshadowed by a heavy cloud of uncertainty regarding what sort of government an incoming Labour administration may actually prove to be. Part of the reason is that Joseph Muscat has not exactly been very forthcoming about his own plans if elected. Whether out of apprehension that his manifesto will be 'plundered' by government, or simply sabotaged by media critics hell-bent on destroying him altogether, the fact remains that Muscat's electoral proposals remain tightly clamped to his chest.

There is an unmistakable tone of resignation as he defends this tendency of his towards reticence. "Our electoral manifesto is being drawn up as we speak - we're still discussing the fine details; that is in fact part of what the congress is all about. But this is perfectly normal. We're not doing anything different from any other political party before an election; at the last election Gonzi himself only published his electoral manifesto once the campaign got under way. That's exactly what we will be doing, too..."

Fair enough, but voters are surely entitled to at least a rough indication of what to expect. Muscat agrees, but adds that the same concern should be addressed at government, too. "Can you tell me what's on the government's manifesto?" he asks. No, I reply... whereupon Muscat takes the trouble to remind me what the PN manifesto for 2008 contained.

"Stripped of all the frills, Gonzi effectively made three electoral promises: one, that he would take MEPA under his wing; two that he would reduce income tax; and three, that he reduces waiting lists at hospital. Five years later, he failed on all three. MEPA? The reform was a disaster. We all know the income tax bands were not lowered, and as for the waiting lists..." His voice trails to nothing.

Naturally, I can't counter this by pointing towards any former Labour promises, as one has to go all the way back to 1998 to find the PL actually in power. But one can still make comparisons between former PL manifestos when in opposition. For instance: In his 2008 manifesto, Alfred Sant had declared that under a newly elected Labour government, cabinet ministers "would have to resign from any previous business interest and will not be allowed to receive any form of remuneration from their previous business or professional activity".

Does the present PL leader consider himself bound by this electoral promise? Will he implement the same measure, or something similar, if elected prime minister?

"As far as I am aware there already is a code of ethics governing these matters. I will insist that all MPs in a future Labour government abide by the existing code. Obviously no conflict of interest will be tolerated..."

But how practicable is this approach in reality? I draw his attention to the so-called 'honoraria issue' - when the Gonzi administration incurred ferocious criticism over its decision to surreptitiously increase ministers' salaries without informing the public.

Moving beyond the public outrage and populist cynicism, the mishandling of the honoraria issue has also left parliamentarians in a rather awkward situation.

Cut off from the umbilical cord of professional retainers and similar fees, MPs are virtually condemned to woefully inadequate remuneration: a situation that may discourage involvement in politics to all but the mediocre.

What is Muscat's solution to this dilemma? Does he exclude any attempt to bump up MPs' salaries under a Labour administration?

"I have already presented a proposal to address this issue: the idea was to appoint a board consisting of the Ombudsman, the Chief Electoral Commissioner and the Auditor General, who will then draw up the salary scales and remuneration amounts for ministers. But in the present economic situation: no, I certainly do not foresee any increases to ministerial salaries..."

Moving onto more concrete (literally) proposals... in one rare instance, Muscat did give a clear indication of the direction a new Labour government would take. He declared that he would embark on a 'land reclamation' project once elected.

Yet his timing was unfortunate. For one thing, Gonzi had already toyed with the idea of 'artificial islands' - which would also involve land reclamation, though the two concepts are not interchangeable - only to abandon the idea after a report concluded that the costs involved would be positively astronomical.

The study was conducted by British consultancy firm Scott Wilson, and its findings suggest that the cost of land reclamation would be between €250 and €440 million. An artificial island would cost even more...

Muscat deflects these and other arguments with what seems to be a simple declaration of faith. "I am totally convinced it's both sustainable and affordable," he asserts as I draw his attention to the above objections.

But what is this conviction actually based on? "For one thing, the fact that it's already happened. The Freeport, Marsa, the power station... these are all examples of projects involving reclaimed land. Honestly I don't understand the environmental argument against land reclamation. It not as though we haven't done it before..."

Muscat goes a step further, arguing that the initiative may even have environmental benefits: one idea he floats would be to utilise construction waste which would otherwise have to be dumped in a landfill. "Though having said that, there might be not be enough of this sort of waste," he adds as an afterthought.

As for the figures mentioned in the Scott Wilson report, Muscat reminds me that they were cited in relation to a specific project... and as such do not necessarily reflect the cost of land reclamation in all circumstances. 

All the same, he refuses to be drawn into specifying precisely what sort of project he has in mind... other than to say it would be a public-private partnership, in which the actual investment will be made by the private sector.

"I have no doubt that if someone were to invest substantial sums of money into any given project, they will surely conduct the necessary due diligence exercises. And besides, the idea to reclaim land is not an end in itself: it will have to be part of a master-plan, with a very clear objective in mind..."

Still, one aspect of the environmental concern remains unaddressed. Regardless whether the land reclamation project ever gets off the ground (ahem) or not, it seems as though Muscat's plans for stimulating economic growth will involve continued reliance on the construction sector - an issue for which the extant Nationalist government has routinely been criticized by environmentalists in the past.

The net result of this policy has been to engineer a glut within the property market - a surplus which may in turn affect the price of property, thus undermining many a small investment and conceivably threatening the economy as a whole...

"Without going into specific details I can assure you that any project involving land reclamation will not be to just build blocks of flats. That's where the glut you refer to really is - in the two- to three-bedroomed apartment sector. But when you look at larger investments in more up-market properties, the situation is different. Those properties still sell..."

Sticking briefly to the issue of construction and environment - Joseph Muscat also raised a few eyebrows recently, when he hinted at 'controversial decisions' to be taken in Gozo. What exactly are these controversial decisions? Can he give a concrete example of a controversial project or decision that an incoming Labour government would take specifically for Gozo?

