From student leader to the face of transport reform: Austin Gatt’s right-hand man Emanuel Delia is already a PN mainstay but will his political adventure prove successful?
Sunday 9 September 2012 - 15:39 by James Debono
PN candidate Emanuel Delia. (Photo: Ray Attard/MediaToday)
Emanuel Delia, a former Students' Council president during the 1997 'stipend' protests, has lurked in the shadows of the veteran, bullish Transport Minister Austin Gatt for the past 15 years, serving as one of his top ministry officials. He has been privy to some of the country's most important of reforms, most recently the public transport reform which - by way of his resignation offer (turned down) - nearly cost him his job. Now he is taking the plunge by standing as a PN candidate in the forthcoming election. It always looked like the inevitable destiny for one of the Nationalist Party's most dedicated of young Turks, who has been intimate with his party-in-government's policies for almost two decades now.
Austin Gatt has already declared that he won't be contesting the next general election, so is Delia seeing himself carrying Gatt's legacy in the party?
"I would be flattering myself if I thought that," Delia replies with some reverence for his political mentor. He is all praise for Austin Gatt whom he describes as one of the most "significant assets" of the PN and its governments for decades. "His talent for leadership, organisation and mobilisation has been indispensable for the party. It still is," he says of the man that until recently Lawrence Gonzi had pigeon-holed to lead the forthcoming electoral campaign.
Delia also praises Gatt for his role in driving the PN's vision of a "competitive job creating economy" by extirpating "the drydocks cancer", building "a world-class ICT industry" and privatising "stagnant State-owned industries" - undoubtedly the hallmark of the Nationalists' ambitious privatisation drives.
"It is a fine ambition to follow in those footsteps," Delia remarks.
Delia himself is synonymous with a public transport reform that overturned the cartel of bus owners who called the shots through their cooperative, by being replaced by a private company that delivered a new fleet of modern buses and bus routes. What was deemed impossible for previous transport ministers, happened in the long hot summer of 2011... but high expectations were dashed on the first days of Arriva's operations when hundreds of people were left stranded as the new operators fell short of their obligations.
Delia later offered his resignation to the minister, which Gatt did not accept. Was his offer an admission that he felt a degree of responsibility for the hardships endured by commuters in the first months after the reform?
"To an extent, yes. We all know what happened in those early weeks after July last year. A third of the force due to drive buses did not show up for work. Almost all of those people worked in the old system and in guaranteeing them a job we imposed them on Arriva as employees on the first day. That was the root cause of the problem," he says, shifting the blame on to the bus driver-owners (handsomely compensated to scrap their old buses) who now had been employed with Arriva.
But wasn't it a bad idea in the first place to give the bus owners of the old system a job guarantee? This was exactly what Delia thought during the first turbulent weeks of the reform. But his view changed with time.
"Several owners of the old system live in my district - in Mqabba and Qrendi especially. They were not my biggest fans during the transition. Now they tell me they respect the fact that we treated them fairly and made sure they all got jobs to earn a living even after their business shut down. I think offering them the job was the 'right thing to do' as it were, despite the regrettable consequences."
He also blames Arriva for some of the initial problems. "Arriva turned out to have been nowhere near ready to start on 3 July. Training till then was flimsy and control structures were close to inexistent. They still are not quite what they should be."
Still, nobody paid a political price for the botched launch. Gatt turned down Delia's resignation, and the Prime Minister turned down Gatt's - both resignations were announced to the public after they had been turned down. Was this not a message that nobody carries any political responsibility in Malta?
Delia sees things differently.
"The Prime Minister sent out the signal that we're a team and that scapegoating people to satisfy someone's bloodlust is not how a team works. A team works together to solve problems and deliver on the public's expectations: that, ultimately, is what political responsibility is really about."
Delia says Lawrence Gonzi understood that the problems were "transitory" and that as more drivers got recruited, the more the problems of the first weeks would be ironed out. "He took it upon himself to lead that effort and the results could be quickly perceived."
Proud of the reform, Delia points out the improved air quality, the general appearance of the fleet and as a result, Malta's urban environment, citing the growth in passengers in areas previously poorly served such as Gozo, the countryside, the airport, entertainment spots, beaches, and the availability of customer information and customer service.
"With the supreme benefit of hindsight I would have recommended a less radical approach to network and route design than the technical advisers were clamouring for and I would have prepared for prohibitive penalties imposed on old owners who signed up for a new job and then did not show up for work."
It is a fact that the government had to increase subsidies from the original €4.6 million to €6.4 million to make up for the increase in routes and the number of buses. This still remained substantially less than the €10.4 million subsidy received by the former Public Transport Association in 2011. But does this not show that there were shortcomings at planning stage for which Delia himself was responsible?
Delia replies with an emphatic "no", pointing out that government's ability to change the route network was contractually introduced with the reform and did not exist before. "The inability or unwillingness of the old owners to adapt to changing needs was one of the problems we wanted to do away with. The right to modify routes at established rates was a new public benefit which we exploited and which anyone watching the changes in how people want to travel will continue to do."
His support of transport reform is reflected in his belief that more people must be encouraged to use less their own cars, reiterating what environmentalists have been saying for decades. "We need to make pavements safer, improve access to cyclists, promote travel on water, install public connections such as the Barrakka lift that replaces a 15-minute car journey with a lift climb of a few seconds. We need to change the culture and we've started doing that but we have miles yet to go."
