‘Simon Busuttil held hostage by ultra-conservative factions’ – Muscat

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat says Simon Busuttil’s hard-line stance against the striking off vilification of religion off the criminal code exposed a ‘can of worms’ and showed his true colours • Muscat calls on world powers to converge and tackle Syria and Libya crises

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has taken umbrage at Simon Busuttil’s denouncement of the government’s plans to strike off vilification of religion off the criminal code, arguing that the Opposition leader’s hard-line stance exposed a “can of worms” and that like his predecessor, he was being held hostage by ultra-conservative factions.

In a wide ranging recorded interview on One TV, the prime minister said that Busuttil’s stance has seen the PN embark on a campaign devised on misinforming the public.

Last week, during Independence celebrations, Opposition leader Simon Busuttil said the government’s far-reaching legal reform that will strike off criminal sanctions on the vilification of religion “poses a serious threat to the nation’s security,” and that all religions should be treated equally.

However, Muscat - who is currently in New York for the UN's General Assembly - insisted that Busuttil’s criticism is unfounded, claiming that the repeal of this law will not put the Roman Catholic religion at a disadvantage.

“This reform is not intended on facilitating the incitement of hatred or discrimination. Conversely, this reform safeguards the fundamental right of freedom of expression." 

"Simon Busuttil’s stance against this reform opened a can of worms. He poses as being different from his predecessor [Lawrence Gonzi] but when it comes to these issues he is still hostage to the ultra-conservative factions within the party,” Muscat said.

The prime minister also argued that Busuttil’s hard-line stance against the reform echoed his previous stance on adoptions by same-sex couples, and that his comments were in fact a Freudian slip that revealed the party's ultra-conservative ideology.  

The prime minister also argued that it is “ironic” that this faction played a pivotal role in Malta becoming a member in the European Union, “only for it to now distance itself from fundamental rights enshrined by European values and beliefs.”

‘Migration will not be used to incite racial hatred’

In an impassioned plea on the humanitarian crisis that is currently engulfing Europe, the prime minister insisted that even though the Maltese public is worried by the influx of refugees, this should not be used as a platform to incite racial hatred.

“Whenever there is a boat sinking, Malta has an international obligation as well as a moral duty to save these people. Even though Malta has taken in less asylum-seekers than in previous years, the Maltese are still preoccupied by this crisis. Rest assured however that I will not accept anyone to use this issue to incite racism,” Muscat said.

In addition, the prime minister also expressed his disagreement with Hungary’s decision to build walls in an effort to stem the influx of asylum-seekers, arguing that notwithstanding this, the crisis will subsist.

“Europe must come up with a long term solution to effectively tackle the problem of migration. This is a worldwide phenomenon and is experienced by the US, Australia, Malaysia, and European countries alike, and consequently it requires a worldwide approach. All world powers must converge and discuss measures to solve the Libya and Syria crises,” he said.

Answering questions by One TV journalist Janice Bartolo, Muscat also took umbrage at the exploitation of asylum seekers working illegally in Malta, comparing the situation in Marsa as being akin to “a market in a third world country.”

“The workers in Marsa are creating a parallel labour market. The employment of these unregistered workers is undermining the rights of these workers, as well as the rights of the Maltese workers,” Muscat said while insisting that employees will have to adhere to employment laws or risk facing a ‘ton of bricks’.

“Employers must have a permit to employee asylum seekers, albeit temporarily. The reality is that this practice is not only harming asylum seekers but in addition, Maltese workers are also getting the short end of the stick, as employers are giving them a dilemma: Either work with inferior conditions or don't work at all,” the prime minister explained. 

‘No surprises in budget’

Turning his attention on the government’s budgetary measures, Muscat said that the Budget would be “realistic but without any surprises”. Muscat pledged that the budget would be used to continue to implement the government’s electoral programme and continue to incentivise the economy.

He said the government would seek to improve the country’s infrastructure and the country’s cleanliness, arguing that Malta’s roads leave much to be desired and cannot cope with the increasing demand.

While boasting of the country’s decrease in unemployment rates, Muscat explained that the government would continue to implement a ‘carrot and stick approach’ against job seekers and people receiving social benefits.

“Those people who will find work after registering for work will still receive social benefits, while anyone who refuses to work or participate in a training programme will not receive any social benefits,” Muscat warned.