And now… for the real Joseph | Joseph Muscat

After 12 weeks in government, Joseph Muscat’s honeymoon is practically over. He won the election with a battle cry for meritocracy and a ‘Malta for all.’ But how much has he managed to deliver on those slogans?

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Joseph Muscat and I last met at his office on the third floor of the Centru Nazzjonali Laburista. It was a week before the general election, and he was hoping to be able to campaign and govern in poetry - the original saying, from New York's former governor, Democrat Mario Cuomo, was "You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose".

After almost 100 days in government - in which there was no lack of criticism and controversy - the 39-year-old Prime Minister still believes he is managing to keep to his poetry mantra.

(While I was writing this interview, another controversy erupted: Lou Bondi's appointment to the National Festivities Foundation.)

This time I meet him in his new office at the Auberge de Castille, a spacious room adorned with antique furniture. He still oozes the same confidence he did in March, saying that being at the helm of the country is "exactly" how he expected.

His major letdowns have been "part of" the public service and the health sector, the latter of which he describes as being in "a disastrous state".

Muscat describes his first 12 weeks as a period during which he was constantly taking decisions: "I found part of the public sector which is geared to get things running, another part that was almost shocked that politicians were prepared to take decisions.

"They had become used to decisions being postponed, and I try to avoid that as much as possible. It also means putting yourself up for criticism."

Muscat describes his 'fast decision-taking modus operandi' as what makes him different from his predecessor. He does not describe himself as being soft or ruthless with his ministers: "I am who I am. I give everyone a chance, but I am also the one who takes decisions... at the right time."

Despite the long hours that come with the job, the Prime Minister still finds time to go to the gym - a place, he points out, which is also good for taking decisions.

"It's important to find the time to do your thing. I try as much as possible to find time for my kids and family. Obviously there is more pressure, but I still want to find the time to continue with what I used to do before."


Before, for example, he took the decision to grant Parliamentary Secretary Franco Mercieca a waiver allowing him to continue with his private medical practice, which proved to be catastrophic, in terms of the criticism levelled by the Opposition. After 12 weeks of staunchly defending the choice, Muscat and his junior minister had to step back and allow that Mercieca should no longer practise privately.

Muscat refutes the claim that the ophthalmologist was in breach of the limited waiver from the ministerial code of ethics when he performed routine eye operations against payment, For Muscat, payment was not an issue.

"Franco was simply phasing out his private practice, and he was not accepting new clients. But after all that happened, we reasoned out that the best thing was for him to stop, after we saw that some wanted to gain mileage out of it all."

The "malicious" attack - Muscat points out he is not referring to the media - was affecting Mercieca's "serenity" and it made sense to stop. The prime minister, however, does not see a cause for Mercieca's resignation, insisting that his patients' interests had been the priority.

His decision not to inform the Opposition that Mercieca would cease his private practice is, however, baffling. On the same day that he took it, the Opposition asked in parliament whether the prime minister had anything to say on the matter. His reply was a curt "no".

He justification is simple: "The opposition is not there to set our agenda," and he adds that he wanted to give Mercieca enough time to speak to his family.

'Before' was also before his 'Malta Taghna Lkoll' slogan was called into question - something he attributes to the government "failing to define it properly".

The most controversial decision of all was appointing Jason Micallef, the former Labour secretary-general, as chairman of the Valletta 2018 Foundation. The resulting protest was aimed largely at Micallef's credentials for leading the prestigious cultural board. It prompted questions, however, respecting whether this was Labour's electoral slogan in action.

Muscat's standard reply is that his government has also appointed former Nationalist politicians or individuals known to sympathise with the PN.

"Malta Taghna Lkoll is also the appointment of [former European Court of Human Rights judge] Giovanni Bonello to head justice reform, widening the board of directors at PBS to increase the political representation and persons we retained, like the Commissioner for Children.

"Malta Taghna Lkoll also means changes were made which were necessary. The point is we want people we trust to be the best persons for the job, hailing from whichever political party."

