Monday, 31 March 2014, 11:00 , by Jacob Borg
Former journalist and European Parliament hopeful Norman Vella is adamant that he always did his duty as a presenter on PBS, and was never formally accused of bias towards the then Nationalist government.
Mr Vella refutes claims that he popping up on the PN’s list of MEP candidates further confirms this perceived bias.
“I was never accused of being biased. There was a campaign by those close to the Labour Party, but it is not campaigns that count but facts, and the fact is that they never formally complained about my work. I always used journalism to be a voice of the people, I always tried to push the agenda of the people.
“My track record is that I never had a complaint from any political party filed against me to the Broadcasting Authority. No formal complaints, not even during the election campaign when I had a daily programme. It is not as if a complaint was filed and I won it because I had a good lawyer, no complaint was ever filed.
“Facts count, not a smear campaign involving a character assassination. That counts for nothing. Today when I knock on people’s doors during house visits, sometimes when I come across Nationalists they tell me that they thought I was a Labourite.
“When you are doing your job and asking questions you naturally put them to those in power, namely the government of the day. I always asked all the questions that people wanted asking to the government’s representatives.”
‘I did not grow up wanting to be an MEP’
In typical tongue-in-cheek fashion Mr Vella says that as a little boy he did not grow up wanting to be an MEP. Instead, he explains that his belief in the European ideal and the PN’s own values is what inspired him to contest the election.
“I am convinced by the European project, I voted ‘Yes’ with a flourish. I believe Malta’s place is in the EU. The first time I voted for the PN was because of the issue of the EU.”
MEPs can net just under €100,000 a year in pay and expenses. Mr Vella, however, seems nonplussed by the prospect of a nice pay day.
“What money? First of all you have to be elected to get it. I undertook six months of work for free, and actually at an expense to my family.”
Asked whether he is aware of the exact figure he would potentially be earning, he says he knows approximately from his experience as a journalist.
“There is an allowance of €20,000 to employ staff, some other allowance, some €10,000, I don’t know exactly. If I remember well I had put the question to Louis Grech and he told me the package is €9,000 $monthly, but I don’t know exactly.”
Mr Vella deflects the conversation when pushed further on whether the money is the main motivating factor for his candidature.
“I do not know how the system works exactly, these are things you think of if you are elected. There is no doubt that there is a good pay. I think the discussion should be not on the salaries of MEPs and politicians, it is good to slim the bills on public expenditure don’t get me wrong, I’m not objecting, but we have to discuss the most important issues which are those of people with low pay or no pay at all.”
He goes on to say that the main problems in Europe are unemployment and low paid jobs, with fresh graduates not finding the high quality jobs that they have studied for.
Politicians need to give a voice to those who need it most
Mr Vella denies that his drive to help the underpaid and unemployed is just a case of cheap talk, saying that a politician has a duty to give a voice to those who need it most.
“They are not just nice words. I entered politics. I will be contesting the MEP election. When you enter a political role you will not just become an MEP. The departure point is that you are a representative of the people. They are going to choose you for that purpose.”
“You will represent them on three levels. The first level is within the party. When I am undertaking discussion within the party, I will be delivering the voice of the people there, in order to build up policies as a party that wants to be in government, and even in Opposition by coming up with constructive proposals. I have to represent people firstly within the party.”
“Secondly, people need to be represented locally in their issues with local institutions. Those voting for me and handing me a public career do not want me to wash my hands of local issues and say ‘this has nothing to do with Europe, I do not get into these things.’ They will expect representation within local institutions and within the context of their local problems.”
Asked what can be done at European level, Mr Vella says that the European Parliament is at the centre of the EU and is its most legitimate institution, seeing that its representatives are directly elected.
“You can do a lot. On unemployment for example, we will work hand-in-hand with the government and everyone else to create opportunities and seek them. We will be at the centre of the EU.
“Laws and policies are passed through the Parliament that directly influence job creation and the single market, there is a lot that can be done.”
