Sunday, 25 December 2011

Independent: ‘If we get this wrong, we get everything dramatically wrong’ – Prime Minister
by David Lindsay
Article published on 27 November 2011

In a wide-ranging interview, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi warns that the decisions the country takes on its energy supply and generation will affect the country for decades to come, and adds that, “If we get this wrong, we get everything dramatically wrong.”

He charges Opposition leader Joseph Muscat with creating “an illusion among the general public that we can avoid the impact of the international price of oil with fairy tales”.

“We need to invest in energy generation that is sustainable and adequate over a period of time. We need to realise that this is not only about the bills that we receive at home − this is about our businesses, our factories, our tourism – and if we get this wrong, we get everything dramatically wrong.”

Such major decisions, he says, cannot be implemented overnight and a decision to go for one solution today will take years to implement.

Referring to the recent Sargas proposal for carbon negative energy production, Dr Gonzi questions how the Opposition leader can make statements that “bind him to particular solutions that are today being questioned and for which there is still not enough technical advice available.

“What he is proposing is an experimental thing it will take us back to old types of solutions, and generate new uncertainties in the process,” Dr Gonzi says in an interview conducted on Thursday.

“Dr Muscat has made a big thing of this proposal by Sargas, and, while I am of course open to it, I am not quite so enthusiastic about this type of power station and am not sure that it would really be the most intelligent thing for us to do.

“The Opposition leader seems to have anchored his famous solution for reducing tariffs to this single private enterprise initiative without, I am sure, having yet even seen the scientific, technical reports showing that this experimental, new technology is the best thing we could do. If it is so good, why is it not spread all over the Mediterranean?”

But while he accuses the Opposition of pushing for new, experimental technology, isn’t that exactly what the government is being accused of in relation to the BWSC Delimara power station extension, which will run on heavy fuel oil?

“Exactly,” he replies. “I find this kind of behaviour by the Leader of an Opposition incomprehensible. This, after all, is an issue on which he had criticised our government so heavily − after we went through a competitive tendering process with 20 different adjudications, which were totally above board and totally transparent.

“But now we have an Opposition leader who is committing himself in this manner, in a very strange way.”

An energy mosaic

Earlier this week Dr Gonzi had announced that the EU had accepted in principle to part fund an LPG gas pipeline connection to Malta, an enormous development that he says would kill two birds with one stone.

The first would return Malta to what we had several decades ago, he says, when gas was piped directly to homes, and remove those thousands of gas cylinders that need to be transported across the country every day.

He says that while such a project would represent a significant undertaking, the benefits, and cost savings of between 30 and 40 per cent are possible.

Imagine Paceville, for example, being designated a priority area because of its high number of gas consuming restaurants and bars. A central distribution centre would be set up close to Paceville, which would connect straight to restaurants and bars, but to do that you need to have a constant supply of gas coming into the system such as that provided by a pipeline.

The second aspect, he says, is that “we would have an easy solution for the Delimara power station, which could then operate on clean gas. And that would be another achievement.”

With the interconnector linking Malta to the European electricity grid, Dr Gonzi envisages an energy mosaic in which the interconnector would allow Malta to purchase readymade electricity irrespective of the source, coupled with the Delimara power plant.

With the advent of the gas pipeline, he says, “Hopefully we will have a Delimara that will not use heavy fuel oil but, rather, clean energy through the pipeline.”

A third tranche is the use of alternative systems such as photovoltaic systems and solar water heating being spread as widely as possible across the country, creating a third pillar that will allow the country to reach the 10 per cent renewable target by 2020.

“All three together,” he says, “will give us the perfect scenario.”

Dr Gonzi had been accused of being vague when he announced the gas pipeline development in Parliament this week, but, pressed further, he estimates the gas pipeline would cost in the same region as the electricity interconnector – close to €150 million.

“We have sounded out the EU and the first indications are that the project will be included in the financial package 2014-2017, where the EU will dedicate a good chunk of funds precisely to enhance the gas network. Malta has requested that its project to link to the European gas network be included on the list of projects, and the indication is that the response will be positive.”

As to what the exact funding from the EU could be, Dr Gonzi says it is still early days and such things do not happen overnight, but this important step has now been taken.

“The way we see it, if Malta is to continue to be attractive for local and foreign investors, we need to guarantee that we have energy stability at a competitive price that is at least as good as the rest of Europe.

“But if we remain as we are, that would be a very difficult task, whereas with what we are planning we will make a very big change and this is a short, medium and long term solution.”

In the present scenario, he says he does not see a power station, floating or otherwise, that uses a mixture of coal, biomass and oil that generates emissions that need to be exported as any such similar solution.

