[WATCH] Messages from Castille: Robert Abela’s politics of compromise

Prime Minister Robert Abela sits down with Kurt Sansone and talks about the Joseph Muscat legacy, the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder, getting tough on Steward, abortion, government’s environmental contradictions and Roberta Metsola

Prime Minister Robert Abela
Prime Minister Robert Abela

The Labour Party was elected for the first time into government 10 years ago. How do you describe this decade?

It was a decade in which the Labour Party in government put into practice its fundamental principle of social justice. It gave everyone the opportunity to achieve their aspirations… But not everything was right in these 10 years and like every other government the Labour Party could have done better in some instances…

There is one episode which you cannot describe as ‘could have been done better’ because it was an ugly episode. I am referring to the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia. Does it anger you that the only, and hopefully never again, journalist to ever be killed in Malta because of her work happened under a Labour administration and linked to it was a web of criminals, people in business and people in power, in this case people close to the Labour government?

Undoubtedly, the murder was a black mark on our country and we learnt a lot of lessons from it. There was a public inquiry but even before that concluded this country embarked on a series of institutional reforms… how the police commissioner is appointed, how the judiciary and chief justice are appointed, how the president is elected. Once the inquiry report was out, I immediately publicly apologised to the Caruana Galizia family because I felt that was the first step to bring about reconciliation and start the healing process…

Did reconciliation happen?

We’ve done a lot of progress. I met on multiple occasions with Daphne Caruana Galizia’s relatives and I also put out the message that no negative comments will be tolerated about her relatives, particularly her son. But we also know that people have been charged in court with the murder and some have also been sentenced to jail…

And what about those odious links between criminals, people in business and people in power?

For a long number of years, we had an organised crime network that proliferated… We had a situation in the country where people feared that organised crime will not be fought seriously. One of my first messages [as prime minister] was to spell out my government’s commitment to fight organised crime.

Today, we know that the country’s biggest delinquents are living at the Corradino Correction Facility… We also strengthened the police force…

The court annulled the hospitals concession in February and it did not have nice words for the private investors and neither did it put in a good light people in power and how they placed the government with its back to the wall. Even so, in parliament you chose to mention the good things Steward Health Care did despite the court ruling. Why did you defend Steward?

I defended the people’s interests like I have done consistently throughout the past three years. In parliament, I listed the facts as they stood. I pinpointed where Steward failed to adhere to contractual obligations but I could never accept the Opposition’s spin that Steward took €400 million in public funds and did nothing with them… The question is whether government took full value for the money it spent on the concession and this is why I wrote to the Auditor General to probe the claim. If this investigation finds any discrepancies between what we paid and what they were supposed to deliver, I will be taking legal action to recover any misspent funds. But I also defended the national interest when I resisted repeated Steward attempts over the past three years to change the terms of the concession… Government also refused Steward’s termination on their terms. Instead, government terminated the concession itself and imposed its own conditions, which puts us in a better position to sue the company if it results they misspent taxpayer money. More importantly, this latest move meant the hospitals were immediately back in government’s possession.

But why act tough now and not three years ago when it was evident that Steward failed to deliver on a new Gozo hospital and the refurbishment of St Luke’s?

Three years ago, we acted by saying no to any changes in the hospitals concession agreement. Now was the moment to take such a decision [terminating the contract] after the court delivered its judgment and more so after the unilateral decision Steward took to terminate the concession. Steward clearly showed it wanted the €100 million [pay-off] and so now was the appropriate time to take that decision… I have to look at the way forward.

In August 2019, Konrad Mizzi had agreed with Steward that even if the court terminated the concession, the government would be obliged to pay them a termination benefit of €100 million. Former prime minister Joseph Muscat has said that this side agreement, like all other arrangements with Steward, was discussed and decided upon in Cabinet. Former minister Evarist Bartolo has said it is not right to use Cabinet as a ‘smokescreen’. In his testimony in the Steward case, Chris Fearne said things were being done behind his back by Konrad Mizzi. You were in that Cabinet as a consultant to the prime minister. Somebody is lying here. Was the €100 million side agreement discussed and decided upon in Cabinet?

