[WATCH] Only defending my country | Tony Zarb

Former GWU secretary-general Tony Zarb dismisses talk of ‘hate speech’, as he puts up a robust defence of his attacks on Nationalist MPs, PANA committee chairman Werner Langen, the Archbishop... and all other ‘traitors’ whom he accuses of ‘harming Malta’s interest’ 

Former GWU secretary-general, Tony Zarb (Photo: Chris Mangion/MediaToday)
Former GWU secretary-general, Tony Zarb (Photo: Chris Mangion/MediaToday)

Mr Zarb, you recently put up various posts describing Nationalist MEPs as ‘traitors’, and calling on ‘patriots’ to ‘defend their country’ against their attacks. It has been suggested that this sort of rhetoric could be interpreted as ‘incitement to violence’.  Let me start with a hypothetical question: if an MEP like Roberta Metsola or David Casa suffers some form of attack or reprisal following your comments... would you hold yourself responsible?

No. The language I used was purely a defence of my country. I felt that, not only David Casa and Roberta Metsola, but also people like the German chair of the PANA committee [Werner Langen]... I couldn’t bear to see the damage being done to my country. First of all, the people criticising me today for spreading hatred and venom (hdura) are, I think, the same people who had themselves spread hatred and a lot of venom in the five weeks of the campaign. And I don’t think they were fair. I think that whoever is saying those lies about me should take a look at himself, and ask himself how he has acted in the past weeks. I think it was an entire campaign built on hatred and venom...

What about your own language, though? To give an example: Langen responded by claiming that he was attacked by ‘Socialist dinosaurs’. Isn’t it partly true that this belligerent attitude towards ‘foreigners’ is itself a throwback to an older, more militant brand of Socialism, of the kind the GWU used to employ in the 1970s and 1980s?

No, I’ve already made it clear that the GWU has nothing to do with what I wrote... nor the Labour Party. I acted as a Maltese. I can’t accept that people like Langen – who, don’t forget, chairs the PANA committee – tells my country’s Prime Minister that he will ‘keep running after him’ and that he ‘will not get off scot free’. That is an unacceptable position to me. As chairman of that committee, this man is prejudiced from the outset. I can’t accept that... and there are many others who feel the same way. That’s why I said that he can’t continue to chair the PANA committee: this man is prejudiced against our prime minister and our country.

But ‘prime minister’ and ‘country’ are not interchangeable...

The prime minister is the prime minister of Malta...

Yes, but he is still subject to criticism. It is a fact that Muscat is under investigation. If Langen has prejudged him one way, you seem to be prejudging him the other.

But it cannot be that, when he [Muscat] hasn’t even appeared before the committee, they already say he ‘won’t get off scot free’. What sort of a comment is that? What sort of democracy does Mr Langen believe in, anyway? I’m not saying the prime minister shouldn’t be investigated, or that he shouldn’t testify before the committee; but they have already judged him and found him guilty. 

Langen’s comment must also be seen in the context of proven facts, not just allegations. It is a fact that Joseph Muscat retained Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri, despite the revelations about their offshore holdings in the Panama Papers. He went on to reappoint them after the election. Don’t you think, then, that the prime minister also invited that attitude from the EP, by obstinately refusing to face up to the Panama scandal?

I don’t think so. I think Joseph Muscat, in all the decisions he takes, always places the national interest first and foremost. 

How does that square up with this case, though?

It shows that the country needed those people...

Isn’t there a contradiction here, though? In your past role as secretary of the GWU, you always claimed to represent the worker. Here, however, we see a very different economic attitude: we are talking about offshore companies designed to hide suspicions transactions. The Panama scandal was ‘scandalous’ also because it reveals how the very rich – in and out of politics – get round tax systems, to the detriment of the global economy. It is the opposite of socialism. Were you comfortable when you saw all this coming to the surface?

No, to tell you the truth I wasn’t at all happy with those things. They were things that could have been avoided, in my opinion. But may I remind you that there were others who had offshore companies; but these people never faced any consequences. 

I assume you’re referring to former minister Ninu Zammit, also named in the Panama Papers...

Ninu Zammit, and then there was Austin Gatt, who forgot that he had a bank account in Switzerland. Recently it emerged that even Dr Mario de Marco has an offshore company...

In his case, though, he is a fiduciary director, not the owner.

Yes, but come on... it’s like he didn’t even know about it. Nobody knew about it. We only got to know about it now. 

At the same time, all this really means is that the Labour government is behaving just like the Nationalists when they were in power: they both had hidden overseas interests...

 What I’m saying is that there was a campaign based on all these things – an entire electoral campaign, based only on this – and the people rejected it by the largest majority in history. That’s what I can say. Because if the people believed that campaign, they would have decided differently. But it was rejected by the largest majority in history...

That’s one interpretation. Another is that the people were also choosing between Joseph Muscat and Simon Busuttil. They might have just decided that, on balance, they still preferred Muscat, regardless of corruption...

That in itself means they believed Muscat, not Busuttil. And they were ready to place their trust in him, in those numbers. That’s the only way to explain such a massive majority.

Do you take the electoral victory as a ‘not guilty’ verdict on the allegations? 

No, no. As you say, they are ‘allegations’; now, we have to see how the situation is going to develop. What I can say is that – and I spoke to many, many people about this – people are keen to see the outcome of the magisterial inquiry concerning the prime minister. They are getting impatient. We cannot carry on with this sense of anticipation. Let’s get to the bottom of this, so that the people can finally know the truth. But there is one difference; the prime minister had already declared, even before the election, that he would resign if the inquiry finds anything against him or any of his family. And Opposition leader Simon Busuttil – who was the one who started everything, together with his friend Daphne Caruana Galizia – never committed himself to resign. That’s the difference. And I think the people took note of that.