Mr Vella does concede that the Parliament is the least powerful EU institution, but says that an MEP must work “within its limitations,” and if successful the EP can influence what happens in the EU Commission and Council of Ministers.
Of successes and failures
A question on what the government’s biggest success to date has been is met by a bemused look by Mr Vella.
“Suggest something to me...Off the top of my head...there are sectors, obviously...the most successful venture...which one am I going to mention...”
“I think the sector the government has made the most progress in is civil rights,” Mr Vella replies after finally collecting his thoughts on the matter.
Mr Vella is equally evasive when asked if he is inspired by the government’s civil rights drive and in favour of the introduction of ‘gay marriage.’
“Gay marriage is going to come in? As far as I know they are civil unions. We are talking about civil unions not gay marriage.”
“I favour gay couples having the same rights and access to the same rights as heterosexual couples. That is my position.”
Mr Vella also believes that gay couples should have access to the right to adopt a child, but each case should be analysed on its own merit.
The cat that firmly gripped the former journalist’s tongue when asked about the government’s biggest success to date scampers off into the distance when Mr Vella is asked to highlight the government’s biggest failure.
“Instead of gauging its performance on what it promised it is basing it on what previous governments did. They always come up with the same excuse, saying do you know what the Nationalists used to do? I mean, you were elected on your own electoral programme and you have to respond to that.”
“Today when you say Malta Taghna lkoll, it’s laughable. You have a government that says one thing and does another. Where was the citizenship scheme in the electoral programme? Where was the LNG tanker? Where was it that a MEPA permit will be issued without all the necessary studies having been carried out? What happened to the promise of meritocracy?”
Energy tariff reductions not linked to LNG project
On the government’s energy policy, Mr Vella says that this month’s reduction in energy tariffs have nothing to do with the LNG project.
“Let’s put everything into perspective. In the coming weeks the Marsa power station will be closed down. Let’s start with that. This means fewer emissions, because that is one of the dirtiest power stations. This is not going to be closed down thanks to the LNG project. If that was the case we would have to wait a lot longer for its closure.”
“If the Marsa power station is going to be closed it will be done by virtue of the projects undertaken in previous years, namely the BWSC plant in Delimara and the interconnector. That is why the Marsa power station is going to be closed. That is why emissions are going to be reduced. Not because of the LNG project.”
“The energy tariffs are not going to be reduced because of this tanker anchored in Marsaxlokk. We will be saving money because the BWSC plant saves a million euro a week, it is more cost effective. Energy will also be purchased from the interconnector when tariffs are at their lowest.”
“If there is anything that the Labour government can claim merit for it is this investment by a Chinese company that is buying part of Enemalta. But they don’t like to mention this much.”
Asked if the government would really be reckless enough to knowingly endanger people’s lives for the sake of political expediency, Mr Vella replies that the most prudent action would have been to wait for all studies to be completed before a decision was taken on the LNG tanker.
“I do not want to alarm people. I am saying, and so is the PN, that all the necessary studies should take place and we will take it from there.”
Mr Vella says that although a number of studies have already been concluded, the maritime impact assessment is yet to be completed.
“The assessment is still on the way, but the permit is ready and even if there was an appeal the Prime Minister wrote to the MEPA chairman and said that he will forge ahead anyway. This government steamrolls over everyone.”
Vella approached by PN prior to arrest
Mr Vella hit the headlines last October when he was arrested for allegedly taking pictures of government communications officials Kurt Farrugia and Ramona Attard at the Malta International Airport.
He says that the PN approached him about his potential candidature prior to the incident, but refuses to “speculate” as to whether the two events were linked.
“The PN had already approached me before this incident. It shows that the PN’s offer to me leaked to the Labour Party. I think a lot of things, but I am not going to speculate like others do and conduct character assassinations. I am telling you the facts as they happened chronologically.
“What I know is that I opened a case against the government, and swore that there was a threat against me even by then Opposition leader Joseph Muscat. Everyone reported that I was going to be a PN candidate, and then the Sunday after those reports there was my arrest at the airport.”