The PN’s ‘man with a plan’… | Frank Psaila

Nationalist MEP hopeful Frank Psaila dismisses the view that his party is pandering to xenophobic sentiments in this campaign: arguing that the PN is not ‘against foreigners’, but against unplanned immigration of non-EU nationals

Nationalist Party MEP hopeful Frank Psaila
Nationalist Party MEP hopeful Frank Psaila

The Nationalist Party seems to be passing through a nadir in its 125-year history. It has now lost multiple elections on the trot; and recent surveys indicate it might fare even worse on 25 May. How do you account for this nosedive in the PN’s electoral fortunes?

Let me put it his way: the Nationalist Party lost an election almost two years ago; but it didn’t go into Opposition two years ago. It has now been in Opposition for six years, after suffering two heavy defeats: one by 35,000 votes, and the other by almost 40,000.  It is clear, then, that over the years the PN has lost a significant portion of its traditional voter-base. There are many reasons for this: the faction of people who can be defined as ‘liberals’ – who had always felt comfortable supporting the PN in the past – were disappointed by the party’s handling of the divorce issue, and civil rights in general. They no longer felt represented by the party they had always believed in. Then there were other factions: businessmen, self-employed, entrepreneurs, etc. – who were irked by excessive bureaucracy in institutions such as MEPA, and various government departments. So, from a party that had always ‘opened the door’ to these people, which had enabled their businesses to grow… the PN started to be perceived as the party that was making things difficult for them. There was a feeling of ‘tightness’ in bureaucracy; a certain ‘stuffiness’ in the air. These people felt cut off from the PN. On top of that, there was naturally the element of time: 25 years in government worked against the party’s interests. Put all that together, and you end up with thousands of people moving away from the Nationalist Party. That is what many people tell me on house visits…

But that only explains why the PN lost in 2013: it doesn’t account for the party’s apparent failure to recoup any of its losses since then. Why is the PN finding it so difficult to rebuild itself?

One of things the PN failed to do, over time, was to take stock of how society was changing. I remember, for instance, how Joe Friggieri – who had addressed a PN general council a few years ago – had said that, once Malta had joined the European Union, it was as though ‘the windows had been opened, letting the fresh air in’… or words to that effect. What it implies is that, while the PN can be credited with steering Malta towards EU accession, it didn’t do enough to prepare itself for the changes that the EU would bring about…

But isn’t that equally true today? This was something Joseph Muscat actually said just yesterday: the PN boasts about taking Malta into Europe… then puts up billboards complaining that Malta is now ‘full of foreigners’. Given that the EU is based on the principle of freedom of movement: why was the PN so keen on joining in the first place, if it wanted to keep foreigners out of Malta?

But we have to make a distinction here, between EU nationals, and non-EU nationals. We knew from day one that, by joining the EU, EU citizens would be able to come and live here…

Sorry, but there is no mention of this distinction on your billboards. They just say ‘Mtlejna Barranin’. I was generous earlier by translating that as ‘full of foreigners’. A more idiomatically accurate translation would be ’littered with foreigners’. Why should EU nationals, living and working here in full legality, not interpret that as a reference to themselves?

But nobody is complaining about people from Sweden, or other EU countries, coming to Malta to work in well-paid sectors such as iGaming or financial services. On the contrary, these people are an asset to Malta: they come here bringing knowledge and experience to the sectors they work in; and they are also having the effect of increasing wages…

They are increasing a lot more than just wages… rental prices have also skyrocketed, as has the cost of living in general. You yourself recently posted pictures of people sleeping on benches. Who is responsible for the inflation that makes rent unaffordable to those people: the African who came here by boat… or the EU national, earning a sky-high salary, who can afford to rent a one-bedroomed apartment for 2,000euro a month?

