by David Lindsay
04 December 2011
For Opposition leader Joseph Muscat, the differences between the Labour and Nationalist Parties is glaringly obvious – one has a clear roadmap and an innovative vision, while the other is unstable with a defective majority and buckling to the demands of its backbenchers. And in the face of criticism, he insists his 51 proposals for the country are made of the right stuff David Lindsay writes
It’s been an interesting month in politics, what is your assessment of the situation as it stands following two votes of confidence and a budget?
I think what has been made crystal clear with these latest developments is that the Prime Minister has postponed the problems at hand instead of solving them. The fact of the matter is that he is leading an unstable government with a defective majority.
The vote of confidence in the government might have passed, but the problems remain all the same; they may have been swept under the carpet for a couple weeks but they are now resurfacing.
The fact is that we have a weak Prime Minister at a time when the country needs strong leadership, a Prime Minister who is spending most of his energy and time horse trading with his own party instead of addressing the situation that is directly affecting households, families and businesses.
So what would you say he should be doing instead?
He should be tackling the energy issue even though it is now very, very late in the day. There is no concrete plan or vision when it comes to the country’s energy needs.
I was shocked to learn that the minister responsible for resources, who holds a considerable chunk of the energy portfolio, had not even been aware of when the interconnector would be commissioned and when the Marsa power station would be decommissioned.
One of our 51 proposals in our budget reply was actually that the entire energy portfolio should be brought under one person, instead of the three that we have at the moment. One can turn a blind eye to the fiasco of the pedestrianisation of Bisazza Street, where one ministry doesn’t know what the other is even saying, but we cannot afford to make these mistakes in the energy sector, which has such great economic, environmental and social impacts.
Despite the EU deadlines for renewable and emissions drawing nearer, not only do we see no plan, but we also discover that there is no leadership in such an important area.
But worst of all, this very situation is symptomatic of the way the government is working. On Thursday, the Prime Minister said that he wants to put forward constitutional amendments, but constitutional amendments are not discussed at the whim of a party leader or according to the needs of a party – they warrant and need widespread discussion and cannot be simply treated as party discussions.
One of the basic differences between the parties here, as well as being one of our key proposals, is that we want to hold a constitutional convention, where we bring together civil society, political parties and all those involved where we can come up with something better.
We want to give birth to a second republic, which is a totally different scenario than hotchpotch amendments – we have to determine what our republic stands for and not just make a couple of piecemeal changes to shut up a backbencher. What we are talking about is a lot more than that.
I was also shocked by the fact that the Prime Minister conceding, as he had this week, to split the justice and home affairs portfolio. What bothers me is that I do not think this is something the Prime Minister believes in; I think that was a knee jerk reaction to keep his disjointed government together.
Are you saying such changes are being considered to simply pander to certain backbenchers?
What he does and does not do is the Prime Minister’s decision, but I think he has a fundamental problem in that he does not really believe in the changes he wants to make and he is only doing so because he thinks that could buy him some more time and breathing space.
The PN’s proposal on Malta’s constitutional neutrality, is the Labour Party on board?
We believe that neutrality is a key concept in our Constitution and we have been consistent on this. I think that as time went by, and even over the last few months, our neutrality has shown its validity – neutrality does not mean that one is neutered. Neutrality is one of the ways through which we can make our voice heard as a nation and be a broker, an interlocutor in this delicate region in which we find ourselves.
As such, we think that neutrality must remain a central concept of our Constitution. We are aware that the wording is not the best possible and we are open to discussions on the rewording of our neutrality. But the country cannot be rushed into it because of partisan needs; we need to have real, honest discussions in a proper national forum. This cannot be a deal struck between political parties behind closed doors, we will insist on that and that is our pledge.
What do you make of this latest proposal by the PN of granting homosexual couples new rights? Where does Labour stand?
Once again, I think it was an issue of convenience and I am sure the Prime Minister does not believe in what he is proposing and I think that is a huge problem.
We, on the other hand, have been speaking consistently about homosexual rights for the last three-and-a-half years, despite all the criticism that I have received, and now we are pledging a civil union for gay couples, which takes these rights a step further. This was another of our concrete proposals.
Something that reveals the problem within the government even more, is that what it is doing now it is doing out of political convenience. For example, when we were discussing the rent law revisions, we put forward two proposals: one asking the government to provide de facto cohabitating couples with full succession rights on rent like married couples, and the government voted against that. And when we proposed, in black and white, that gay couples should be recognised and have the same rights as heterosexual couples, they voted against that as well.
This is really nothing more than make-believe.
Was the motion on the public transport reform a case of political opportunism, having seized upon an issue that rankled with such a considerable amount of the population?
Of course not. It would have been opportunistic had we submitted a motion on day two or week two of the fiasco. We waited a whole three months and in the meantime there were five or six changes to the transport system. Then we were told everything would be in place by 11 September and when that too failed, we decided the people could not wait any longer and we put our motion forward.
The role of the Opposition is to hold the government accountable for its actions, and what we did was nothing short of that. I heard someone argue that we had only tabled the motion after we heard grumbling from the government backbenches, but our motion had been put forward well before that.
