Regrets, I’ve had a few… | Lawrence Gonzi

Lawrence Gonzi retains a combative streak, carving out the impression that his mission to keep Malta in financial health after 2008 was more important than the ‘micro’ politics bogging down his government’s performance and clouding people’s minds

Former prime minister Lawrence Gonzi. Photo: Ray Attard/MediaToday
Former prime minister Lawrence Gonzi. Photo: Ray Attard/MediaToday

If you don't like politics, you might nod at the Machiavellian adage that politics have no relation to morals. But former prime minister Lawrence Gonzi, 60, is keen on emphasising that the "moral high ground" is the last ideological bastion for political parties that today have all but converged into an uninspiring and un-ideological centre of democratic 'management' politics. It was the case with the last general elections, a supermarket of freebies and political cosmetics that produced little divergence on main policies for either the PN or Labour. And yet, you might have been watching Lawrence Gonzi's party in the fast five years and wondered whether the moral high ground was ever the hallmark of an administration fraught with bitter internal rivalries, scorned ambitions, old scores, and a one-seat majority that locked the Gonzi leadership into an ivory tower.

The spousal home in Marsaskala is deserted today, and outside Malta braves the soporific onslaught of August heat. Gonzi is engaging as ever, and freed of the electoral fatigue that, as he puts it, "absorbed all of my energy", is looking towards a future in which he can "rediscover" life with his wife Kate and his children. "They were nine hard years as prime minister, hard domestically and even because of events internationally. Right now, I feel like I've shed this enormous burden, and on balance I feel satisfied that Malta is in a better place nine years into EU accession than when I found it in. But personally it's been a big leap in quality of life. Kate and I are rediscovering each other after taking a nine-year interval where other priorities took up my energy."

Heading government, he says, absorbs you "physically and psychologically". "It's not just the country. It's the future that's in your hands."

To bring him back to March 2008, where he surmounted the odds with the GonziPN strategy, reversed the Mistra scandal to his party's favour, and returned to power with a tenuous one-seat majority, I ask Gonzi what his biggest regret of the last five years has been - it's question framed within the context of a one-seat government that met its demise with an unprecedented 36,000 majority for Labour. At first, he is philosophical about regret, rejecting the benefit of hindsight as "fictitious".

"You never have the benefit of hindsight. It doesn't exist. I can express regret for decisions I took at a particular moment in time - but to do the right thing and not to err, because that's the way my mind would have been reasoning."

But Gonzi knows, as he admits, that there "is a long list of errors" over 25 years of decision-making. "I don't want to go down that road. What's done is done. The benefit of hindsight does not exist." But we get to those errors in time.

In the meantime, we touch upon his preferred mark of success, and Gonzi remembers Libya. In February 2011, Malta broke off its friendship with Gaddafi from one week to the other to join an international alliance of Atlantic and Gulf States supporting the Libyan uprising. The defection of two jet pilots who refused orders to shoot down rebels propelled the island into centre-stage and turned it into a logistical base for evacuees and a field hospital for Libyans.

"I decided on the rupture with Libya early on in the crisis. The outcome was positive, but it might as well not have been. That's why I say the benefit of hindsight does not exist," he says. "Malta could not be a neutral observer to a government killing its own people, despite our 40-year friendship. "In such a historic moment, Malta had to make a categorical choice. We were the closest European country to Libya, and our burden was heavy. Our actions at that point reflected on our stature in the Mediterranean."

At that time, Gonzi resisted suggestions that he call early elections. One such recommendation came from MP Beppe Fenech Adami, who opined that the Libyan crisis had been Gonzi's high point. But Gonzi says he wasn't ready to put the country through an election while Malta was still weathering the financial crisis spilling over from the eurozone. "There were such considerations even before 2011... the danger to the Maltese economy and factories dependent on exports to the EU of pursuing my political interests, would have created a three-month window of such uncertainty that it would have surely meant an explosion in unemployment. Around us, millions had lost their jobs while we were keeping out heads above the water. It would have been a high price for us as a country... losing an election was preferable to seeing jobless numbers going up."