“I am still open to suggestions and solutions, but whatever the solution, the end result has to be that we remove Malta’s vulnerabilities − that we have one power station, as Marsa will soon be decommissioned, and we are dependent on just one source of fuel – oil. As such, we are the victims of and at the mercy of fluctuations in international oil markets.

“This is the way I see it at least. While the Leader of the Opposition may have some magic formula, we are still waiting to find out what that is. Moreover, we must never depend only on one energy plant. Just look at what happened in Cyprus and its economy after half of its sole power plant blew up.

“So what we need to do is remove our dependency on one source of energy generation, remove our dependency on one source of fuel, and introduce alternative sources of energy into the equation. And, in so doing, you have your perfect solution for the country.”

Learning experience

Over the last few weeks, any observer of Maltese politics would be forgiven for thinking Dr Gonzi has had something of a rough ride of late, having weathered two votes of confidence – one by one of his ministers and another in his government.

But, in actual fact, he is surprisingly upbeat considering recent political turmoil, commenting while beaming widely that trying times “makes the outcome even more satisfactory”.

“I would have been worried had the outcome [of the confidence votes] been different. And yet the outcome of every single one of these challenges was in our favour, and that is very good not just for the government, but for all of us.”

And he insists that the second confidence vote, that called by Dr Gonzi himself in his own government, had been absolutely necessary.

“We needed to make a statement which I always considered to be of major importance to Malta – that one of the biggest assets we have is our stability – everybody knows where we stand and what we stand for, the direction we are headed in, and stability has always been a major ingredient in Malta’s formula for success, and we needed to prove to everybody, local and foreign, that this is a stable government.

“We had an issue regarding public transport, fine. We recognised that, not from day one, but we recognised it and we did something about it.

“I think this has been another learning experience that has helped all of us to mature politically in Malta. We needed to send a strong message that this is a strong government, that we are handling the challenges, and that we are not afraid of facing the issues that arise.

“But this is not only about facing the issues, it is about providing solutions and we have provided those solutions. So yes, that vote of confidence was vital.”

10 questions and 51 replies

The day before Dr Muscat’s reply to the Budget, Dr Gonzi had posed 10 questions to the Opposition leader but, Dr Gonzi says, none of Dr Muscat’s 51 replies (in an allusion to a 51 per cent electoral majority) answered a single question.

He comments, “First of all, we are not naïve, and playing around with the number 51 is a clear, childish political ploy and I think that a leader of an opposition reducing himself to playing these childish games is something that is simply not on.

“My questions were not childish questions. They were real questions about real issues, major issues – energy, energy sustainability – it’s about the future of the country. Then there were also two or three questions about ethics, about the way one should deal with ethical issues when one is in a political position or in a position of responsibility.

“These are very, very serious problems and I did not expect the nonchalant way in which he skirted around the questions without answering them at all.

“His now famous 51 proposals were not answers to my questions in reality. He started saying that ‘a new government led by him… so in his mind he has already elected himself Prime Minister and he is already thinking about… what?

“What are these 51 proposals? When you take a close look at them you find that 26 out of the 51 are no more than wishful thinking − nice platitudes that we would of course agree with. Yes, of course, my goodness, we want to have a sustainable pensions system – that would be beautiful − but how, when, in what manner, who will pay for it, and how will you sustain it?

“Are you addressing the major challenges, do you realise that pensions in Malta are not about sustainability, mostly, but adequacy. The problem we have is with adequacy, the highest pensions will soon no longer be adequate at all.

“Where are your answers to all of this? You have criticised us because we have told those below 45 years of age that they will need to increase their national insurance contribution to eventually have a better pension. Our solution to address adequacy is there, and it is working. He disagrees and says we should not have done that… but what is his solution?

“You don’t find anything of the sort. Then there are about 14 others that are already being implemented, such as making tourism a main pillar of the economy.

“It’s fascinating how someone thinks he can actually get away with this superficiality, this is not the way to manage anything, let alone a country; you need to be realistic.

“What he fails to realise is that you cannot continue to play this game with all this uncertainty around us. It is dangerous.”

Dr Gonzi’s 10th question to the Opposition leader accused him of communicating with heads of government departments and other key people to have them “spy” on their employers and pass him sensitive information.

For lack of an answer from Dr Muscat, I ask the Prime Minister to elaborate on the accusation, but, possibly with a card up his sleeve, he prefers to leave that one for Dr Muscat to answer. Instead he turns to the related subject matter of RTK journalist Sabrina Agius and the email correspondence between her and Dr Muscat that was published recently.

“What is scandalous in this is that he has sought to hide the whole story. He protested because the email was made public, but that makes it even worse. The scandal has now grown – it is not just that the Leader of the Opposition asked a journalist to betray the trust of her employer. Another scandal is that he wanted to hide it. And the third scandal is that he came to Parliament and accused me, the Prime Minister, of something that I have had absolutely nothing to do with.