Your budget reply has seen a lot of feedback, perhaps more than usual. Many had been calling on you to explain how you would heal and safeguard the economy, but they say they heard very little, how do you reply?
I think the small clique around the Prime Minister was not very happy with my reply because we reflected the reality that families and businesses are facing. It is not for me to judge the speech’s reception, what I know is that 10 questions were put to me and I gave 51 answers, 51 very clear solutions which we are committed to implement.
That is something we were looking forward to doing. We had given a set of proposals that built on the 141 proposals we had already put forward. And the 51 points are not the end of it in the sense that our team, led by Karmenu Vella, is working hard on a manifesto that will not simply be a set of promises but an actual roadmap that we will abide by when leading the new government. The underlying factor is consistency − we know where we are going and we know how we will get there.
But don’t you think that, for example, five or 10 holistic, well-defined and explained points would have possibly provided something more concrete as a budget reply?
If you take, for example, our pledge to give all those serving in the police corps, civil protection and the military the right to unionise, that is very concrete. If you look at our pledge to not give public contracts to companies with unfair employment practices, I think that is pretty concrete. If we say that we are reducing fines for VAT late payments, I think that, again, is concretely good for business. If we look at energy, we have said we would be converting the Delimara power station from heavy fuel oil to gas, that is also very concrete. If we say we will be consolidating the energy portfolio under one ministry, that, too, is concrete.
We have put forward very concrete proposals, we also put forward our vision for a number of sectors and for me, one of the most important pledges is that we will be safe for business.
What is the pledge all about, are you saying that the current government or have past Labour administrations been unsafe for business?
I would not want to kid myself. I think the business community, and rightly so, had reservations about past Labour governments and I want assure them that this Labour Party is a party that is business-friendly and open for business. Our way of looking at things is that if we want to create more wealth and jobs, we need to partner and reassure businesses that they can invest safely and that we will be honest brokers with them.
I also think the current government is not giving businesses what they need, and instead it is putting them in a straightjacket. Take the way the government considers different investors, for example. Most of the time, if you are foreign you are welcome but if a Maltese or Gozitan investor comes forward with the same or a better idea, they are in for a hell of a time.
Even though some people may label this a hollow proposal, I think it is one of the most important. We want to ensure that these people understand that we want to partner up with the private sector.
There is a lot underlying these 51 proposals and I am not afraid of criticism, in fact I am very glad that people are discussing these proposals.
People understand that Labour has proposals; it has a vision, it knows where it is going and I do not have a problem with anyone criticising our proposals, and I certainly do not have a problem with the Nationalist Party spending so much time discussing our proposals.
It’s great that the government is spending so much time saying what we are saying and giving us so much publicity. And there is more to come; these proposals were not dreamt up overnight, they were given much thought and they represent another layer of the roadmap that we will present.
You are accused of ignoring the economic realities for the sake of hitting out at the government’s lack of attention to the local economy; would you say the argument carries weight?
Not at all. To be honest I am really confused about this because we have a finance minister who has put forward some of the most optimistic economic growth projections of any finance minister despite the eurozone crisis, despite the fact that our neighbour and one of our biggest trading partners, Italy, is going through enormous stress right now. The minister even went on record saying that the Italian crisis will not really affect us.
So I am not really sure who is ignoring the current situation. What I am saying is that we are aware of the situation in other countries, there are some countries faring worse than us, and there are countries faring better than us. But we like to compare ourselves with the winners, and not with those who are in a mediocre or bad situation.
Our economy has fared better than some other economies so far not because of the government, but despite the government. The government is always saying how it has invested saving jobs in industry. Yes, the government has invested €12 million, and I am totally in favour of that scheme, but that was a one-off measure.
The deficit was overshot by about €345 million and I think the Prime Minister and his government have lost all credibility as regards the economy.
One of the biggest problems is that the government is looking at the economy from an accountant’s perspective. It is trying to just get the figures right and after quite a few trials and errors, it has managed to get some right, but it is doing it in the wrong way.
Firstly, it is not acknowledging the fact that key to any deficit reduction plan is economic growth and none of the budget proposals seek to stimulate that.
We are committed to reducing the deficit, we will be fiscally responsible, and we will not leave the deficit as a secondary issue. We want to address the deficit and we want a balanced budget, even a surplus budget, but we know that in order to do that there needs to be economic growth.
That is one of the basic differences between us: we will stimulate growth by, for example, seeing that the legislation that businesses abide by will be realistic. It makes no sense, for example, to levy nine per cent interest on VAT fines, create a backlog and then address it by coming up with an amnesty. Amnesties send the wrong signal, and the International Monetary Fund had warned the government as much in its report last year.
The government has managed to hit its deficit target, but not because it managed to rein in recurrent expenditure, that increased by €36 million. Instead of curbing recurrent expenditure, it reduced its capital expenditure. That is not how things are done, that is the way that accountants work.