This last observation is telling of the Gonzi years. He accepts the scale of his defeat in 2013 as a 'historical', but that his mind is at peace because the country's financial health was secure. It's telling because his personal attention to the European crisis and the economy cost him the much-needed attention he failed to give to 'micro' issues cropping up from questionable and unhappy political decisions, and the general climate of intolerance that existed towards his critics. This time, he does not hide behind the fictitiousness of hindsight. He says he realised in 2008 the difficult times ahead of him when he was re-elected with just a one-seat majority and 1,500 votes.

What first comes to his mind is the parliamentary battleground that ensued, first with the government changing meeting dates to suit ministers' meetings in Brussels, then with the Opposition exploiting all absences inside the House by calling for quora on each vote, forcing all government members to be present in parliament. Gonzi calls it "theatrics", although he may have forgotten that a good deal of filibustering was the work of an astute government side.

What I want him to answer is whether he felt that, after being handed power on a short leash, he could foresee problems with MPs like Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando: elected on both districts even after denying incontrovertible evidence that he had rented out his Mistra land to site an open-air disco (but which Alfred Sant accused him of doing after influencing the planning process), JPO's chances for a government ministry were swept away after nearly costing the PN re-election. Turned into a martyr by the resourceful spin-doctors of the PN, it was this turnaround that damaged Sant's election chances. Later, JPO accused strategist Richard Cachia Caruana of masterminding a media backlash to force him to resign his seat. When in 2011, Cachia Caruana was placed under a parliamentary inquiry for his role in overriding the parliamentary approval of Malta's re-entry into NATO's Partnership for Peace, Pullicino Orlando voted for his resignation in a parliamentary motion led by Labour.

"I was betrayed," Gonzi says, claiming he was told he could expect loyalty on the motion. "History is written now. Let others pass judgement."

But what does he make of Pullicino Orlando's claims of facing a plot to have him resign his seat? "I think it's obvious... politics became personal, and I'm disappointed that those personal issues became the most important things, even in the midst of the eurozone crisis," Gonzi says, before retreating yet again to an episode from the 2008 crisis when factories in Malta were threatening closure. "The way this new government behaves is by satisfying people's ambitions, and not through its alleged meritocracy. To me it looks like politics is no longer about serving the national interest, but has fallen to its lowest form ever."

But the former prime minister himself played a part in personalising his own party. After all, capitalising on his trust ratings, he reinvented the PN into 'GonziPN' during the 2008 election, sidelining unpopular, veteran MPs and pushing young faces forward. Was it this kind of presidentialism that fostered an MP like Franco Debono, whose scorned ambition would ultimately bring down the administration?

"No I don't think so... I disagree," Gonzi replies, his tone of voice sounding dismissive. "There is always some form of conglomeration of people centred around a person in a party, just as we had Eddie Fenech Adami..."

Didn't he also contribute to the personalisation of politics by tying the fortunes of his party to his own persona? "Didn't Joseph Muscat do the same? It's natural for a party leader, to represent people's aspirations, and to show leadership. In 2008, we answered to people's feelings on the ground... and today, Labour is centred around Muscat, much as it was during Dom Mintoff's time.

"What annoys me is that GonziPN is used as some excuse, when in fact it was personal agendas that were at play. These personal agendas would have still been there had we used a different slogan."

I suggest that the "bitterness" of some agendas was motivated by his unceremonious dismissal of ministers by SMS text. "Today I am sorry to have sent that SMS. The truth is I said I would be announcing my Cabinet and whoever wanted could come to my house to talk about it. It was conveniently manipulated - well, it could have been done better - I felt that, out of courtesy, I should have informed everyone of their position. Everyone forgets that that same day, an explosion in Naxxar warranted my attention there. Again, with benefit of hindsight, I wouldn't have sent that message."

What about the snowball effect of Franco Debono, whose grumbling in the backbench later evolved into barefaced rebellion, and the coining of Gonzi's 'evil clique' - an inner circle that manipulated the media spin on his critics - how does he describe this experience? "I'm not going to describe anything. It was a problem that led to the dissolution of parliament on a budget vote," Gonzi says, bypassing any talk of the annus horribilis that was 2012, and instead smiling about the "irony of a budget that was not supported by Labour being presented lock, stock and barrel by the new government".

