17 September 2014

My Valentine’s Lunch with Franco Debono

 - Sunday, 19 February 2012, 00:00

by Noel Grima

I shared my Valentine’s lunch with Franco Debono last Tuesday.

No, let me rephrase that: I was lunching somewhere with someone when in walked Franco Debono with his girlfriend.

Obviously, we started chatting. He is, as far as I could see, realistic; he has kissed his political career goodbye, but is still unrepentant. The feedback he gets from all walks of life has been tremendous. But the advice he was given was: either do it (by which one means bring the government down) or else shut up, for people will blame the current uncertainty on you.

That may express Labour’s take on current events. Whatever the Labour leadership believed in the run-up to the vote of confidence, the Labour base really believed the government would fall. That it was not (courtesy of the Speaker’s casting vote) was a huge let down.

I have no idea what Franco will do next. Certainly, he was as cocky as ever and people kept providing him with more details on his bête noire Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici’s faults and mistakes. Perhaps the fact that Franco appeared to have personality problems with the minister did not help people in judging whether Franco was right and the minister had reached the end of his political usefulness.

Of course, Franco was not backed by those who in private and not so much in private have been bad-mouthing the government and its prime minister. It says volumes that not even a token opponent to Dr Gonzi could be found.

People seem to have moved on from Franco’s initiatives. That he flunked, according to some, his chance at the vote of confidence, was the beginning of the end of the Franco story, unless something else happens.

The Franco saga was put paid to not just at the vote of confidence but also at the PN national council, which, in turn, is leading to that extraordinary event happening next Saturday at which the unopposed prime minister will be crowned by means of a secret ballot as the absolute ruler of the party. It’s like choosing a pope or an archbishop, giving him absolute power to rule as he sees fit.

I still cannot get this right in my mind: whatever possessed Lawrence Gonzi to do this? A former Cabinet member speculated that this idea came from Austin Gatt. I know as a fact that at least one of the persons from the PN top levels who signed Dr Gonzi’s nomination bad-mouths his leader whenever we meet, at least twice in recent months.

Let’s see: even if he were to be opposed by anyone with a significant presence in the party, Dr Gonzi would surely get more than the required two-thirds of the delegates. We all remember how on an equally cold Saturday night in February 2004, Dr Gonzi beat John Dalli and his machine, which really believed it had the election stitched up and ready. This time John Dalli is out, Louis Galea is out, and no one dared serve as a trial contender – not even Franco Debono himself.

So it is obvious some will stay at home, mostly rebel backbenchers. There may be a smattering of negative votes, but the final outcome will see Dr Gonzi confirmed by what can only be 99 per cent of the votes.

And then? Then nothing. Dr Gonzi, it seems, fully intends to serve the full term. Unless Franco decides otherwise, but he did not look like that on Tuesday.

It is clear to one and all that at present Labour is ahead in the polls, but then Labour has so many internal problems like people from the past, people who boobed (like the Mosta mayor), that it has only been the perceived proximity of an election that kept it all together. Come the March local council elections, the Joe Muscat image of one united, ecumenical, broad church may unravel.

I asked last week if Labour will still be expansionistic in its election manifesto. The answer I get is that Labour will be careful but is still not ready to ditch its commitment to cut the rate charges and its other commitment (now not so much repeated, I must say) regarding the car registration tax refund.

I am still not convinced this is the right approach for Malta. Yesterday, the Daily Mail ran a horrendous article about the situation in Greece entitled “Staring into the abyss” (www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2102864/Staring-abyss-Faced-losing-job-Greek-woman-threatens-jump-death-desperate-despairing-nation-hungry-families-queuing-soup-kitchens.html#ixzz1mkbEOnma). Read it and be worried. For all the government’s boasting, we too can find ourselves scrubbing around for breadcrumbs and food handouts.

I am not joking.

First of all, while the achievements of the past years in bringing down the deficit are there, and in keeping unemployment down and registering GDP growth in most quarters are there too, we are by no means out of the woods.

We are in an extremely troubled eurozone that is as yet uncertain whether the coming month will see a Greek default and exit with the ensuing tsunami across the continent.

And our fundamentals are not all that rosy either: last week’s downgrade by Moody’s, the second downgrade in as many months, down to Italian and Spanish levels, has definitely pushed us to Serie B when we thought we were up there with the greats.

And that’s with a government policy that pulled out all the stops. OK, maybe it did not get it all right, but it was all in the right direction. I am not so sure that with an election that goes the other way, with policy reversals becoming the order of the day, with so many expansionist commitments, and the underlying one that ‘the people’ must not suffer any more, we will shake loose from where we are today and slide down a slope that we can never recover from, not even in a lifetime.

For all that Dr Muscat repeated about ‘uncertainty’ in the past weeks, now repeated by the developers and the constructors, among others, this and this alone is the real uncertainty – not whether the government has a workable majority but whether we as a nation can still keep our heads above the raging waves and stick to the virtuous nations of Europe, how we can escape the fate that has befallen the Greeks, cost what it may. I do not think that Labour has the guts to take the drastic decisions that may be needed, but I do know that Dr Gonzi has what it takes. He was the one, after all, who kicked Lorry Sant out of Parliament when he was a Speaker. He was the one, as minister, who headed the dockyard restructuring that means the dockyard is no more a burden on the country. He was the one who as prime minister saw the end of the dominion by the bus owners, which no other prime minister has succeeded in doing.

In comparison, all I can remember Dr Muscat doing is getting rid of Paul Chetcuti Caruana, the Mosta mayor. Small mercies. Dr Gonzi saw the door close on so many who, rightly or wrongly, could not fit. Dr Muscat opens the door to all and sundry where dinosaurs sleep alongside newborn lambs.

Asking where would a Labour government get what it gives to the people back without bankrupting the country, I was told there is a lot to save from. I was told this would not mean shutting down the many authorities this administration has created, or sacking people, but removing the many lucrative consultancies that a reckless government has been handing out. Fine, many consultancies are obscene (though when mention was made of a golden consultancy job given by George Pullicino, which information came from a Charles Buhagiar PQ, it then turned out that this same MP had a lucrative consultancy job himself). But even outlawing them all will not save much.

I notice that last Sunday Dr Muscat declared war on bureaucracy. Now that is something that his predecessor, Alfred Sant, the son of a civil servant, would never say. It is however clear that Malta suffers from a top-heavy bureaucracy. In yesterday’s edition of the German newspaper Tagesschau, quoting today’s Welt am Sonntag, the former prime minister of Bavaria Edmund Stoiber is quoted as saying that while the awarding of a public contract in Lithuania takes 77 days, it takes 241 days in Malta. (www.tagesschau.de).

Dr Muscat is right, though maybe his own supporters too must share the blame, and surely the present administration has been very lax, almost timid, to enforce discipline and to get results. But then I also believe that even the very people around Dr Gonzi are mediocre, not up to standard, unprofessional and possibly worse.

A guy I know, from my own town and who works in a ministry, has suddenly become quite rich, far too rich on what should be his official salary. Now that, to my mind, is a clincher. When people like that start showing off unaccounted-for riches, it is time for a change.

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