When the government says that it will increase its capital expenditure this year, it is simply not true and the same goes for education. For Budget 2011, the government had said it would spend €446 million on capital expenditure but in actual fact it spent only €303 million − a decrease of €140 million, or 32 per cent. This year the budget allocation for capital projects is €425 million, and the government is saying that in 2012 it will spend more in the area than last year, but that is actually 21 per cent less than the €446 million that had actually been promised last year. The same can be said for education, where the government will this year be spending 15 per cent less than it had last year, but it is being disguised as an increase.
The multimillion-euro question everyone is asking you is how you intend slashing electricity rates. How will you do that and is the plan hinged on the Sargas proposal?
Sargas is not our whole plan and it is not even necessarily part of it, it is one of the possibilities. Over the past few weeks we have witnessed a change in tack by the government when it comes to energy. Up till even last month, whenever we said that we would cut energy bills, the knee-jerk reaction from the government was always that it was hogwash and that electricity prices are solely dependent on international oil prices.
Now we are seeing the government changing tack in that it is now saying there is a possibility but it is not proven and that studies will have to be carried out. We are seeing a fundamental shift in the underlying thesis; it is no longer a question of not being able to be done, it is now a ‘yes’, with reservations from the Prime Minister and with the finance minister suggesting the idea should be examined.
The Prime Minister is effectively saying no because it is an unproven technology, even though Delimara’s BWSC technology is a prototype. But other representatives of the Nationalist Party are now saying ‘well, maybe’.
What I would like to ask the Prime Minister − and I will not submit 10 questions, I am not a quiz master – is to explain why he had this proposal in hand 18 months ago, and even as far back as 2007, and he did not even bother to have a feasibility study carried out.
Why shouldn’t he even look at something of the sort? The fact is that there is no consistency from the government. It has shown consistency in inconsistency when, for example, the government was presented with the idea to set up a wave energy project in Gozo, which is quite a new type of technology, and the government immediately went for it and a study is now underway.
So why did the government not adopt the same attitude with this project?
Perhaps it was a question of who was carrying the message?
In our case, we do not care who the messenger is. We are concerned about how we will manage, and we will manage, to slash energy bills for our families and businesses.
You are not saying you will try your best you are saying that you will do it. How?
We will do it, and this carbon capture technology is just one of the possibilities that we are working with. We are not telling the people to simply trust us and we will do something. No, we are telling people that when decision time comes we will put forward our plan, present the different possibilities we have, and we will seek the best solution for our environment and our economy.
So what is crystal clear at this point in time is the cliché that reducing energy bills is impossible because everything is linked to international oil prices has now been proved false, and people now know and the government is admitting that there are other possibilities.
I believe that one cannot gamble with people’s health, the economy and the environment. That is simply not on. But, however, we are open to innovation, and that is not gambling.
The way I see things is that our country has a window of opportunity, not only with this carbon capture technology but other possibilities on the table, of solving our energy crisis.
My point is that we have the opportunity to solve this issue, and of positioning ourselves as an innovative centre. This is not experimentation and it is definitely not a gamble − it is innovation.
I am sorry to hear the Prime Minister viewing innovation as experimentation, which it certainly is not. Years ago, he would not have believed that the internet, Wi-Fi or an iPad would have been possible and maybe he would have described these as fairytales.
But maybe that is the difference between our generations. My generation is not afraid of the future or innovation and I think people who are afraid of such things are a disservice to their country.
Will we have to pay for the electricity price slashes from somewhere else?
No, that will be part of our plan and we will definitely not be robbing Peter to pay Paul. The tariff cuts will come from increased efficiency, new technologies and a new ways of doing things.
You said you don’t care who the messenger is, what was the John Dalli connection to the Sargas proposal?
We heard John Dalli talking about this project on television, and I contacted him to ask if we could get some details about the project because we would like to look into whether it could fit in with our plans.
And he said he would put us in touch, which he did. It was as simple as that and I have no problem in saying so. In fact, I am grateful that he accepted to share this information with us, valuable information that had been lying on the Prime Minister’s desk for at least 18 months.
You have had some serious accusations levelled against you in terms of conduct with journalists, and now an accusation that you have asked people in the public service to ‘spy’ on their superiors? How do you respond?
I’ll let the people decide on whether this is the type of political discussion that they want to hear. If the Prime Minister is asking me if I am in touch with other people, I have already replied that I am in touch even with some of his closest aides, but I definitely never asked anyone to spy on anyone else.
The party has recently reorganised itself in a big way, from its shadow cabinet to its internal structures. What is happening and where is the party headed?
We are headed toward positioning ourselves as an alternative government. I think people will see in the next few days, weeks and months a party that is not only putting forward proposals and a vision, but also a mixture of experience and new faces. This is a party that knows it is the underdog in any election, even the next local council elections in March will be very difficult for our party. While most of our councils have delivered, there are some that have been a disappointment.
We are working hard, we are not taking anything for granted and the only thing we are sure about is that we will give our best in the coming months.
How will Labour win the next election and are you ready for a snap election were one to be called tomorrow?
We are ready to give it our best but we will be the underdogs in the next election. We are committed to presenting the people with a realistic roadmap, and we will not promise everything to everyone because we can’t.
The next election will be very difficult for us and we know the Prime Minister will do whatever it takes to win it, so we are just committed to doing our best to put together a winning team of some who are new to politics and some who are experienced.