[WATCH] Leaders clash, accusing each other of credibility deficit

Joseph Muscat and Simon Busuttil debate over recent shooting incident, gas power station and Budget 2015. 

The full leaders' debate on Reporter

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and Opposition leader Simon Busuttil locked horns on Monday night’s edition of Reporter to debate issues such as the shooting incident involving Home Affairs Minister Manuel Mallia’s driver, the Budget, and the delay in the construction over the power station.

Sheehan's shooting incident

Muscat said that he is “undoubtedly the angriest person in Malta” following the recent shooting incident by Mallia’s driver and the subsequent government-issued press release that falsely stated that the driver had shot warning shots in the air. 

“It’s just not on for a police officer assigned to a minister to be involved in such an incident,” Muscat said. “While the previous administration would have tried to sweep it under the carpet, I appointed an inquiry board composed of three ex-judges to find out the whole truth behind it. In a week’s time, they will finish compiling their report and I will take decisions from there.”

The Opposition have called on Muscat to sack Mallia, regardless of the inquiry’s results, and have put forward a no-confidence motion in the minister. Muscat accused Busuttil of double standards both for sticking by George Pullicino pending the results of a police inquiry into his alleged shortcomings in relation to a €35 million PV contract, and for sticking by Tonio Fenech even after his ex-private secretary had admitted to accepting bribes.

“If you were serious about doing things differently, you would kick out Tonio Fenech,” Muscat told his political rival.

When asked whether he would have kicked out Fenech had he been Prime Minister at the time, Busuttil said that “If I were in Muscat’s place, I’d have already removed Mallia”.

“Whenever the Opposition accuses the government, you point fingers at the previous government like a child,” Busuttil said. “The Pullicino investigations have been going on for over three weeks now and the police have not yet called for him. In this case, the government’s statement clearly said that shots had been fired in the air and everybody knew that it wasn’t the case. There was definitely a cover-up by Manuel Mallia’s ministry. The inquiry is just a deviation because it can never determine who was politically responsible for it. That decision must be made by Muscat.”

Enemalta oil scandal

Busuttil also questioned why the police didn’t arraign the brothers of George Farrugia in court.

“Inspector Angela Gafa, who was investigating the case, revealed in parliament last week that he had planned to charge the Farrugia brothers in court before he was transferred to the Security Services,” Busuttil said. “Why weren’t they charged? Is it because their lawyer was Manuel Mallia? The government needs to ensure that the police do their job without any state-interference,”

Muscat rubbished Busuttil’s allegations, insisting that he doesn’t interfere in police investigations.

MP’s honoraria and salaries

Despite Muscat’s claims that six former PN ministers have only refunded €300,000 out of the €1.6 million in honoraria increases, Busuttil insisted that they have paid the payments back as they had promised in 2012.

“Muscat himself had told Reno Bugeja on Dissett that the honoraria had been fully paid back,” Busuttil said, while hitting out at Muscat for buying the silence of some of his own backbenchers by appointing them as chairpersons of government boards on extravagant salaries.

 “I got rid of the parliamentary assistants who were being paid to do nothing and decided to make MPs chairperson of certain authorities,” Muscat said, while resurrecting claims by the PL media that Busuttil’s company had made over €1 million in consultancies during his tenure as an MEP.

Budget: Single parents and social benefits

Muscat said that around €14 million is spent annually on single parents’benefits and that the Budget has introduced measures aimed at tackling the ‘sub-culture’ of benefit abuse.

“Even if only 15% of these cases are abusers, we’re still talking about €2 million,” Muscat said. “We’re not going to cut off relief to single mothers and youths. If they apply for social benefits, we’ll give them to them, but they’ll have to attend vocational training to find a job. If they find work, we’ll continue giving them in-work benefits and if they don’t, we’ll continue giving them relief regardless. However, we won’t give benefits to people who refuse to attend training sessions. I realize that this is a courageous move that could probably cost us some votes but it is socially just on those people whose taxes go to benefit abuse.”

