Nurturing business while maintaining a social conscience | Evarist Bartolo

According to Labour Party’s spokesperson for education and civil rights Evarist Bartolo, it is only the PL that has spotted the plight of underprivileged citizens, and that possesses the will to make their lives easier.

“The furore surrounding the Toni Abela recording is ridiculous.
“The furore surrounding the Toni Abela recording is ridiculous."

According to Labour Party's spokesperson for education and civil rights Evarist Bartolo, it is only the PL that has spotted the plight of our underprivileged citizens, and that possesses the will to make their lives easier

Evarist Bartolo, PL spokesperson for education and civil rights, is no stranger to being involved in a political fracas.

This week, he strongly hinted that Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi had prior knowledge of the oil corruption scandal. As good a starting point as any for our interview.

"I have seen documents from 1999 where there have been at least three important moments when Malta was at a crossroads to go for gas or fuel oil. Why the hell did we choose fuel oil at every stage?" Bartolo questions.

Why indeed.

"We missed a golden opportunity. Oil and gas corporation ENI wanted to pass a gas pipeline from Tripoli to Gela, via Malta. Can you imagine what that would have meant," an animated Evarist exclaims.

"We would not have had to pay a cent and we would have had security of supply. It made sense both financially and technically."

It is hard not to express incredulity at the claim that ENI would furnish the island with such largesse, but Bartolo insists that it made perfect technical sense for the company given the midway point of Malta between Tripoli and Sicily.

The PL's version of events is that this was not allowed to happen for some reason or another. I ask Bartolo what that reason was.

"Someone asked ENI for a very high bribe to allow them to pass the infrastructure through Malta. That the bribe was too high is really saying something. ENI is no stranger to operating in environments where backhanders are required to lubricate deals."

A serious allegation, but is there any substance to it? Bartolo says that Enemalta insiders are aware of this fact and no official denial has ever been forthcoming.

"I have seen another document indicating that the energy minister at the time - Josef Bonnici - was keen to go for gas, and had tried to save the project. I have been privy to another document saying that by 2005, the Delimara extension would be gas powered. This document was prepared for Enemalta by ENI, and it was fully costed."

Bartolo says that the cabinet of the time went as far as approving a policy document to this effect. The conclusions of the document, dated 20 June 2006, were that the Delimara extension would work on gas. "Fast forward to 2009, and the contract for the extension was awarded to BWSC for a heavy fuel oil plant."

All these allegations seem to point to a hidden hand working in the background to throw a spanner in the works (or turbines).

Is this where Infrastructure Minister Austin Gattt comes into the frame?

"Ministers should be politically responsible for what does or does not happen within their ministerial remit. At this stage, one has to allow for the police investigations to take place. What I can say is that it is very strange that the prime minister was ready to come out and say that he believes Austin Gatt."

But why does Bartolo find it so strange that the prime minister has expressed his faith in a Cabinet colleague?

"Austin Gatt has been given a prime ministerial pardon. Gonzi should come clean and admit when he first knew that these things were going on under his watch. He has to disclose whether he had previously been approached, and what steps were taken about the matter. The prime minister pretended to have been blind-sided when MaltaToday first revealed the case of corruption. I simply do not believe his version of events."

Given the potential for ministerial involvement in the scandal, surely a presidential pardon free of political meddling would have been more prudent?

"Decisions involving politicians should not be taken by politicians. Put yourself in Austin Gatt's position. He was sitting around the cabinet table, discussing a case that he is potentially involved in. Around that table, he would be privy to information that is to his advantage. The police commissioner would have come in and given sensitive information on the case."

Although acknowledging that he is not a lawyer, Bartolo says that the necessary tools to grant a presidential pardon without going through the political hierarchy exist.

Such a tough stance on political corruption is admirable, and shouting from the opposition sidelines is all well and good. Surely - I put forward - the PL's moral high ground has been lost given the Toni Abela and Tony Zarb recordings...

"The furore surrounding the Toni Abela recording is ridiculous. Abela was involved in a case that did not require criminal action as it was a civil matter, and he advised the police officer accordingly."

But shouldn't he heed the PN's call to resign nonetheless, given that his political integrity has been called into doubt with a clear recording?

"There is absolutely no cause for resignation. The PN considers every single mishap as being cause for resignation, but heads never seem to roll from their end.

"As far as the Zarb recording goes, I actually had a friend present at that very meeting. Tony Zarb was actually criticising the contractor for the lousy employment conditions of his workers. He was not saying one contractor would be preferred over another under a Labour government. Contractors should pay decent wages. Zarb was doing his duty in criticising the contractor."

Speaking of contractors, what of Anglu Farrugia's allegation that the PL is too close to big business?

"I myself would feel uncomfortable if that were to happen. We need a party financing law. Otherwise, political donors feel that they are using their money to influence decisions or policies.

"It is true that the PL has a pro-business approach, but we are tempering this approach by pushing for more transparency through a party financing legislation. We need to create the right conditions for economic growth while making sure that that prosperity is distributed fairly. But this cannot be done without a prosperous economy."

