A vintage moderate | Leo Brincat

Vigilant in his scrutiny of government, moderate in language, eager to show Labour’s propositive side and somewhat evasive on conflicting interests, a vintage Leo Brincat embodies the vicissitudes of Joseph Muscat’s moderate and progressive movement.

Elected party president way back in 1978, Leo Brincat proceeded to serve as MP, minister and frontbencher in the Opposition under four, very different, Labour leaders.

He claims he has never been more at ease in the party than in the past two years, during which for the first time, Joseph Muscat managed to make his party electable “for the first time since we lost the majority in the country.” He attributes this squarely to the Labour leader’s greater connectivity to voters. “Joseph Muscat has managed to build on the positives of all his predecessors. He is not confrontational in his approach and he has put the concept of outreach at the top of his agenda.”

Still, recent events in parliament following Labour’s outrage at a speaker’s ruling on Justyne Caruana’s vote on the opposition’s Delimara power station extension motion have been interpreted as a sign of a more confrontational approach by the opposition. Has this derailed the focus from Labour’s rational arguments on the Delimara power station extension, and the Auditor General’s report on the BWSC contract?

Brincat insists the impasse was not something brought about by Labour but describes it as a reaction to “the below-the-belt trick by the government side”.

He insists that had the Justyne Caruana incident not occurred, there would have been no uproar on the opposition benches.
But was it not disproportional for the Opposition to withdraw its representatives from a committee discussing vital matters like electoral reform and party financing?

“We have made it clear that if the government had to somewhat apologise to Caruana in the same way as Joseph Muscat and Joe Mizzi did openly on the Mario Galea case, this would be a closed chapter.”

But why of all things withdraw from a committee which was appointed on the Opposition’s insistence? “In our opinion the way the government acted and what we perceived as almost collusion between the Speaker of the House, the Clerk and the executive as represented by the person of the Deputy Prime Minister, made a mockery of the whole concept of strengthening democracy.”

Is there a risk that by projecting the party as a movement of moderates and progressives, Muscat appears to be trying to appeal to all and sundry? Brincat disagrees, interpreting the strategy as a way to counter “the disillusion which exists with the political class.”
He states that by presenting itself as a movement the party is more in synch with those who agree with it on certain specific issues “without being fully associated with the party on ideological grounds.”

Brincat has been very effective in scrutinising the government, tabling 1,173 parliamentary questions in the first two years of the legislature. But how does Brincat fare when asked about Labour’s concrete commitments if elected in government?

On the use of heavy fuel oil at the power station, he is very categorical in excluding its use, but he refrains from committing himself on an alternative. He points out that by the time of the next election, in two or three years there could be technological alternatives in the market which could be even cheaper than heavy fuel oil. “Why should we box ourselves in a corner when we could have options which are not available right now?”

But what if the alternative to heavy fuel oil turns out to be more costly? Brincat replies by disputing the government’s contention that HFO is less costly than gas and diesel. “It was very unfair to compare like with like without factoring in the disposal of toxic waste and other issues.”

But ultimately people’s health should come first. “We should first of all induce people to realise that health is the primary consideration...”

Yet despite the use of heavy fuel oil, the EIA suggests that if the prototype Delimara plant functions according to plan and the toxic gases are transformed into exportable toxic ashes, Malta will still conform to European emission rules.

But Brincat remains unconvinced insisting that a trust deficit exists on the way standards are maintained and implemented in Malta. “When you consider how long it took for us to fall in line with emission monitoring rules on the present power station and the track record of the unexplained black dust, fumes from Hexagon house, and the switched-off precipitators, one can only come to the conclusion that apart from an environmental deficit we have a major trust deficit.”

Brincat also lambastes the government for putting the cart before the horse by taking energy related decisions in the absence of an overall energy policy, which will not be finalised until next November. He also expresses his concern on how Enemalta’s electricity generation plan for the years 2006-2015, which proposed the use of gas instead of HFO, was ditched by the same minister under whose responsibility the corporation fell.

“It is still baffling why the same minister who was responsible for this policy, ditched the same policy a few years later… We had this electricity generation plan ditched by the same minister who fathered it.”

Over the past two years Brincat has made a solid effort to project his party as a propositive party on environmental issues, ranging from solar rights to grant people protection from obstruction to exploiting solar energy from their rooftops, to concrete proposals on climate change.

But the party has been more timid on issues which could cost votes. One such issue on which the party has been remarkably silent is the over-extraction of groundwater from boreholes, which is calculated to be 12 million cubic meters more than what should be allowed. Where does the Labour Party stand on the government’s decision to install meters to measure the amount of water extracted from every borehole in Malta?

Brincat replies by accusing the government of betraying pre-electoral promises to farmers, even if the government has so far taken no decision on whether borehole water will be charged or not, thus limiting the exercise to data collection.

“Once again the government has been acting as it has acted on many other issues, it made a lot of pre-electoral promises and now that it is realising that there is a deficit in our aquifer’s supplies, it is resorting to heavy handed measures simply because we are in the middle of the legislature and still far away from the election.”