Didn't he resist Debono's ambition to be minister? Gonzi again dismisses the question and says "it was always about personal agendas" - agendas which however appeared on the surface as principled campaigns that reflected popular aspirations and complaints. The first was Debono's ruckus on the disastrous public transport reform of 2010 that led to a resignation motion against Austin Gatt; the other was when the MP forced the split of the justice and home affairs ministry in 2012. But in all cases, Gonzi countered with a forceful chess move, calling Debono's bluff on the Austin Gatt motion with a collective responsibility vote (the MP abstained, refusing to become a scapegoat for early elections); and then courting his ire by announcing a Cabinet reshuffle that excluded him, again trying to bait him into a fatal move.

The one Achilles' heel was Pullicino Orlando's divorce bill. Gonzi favoured a referendum that ultimately exposed a conservative, reactionary core in his party (the party executive took an official stand in divorce which later was discarded after losing the referendum), and turned out to be a game-changer.

"Yes, it was a game-changer in all its aspects. For the party, myself, for the country. It's in these moments that you show whether you really believe in your principles or whether you're made of plasticine."

How important was this principle? Was it down to his faith?

"No... that's the cross I bear from my surname," he says, as my gaze darts to his wedding photo, with Archbishop Mikiel Gonzi at the centre of the Gonzi newlyweds. "It was all down to an analysis that it was not time for that change in civil status... we were wrong. But we rightly asked the Maltese people to choose. No party had an electoral mandate to introduce divorce. It took us by surprise, and Jeffrey took that initiative, starting a process that could not be stopped."

After the referendum, Gonzi refused to vote in favour, safe in the knowledge that there was a sufficient majority to have the law passed. "I gave my side a genuine free vote," Gonzi says, saying that he would have resigned had his vote been the sole one to hold up approval of the law.

Wouldn't voting for divorce have been an honourable concession to make to the electorate? "I always believed that with me, what you see, is what you get. My choice was what I represented, and the people who chose me knew this... it's not about stubbornness, but about unmovable values, especially if they concern the common good."

It took a full four years that saw such sagas as the MPs' honorarium debacle, the Arriva reform, a backbench rebellion and the divorce referendum, to undermine the GonziPN edifice. With the writing on the wall at the start of 2012, the stage was set for a season of parliamentary filibustering to postpone resignation votes and money bills. While allies like Carm Mifsud Bonnici and Cachia Caruana fell, ministers like Tonio Fenech and Austin Gatt had increasingly become the bane of his government, with the BWSC procurement and the Arriva reform, and later in 2013 the Enemalta kickbacks scandal, easily illustrating the liabilities they represented.

"The entire team of ministers were working under very difficult circumstances. We didn't blow our horn on the work we were doing to keep an economic crisis at bay and save jobs," Gonzi says again, deftly shifting talk to his government's 'higher purpose' as it were. "You can't announce that you've 'saved' a publicly-listed company, risking a plummet in their share price. That Cabinet's performance... Tonio Fenech's, Austin Gatt's... is visible in the results this country has achieved. Mistakes were made, in attitude, arrogance. I emphatically admit to these errors. But the results this country achieved, an exception to the rest of the EU Member States, were down to my Cabinet's performance in the midst of that backbench rebellion."

I comment that he was always a prime minister who was more interested in the macro than in the micro. Even in this interview, he speaks a lot on the economic crisis and factories, issues which did not always trickle down to the public...

"But that's the difference. We took care of the macro, other countries did not and instead kept a few people happy," Gonzi replies quite forcefully. "They won elections by cutting costs here and there. Yes, I did lose the election. But look at where the country is. And word to the wise... what we have is not guaranteed to last, and this government should not take anything for granted, because the financial storm is still upon us. When we created 20,000 jobs - and this is statistically correct - it came about through work in the backroom, without sounding out trumpets.

"The mistakes were many. But the results were achieved as a team, and it was a government that delivered."

Still, Gonzi would always be caught out by events as each domestic crisis cropped up from day to day, even being forced to take control of the public transport reform disaster through his own personal task force. So how did he view events such as the BWSC-Delimara saga, the allegations of political impropriety against Tonio Fenech, and other incidents that appeared to bog down the performance of his government?

"They affected the choice of the electorate... their categorical decision was informed by these events. It was by a whisker that this change did not happen in 2008, and it wasn't a radical change in political substance that they wanted, but I sensed that the electorate wanted a change of personnel, which is why I did, in fact, change a lot of ministers."