“He wrote the emails, sent them, it was all his doing and he had the gall to come to Parliament and raise a breach of privilege against ME!”

A new phase for the party

The Nationalist Party’s parliamentary group despite recent flare-ups, Dr Gonzi insists, is in line.

Referring directly to the case in point, he comments, “Franco Debono raised a number of issues that were top of the list of concerns of the Maltese population.

“One can criticise the manner in which it was raised, but the issue of public transport is certainly of public concern. When Franco Debono raised issues pertaining to the legal and judicial system, I recognised there was the need to continue working on this very difficult area. I think this issue is of concern for everybody. Also, when he spoke about the Broadcasting Authority’s role as a proper guardian of balanced programmes on national television, I think he brought up another important issue.”

Perhaps then it is not so much the message as the way it is raised that is the problem, I suggest.

“I’ve had this same issue with other Members of Parliament, but this should not detract from the value of the topic. I would have preferred the opportunity to discuss this internally in further detail but, at the end of the day, there are always lessons that can be learnt from all this.

“This has always been my attitude: I am always open to learn from an experience and I think that what we have gone through recently has definitely been a learning experience.”

Last weekend’s PN general council, he says, represented another phase in the development that began after the last general election with the introduction of what he describes as “an internal process that brought about tremendous changes in the leadership and management of the party”.

A completely new party, he says, had been created at the time, with a new secretary general and officials, in preparation for this new phase in the party’s development.

“It is not easy,” he concedes, “you have a young generation in place but managing a party is one of the most difficult things to do. It is a balancing act.

“We started the process of regenerating and renewing ourselves at the beginning of this legislature. We opened a new headquarters with a new approach, everything is new since 2008, and it started in a very different scenario.”

The Secretary General Paul Borg Olivier was elected and upon taking office, Dr Gonzi recalls, the world economy had dipped into recession.

“We had to take difficult decisions on water and electricity, the popularity of the party was suffering immensely, we went into European Parliament elections that went wrong for us for reasons which are obvious. So it was one challenge after another with the party trying to address all these challenges. But in the meantime, we never stopped asking ourselves: where do we go from here?

Then, he says, the party found the issue of divorce unexpectedly cropping up.

“We knew we were going to face the issue in this legislature because we knew we were planning to address cohabitation, which was a priority for the party. Everybody knew that at some stage the issue of cohabitation would inevitably lead to divorce. What happened was that we found divorce overtaking cohabitation, which, in my opinion, was not the correct way of doing things.

“My idea was to address cohabitation first and to take it forward from there, and it was inevitable that the issue of divorce would appear, but it appeared and in a sense it created a problem. But today, with hindsight, I would say that the party handled it extremely well − we had an open, intense and passionate discussion within the party, which was very healthy. The party never fears, and should never be afraid of, taking a position.

The general assessment that the Nationalist Party had taken a hard and fast position against divorce, he argues, is mistaken.

“In reality,” he says, “that assessment is not fair. The correct assessment was that the party took the position that it would respect the results of a referendum − that is the most important part. The resolution we passed said that we were not in favour of divorce, that the Maltese people should decide, and that if they decide that divorce should be introduced, we would ensure that it is − and we honoured that.

“What people miss is that the biggest challenge for a party is to actually implement something in full adherence to democratic rule, even though its original position was that it was not in agreement. And yet we managed this, and we have honoured our obligation to the Maltese people with the passing of the referendum. We did what needed to be done.”

Last weekend’s general council heard that the PN would seek to legislate for homosexual rights. Was this a sort of ‘apology’ to disgruntled PN voters after the divorce referendum?

“This,” he says, “is about the recognition of responsibilities in a relationship that are borne between two persons, and the lack of regulation at present is creating an unjust scenario which we should no longer allow. My position has been clear on this from the very start and this is what we will be doing.

“Once we have legislated divorce, we now need to regulate the responsibilities of cohabiting couples. Whether they are heterosexual or homosexual is quite beside the point – it is about couples who are in a relationship where responsibilities exist.

“A relationship is a relationship and I hope that when people say they are in a relationship it is not just a one night stand – a relationship creates duties, responsibilities and rights which we need to recognise in our society.

“Our laws are failing us in this area. Today a couple builds a relationship over five, 10 years and there is nothing in the law that places any responsibility on partners in that relationship. That is morally wrong and we need to legislate.”

But, provided, that does not happen in the remainder of the current legislature, will he still be around to see this, and other measures, through after 2013?

“That,” he says, “depends very much on what the electorate will say. At the end of the day, the next general election will not be about whether the Nationalist Party or the Labour Party have won the election – it will be about whether the people themselves have won the election. And I believe that the people will win the election if once again, as they have done in the past, they make the right choices.”

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