But my point is that these people [EU nationals] are also bringing added value to the country. Meanwhile, in many areas you will find small, three-room apartments, being rented by six or seven foreigners from non-EU countries, at 200euro a head. Until a few years ago, that same flat would not have been rented out for more than 400euro a month. Today, in places like Hamrun, Gzira, Birzebbuga, etc, these apartments are rented out for 1,200euro a month. So even those areas which used to be affordable to Maltese families, are now being priced out of reach…

But what is causing all this inflationary pressure, if not the influx of highly-paid, skilled workers from the EU? Yet the PN seems to be blaming only the poor, unskilled immigrant from Africa and Asia. Why is the PN targeting such a poor, vulnerable minority group?

We’re not targeting anyone…

How else can you describe a billboard describing ‘foreigners’ as ‘the problem’, if not a case of ‘targeting the foreigner’?

We’re not targeting foreigners, but the government’s policy. That is the problem here. The problem is that this government has made it a policy to attract low-paid workers from third countries where the local salaries and conditions are much lower than in Europe. Is it acceptable, for instance, that around 145 people were found living in a farm in Qormi? Do you accept that a whole category of third country nationals were recently found to be working for 1.45euro an hour? Today, with the government boasting about Malta having become ‘the best in Europe’… I don’t expect people to be getting paid 1.45euro an hour. I don’t expect to find people cooped up in tiny flats, or sleeping on benches because they can’t afford rent. This is all happening due to this government’s policies…

Perhaps, but it’s the PN’s policy direction I’m questioning here. Why, for instance, do you distinguish between foreigners only on the basis of pay? The lower end of the salary scale is important, too…

There are certain sectors where foreign employees are needed, and not always from the EU. We understand that; we are not talking about restricting immigration in those cases. All we are saying in that there needs to be a plan. Immigration needs to be better managed…

Can you explain why we should trust the PN to come up with this plan, when it mismanaged immigration so completely in the past? Earlier you talked about places like Marsa, Birzebbuga, etc. Whose idea was it, to locate almost all Malta’s open and closed detention centres in those areas to begin with? Wasn’t it the Nationalist government that created all the social problems you now complain about in those areas?

I did not agree with the decision to locate the open centre in Marsa at the time. What I saw wrong with it, is that it resulted in a concentration only in one area.  This was a mistake…

It was a mistake that was pointed out at the time, by the media, NGOs, etc. Did you need hindsight to come to that conclusion?

But excuse me: the present government promised to close down the Marsa open centre. And it’s still there…

That doesn’t change the fact that past Nationalist administrations were responsible for creating the ‘no-go zones’ you now complain about. So I’ll repeat my earlier question: why should we trust the PN to ‘solve’ a problem, when it created that problem itself?

The ‘no-go zones’ have increased because of the lack of enforcement in those areas. If there was adequate enforcement, you wouldn’t have so many cases of large numbers of people living in sub-standard conditions. But to answer you about the PN’s responsibility. Yes, there was responsibility. And the party shouldered that responsibility when it suffered two consecutive defeats. How long are we going to carry on flagellating the Nationalist Party for every mistake it made in the past? We paid for those mistakes: and heftily, too. But the PN did a lot of good things as well. The PN brought about great changes in this country. I myself would not have been able to go to University, if it weren’t for those changes: because I come from a working-class family. Wasn’t it the PN which flung open the doors to tertiary education in Malta…?

Yes… in 1987. Look how deep into history you have to dig, to find examples of ’great Nationalist achievements’…

OK, how about 2003, then, when we took Malta into the European Union?

But that takes us back to where we started: the PN led us into Europe… only to now complain about the effects of EU accession…

No, we are not complaining about the effect of accession. I’m sorry, I have to insist on this. We are complaining about the lack of a plan for third country immigration. The two things are totally different. And we complain about it because it is a national concern. This newspaper conducts surveys; you know as well as I do that there is serious concern about the large number of third country nationals coming to Malta. Do you have any idea how many people are coming, every day, from Bangladesh…India… Pakistan… is this part of a plan?