I interject, pointing out the swell of despondency his government seemed to have elicited in its final years - cemented by an impression of his government's alliances with favoured businesses and PR agencies, and media pundits and unofficial media pounding the critics.

"Something natural took place. People wanted change, and every incident and criticism was enough to consolidate this determination for change, even while we were achieving improved performance in the country's results. The country's economic success was insufficient to neutralise this negativity. I bow down to this reality: when one falls down in life, you must use that lesson for the future," Gonzi says before turning to his successor, Simon Busuttil.

"His formula of having two deputy leaders and a secretary-general, two of which [Mario de Marco and Chris Said] have ministerial experience, while Beppe Fenech Adami has experience as a parliamentary assistant in one of the hardest of ministries, and topping it up is Simon's experience in the European Parliament, makes for an exceptional leadership team.

"It needs to prove itself, and it needs time. As an observer, I see Simon's performance and that of his team having been very good, and I am confident that this new generation will make an important difference."

Gonzi says the "renewed PN" is still a party that has the moral high ground as its ultimate identifier, when I ask him whether Labour and the PN are indeed ideologically dissimilar. "I don't think Labour has the moral high ground," he says.

It's a rejoinder to the cold shower he delivered in parliament on Joseph Muscat, in a speech condemning an attempted pushback of asylum seekers to Libya. But even in similar tests, was the moral high ground ever present when Malta appeared to be a passive supporter of the Italian pushbacks in 2010?

"We did not support it. We did not oppose it. We took the EU's position. But I insist, that throughout that entire period, we kept the moral high ground, and we won our arguments even inside the EU. The Commission was always understanding of our demands, and it worked a lot to win the participation of other Member States in the voluntary resettlement programme. But the EC could not order individual states to take asylum seekers: can you imagine Brussels ordering Italy to take its share of asylum seekers when it already has its own numbers to consider?

"Muscat can stamp on his feet as much as he likes. It's easier said than done. He won't achieve his ends in that way. I appeal to the Maltese and Gozitan people: let's understand that we have some 5,000 migrants with refugee status or protection since 2004. Let's get the numbers right. Our duty is to help them live with human dignity. I personally regret not having done my utmost to raise their living standards while in detention.

"Let's also agree on a national level that we have a high population density, and that other countries have a moral duty to help us. We managed to persuade the United States to take in over a thousand refugees and asylum seekers with our arguments, and we cannot simply discard the small numbers that EU Member States took in. Both government and the Opposition can join forces to make this argument, but it has to be done from a moral high ground."

Gonzi, perhaps freed of his own electoral concerns, now says that the PN must risk losing the votes in going down a humanitarian route on migration. "No doubt about it. The Maltese do not want to treat others like some sack of potatoes: the PN must never abandon the road that puts it on the right side of the argument, even if it is not a popular stand."

Gonzi understands that Muscat's first months in power are a learning curve, although he reserves judgement on the wisdom of the new prime minister's first decisions. "He is yet to face their consequences, and learn that the benefit of hindsight does not exist... after five years damning our economic performance, he is now lauding the fruits of our work, such as Smart City and the City Gate project. It's all about the economy, and the long and short of it will be the number of jobs that this government will create."

Gonzi singles out Muscat's home affairs minister Manuel Mallia as one of the weakest links in the government, questioning whether the PM will be judged by his economic performance, or by the errors of some of his more controversial appointments.

But controversial appointments were also a hallmark of Gonzi's own government, and I ask him whether Maltese administrations show little willingness in using the civil service, rather than trusted businessmen, as chairpersons of government corporations and boards. How can we even relish in the independence of such bodies? "You've touched on an important point and I hope Simon will reflect on it, because it is going to be one of the biggest challenges. Malta Taghna Lkoll is a big con - in hindsight, certain people I trusted betrayed me, now that I consider the fuel procurement scandal."

Those serious allegations Gonzi touches upon - because he is referring to someone like Tancred Tabone, the former Enemalta chairman in court over corruption charges - also touch upon ministers in his own Cabinet. Does he feel betrayed by his ministers? "No, they were totally loyal and kept me informed of everything that was taking place. It's the system that is not yet refined. It may be down to the small size of the country, but the way we select chairpersons has to be reflected upon."