The first time I saw that contract [side agreement] was after it was signed… However, let us assume the appeals court changes the original ruling [that annulled the concession], we have legal advice that says despite the side agreement, government has a strong case to contest paying the €100 million. We will defend the people’s interest and never take a position that favours Steward.

Am I understanding correctly that what was signed, was not necessarily what was discussed in Cabinet?

I reiterate that I only saw that contract for the first time after it was signed.

So, you did not see it in Cabinet.

My reply is clear enough.

One of the things that still has to happen is the conclusion of the magisterial inquiry into the hospitals contract. Potentially, this inquiry can recommend criminal action be taken against several people. If the inquiry recommends criminal action against Konrad Mizzi and Joseph Muscat, you will have a political problem on your hands. How will you convince the Labour grassroots to remain calm?

Neither government, nor the Prime Minister, have a role in the magisterial inquiry or potential action on its conclusions. This is why we have the separation of powers…

I am talking to you about the political problem.

You are trying to anticipate a situation that is hypothetical. The consistent message that I have always sent is that we respect the decisions of the institutions, which in a democratic country have to be allowed to do their job. I expect our institutions to carry out their evaluations and investigations in a just way so that the recommendations are implemented…Our supporters have matured, as has all the country… I believe in the independence of our institutions...

You had a relatively comfortable and privileged upbringing and you’re not exactly poor. There is nothing wrong with this but people do ask how a person like you can understand the troubles of workers who try and make ends meet every month. How do you react to such a sentiment?

I understand the pain and challenges people go through by being with them every day. Every day I meet people with some of the biggest challenges in society… I often visit people unannounced at their home and sit down with them over a coffee… they are learning experiences for me… Before I entered public life, I was a village lawyer from Qormi where I came face to face with many personal experiences; it was like a university of the streets. I encountered experiences of people with issues that to my mind would be minor but to them would represent an important part of their life. These experiences taught me to remain grounded when dealing with the problems of others... I am against sending prostitutes to prison because through my work as a lawyer I came across countless stories of women who had been involved in prostitution since the age of 12 and who know no better. Women who would have been exposed to drug abuse and ended up in prison not knowing who will care for their child. These are the real experiences that I’ve learned from… [they] help to inform policy-making to ensure positive changes to people’s lives.

Despite the almost €1 billion in subsidies on energy and fuels, the cost of living, especially food, remains a big burden for middle income families just as it is for low income earners. What is your government doing to help families?

Without these subsidies, the inflation rate would have been among the highest in the EU unlike it is now among the lowest… But despite this hefty support, we have rising prices, particularly in foodstuffs that are hitting people badly. God, forbid we remain indifferent to this reality. We supported people last year by issuing a cheque and others accused us of buying votes. And in the last budget we decided to introduce a new cost of living mechanism to support people on low incomes, over and above the regular COLA adjustment. This is a long-term mechanism... we also increased pensions and the Children’s Allowance… We are doing what we can to lighten the burden but it is also a reality that Malta imports most of its daily needs and thus inflation is imported. The cost of living is a top priority for us but the situation would have been much worse without the energy and fuel subsidies.

Despite the various housing schemes introduced by your government there still is a problem of affordability for some people, who are not entitled to social housing but cannot access bank financing to purchase their house at current market prices. Do you recognise this is a problem and should government intervene by building a housing stock it can sell at below market prices?

We have to recognise the fact that 80% of the population is a home owner. The challenge you mention is a reality. There are other challenges as well. We have tried to address various… pockets of people who had difficulty accessing the home ownership market… Can government cap market prices? No. But we are addressing it through the affordable housing foundation, a public-private partnership with the church, which will offer affordable houses for these people. To do so, the foundation has to have a stock of property that it can offer at below market prices. This is one of the solutions we are working on.

The Labour Party made open green spaces in urban environments a main electoral plank. This has raised the bar and yet we have situations such as the land at Tal-Qortin in Mellieħa, and the Council of Europe Garden in Gżira, where public open spaces are being given up for the construction of flats by the private sector and the relocation of a petrol station, respectively. Isn’t this a contradiction?

We put ourselves a high benchmark and we will meet it. In the first 100 days, we ensured that the land in Żonqor was returned to the people, as we did with a car park in Bormla slated to become a dormitory that will be turned into a public open space. There are other initiatives we took…

I am asking you about the contradiction between these projects you are mentioning and the two situations in Mellieħa and Gżira, which give the impression that the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing.