It's easy to refer to Frank Portelli, Jesmond Mugliett and Martin Fenech as examples of individuals who come from the opposite camp, I point out. All three had strained relationships with the PN: Portelli was of late highly critical of the party. Same for Mugliett, whom the PN banned from contesting the elections on its ticket, and Fenech, who was dragged by the party into the Enemalta bribery allegations scandal.

"So should Malta Taghna Lkoll mean that no one from the Labour camp or who sympathises with the PL can be appointed?" Muscat asks.

Valid point. But doesn't he think there is a growing feeling among the public that the meritocracy pledge - which was promoted with so much pomp - is not being implemented as it was promised?

"No, I believe that we should explain it further."

The prime minister says his government's first mistake was in not reacting immediately when faced with such criticism, adding he was happy with the way the 'Government that listens' campaign was going. To mark Labour's first 100 days in power, the Office of the Prime Minister has begun a series of public consultation meetings with the Cabinet.

Let's be honest: no one expected those who have attended the consultation meetings so far to hit out at the current administration. In fact, the absolute majority of interventions so far have raised the shortcomings of the previous administration and put forward requests or proposals. The meetings are followed by complaints to the respective ministers' customer care officers.

"Anything that can go wrong will go wrong in these meetings... we have opened our doors and we have to be prepared for anything," Muscat replies, adding that the meetings will not happen just once in a blue moon.

As pledged during the electoral campaign, the Cabinet is set to start meeting in different localities from time to time, while plans are in the pipeline for the consultation meetings to be held every six months or so.

Nothing irked the electorate in the past five years as much as the 2008 ministers' €500 salary increase. Irrespective of the political party they supported, people were angry at how the honoraria were given. Not because they were given - the salary earned by ministers and parliamentary secretaries is questionable, especially considering there are other professions that pay much more - but because of the way they were introduced at a time when the citizenry was asked to make a sacrifice.

One of the biggest critics of this decision was Muscat himself. Has he put himself in a position such that his ministers and parliamentary secretary can never receive an increase?

But the Prime Minister says his ministers knew exactly what they were getting themselves into. He had told his candidates that if elected, they would be getting the original salary (pre-honoraria). He also commissioned the Auditor General, the Chief Electoral Commissioner and the Ombudsman to formulate a mechanism establishing the level of salaries of elected officials - President, Prime Minister, ministers, parliamentary secretaries and so forth.

"We already had our first meeting, during which I made it clear that whatever they recommend will not be implemented in this legislature. I don't see a place for these increases right now, but recommendations will be taken into consideration for the coming legislature."

Muscat says this was a step in the right direction, where it is not the Prime Minister who decides when salary increases should be granted. "The mechanism will be ratified and the public will know about it in the most transparent way possible."

Another decision which sparked much controversy was the one granting prisoners an amnesty - a decision last taken in 1996, with the election of the last Labour government. Muscat immediately replies that he is always accused of taking populist decisions.

"This definitely wasn't popular. And I understand human nature's natural instinct is not to forgive. But I was convinced that this was the first step in the right direction that would help with prison reform."

He says prison organisations like Prison Fellowship and Mid-Dlam ghad-Dawl assiduously asked the government to send "some sort of signal" that it was committed to helping with prisoner rehabilitation.

He denies having been aware of an amnesty promised by Labour candidates - as claimed by the PN - during the electoral campaign. "Time will tell if we took the right decision or not," he says.

"In shambles." This is how he describes the situation he found in the health sector.

"We had expected, and we knew, that the country's finances would be different from that portrayed by the PN administration. But the situation we found was beyond anything we could have imagined," he says.

Sidelining a question about whether the St Philip's Hospital public-private partnership plan was still up for consideration by the Labour government, Muscat says that St Luke's is still "in operation".

Apart from Karin Grech Hospital, certain departments, like physiotherapy, were still open, and the health ministry found pending requests by other departments to operate from St Luke's Hospital.