Gonzi is no more the wiser as to how to do this. He himself has pledged 'calls for applications' for such appointments, something which never materialised; he suggests whether it should be a US-style parliamentary hearing that vets the appointments. "I tried alternating terms, but those who were removed expected some permanent leasehold, so they went knocking on Labour's door," he says, letting out that wry, trademark cackle.

Even though freed of his political role, his answers tail off with a reference to Labour's own performance. "You can't have a businessman that is the prime minister's chief of staff," he says, referring to Keith Schembri and his 'media interests' - by which I make it clear to him that his companies supply paper to Allied Newspapers and, until September, to the Nationalist Party's own Independence Press.

"If ministers are declaring their assets, we should also question the agendas of our media. A person who is supplying the media's raw material, the cost of which makes or breaks print media, ah well... my argument is that placing him at the heart of government - and I have no doubt as to his honesty and integrity - will not stop anyone misinterpreting the most judicious of decisions when a tender gets lost to another bidder. My experience is... that it's asking for trouble."

Mr Matthew Vella you have no journalistic sharpness...just trying to be nice to the man...might as well have an il-Mument journalist
If not for anything else, Gonzi will be remembered by posterity for the monstrous Parliament building which comletely ruined the Valletta landscape. The firast attack on the Valletta aestetic landscape was carried out by his great uncle when he wanted and did build the monstrous dome so that it surpassed the St. Paul's Cathedral. Future Maltese will remember the Gonzi clan by these two monstrositities.
Joseph MELI
JOHANNA This is another two -tier crime -dreadful(illegal) discrimination and the owner(s) and/or the agents not inrming you-and thousands of others - about it. .Regarding the "moral high ground " this is actually a sandbank with the high incoming tide fast approaching !
In my opinion,you have to be a good businessman to be a Prime Minister in this age.Not as he said.
His main merit was the financial stability he ensured, surprisingly even though he was hampered by his own incompetent politicians and the price of energy in Malta.
Bla bla bla few regrets . Your time is up , thanks to God!
Mhux tad-dahk wara hafna paroli fil-vojt ta' Lawrence Gonzi lanqas kellu l-hila jzomm il-finanzi tal-partit tieghu fis-sod. Skont attivisti li kienu jahdmu fid-dar centrali tal-Pieta' li issa gew imkeccija ghax Gonzi u l-klikka li kellu madwaru ghamlu frakass mhux biss mill-partit imma anke mil-finanzi. Kif jista' dan il-bniedem Gonzi, 'Ragel ta' kull stagun' jigi emmnut!!!!
The moral high ground?! I've just discovered after renting for 3 years that we've been paying our utilities at domestic rates which means we have been charged 2 500 euros more than we should have been. How did I find out? You'd imagine that the landlord or the agent or ARMS would let me know about this two tier system. Oh no, I only found out purely by chance after chatting with someone on a Facebook group. Absolutely disgraceful! How many other people are out there who are paying the wrong rate? And WHY does ARMS brazenly say that they will not return the overpayments (amounting to thousands of euros per household)because such things are not done retrospectively. Moral high ground, I ask you?!
@Thomas Anderson I couldn't agree more. This interview was more like a consolation prize for both. For Gonzi to tell us one last time how good he was as Prime Minister and for MaltaToday to get an interview that was denied to them since Gonzi ever went to power. I don't ever recall Gonzi giving any interviews to this newspaper, correct me if I'm worng.
Joseph MELI
Furthermore ,reading his comments this parallel universe occupant has had a few all right -a few too many hits on the bong pipe!
Joseph MELI
FEW regrets -I think he meant to say PHEW!