So how is Joseph Muscat going to convince youngsters in particular that he is the right man to create this prosperity, given that the PN usually garners a lot of votes from youngsters?

"It is a question of self-confidence. Joseph Muscat left University not too long ago himself. Young people can identify with Joseph, as evidenced by this week's university debate.

"Muscat has an inclusive discourse. He has really tried to break down tribalism. It shows that he is the son of a Nationalist mother and Labourite father. He has developed a way of speaking that allows people to feel more included. His nuanced language has helped to break down barriers."

Bartolo pinpoints the divorce movement as an important learning curve for both Muscat and the PL as a whole.

"People from all different walks of life came together in support of a common goal in the divorce movement. Although Muscat did not expressly back that movement, he helped it along. His open-minded approach to the divorce movement showed he was ready for diversity."

This is an interesting point, which may go some way in explaining the birth of Muscat's own movement.

"People who would not have fit into the Labour Party a few years ago were made to feel welcome by Muscat. He takes a personal interest, he discusses issues and engages with people. He has actually learnt from them in the process. He has developed his own thinking on gay relationships. People could feel that they weren't just talking to a politician, but a human being who was actually listening to them."

There is a fine line between taking on board a host of different opinions, and being an overly malleable flip-flopper. Does Muscat fall under the latter category?

Not at all, Bartolo replies. "Opting for civil union for gays does not please everybody. Changing his position has not pleased everyone; this is not a catch-all movement. But then again, it is nowhere near as narrow as the Nationalist Party.

"The PN's approach has become too narrow in its appeal and a lot of people no longer feel at home within that party .The divorce movement was a cogent example that if you can aggregate people around an objective then they will come together.

"There is no longer need for the politics of belonging in order to work towards specific aims. The movement has made our society more mobile. People have emerged from the trench warfare that used to be Maltese politics."

But is the PL just capitalising on the PN's image and ideas?

"Definitely not. The fact that both parties converge on certain issues does not mean that they are stealing each other's ideas. At the end of the day, Malta is a small society and the range of policies are limited. It is the general framework that is most important. What our society needs is economic development, social justice and human rights."

I try to understand how economic development and social justice ties in with Labour's pledge not to raise the minimum wage. After all, the GWU itself has said that raising the minimum wage is essential in order to combat poverty.

"There is more than one way to tackle poverty. It should move to the top of the national agenda. This is my sixth election and I have conducted many home visits. I have never encountered such high levels of poverty in my previous experiences."

It is happening in places that you would not normally associate with deprivation. Of the two districts that I am contesting on (namely the 10th and the 12th), I am encountering a lot more people finding it hard to make ends meet in the Swieqi and Pembroke areas."

Bartolo clearly realises that the problem exists as he encounters examples of it on a daily basis. So how is the PL planning to tackle it?

"What we need to do is foster more economic growth. Social benefits cannot be improved without such growth. Let us create the rights conditions and climate for this to happen. The Labour Party does not want to simply eliminate the stereotypical type of poverty. Thousands of people are living precariously, subsisting on employment that is akin to modern slavery. This has to change."

There is a sense of irony in hearing Evarist Bartolo - the very minister that the PN accuse of removing stipends under the '96 Labour government - talk about social justice.

I ask him how he and his party can be trusted not to pull the same stunt if elected on 9 March.

"In 1996, we inherited a system where we discovered that the deficit had exploded under the previous PN legislature. We thought that we had to do something about it. We knew that it would be a painful reform. To be fair we did not completely abolish stipends. What we did was convert half of it into a loan and the rest into a grant. Socially disadvantaged persons were still entitled."

Clearly, a nerve has been touched here. So what of the future?

"This time round we have learnt from what happened. We are being prudent in our estimates and calculations. We have considered all possible situations. Stipends will not be touched.

"Thousands of students can only study because of the current system in place. Labour is committed to helping more young people continue their studies, which is why we will introduce a pro rata cost of living adjustment for stipends."

The BOV La Valette fund is another issue that has come to be closely associated with Evarist Bartolo. What would the Labour Party do in order to draw a line under the saga?

"The MFSA has been a success story in terms of investment promotion in the financial sector. Where it has failed miserably is in consumer protection. Consumers need to be protected. It's not fair that financial consultants can sell schemes to people who are potentially very naive  and financially illiterate."

Bartolo says that the MFSA has to be given more teeth, as proposed in the PL's electoral manifesto.

"The MFSA's push for growth in the financial sector should continue, but a financial ombudsman with executive power to give compensation to consumers should the need arise will be set up. In the BOV case, the MFSA has said that the bank should compensate investors, but it does not have the power to force the bank to act on its advice."

I ask Bartolo whether it would be better to tackle the problem at its source through better regulation, rather than resorting to a financial ombudsman once a problem has already arisen.

He replies that separating the two functions of investment promotion and protection will solve a lot of problems. "Investment promotion attracts more services but at the same time we have to take care of people the people investing."

So there you have it: it would appear that the PL is capable of being both pro-business without losing its social face.

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