Brincat even claims the government had made pre-electoral reassurances to farmers that it would adopt a “softly softly” approach on this issue.

When pressed, he admits that there is nothing wrong in the principle of metering boreholes but he expresses reservations on the government’s approach. “This problem has to be addressed. We are aware that the same problems will be inherited by a Labour government but it has to be addressed in a sustainable approach… You cannot use a stream-roller approach overnight to make up for the shortcomings of past administrations.”

Farmers are not the only people extracting the water gratis. Should not commercial companies like Coca Cola bottlers General Soft Drinks and other producers of mineral water start paying for the water they are extracting?

Brincat shares my dismay at the fact that Coca Cola was awarded a prestigious environment award for their contribution to sustainability, when they are getting a significant share of the water they sell for free. But even in this case he refrains from being categorical. “One cannot go to extreme measures which would bring such an industry to a complete halt, but to award these people for abusing the system is unacceptable.”
So what’s Labour’s way forward?

“Labour will be looking at water as a strategic resource that needs to be addressed effectively and efficiently but in a way that is sustainable for the man of the street whether a farmer or a normal taxpayer.”
But can we afford speaking generically when experts have warned of an impending water crisis by the next decade, forcing Malta to rely on expensive desalinisation processes?

“I am not saying that we should accept the status quo… Business as usual is not an option, but you cannot ignore the government’s trait of going against what was promised before the election.”

He also reminds me that it was Labour government in 1997 which first undertook the task of registering boreholes in Malta, a step which had to be repeated by Minister George Pullicino a full decade later during which nothing was done to address the growing water deficit.

Brincat doubts whether the government will in fact manage to accomplish anything. “I suspect everything will be ground to a halt by next year as by then it would have entered pre-electoral mode.”

Would the Opposition be willing to engage with the government to come up with a common position with the government on an issue related to what is essentially a vital resource?

Brincat insists Labour needs to take stock of the situation before agreeing to concrete measures. “There have been too many covert snippets of information on so many subjects… As a party we first to take stock of the situation before prioritising the concrete measures we have to take.”

Land use is another hot potato in a small island like Malta. The Labour Party has recently reneged on its outright opposition to an airstrip in Gozo saying that it won’t exclude it. Wasn’t this a major U-turn considering the fact that one of Alfred Sant’s first decisions when elected in 1996 was to scrap the airstrip proposal?

Brincat defends Labour’s new position on the basis of the principle that “one cannot take any decision on any issue by excluding a priori any particular option”. But he clearly steers away from any commitment in favour of the airstrip. “The only commitment we have made is that the issue of connectivity between the two islands has to be addressed. We can only determine how through truly independent studies and we have to take note not just of the business interests but also of the social and environment impact.”

And while he does not exclude the airstrip, Brincat raises another potential hurdle for the development: its carbon footprint. “One should not limit environmental studies just to its impact on agriculture, but one should also assess its carbon footprint.”

Neither does the Labour Party have a clear yea or nay on the Hondoq ir-Rummien development. “Our position is that it is high time is that on these issues the public is allowed to have a say in a way which rises above bi-partisan politics.”

But Brincat warns that unless the issue of political party funding is addressed, this will not happen, adding that as long as party financing is not regulated, developers and speculators will be able to exert their pressure.

This naturally begs the question on whether speculators are exerting pressure on the Labour party not to speak on the Hondoq project. “I’ll be honest… no developer has approached me as far as Hondoq ir-Rummien is concerned. I can also confirm the PL has not received any financing from the promoters of Hondoq project.”

Considering that the Labour Party issues two or three press releases a day, why has the party not spoken on the Hondoq ir-Rummien issue? “We are giving this issue top prominence on Maltastar, on One TV… the Labour party has not taken a hands-off approach.”

But without taking a position, I interject.

“I disagree… When we take a position we are often criticised for politicising an issue. We have to act as a political party not as a pressure group. And these issues should not be fought in the political arena.”

Still Brincat acknowledges that ultimately decisions in these matters are taken by politicians. “That is why the issue of political funding has to be addressed. When the chickens come home to roost and a decision has to be taken at MEPA, people will have to stand up and be counted and then we will be getting the government-appointed members voting invariably in a way toeing the government’s line.”

Brincat also relates his experience in the Galdes commission, appointed in the mid-1990s to discuss party financing. “We were always close to reaching an agreement. It was always the Nationalists who wavered from reaching a final agreement.”

In another example of his propositive frame of mind, Brincat has presented a number of amendments to the MEPA reform bill geared at ensuring greater scrutiny. One of Labour’s proposals is that of transforming parliament’s committee on planning and development, which meets very rarely, into an instrument of continuous scrutiny on the same lines as the Public Accounts Committee, which is chaired by the Opposition.

“The Prime Minister, very misleadingly, tried to give the impression that we intend to start issuing permits ourselves… showing a lack of understanding of what scrutiny entails. We suggest that the MEPA ombudsman will have the same faculty as the Auditor General, so that whenever he deems fit he can ask the parliamentary committee to discuss any report which he conducted on his own initiative.”