He also spoke about Budget measures whereby employed couples who are both working on the minimum wage will be given an annual €1000 bonus per child, and whereby low-income families will be given a €400 bonus for the first three children and a €200 euro bonus for the fourth child onwards on condition that those children attend school.

While Busuttil agreed that benefit abuse should be tackled and that vocational training should be promoted, he described the Budget as “socially unjust”.

“Prime Minister, you have not realised how many people you insulted by saying that being a single mother isn’t a profession,” Busuttil said. “The government has placed a stigma on everybody who receives social benefits. What about the people who are not in a position to attend training sessions or find a job? Will the government let them starve to death?”

He also criticised the Budget for increasing the cost of car licenses and car insurances and for not reducing the price of petrol and diesel.  

Budget: COLA

Both party leaders said that they were open to discussion about possible revisions to the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) mechanism after it worked out a lowly 58c a week for Budget 2015.

“The government’s reduction of water and electricity bills reflected itself in a ridiculous COLA,” Busuttil said, citing a PN study that claims to show that the price of a basic weekly shopping trip for elderly couples has increased by €31 since 2012.

Muscat hit back by saying that the Budget-announced one-off €35 bonus combined with the 58c COLA will give people an average annual increase of €65.   

“The previous government had given the people €60 through COLA alone while increasing water and electricity bills,” Muscat said. “We’ll be giving them €65 while reducing their tariff bills.”

Public transport

Busuttil again criticised the €23 million subsidy that will be given to incoming public transport operators Autobuses de Leon and Transport Minister Joe Mizzi for “meeting up with the Spanish company before the winning bid was chosen”.

“That money will come out of our taxes,” Busuttil said. “Although Labour had criticised us heavily over Arriva, the most it cost from peoples’ taxes was €10 million. I expect this government to do a better job with the same amount of money.”

He also said that children who attend private and church schools should be allowed to use public transport for free just like children who attend state schools.

“Free transport for children who attend church schools costs around €6 million,” Busuttil said. “Giving free transport for children who attend private and church schools will cost an additional €4 million, while helping the traffic problem.

On his part, Muscat said that expanding free public transport to include all children will require a higher subsidy than €23 million and that the people will be able to judge the new public transport operator when it starts operating.

Asset Management Bureau and drug decriminalisation

Busuttil agreed with the Budget-announced Asset Management Bureau that will be set up to confiscate all assets seized by criminals and drug barons. He also said that the Opposition could vote in favour of the Drug Decriminalisation Bill so long as the focus is on treating “drug victims”  as victims.

“I believe that the crucial issue will rest on our distinction of cannabis from other harder drugs,” Muscat said.

Shanghai Electric and new power station

Muscat said that the sale of 33% of Enemalta to Chinese state-owned Shanghai Electric will help bring Enemalta back on its feet after its debts had risen to around €700 million and insisted that Malta won’t be faced with an over-supply of electricity.

“I’m in favour of Chinese investment but this deal will render Malta dependant on a non-democratic country for electricity, our most essential service,” Busuttil said.

He also said that a new gas power station, that will be constructed by the Electrogas consortium will tie Malta down to buy electricity at a higher price than the European rate for the next 18 years.

“It’s clear that the country doesn’t need the new power station to reduce tariff costs because they’ve already gone down, so why build it?” Busuttil questioned, adding that Muscat lied when he had promised to resign if the power station was not completed by March 2015.

“We fell behind on the deal by months, not years, and Konrad Mizzi will soon give the new milestones in parliament,” Muscat said. “I had promised to resign if electricity and water bills didn’t go down by 25% and if I couldn’t find a foreign consortium to build a new power station.”

Live current affairs programme Reporter is presented by Saviour Balzan and produced by MediaToday. 

Reporter is aired live every Monday at 9.45pm on TVM 1