Politics is his calling | Aaron Farrugia

Former Labour Party youth leader Aaron Farrugia says politicians have to brush up their game and start getting more brainy about the way they help people

Former Labour Party youth leader and PL candidate Aaron Farrugia • Photo: Ray Attard
Former Labour Party youth leader and PL candidate Aaron Farrugia • Photo: Ray Attard

35-year-old Aaron Farrugia has not even sat down before he starts firing off at the dearth of political awareness he is meeting on the streets, complaining that politicians are feeding off opiated voters who only clamour for cosy government jobs and subsidised housing.

A self-declared ‘people person’ with a fondness for Tony Blair, Farrugia is keen to tell me that he has not been specifically ‘asked’ to contest the elections. He wants to dispel the impression that his long-time activism for the party (he has served as deputy mayor in Ta’ Xbiex and on the Labour executive committee) means that he has been anointed. As a person who specifically wants to be in politics for the long haul, he tells me that it was he specifically who asked to be considered for a candidature, a decision that has yet to be made by the party.

But he still is very much part of the new generation of Labourites that was drawn to Joseph Muscat’s leadership bid. As a youth party member, Farrugia assisted in Muscat’s leadership campaign in 2008, and later was education secretary in the Labour executive apart from handling the compilation of the 2013 electoral manifesto as secretary, and running Labour think-tank Fondazzjoni Ideat. Today he serves as CEO of the Malta Freeport regulator – hand-picked of course by the new Labour government, a skewed aspect of meritocracy which he is however keen to talk about later on.

For now, as we sit down to talk about his desire to be elected to parliament, we talk about his slogan ‘Era Gdida’ (new era) and his conviction that politics needs seriously intelligent people who can talk policy, and not just win a popularity contest.

“The country needs a new era of politicians. Not just politicians who get chosen simply for the amount of jobs they dispense, the housing they find for voters, or the myriad favours they do for them. We need politicians who can offer expertise, and we need people to decide who their MPs are according to their expertise. People will still get what they want: they will get jobs if they have politicians who can generate economic growth and give results,” Farrugia, an economist and now fresh out of law school, says.

Farrugia knows the culture of political patronage and clientelism is ingrained in the way the Maltese do politics.

“It’s a daily experience for me. People tell me, ‘sure, we like you… but can you find my son a job, can you get my single-mother daughter a house, if you help us we will help you’,” he trails off and shakes his head. “It’s a race to the bottom. Politicians are being chosen not because of their policies, but because of the amount of favours they can do for people. And this is made even more possible with Maltese politicians being 24/7 available and visible in a small country like ours.”

Despite being close to the Labour caste of Muscat supporters and a familiar face to Labour voters, Farrugia claims he shuns the Maltese popularity contest. “If the electoral system stays as it is, this mentality will never change,” he declares. “Not that it will change any time soon,” he adds.

On the first district he wants to contest, Aaron Farrugia’s ‘rivals’ will be his own party candidates: incumbents Louis Grech and José Herrera are deputy prime minister and a junior minister respectively, while GP Deo Debattista will surely defend his patch. With his political affectations being of the cerebral kind, Farrugia says winning hearts and minds is only down to sympathetic faces and patronage in overdrive.

“My race is not against Mario de Marco or Claudio Grech… but with those from my party, with my same values. How are going to distinguish ourselves? By going on Kalamita [One TV’s midday parlour-of-Labour] to talk about haemmorroids and giving out legal advice… is this how we are going to decide who our politicians are?”

So he turns to the electoral system, which he says is the crux of the entire patronage shebang. “We should ditch the 13 districts, and instead have one district for each elected MP… say, 60. The party interviews the candidates who want to the sole selected candidate on each district, and only one candidate is fielded for that one particular constituency. So voters can only choose a politician from a party, and make their choice because of the difference between them, not because of the favours they dish out,” Farrugia says, with some give-or-take on how a parliamentary majority could be formed with a system that could deliver super-majorities. But that’s all stuff to be ironed out by the maths guys. What the system needs, he says, is to get rid of the inter-party rivalry that makes patronage such an essential part of being elected.

So his rival will not be Claudio Grech, I tell him, who finances his own foundation with his MP’s salary to dish out iPads to kids in Valletta schools. And it’s here that I learn that Farrugia has his own personal foundation, the Fondazzjoni Anton Buttigieg.

“Look, I don’t have the money to give people iPads or supply concrete for the Hamrun football nursery,” he starts off. “The foundation is there to improve people’s quality of life. So I apply for EU funding so that we can organise parental courses to help them identify learning disabilities in their children at an early age. We have signed an MOU with an employment agency so that we forward CVs to them and have them in their database, and we have another MOU with a school sponsoring courses in IT and English. For them it’s corporate social responsibility. I help out with my contacts.

“But I do believe in empowerment, and that’s where I see my role as an MP.

“I meet people who really need help. The Cottonera area has its social stigma, but the problems in the first district (Valletta, Floriana, Hamrun) are also there and less visible. I have met people with little aspirations or who are in precarious employment, and when I see their children I just ask myself what kind of future they will possible have. My kid is 3 now, and she has all the love and help she could possible need. And when I see these kids, that’s when I say that I am pleased I’m heading into politics, to work for these people.”

Farrugia singles himself out as someone whose political ambition is to make parliament his second home come the next election, and here we broach the issue of salaries for MPs and ministers. They must rise, he says, otherwise the game will be run by businessmen and lawyers with safe war-chests.