We need to find a compromise between the right hand and the left hand. We cannot have a situation of no development but any development has to make sense and be sustainable. Let us take as an example the proposed development by the private sector on Comino. God forbid good sense does not prevail. God forbid the developer does not take note of what the people are saying. This is the message I sent to the Planning Authority and the message I want to send the developers from here. People are not arguing against any form of development… But what people are saying is very sensible – why should the footprint of the development be larger than what there is at present? Why should the development, beautiful as it may be, not be built on the existing footprint? Good sense tells you that the sensitivity of the location dictates that the footprint of the project should not be bigger.

It is interesting that you mention the Comino project and say good sense dictates it should respect the existing footprint, because in Gżira, the fuel station is being relocated to a larger footprint.

The point of departure of this controversy was 1999 when a decision was taken to widen the road and as a result of that, the fuel station had to be relocated. Consistently, over the years, governments kept insisting on widening the road. There is also a recent appeals court decision confirming the planning permit for the new fuel station on the land where it will be relocated to. However, despite these facts, I sent a clear message to our authorities to explore an alternative solution. I understand the priorities and concerns of Conrad Borg Manche, who is sending a strong message and believes in his cause and I admire him for that, but there are also the rights of the fuel station owners, and I believe we can sit down around the table and with good will and common sense we can bring together the conflicting interests.

Are you saying the fuel station will be relocated elsewhere?

I am not in a position to say what should happen. I have sent the message, and I know that there have been preliminary discussions, for alternative solutions to be explored. There is nothing better than compromise…

Your government is proposing changes to the Criminal Code that would allow a pregnancy to be terminated if the woman’s life or health is in danger. What has happened to this process?

We had a series of meetings with different stakeholders and this is a process that has taught me a lot about the importance of public consultation. If you were to ask me what I would have done differently, I believe the amendment, which was motivated by good intentions, should have been issued for public consultation… Everyone agrees that the mother’s life should not be put in danger; there is agreement that where a foetus can be born it should be birthed; there is also agreement that the mother’s health should also be protected. The last part of the process is to formalise these principles in an amendment to the amendment and once we finalise the text we will discuss it again with the stakeholders. The last lap would then be to take it to parliament for approval.

Do you think the time has come for the Labour Party to have an internal discussion on legalising abortion?

The reality is that we have an average of a woman everyday who performs an abortion abroad or by procuring pills from abroad. This is the reality nobody should sweep under the carpet… We can choose to ignore the problem and do as Bernard Grech told us that persons who speak in favour of abortion have no place in the Nationalist Party, or recognise that this discussion has already started. The discussion should not be hogged by politicians. Should the PL be part of this discussion? Of course, it should. There are people in the party in favour of legalising abortion and others who are against but everyone recognises that this reality exists…

Next year there is the European Parliament election and the Labour Party will not only have the Nationalist Party as its rival but a party with a candidate who is larger than life for the Maltese political context – Roberta Metsola. She will be a formidable adversary for sure. What do you think will happen?

The PL will have a strong team of candidates that will reflect a wide spectrum of society and their expectations and aspirations, but it will be a team that has always talked positively about our country, especially in the international context. I believe that will be a unique characteristic of the PL’s candidates. They have always put Malta first and foremost.

Do you think Metsola will receive a sympathy vote?

What interests me is how we are going to work until next year. We will continue working to address local realities such as inflation... It is good to speak about the values of the EU but what matters ultimately is the realities on the ground that people expect us to address. We will be working hard to retain the strong trust people showed in us last year and if possible build on it. But that will only come about if we work every day to win people’s trust.

If Roberta Metsola is chosen by the European People’s Party to be their Spitzenkandidat for European Commission president, her choice would still fall upon you as Maltese prime minister.

You are positing a hypothetical scenario on which a discussion has been going on since 2019. The European Parliament has been pushing for the Spitzenkandidat model. In 2019, and on the basis of the EU Treaties, the choice of Ursula von der Leyen was made by the heads of government [ignoring the Spitzenkandidat model]… if in a hypothetical scenario one had to arrive at that eventuality, the Maltese government’s choice would fall upon someone who enjoys the trust of the Maltese government.