What do you have against people from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, anyway? Adrian Delia recently warned us about the ‘danger’ that ‘future schoolchildren will be taught by Pakistani teachers’. Do you really think this sort of ‘nationality-shaming’ is doing the PN any favours?

I have nothing against people from those countries, or anywhere else. The argument is about the economic model chosen by the present government. It’s a very simple model: import as many foreign workers as you can, asking for the lowest wages possible; and sustain the flow of property by means of all these foreigners. Is that acceptable to you?

The question Is whether it is acceptable to the industries employing them. Farsons recently told Delia that they were concerned at his proposal to limit third-country immigration, as they need thousands of workers they can’t find locally. What is the PN’s response to those concerns?

Do you think all these foreign workers are employed at Farsons? Most end up working in construction…

What’s the difference? Sandro Chetcuti raised much the same point: without a steady influx of manual Labour, construction in Malta would grind to a halt. What is the PN proposing to stop that from happening?

I was present at a recent meeting of the Malta Developers’ Association, and I can tell you exactly what Sandro Chetcuti said. He complained that there isn’t a long-term plan. Adrian Delia spoke after him, and said the same thing. But then, the Prime Minister spoke… and what did he say? He said: ‘I don’t agree we need to plan. I don’t see any reason to plan ahead for the next 20 years.” What is that, if not short-term planning at its worst?

 

So… what is the PN’s plan? How will the PN put its own immigration policies into practice when in government?      

Our plan is to ask ourselves what this country will need in 15, 20 years’ time. We need a masterplan, tailored for the specific social realities of various parts of Malta. Paceville, for instance. There was a masterplan once. What happened to it? It was drawn up, so I’m guessing it was paid for… but then it was put back in a drawer and forgotten. If you ask me, that is symptomatic of this government’s entire approach.

Earlier, you talked about the PN ‘flagellating itself’… and it seems, at moments, that this is happening very literally. Recently, you came in for criticism at the hands of Nationalist critics for accepting a TV sponsorship from the Tumas Group, despite the link between ’17 Black’ and the same company. Without entering into the issue itself: this was the umpteenth case of PN exponents publicly attacking other PN exponents. Can you comment about this? What does it tell us about the state of the party today?

I can only speak for myself. When there was a process to elect a new party leader [in 2017], it was a different process from the one we were used to. Before, only the party councillors would vote; but then, the process was changed. To be fair, it was Simon Busuttil who opened up the elections to the card-holding members. I agreed with that change, and the principle it was based on: that the people would have a say in electing the party leader. With 20,000 voters, the process is now much more representative… not just of the party, but also of society as a whole. And those 20,000 voters elected Adrian Delia… who was an outsider to the party; he had never been actively involved in politics before. The reaction was therefore somewhat predictable. Inevitably, there were going to be people who had been militating within the party for many years, who’d ask themselves: ‘Who is Adrian Delia? Where is he coming from?’ They would have been uncomfortable with the choice of new leader…

Don’t you think that’s putting it rather mildly? Simon Busuttil had asked the PN council to expel Delia on the eve of the election…

There was, as I said, resistance to Delia as the new PN leader. And I am an example of this myself. It is a well-known fact that I did not support Adrian Delia for the leadership; but after he was elected, not only did I not find the door closed to me… but Delia flung it wide open. And he did this not just for me, but for everyone in the party. Now, I can understand that people might not agree with Delia about everything…. Nor should they. It would be foolish to follow the party leader blindly in everything. I myself publicly disagreed with the PN’s position on divorce, for instance. And I was the PN’s Information Secretary, at the time. But let’s be clear about this. Adrian Delia is the leader of the Nationalist Party. It is useless to deny this: the people chose him, not anyone else. Now: if we are not going to respect the democratic process, in this instance… just look at what a contradiction it would be. We, the PN, are the party that fought for democracy in the 1980s. And now, we are going to go against a democratic decision, taken internally by the PN? It’s absurd. Adrian Delia is the leader of the Nationalist Party. And that’s that.

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