Of credibility and alternative governance | Marlene Farrugia

Formerly an MP for Labour and a general election candidate for the Nationalist party, PD leader Marlene Farrugia now hopes to form a ‘new political force’ with a serious chance of challenging Labour’s parliamentary majority


The last time I interviewed Marlene Farrugia, back in April 2016, the party she now leads – the Partit Demokratiku – was yet a twinkle in her eye. A lot has changed since then: the PD has since been formally launched, complete with a statute and an executive board... and the last thing we heard, Farrugia’s party was in talks with the PN about the possibility of forming a coalition to contest the next election. 

All along, however, we know little about the new political party beyond the public (and well-known) persona of its founder and current leader. Beyond the statute, the party is still working on policy papers and formulating an identity of its own.  It is by no means clear where it stands on various issues (still less, how its position might sit beside the better known ones of the much longer-established PN).

This naturally makes the identity of a possible PN/PD coalition something of a mystery, too. But one mystery at a time. What shape is the PD currently in, almost a year since its inception? And is it the same shape that Farrugia had in mind at the time of our last interview?

“At the time you’re talking about, I had just put up a public call on Facebook, to see who might be interested in forming part of a new political movement. We held a number of meetings, mostly at my St Julian’s home. With few exceptions, nobody knew anybody else present. The idea was to discuss what was needed... what everyone felt should be done, to pull us out of the political impasse everybody felt the country was in. We had just gone through a lot of trouble to get rid of a government that had been there for 25 years, and – especially in the last few years – had begun to show its teeth, and disappoint in various ways. And yet, after all the trouble we took to replace it with a new political movement built on very attractive ideas – transparency, accountability, meritocracy, environmental sustainability, economic sustainability and many other beautiful words – disillusionment immediately set in within the first few days...”

But while that may explain the demand for a new party, it tells us little about the PD itself. What does this new party stand for, for instance? 

“Our three basic pillars are good governance – to us, that is of overarching importance: unless you govern cleanly, and guarantee that justice is done and is seen to be done, everything else becomes meaningless. You would have lost your credibility before you even began. Then there’s environmental and economic sustainability: if we are going to achieve economic growth, it has to be sustainable growth. But the pillar that is closest to our hearts is social justice. We feel that, these days – not just in Malta, but in Europe, the USA and elsewhere – while it may be that society is getting richer, the difference between those getting by, and getting by well, and those who are struggling to make ends meet is too large. We would like to see the wealth generated by countries being distributed fairly...”

Well, Farrugia did mention ‘beautiful words’ earlier; and one of those lofty ideals (frequently cited by both Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and Opposition leader Simon Busuttil) is the ‘distribution of wealth’. Both the two main parties claim that this is their ultimate goal, too. So at the risk of sounding cynical (which I must confess I am, up to a point): why should we pay more attention when Marlene Farrugia or the PD makes the same promise? 

“The other parties have a track record. When you look back in depth over the years, you will realise that their policies are not always dictated, first of all, by what they themselves had promised; secondly, by the best interest of the people. On the contrary, they are dictated by interests that we only begin to understand later.

“Let me give an example. A government which – both sides have done this several times – takes a tract of public land: be it in an ODZ [protected] area or not... it’s still public land, which is there to be enjoyed by everybody... families have the right to go there and enjoy the fresh air, have a slice of mqarrun and a cup of tea... But it is taken away from them by the government, and given to the few... often for peanuts. They don’t even bother to get a decent price for land they are denying to the public. Then they tell us that the money raised from this one-time sale will be used to improve the people’s quality of life. That’s a case in point, and we’ve seen it from both sides. Zonqor Point, Manoel Island, Smart City... they were all sold off for a pittance. Is this a serious way of doing things, when there are 3,000 individuals – not to say ‘families’ – in a waiting list for social housing? And people struggling to cope with rent? Are they being serious?”

The most recent case was the ITS land transfer, which came in for heavy criticism by PD just this week. Marlene Farrugia slammed the government for transferring the ITS site in St George’s Bay – which the Paceville master plan had valued at €200 million – to a private investor [Seaport Franchising] for €60 million.

“Apart from the fact that the land was, in our opinion, significantly devalued, the investor – and I wish him well – is paying five million in cash, and the next 10 million over a seven year period at no interest. If the government, which is guaranteeing the interest-free arrangement, used that money as a guarantee so that more people, for the first time, can buy their own houses... because people in precarious employment, or who work without a contract, cannot apply for bank loans.

“These people can never make that leap forward, and become home owners. They have to rent, and in many cases they can’t keep up... especially how things are shaping up today. So when we talk about wealth creation, we must question whether the wealth generated is, first of all, commensurate with the value of the assets disposed by government. Are the people getting the full value for what they pay? Or is it the case that – for reasons that we can or cannot discuss, I think everybody knows what I’m talking about – no, the people are not getting their full due?  

As another example she cites the decision to entrust a foreign company with the construction and management of St Luke’s and the Gozo General Hospital: which surprises me, because in a recent interview I had asked Health Minister Chris Fearne if the intention was to privatise these hospitals (with significant implications for the health service as a whole), and his answer was an emphatic no. 

Farrugia is however unconvinced. “The way these contracts were drawn up, the most important parts remain inaccessible to the public. So what the minister claims can’t be proven. What I’m saying, however, is this: when you [the government] are dispensing the country’s assets, and then you don’t want to publish the contracts, or drag your feet to publish them... it is a cause for concern.  It’s not the way things should be done.”