"I wasn't referring to anything specific: like, for instance, a construction project in any particular locality. But yes, there are decisions that need to be taken, and they will not necessarily please everybody..."

But that doesn't exactly answer the question, does it? And it certainly won't reassure people who, in the past, had protested against other 'controversial' decisions involving Gozo: e.g., the Ta' Cenc golf course, or the expansion of Ulysses Lodge...

Muscat shakes his head. "No, no, there is nothing along those lines being planned. I can safely exclude that there will be any golf courses on Gozo, if that's what you're asking. What I meant was that we can't simply sit back in our comfort zone, and pretend that important decisions can't be taken..."

Moving on to something else: the Nationalist government has just launched a cohabitation bill, enacting a promise originally made in 1998 by (then opposition leader) Eddie Fenech Adami. Labour's response was to brand the entire initiative as an exercise in homophobia, on the grounds that same-sex couples were excluded from the bill's proposed definition of 'family'.

But when Labour made its own proposals to regularize same-sex unions by means of 'civil partnerships', it seemed to preemptively close the door to gay adoption... with which Muscat himself declared his public disagreement. So isn't this a case of the pot calling the kettle black?

Muscat however stands firm by his 'homophobia' claim. "Don't forget this is the same [justice minister] Chris Said who declared that two people of the same sex are 'not a family'. And that's not a sudden policy decision taken in the last few weeks. The Nationalist government has been outspoken in its contempt for gays for years. One example would be [deputy prime minister] Tonio Borg, and his reaction to our proposals for rent law reform. When we suggested extending the law to cover cases of cohabiting same-sex couples, he said in Parliament: 'Hekk jonqos (That's all we need), to use this law to regularise gays, too...'"

Muscat goes on to argue that by limiting its definition of family to 'man woman children' - or at least, by actively giving that impression - government is betraying how out of touch with reality it has grown.

"There is a clear policy difference between us. We said quite clearly that we will legislate to introduce civil unions..."

OK, but my question was really about whether Labour's own position is ultimately any different from the PN's. It seems to me that the PL is very quick to play the homophobia card, but at the same time has no qualms excluding gays from the same rights as 'conventional' families when it comes to its own policies... adoption being a case in point.

Interestingly enough, Muscat hints in his reply that his own party's proposals for civil unions do not actually exclude the possibility of adoption by gay couples.

"The guiding principle at the heart of the proposed law is that decisions are taken in the child's best interest. It's not up to us, as the Labour Party, to decide what's in the best interest of a child in any given circumstance... that would fall to the institutions involved..."

So, if I understood correctly, there may still be the possibility of a child being adopted by a same-sex couple, if that is what the institutions concerned decide is in the child's best interest? Muscat shrugs with a half-smile, as if to say that it is not within his remit to answer.

Inevitably the talk turns to immigration, and I refer Muscat to a recent quote by Karmenu Vella, reproduced on the front page of GWU paper It-Torca, to the effect that...

"Vella was misquoted," Muscat replies before I even finish the sentence. "He never said that the EU accession treaty can be renegotiated; It-Torca carried a clarification later..."

Perhaps, but the PL's 20 point-plan for immigration, back in 2009, made a similar point: i.e., that a Labour government would consider using its veto to 'get the best deal possible' with the EU.

These positions are similar in that both indicate a willingness to upset international relations in order to achieve a specific goal. And while this sort of brinkmanship may sound impressive to the average voter... Isn't there a danger that Malta may once again wander down the road of international notoriety? Blackmailing with vetoes and threatening to reopen negotiations... these are after all the sort of things one expects from a pariah state...

Muscat shakes his head. "I disagree. First of all we have absolutely no intention of reopening any negotiated package. As for vetoes, what I said was that we cannot exclude using it if it becomes absolutely necessary. You call it blackmail, but I call it sticking up for our rights. You can't deny that it would increase our negotiating power. We would be in a much stronger position than if we were to simply accept everything without question..."

This, he goes on, is what government did with the EU immigration and asylum pact. "They made it sound like they'd just won a major victory, but now everybody admits that the pact is dead..."

Here I refer Muscat to a speech delivered by the Prime Minister to an audience of fellow EPP politicians. On that occasion, Gonzi referred to immigration as a "vote-losing" issue, and also said that he refused to compromise values for votes... using that same general formula: would Muscat admit that he talks tough on immigration because he sees it as a vote-winner?

Muscat is however less than impressed. "I take exception to the Prime Minister's speech," he begins. And surprisingly, what he criticises most is Gonzi's "hypocritical attitude" towards human rights.

"Values don't stop at the gates of Hal Far," he suddenly asserts. "It is not enough to rescue people at sea, and then leave them to rot in a dump..."

I confess this perplexes me, because as far I was aware, government's detention policy was about the only thing that the Opposition actually agrees with, and would keep if elected. Muscat rebuts however that the problem is not the detention policy, but the conditions of detention.

"By being tough on immigration I don't mean being tough on the people themselves... I mean tough with the politicians, the ones who are working against Malta's interests..."

Turning back to Gonzi's obsession with values, Muscat invites me to look at the current prime minister's record. "The two major decisions that have marked his term as PM are: increasing energy tariffs, and the honoraria increase. Can you spot the values that went into either of those decisions? Because I certainly can't..."

Now that he mentioned energy tariffs, I remind him of another front-page story, this time in Labour paper Kullhadd... suggesting that Gonzi intends to lower the tariffs in the next budget: thus ribbing the PL of around 90% of its electoral platform.

Is Muscat concerned about this? He breaks into a smile.

"Concerned? Oh no. It will just be one less thing for us to do, that's all..."

"Proof is in the pudding" Sant used the say that, then look what happened!