‘I still feel the people’s love’, says former PM Joseph Muscat of Labour support

Short on his Labour critics, laser-focused on ‘bitter’ Nationalist opposition and role in international discreditation, Joseph Muscat defends his record in government

Former Labour prime minister Joseph Muscat was interviewed by The Times
Former Labour prime minister Joseph Muscat was interviewed by The Times

Joseph Muscat’s appearance in the first of two segments of a Times of Malta interview saw the former prime minister dusting away accusations of his administrations’ misdeeds by pointing his finger at the Nationalist opposition, its former leaders, and of playing a part in Malta’s international discreditation.

Muscat, who resigned from parliament in 2020 after his disgraced exit from prime minister in December 2019 with the arrest of Yorgen Fenech, the Tumas magnate and secret business partner of former OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri, even refused to rule out an eventual return to politics.

“I do not exclude it… If it’s constantly ‘Joseph Muscat, Joseph Muscat, Joseph Muscat’... at some point Joseph Muscat has to reply. Alright? I don’t mean as prime minister or anything like that; that’s a closed chapter,” Muscat said, keenly self-aware of the level of his support as a politician as well as how his words would play out in the media. “Well, I’m giving you something for people to think about. Because people say I’m going to contest, so I figured I’d say I don’t exclude it.”

[WATCH] Regrets, he’s had a few… Muscat bows out basking in the glory of his supporters

Muscat was short about his Labour critics, some of which say he should be ejected from the Labour Party due to his role in harbouring Keith Schembri and his potential connection to the Caruana Galizia assassination and its mastermind.

“I see a chorus of people supporting me. While others might share different views, in the last weeks I’ve seen an unprecedented number of people supporting me. In reality, it’s irrelevant. I still feel the people’s love but I can’t gauge if I’m still popular or not… There are a number of people who have a right to express themselves and the media is promoting that opinion. What I can say is there’s a lot of support. I did what I had to do, I never feared people’s judgement and I never told anyone to shut up. I hope I’m allowed the same freedom to express myself.”

Muscat suggested that while the FATF greylisting was a manageable issue for Malta, its major headache was banking, citing as an example HSBC’s divestment of all gaming business due to international money laundering problems. “Gaming ended up almost entirely with Bank of Valletta. The moment Bank of Valletta began carrying that entire sector almost alone, it started being considered high-risk by international entities that have, for several years now, looked at Bank of Valletta and Malta in the same way greylisting [does]. I’m not saying greylisting is insignficant.”

Muscat was equally laser-focused on the role the Nationalist Party has played in discrediting the Labour administration, when asked about the effects of his government’s record on the FATF decision to greylist Malta.

“If you tell me that the criticism surrounding Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder and the subsequent fallout contributed to it, I have no doubt it did. Were there other competing countries that pushed Malta to be on the grey list because of legacy issues, like taxation and gaming? I was told of specific countries, not specifically those that are mentioned in the media. Finland’s report compared to ours is much worse. The difference is that other countries were united. In our case, whenever Labour’s in government, the opposition doesn’t help.”

Muscat claimed Labour when in opposition had not worked against the national interest, citing the Erika case (the Maltese-flagged oil vessel which caused an environmental disaster off France in 1999), former prime minister Lawrence Gonzi’s role as director on Nemea Bank, shuttered by the European Central Bank, his own son’s services to Maltese gaming companies with mafia links, or during John Dalli’s disgraced exit from European Commissioner in 2012 (whom Muscat later appointed as a government consultant).

“The (Labour) opposition at the time didn’t work against Malta’s interests. Nowadays, we have an opposition that incites people against Malta,” Muscat said. “Before I won the election they sent for me and asked me to keep it quiet [Dalligate 2012] because Malta will suffer. And I said nothing.”

He described former Opposition leader Simon Busuttil, his rival between 2013 and 2017, as a “bitter” man who attempted to trip up his own successor “because he’s no longer in charge”.

“The Nationalist Party has not changed its tactics. It remains bitter. So the Nationalist Party, or some of its people, have decided that because they cannot be in government, they should try to jam the institutions. Hence, the attacks on the attorney general. We’ve never had such attacks on the attorney general, not even when [former drug baron] Queiroz was released.

“We’ve never had attacks on the Finance Ministry’s permanent secretary. Alfred Camilleri was appointed by Lawrence Gonzi. He was there even before Gonzi. And all because his testimony about the [Vitals] hospitals deal was absolutely correct. So they are forcing civil servants and people in government – politicians to not take decisions, because every decision they take is attacked.”

Muscat said Labour had to keep taking decisions in the face of this kind of criticism. “I have regrets. I definitely have regrets. But I also have things that I am very proud of. And that’s why I say time will tell, and the legacy will emerge from there.”

Muscat, now working as an economics advisor, also denied consulting for companies like Steward Healthcare, that have a sort of contract with the government.

He laughed off rumours floated about on social media of a European dash from Paris to Turkey by car, a scene that would connect him to underhand dealings. “I went to Dubai last year, for work reasons. Give me a second. It makes me laugh. If I was a lawyer, nobody would ask me this question. They would say ‘he went to give legal advice’. I am an economist. I give economic advice. I provide advisory services to people locally and internationally. I look at trends in their industries, strategies in their sectors and advise on how they can perfect them.”

PN reaction

In a statement issued early on Friday morning, the Nationalist Party said it was incredible that Muscat, “who began his career campaigning to keep Malta out of the EU and ended it with getting the island greylisted” still blames the Nationalist Party “for all his bitter failings”.

“His interview is a desperate attempt to assert his dominance over Robert Abela and keep the Labour Party from expelling him over his involvement in creating a culture of impunity that led to the barbaric assassination of a journalist. While the official Prime Minister hides from interviews, Joseph Muscat threatens to return to politics if people keep annoying him. This shows exactly what Muscat thinks of his crowned continuity candidate, what he thinks of the electorate and how he views the purpose of politics.”