This brings us to Farrugia’s plans to address these concerns, which at this stage seems to involve entering some form of official coalition with the Nationalist Party. There have been reports of negotiations taking place as we speak. What stage are these discussions currently at?

“Formally, negotiations with the PN began only this week. Before that, we were discussing ways in which we can create a new political force which unites the best elements in the country for the times ahead; a force which the people can really see as a credible alternative to this government. From the feedback I’m getting – and I’ll say it plain – people right now are not seeing the PN, on its own, as an alternative government...” 

Isn’t all this a little ironic, though? Farrugia herself began her career with the PN... contested the last election with Labour... was part of the Labour government for a while... and now seems to be gravitating back towards the PN...

“Let me correct you on one point: I have remained where I was. If, when I was with the PN, the PN moved too far to the right... I stayed at the centre. When I contested with Labour, it was on the promise of transparency, meritocracy and so on. We won on that promise, but what happened? One scandal after another, culminating in the Panama Papers.

“I stayed where I was all that time. I didn’t get elected to that type of governance; I got elected on the strength of an electoral manifesto that made those promises in black on white. I can understand if reality sometimes dictates otherwise, and certain things have to be amended... but you have to at least respect the spirit of the promises you made. I’m not the one who changed my position. Now: if parties say one thing in Opposition, but do another thing in government... [she shrugs]... well, it’s a problem. I suppose you’re now going to ask me what would happen if the PN do the same thing?”

As it happens: yes, I was. In fact, her own experience reinforces the point. Twice she has trusted the two parties when they were making grandiose promises from the opposition benches... twice she was disillusioned when both those parties sang a different tune when in government. What makes her think the next attempt will be any different? Is it a case of third time lucky?

“Let me explain: you’re asking me why I’m going back to the PN. But I’m not doing that. As a party, we would have our position...”

It would still be in a coalition government with the PN, though...

“Yes, but we would have our own position: and it remains good governance, environmental and economic sustainability – unlike what happened under this government. We got elected on the battle-cry of environment, and in no time at all... just look around you...” 

But that’s precisely the point of my question. She was disappointed by both parties on precisely the same issues... so isn’t the likeliest outcome that the experience will just repeat itself?

“No. Because if the people vote wisely [tajjeb]... if they elect a balanced coalition, that has the strength of people who have shown they will stand up for what is right... it will not happen again.”

But we’ve heard this so often in the past. When Lawrence Gonzi was elected PN leader (in 2004), the first thing he was asked was how his style of governance would differ from Eddie Fenech Adami’s. His answer was ‘the environment’. Two years later, people were protesting against the ODZ ‘rationalisation’ scheme. There is a consistent pattern of this happening, regardless whether it’s PN or Labour...

“Then we have to break that pattern.”

How? By entering a coalition with the same party – with nearly all the same people still there – which practically designed the system you hope to break?

“You have to look at the available options. At this stage we’re negotiating... but yes, the coalition is a possibility. But if we contest as only PD, we might elect one or two candidates... and Joseph Muscat’s Labour Party would still have the majority. We would be there, debating, discussing, like I do in parliament today...”

That’s another thing I was going to ask: PD is de facto already represented in parliament, by means of Farrugia’s seat. So how would that scenario differ, substantively, from the one she’s in now already?

“When you’re in Parliament, you can argue, you can debate, you can raise very good points... but when it comes to a vote [she snaps her fingers]. It’s useless. The government votes compactly: that was why I left Labour, in fact, over an environmental vote. In all cases, the last word is the government’s. In the case of Zonqor Point, we spent an entire night debating and discussing; all for nothing. That’s why we have to form a majority, to be in government...”

But wouldn’t it be the same type of government she’d be part of?  Wouldn’t it be a government composed of much the same people who had earlier disillusioned her, just as Labour did?

“You’re the one saying it will be the same. But if we form a coalition that elevates the PN – or the PL, for that matter: it doesn’t have to be the PN to be in a coalition – into something broader than it is today... that attracts different people who are decisive, who are determined to see that what was promised in 2013, and what people voted for, is implemented... they would be part of the coalition. It will not be the same; no longer just a question of just ‘PN’ or ‘PL’...”

At this stage it’s a hypothetical question, but if Farrugia feels her party can achieve this type of effect with the PN... would there be circumstances she would consider a coalition with Labour?

“In theory you could form a coalition with anyone. So yes. But the polls as they stand today suggest that Labour will still win an absolute majority...”

That’s why I asked the previous question. If I’m understanding correctly, under the present circumstances Labour would not need a coalition to govern, but the PN would. It’s a question of necessity, both for PD and for PN. Doesn’t this also imply that a coalition with the PN is also the only way for the PD, with Marlene Farrugia as its leader, to get into power?

“Not just to get into power, but to govern properly... hopefully.”

But don’t parties always say that they want to get into power to govern properly?  Isn’t that what caused all her earlier disillusionment?

“Yes, you are right. But that’s why we are trying to entice new people into politics – both people who have no direct experience, but also people of good will who used to be politically active – to be part of a prospective coalition that might be an alternative government if people vote for it. Remember that ultimately, it is the people who decide who get elected to Parliament. We need people of the best possible quality, because the coalition has to be higher than the two parties... or ours, for that matter.”

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