"I am convinced that our predecessors failed to take certain decisions, purely not to raise criticism of making bigger use of St Luke's Hospital while Mater Dei Hospital was in full operation."

Muscat says he does not want to solve the overcrowding problem by opening more wards but by making use of other potential facilities, such as the Gozo General Hospital.

"There is huge potential in Gozo's hospital, which is currently underutilised," he says.

The first decision he made about Gozo General Hospital was to transfer responsibility for it to the health minister. Before, Muscat says, the hospital had become a place of nepotism. He also wants interoperability between the Malta and Gozo hospitals.

The list of problems he lists is endless: no proper primary health care system, leading to an excessive burden on Mater Dei's emergency department, no traceability of medicines, a shortage of nurses and a "lack of vision" for the sector.

Here, Joseph Muscat says, is where former Nationalist minister John Dalli has an important role to play.

All these problems, he adds, make Labour's electoral promises for health "even more relevant and urgent".

The Prime Minister's major concern, indeed like Lawrence Gonzi's, is the creation of jobs. He lists a number of initiatives which his government has undertaken so far - such as the launch of the Global Residence Programme and the issuance of a number of expressions of interest - to help boost the economy and jobs.

On the economy, he says that his government is "intentionally" telling the Maltese people that things "are in hand". He insists there is no need for a mini-budget, despite Malta's entry into the Excessive Deficit Procedure. "Introducing a budget with only four months to go until the next one would be sending the wrong vibes."

He says the economic figures so far are encouraging and the major proposals issued will lead to an effective kick-start of the economy. He also expects to reach the same positive figures reached in tourism last year.

His disappointment has been the public service's "slow reaction" to the government's strategy against precarious work. A visibly irritated Muscat recalls that despite a memo being issued to all government departments that there would be no tolerance for awarding contracts which entail precarious work, he found out - "through the newspapers" - that such a contract had been awarded.

"We are saying 'stop precarious work', and I find out from the newspapers that such a contract has been issued by none other than the contracts department.

"Because someone decided to ignore - or didn't realise - our directive. It's unacceptable."

He immediately ordered an internal investigation.

"Let me be clear: I found civil servants who are ready to work, who don't look at which political party is in government. But mediocrity is not acceptable. I am ready to work with everyone - everyone who is ready to raise the game and deliver."

Lawrence Gonzi had Joseph Muscat as his biggest critic. Joseph Muscat now has Simon Busuttil, the PN's recently elected leader.

What does he make of his opponent?

"I don't like to make assessments and I will leave it up to the people to do that. I think, however, that we know each other well."

Re. the economy : the 'vibes' mentioned by the PM are clearly those directed at the E U. But what about other 'vibes' directed at Malta's apolitical economists who for years have had to put up with projections that perennially failed by unacceptably wide margins of error ? e.g. in November 2012, with only 2 months to go, the then Minister forecast a deficit of only 2.3% of GDP, which turned out to be 3.3%, a divergence of 40% ! That's we I clamoured for a Mini-Budget for the second half of 2013 in the strong belief that the present Minister can make projections within an acceptable maximum margin of error of 5%
Why amateur Karl? I say a man with a vision. Joseph was voted in to change and change he is implementing.
Emmanuel Mallia
Joseph, ministers, CEOs, Chairpersons, top civil service officials and officials should answer our emails !. If they are out of office, Microsoft Outlook has the facility of sending out an "out of office notice" and an automatic acknowledgment. Some ministers have not answered emails, even during the electoral campaign, lest now ! This system was started by Gonzi, but later, abandoned. This is lacking in this administration, and could solve lots of enquieries online ! The government should setup an online forum, where the man in the street can air his suggestions, complaints praises etc.
Re prisoners amnesty: "Time will tell if we took the right decision or not," he says. It sounds a bit like one of those high-risk investments we are warned about. I hope for the best.