“Salaries make a difference. You need a worthwhile remuneration that attracts the best minds. The Gonzi administration went about it the wrong way because the salary increases were made behind people’s backs. Labour capitalized over the issue. But Muscat has proposed a specialized committed to analyse what politicians need and what they deserve. I think Labour over-stressed the ‘negative’ of Gonzi’s salary increase, and for now, we cannot move forward on this issue. But I think the committee should start discussing the issue of remuneration.”

Neither has Muscat done himself any favours by allowing former parliamentary secretary for the elderly Franco Mercieca to retain his surgery, in an exception to the code of ethics barring ministers from private employment.

“I think he had to choose. You’re either going to serve your country or your sector. And I think the latter is where Franco’s forte was [Mercieca is a specialist ophthalmologist]. I think a politician has to be full-time, accessible to the people, and one who retains a work-life balance… you can’t be an MP with a legal practice in the morning, constituency visits in the afternoon, and parliament in the evening.”

Again I ask whether Muscat and so many appointments of Labour activists to boards, committees and other public company boards, has only fed the impression that the state’s coffers were opened up to the select few. Take MPs who serve as chairmen of government companies; don’t they double up as the much-maligned parliamentary assistants Gonzi created in 2011?

“Parliamentary assistants used to do nothing. They were created so that MPs could take an additional salary home, while today we have part-time MPs chairing public companies. Money has been saved by having no parliamentary assistants and instead having the MP’s income supplemented by being of service to the country.”

Farrugia however says that much of the criticism about Labour’s meritocracy pledge, ignores the realities of political administration. “Every government needs people it can trust, especially in sensitive entities. Now with the Central Bank, the MFSA and the NSO, these sensitive posts were retained by incumbents,” he says as he digresses to recent revelations of employees leaking data to the Opposition. “I worked with the NSO for years, and it would have never crossed my mind to be disloyal to my employer. But that is also why certain positions have to be manned by people of trust.”

So we turn to his €50,000 post as CEO of the Freeport regulator. “Yes I was handpicked,” Farrugia says, ready to engage in an explanation.

“In my position, government is putting logistics forward as one of the sectors the country wants to see growing. The government needs not just somebody who is competent – and at 35, believe me, I don’t want to fail in this role but have results that speak for themselves – but also someone who shares its vision to drive the sector forward. And that’s what I am doing, reviewing Freeport legislation with my minister (Herrera) for plans for a free-trade zone.”

I say that it’s an easy explanation that could be applied to any sector. Farrugia goes further. “Sensitive positions include chairman and CEOs. I believe meritocracy should be really applied at middle-management positions because it’s these people who execute the vision and direction of the board.”

Farrugia makes similar concessions for the grave shortcomings in governance under Labour, declaring himself to be at odds with the notion that Labour is in bed with property speculators. “If I see Labour become that party that is in collusion with property speculators, I will not be part of it,” he says, although he admits that the perception is clearly there.

“What I see is that we have had resignations when they were demanded,” he says referring to Manuel Mallia and the Sheehan incident. “And on Old Mint Street’s expropriation, there are independent investigations. So while I am worried about this perception of Labour, I’m not worried about the action being taken, because the Prime Minister will take the steps necessary to address these shortcomings. And the minute I don’t see this kind of attention, I will leave,” Farrugia boldly states.

“Yes there are elements in Labour that are close to property speculators,” he says as we drift onto to the clash with the environmental movement and the American University of Malta. “But this is a government, not a bowls club. There are people are who are not fit for purpose, who might abuse of their roles, and who have to face the music for that. I’m sure the PM will continue cleaning the party’s name… he said he would not let anyone tarnish this movement.”

The movement: is it not there where the contradictions between Labour’s pro-business drive and the aspirations of the green lobby were born?

“Today we have a grand coalition of voters. Muscat has tapped into their aspirations, and I don’t see other parties doing it. I think it’s down to both Muscat and his policies. He truly shift the country’s tectonic plates, because there are people out there who voted for Labour for the first time in 2013 and will do the same in 2017 or 2018,” Farrugia says of the presidential gel that keeps the Labour ‘movement’ content, for now.

So it is clear that with Muscat some sort of legislative retirement by 2023 (at the end of a second term or even after securing a possible third term), it will be even harder to find a leader who can secure the movement’s future.

But Farrugia is cocksure about the qualities of the next leader. “I’ve no doubt there will be someone with charisma and foresight to lead Labour. I don’t see Muscat finishing from politics. He will have a future in Europe, possible getting a real portfolio in the European Commission or leading the S&D or the Party of European Socialists. I actually see him take up Federica Mogherini’s post,” he says of the EU’s ‘foreign minister’ job. “I truly believe we will have a Maltese national in this kind of post one day.”

Won’t he just step into a consultant’s position with Henley & Partners selling citizenship, I ask?

“Oh I think he would have tired of being a salesman by that time,” he quips.

You know, by 2023 a new Labour leader will have to be elected not just by some 700 party delegates, but by practically the entire party membership – which really means fresh-faced, ambitious Young Turks like Farrugia could be all suitable candidates for the top job.

“Sarkozy said that every day he shaved he thought about being President. I’m not like that,” he laughs. “But what are you getting at? Whether I’d like to be prime minister. Sure, why not?”