U hallina Lawrence Gonzi kieku ma kienux ghal-banek ta' Malta li kienu sodi u tal-affari taghhom kieku ilna li morna l-bahar, qabel is-sajf! Din hi skuza pwerili li tigi tghid li l-gvern tieghek iffoka biss fuq il-finanzi tal-pajjiz. Kull ma jmur qed nisimghu kemm saret hela fil-finanzi pubblici, altru milli sahhahthom. Imnalla l-Ministru 'tal-lira' u tal-finanzi tieghek ma kellux say fit-thaddem tal-banek ghax kieku mhux qed tghid dawn ic-cucati. Issa ahjar tghidu l-verita' kif inxtara z-zejt u mhux harbattu pajjiz bil-progetti Nazzjonali li mhu qed isarrfu ghal xejn.
Luke Camilleri
Some of the few regrets ? ;) ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Regrets ~ NAQASLU ID-DHUL! Regrets ~ Tivvotta B'QALBEK KOLLHA biex il-kontijiet tad-dawl u l'ilma ma jorhshux REGRETS ~ Taghti lillek innifsek u l'ta madwarek l'ONORARJI minn wara dar kullhadd, inkluz il-Back-Benchers tieghek stess! Regrets ~ MA SEMGHAX MINN DR. Franco Debono Regrets ~ Halla bla kontrol il A.G. Regrets ~ Appogga bis-silenzhu tieghu il-DCG u l-fossa taghha li ssejjah BLOG! Regrets ~ Kif tratta ma John Dalli! Regrets ~ L'OLIGARKIJA ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ NO REGRETS LI ILLUM QIEGHED FEJN QIEGHED u kif intbghad hemm , ~ L' Elettorat Malti
Luke Camilleri
Some of the few regrets ? ;) ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Regrets ~ NAQASLU ID-DHUL! Regrets ~ Tivvotta B'QALBEK KOLLHA biex il-kontijiet tad-dawl u l'ilma ma jorhshux REGRETS ~ Taghti lillek innifsek u l'ta madwarek l'ONORARJI minn wara dar kullhadd, inkluz il-Back-Benchers tieghek stess! Regrets ~ MA SEMGHAX MINN DR. Franco Debono Regrets ~ Halla bla kontrol il A.G. Regrets ~ Appogga bis-silenzhu tieghu il-DCG u l-fossa taghha li ssejjah BLOG! Regrets ~ Kif tratta ma John Dalli! Regrets ~ L'OLIGARKIJA ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ NO REGRETS LI ILLUM QIEGHED FEJN QIEGHED u kif intbghad hemm , ~ L' Elettorat Malti
After reading the whole interview on Malta Today, I have confirmed what I have thought for a long time that Dr Gonzi lives in world of his own. Reading this article, one gets the impression that Gonzi lost the last election with a few hundred votes. Moral high ground is Gonzi buzz word it seems. I have to say that the interviewer did not ask Dr Gonzi any embarrassing questions like: Was it moral high ground or political survival that made Dr Gonzi and his government cling to power for two years without a majority in parliament; was it moral high ground, giving 600Eur rise weekly to yourself whilst giving the workers Eur 1.14: was it moral high ground that Gonzi let bloggers that supported his GonziPN, even attack toddlers; how about the moral high ground where you give jobs to the blue eyed boys in the last hour of Gonzi’s Government. I was also surprised that throughout the whole article there was not one question about the workers at PN Headquarters and the state Gonzi left his PN. I am sorry Malta Today you could have asked more direct questions to Gonzi instead the interviewer was careful that the only questions he asked were those that let Gonzi brag about his fantasy world.
Regrets, I've had a few......Titlu li jfakkarni fid-diska ta' Frank Sinatra, My Way. And Dr.Gonzi did it his way, and look how the PN had been brought to shambles.
Just three points on what Dr Gonzi said-------(a)..He has few regrets...of course living in an enclosed tower defended by AG....YOU WON`T HAVE THEM.....YOU WOULD NOT EVEN BE AWARE OF THEM.(b)He would not like to review his errors...of course he would not like to face his hard headedness...(c) Hind sight reflection benefits are for the successful not for losers.
He is satisfied. He driven the country and the people deep into debt that can never be paid.
Jekk ma kellux il-benefficju tal-hindsight, jiddispjacini nghidlu li l-anqas tal-forsight ma kellu.
Do you regret taking €500/€600 not behind Parliament's Back but behind the Nation's Back, while telling us all that there are dark clouds on the Horizon? Do you regret doing/allowing all the discrimination that occurred under you Anti Democratic Government? How do you feel now that cases of corruption are surfacing everyday which occurred under your Leadership? Do you think that Justice should be done with those of your cabinet and inner circle as well as others who took part in all these cases of corruption, whoever he /she may be?