What are you yourself expecting from this inquiry?

That the truth will come out...

OK, but what do think the truth is? 

I believe the prime minister, 100%. 

This takes us back to the question of who’s prejudging whom. All the same, the clash with Langen also raised other political dimensions. People may have been reminded of a recent past when the GWU had taken a very strong position against the EU. Does the choice of language reflect a return to the militant anti-EU position of the past?

No way. I campaigned against EU membership, as you say, and I did it on the basis of a decision taken by the GWU’s biggest institution, the national conference. The conference decided the GWU’s line; I agreed with it, and promoted it. I’m not hiding behind the conference: I really believed, at the time, that joining was not in our interest. One of the reasons was that, in our opinion, we could have achieved a lot more from [negotiations with] the European Union: there were many sectors we represented that would have been negatively and directly impacted by membership. This is in fact what happened. But it’s fair to also say that, as soon as the people decided, the GWU issued a statement saying that we now must move in accordance with the people’s decision. And we stuck to that decision.

What is your opinion on the EU now, though? Has your position changed since the referendum?

Regarding the EU, no. I have nothing against the EU. For a long time I formed part of the TUC (Trades Union Congress), and we always participated openly. But still: whoever causes harm to my country, whether Maltese or foreign, to me are traitors...

Yet there was a time when the General Workers’ Union had likewise criticised the Maltese government at international level. During CHOGM in 2005, for instance, the GWU had organised a protest, in your own words, “wanted to show foreigners the hardships the Maltese workers were experiencing”. Separately, you also brought the TUC council over to Malta on a local issue. Aren’t these examples of the same attitude?

Not at all. First of all, we didn’t bring John Monks [the TUC general secretary] on that issue. Let me tell you when we brought him over: when they wanted to throw me and my colleagues in the GWU into prison for seven and a half years, over the issue we had concerning [a strike at the] MIA. We brought him to defend us on those charges. It had nothing to do with Malta.

But the protest in front of the Queen and other foreign heads of state was specifically to criticise Malta in front of foreigners. Don’t you see a parallel with that, and Nationalist MEPs criticising their government at the EP?

Not in the slightest. Not even remotely. The two things have nothing to do with each other.

But you yourself said that the purpose was to expose the government’s actions in front of foreigners. It seems to me that when Nationalists criticise Labour in front of foreigners, it’s ‘treachery’; but when Labour do the same thing, it isn’t even a problem.

It is not the same thing. Re the CHOGM protest, we happened to organise a protest that day. If foreigners saw what we were doing, that’s their business. But I didn’t go abroad to talk against my country... like those traitors did last week. It’s what you do abroad that matters: those MEPs went abroad to damage our country. And another thing, seeing as you talk about ‘Labour’ and ‘Nationalist’ governments.

Let me give you a few examples of what I, Tony Zarb, did under Nationalist administrations. Tony Zarb brought to this country a US investor willing to invest in the Drydocks, employing 5,000 people on a guarantee of 30 years’ work. Tony Zarb got a German investor to open a factory manufacturing electric cars, creating 400 jobs. Tony Zarb got an Italian from Milan, who wanted to take over the Maghtab landfill. If he did, there wouldn’t be that mountain there today.

Tony Zarb also got an investor interested in Selmun. All under Nationalist governments. But I have one regret. Because it was Tony Zarb who brought these people... they destroyed them (kissruhom). They destroyed all of them. That is my regret; and that’s why I always say: I love my country, Malta... whatever the circumstances, and whoever is in government. Those were just a few examples, by the way. I could tell you more. Tony Zarb had a lot of meetings outside Malta. But he never spoke a word against Malta. Never, not one. Not even when he was faced with a seven and a half-year prison sentence... 

At the same time, however, the two parties have more similarities than differences. The Labour Party has kept the same intrinsic economic model established by the PN: they rely on the same sectors, use the same taxation systems, upkeep the same welfare model... yet you talk about them as if they represent clean opposite political ideologies. What difference do you see between the two parties?

The difference I see is that, today, the Labour government is creating a strong economy so that wealth trickles down to the bottom. The Nationalist government under Gonzi was the opposite: it used to place burdens on the people... on workers, on pensioners...

But Gonzi had to contend with a major global economic crisis. Couldn’t it also be that Joseph Muscat was simply lucky... by the time he got to power, the crisis was over, and he could reap all the rewards?

I’d say Joseph Muscat recognised an opportunity, and exploited it.

Coming back to the trading of insults: you took personal offence to a statement by Archbishop Charles Scicluna condemning ‘hate speech’. I interpreted that comment to be a subtle criticism of both sides: as (let’s face it) neither side is exactly innocent...

You are wrong. Let me tell you why. The Archbishop spoke out in reply to my comments. That’s how it was reported. And I took offence at that, because the Archbishop who spoke out about my comments, kept his mouth shut about everything else that happened these past months. He said nothing about the divisive, hateful and venomous campaign we just went through. He never spoke about hate-speech coming from people he knows well, he associates with, and who are close to him. For example, the clique that is running the Church’s radio station. Not a word did I hear from the Archbishop. Was there no hatred and venom in any of that, I ask him? Where was he all that time? Where was he when there was a threat to my life, and my family? He said nothing. I will say it to him again: send for me. Not to confront him; I don’t want any confrontation with the Archbishop. But I want to explain to him why I react like this when somebody hurts my country...  

Do you mean the threats reported in connection with your stand on precarious work?

Yes. I was the first person to talk about precarious work in Malta. And ever since I spoke about it, my life, and my family’s lives have not been the same.  The threats and intimidation I received were serious. Evidently I trod on someone’s corns... and I ended up with policemen on guard duty outside my door. But if we start bringing up all the details, we’d never finish...


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