But some commuters blame the size of the new buses, especially the bendy buses as a contributing factor to the increased congestion on the roads. Delia disagrees and offers a logical explanation.
"That's because they see them from inside the car they're driving. An articulated bus carries 160 passengers and is 18 metres long. Add to that safe distances of six metres in front of, and behind, it and 160 people are occupying 30 metres of road space. If you put those people on the old 11-metre buses you'd need four buses to carry what is now carried by one. Including safe distances that would amount to 74 metres of road space: more than double the congestion for the same number of people. You put those 160 people in private cars and you get a proper traffic jam."
But he admits that articulated buses are not appropriate for all roads and that they need particular driver skills to be driven safely.
"It is also true that they have been on occasion deployed inappropriately or driven inexpertly. But it is stupid to throw away the tools when their users haven't yet quite learnt to use them properly."
Delia's fifth-district political battleground sees him at odds with Nationalist backbencher Franco Debono, now banned from running on the PN ticket. The MP nearly cost Austin Gatt his ministry (and Delia his job) in 2011 when he threatened to vote in favour of an Opposition no-confidence motion; after abstaining, the PN issued a statement mollifying Debono to say that Delia, who was already on the campaign trail, was "not an approved PN candidate".
But Delia's typical loquaciousness abandons him when I ask him whether the PN had been favouring him and other candidates on the fifth district to oust the troublesome Debono from the district, and now by banning him from running altogether.
"That is not for me to answer," he says, directing me to have a word with the PN secretary-general, and repeats the same answer when I ask him whether the party should seek reconciliation with Debono.
Debono has now filed a motion to force government to stop the use of heavy fuel oil at the Delimara power station, but Delia points out that a balance must be found between improved air quality and the cost to pay for the comforts of modern life.
"Air quality would improve if we used diesel. It would improve further if we switched off the power station altogether and used flint and firewood instead... if cost was the only consideration we would be burning coal and paying less for electricity, but the environmental price would be too high."
Put simply, for Delia the choice of fuel is determined by the ability to pay for it. "Gas can and will become affordable if and when we manage to get someone else - European taxpayers - to pay for a gas pipeline to supply us with the fuel we need. Until then, the infrastructure is simply not in place to reliably import and store the fuel. The government is working on securing just such funding."
Delia turns out to be more of a liberal that his mentor Austin Gatt, who distinguished himself as an arch moral conservative on issues like divorce. "There is no party in ethics, and ethics is all about 'doing the right thing', an objective reality independent of how I, or the majority, feel about it."
Faced with concrete issues like gay marriage, Delia leans on the liberal side of the PN: "I have no objection to the idea of the State recognising the union between people of the same sex. The State does not legislate love: it can neither prevent it, nor encourage it."
But he is somewhat evasive when asked to state his position on gay marriage, although he does not exclude it. "Same-sex marriage is as much about photographs of beaming gay couples pelted by confetti as much as heterosexual marriage can be described in that way.
"We haven't even started having the debate on same-sex marriage in Malta. We still need to think through issues such as adoption rights for example. I look forward to that debate. Ten years ago same-sex marriage as an idea in Malta was taboo. Now it's merely controversial. No doubt the discussion will evolve."
Delia also categorically disagrees with those who want to ban IVF, but has ethical reservations on embryo freezing. "I think that the notion that IVF should be banned because it is not 'natural' is preposterous.
"I know what an unparalleled blessing the responsibility of bringing up your own is... but I am queasy about fertilising embryos without the actual explicit intention of fostering them to maturity."
Delia says a fertilised embryo is more than 'just cells' and it is endowed with rights. "It is hard to empathise with a newly-fertilised embryo. But that is not a good reason to ignore its rights."
As the PN trails Labour in the polls by a considerable margin, Delia is confident the party can make a comeback. "The PN has a vision for the country. Labour's vision extends as far as the day of the election. The PN has a successful record in steering the country in the good and the bad times. Labour's record is abysmal. We're still in time to convince the electorate of what in reality they already know."
Having led the KSU during the 1997 stipends protest, doesn't he now think that dishing out €30 million in stipends is no longer sensible at a time when everyone is feeling the pinch?
"At a time when everyone is feeling the pinch, it makes altogether perfect sense to prioritise our investment in education. While our neighbours struggle with unemployment, employers in Malta compete to recruit our trained and flexible young people.
"Moreover, cost-cutting in education will discourage students from further studies denying the country of our most important asset: the quality of our human resources."
Delia says stipends are ensuring families can afford further education even when times are tough. "Stipends are money well spent," but he is cautious in committing himself against any cuts in stipends if elected. "Generally speaking I would be against reduction in spending in education, just as I am against inefficient spending."
Delia projects himself as a representative of a generation which grew up after 1987 and is now making its mind up on whether change is needed after nearly 25 years of Nationalist governments. The first in his family to go for a university education, he points out how the "gates barring me from University had been opened up" during Eddie Fenech Adami's legislature, with stipends that ensured his "working-class family could afford my studies."
His criticism of Labour's record in education is made obvious as he conjures up his own experience. "I graduated in Arts, which were deemed a waste of time by Labour. I graduated before EU membership, so I could not afford the exorbitant rates charged by EU universities for doctorate students from outside the EU. I am proud my vote for EU membership made life easier for today's students. I want the best for my children. For their sake and on their behalf, I must do my best for the PN to govern and for Labour's visceral hostility to learning to remain harmlessly in opposition. That's one good reason to vote PN. There are others."