The Malta Independent 20 November 2018, Tuesday

Marlene Farrugia: Speaking out from the backbench (full interview)

Malta Independent Tuesday, 10 December 2013, 10:15 Last update: about 5 years ago

Government backbenchers rarely make the headlines, unless they deviate from their party’s position. And so far, it seems, Marlene Farrugia is the only one ready to do so with regularity.

Among other things, she expressed her reservations about the citizenship scheme, questioned the redeployment of TV presenter Norman Vella and his arrest over allegations he took pictures of government officials, and is regularly critical of the approval of controversial development projects.

One might assume that the MP would be the one most likely to end up voting against the party line should push come to shove, particularly in the wake of a Nationalist government wracked by backbencher dissent. But when the recent past is brought up, Dr Farrugia quickly puts such assumptions to rest.

“I will never vote against the government,” she explains, but adds that she still has to clarify where she stands.

The MP states that as a backbencher, it is her role to scrutinise the government’s work and ensure that it delivers what it has promised, and that she saw nothing wrong in timely, constructive criticism: it made no sense to bring things up when it was too late.

She emphasises that she does not speak up publicly before contributing to internal debate, but will speak up if the decision taken is ultimately one she does not fully agree with. Even then, however, she will vote with the government.

“Unless there is an issue that requires my resignation (from parliament),” she adds, pointing out that she was not elected solely on her own merits, but also as a candidate for the Labour Party.

Dr Farrugia qualifies that she will not take the decision to resign lightly, but only if there is an issue that she is absolutely against and where she sees no opportunity for a change in direction. As an example, she brings up her stance on the citizenship scheme, which she had previously told this newspaper that she backed with “extreme difficulty.”

Since then, she points out, the government has launched talks in a bid to reach consensus over the scheme, in line with what she would have wanted. With this in mind, she adds, her efforts may not have been as effective if she simply resigned at the first hurdle.

The MP states that she enjoys the Prime Minister’s respect, and argues that she feels that she would have been disloyal if she did not speak up whenever she felt that government was taking the wrong path. She also points out that since other backbenchers rarely expressed such disagreement, she felt she had a duty to stay on and help the party as much as it can.

While resignation is unlikely, the MP does reveal that this term in parliament will be her last: she states that she believes that a politician should not serve for more than 10 years, and that she will make room for others capable and willing to serve in parliament.

No ulterior motives

During the interview, Dr Farrugia rebuts a number of cynical interpretations of her actions as a government MP.

“That is the difference between me and the others... I am expecting absolutely nothing,” the MP maintains at one point, in a clear reference to dissenting MPs in the past legislature.

She notes that when Prime Minister Joseph Muscat informed her and her partner, Godfrey Farrugia, that only one of them would make it to cabinet, she had no qualms in recommending her partner as the best choice for Health Minister, describing him as “honest, absolutely incorruptible,” and with the necessary experience in the healthcare sector as a family doctor and union man.

“I have no regret at all... I would not have come close to Godfrey if I became Health Minister,” she adds.

Controversy arose when she accepted to serve as a voluntary aide to the minister, but she stresses that she had no problem with stepping aside once she realised that this was causing him harm, by making him appear incompetent.

Of course, the role of Health Minister is not the only cabinet position available, and Dr Farrugia is asked whether she would be interested in any other portfolio.

“Not anymore,” she answers, adding that her perception of what being a government backbench MP has evolved over the past few months.

“You realise that you can still make a lot of difference, not least because your hands are not tied by collective ministerial responsibility. Not that I will be irresponsible...,” she remarks.

In opposition, Dr Farrugia had been her party’s spokesman on energy. But later in the interview, she readily concedes that in this field, Energy Minister Konrad Mizzi is far more capable than she would have been.

While she is not standing for the next general election, her name had been mentioned, earlier this year, as a possible candidate for next year’s European elections.

But while she admits to considering this option, she is now ruling it out, as she now felt, after reappraising what being a government backbencher meant, that her place was here.

“People cannot get the impression that I am speaking up to get votes, as I will not be seeking a vote again in my life,” she emphasises.

Dr Farrugia maintains that her dream has always been to see the political class rise above partisan considerations on issues of national importance, placing their countries before their respective parties’ interest.

“Above all, I want Malta Taghna Lkoll to become our everyday reality and cease to be just an electoral slogan,” she declares.

Speaking out against over-development

While Dr Farrugia has commented on various issues over the past months, environment and planning concerns are a particularly recurring topic.

She has publicly expressed her opposition to several development projects, including by calling for the revocation of the development permit for the development of a 744-apartment complex at the Mistra Village site.

The MP pre-empts a question on how she can reconcile her public stance on development with her own active interest in the property market, a point which has been brought up recently.

Dr Farrugia explains that her involvement in real estate started as a hobby, and that it was actually spurred by her love of Maltese heritage, in “all that makes us Maltese.”

She notes that she often wondered about certain old properties that were left unused, and using her savings from years of working as a dentist and the occasional loan, she started purchasing old properties – often having to trace numerous heirs to do so – restoring and reselling them.

“My activity in real estate is limited to this... I never built on virgin land, and I will never do so,” Dr Farrugia insists.

The MP also points out that when she bought the property that became her home – the late medieval Torri tal-Kaptan in Qrendi – she was told, to her surprise, that the land it included could be developed. Stating that she “nearly fainted” when this happened, she personally requested that the land is scheduled along with the structure, to prevent future generations from exploiting it.

When asked to comment on present planning policy, Dr Farrugia points out that the greatest catastrophe was the “rationalisation” exercise carried out in 2006, which extended development zones across the country.

But she laments that every policy appeared to have loopholes, observing how old houses have made way for new constructions despite being in an Urban Conservation Area. Ultimately, she argues, it is useless to draft policies unless there is the necessary political will behind them.

Dr Farrugia is adamant that the aim should be to conserve what remains, and that the construction industry should be directed to focus on restoration, and not new construction.

She is opposed to the new policy on high-rise buildings, insisting that it can ruin the character of many Maltese localities. As an example, she brings up Paris, whose high-rise buildings are concentrated in the La Défense district, far from its historic centre.

Although she realises that many environmentalists are opposed to it, the MP also suggests that land reclamation might be a solution, allowing for structures incompatible with Maltese localities to be set up on a reclaimed island.

The MP also strongly argues against granting the opportunity to build up in undeveloped areas under the excuse of agro-tourism, pointing out that disused farms could be conserved, restored and even modified for this purpose.

On the Mistra project, she maintains that she recognises that the government has been left in an uncomfortable position, since revoking the permit could affect its credibility with foreign investors. But she argues that the Kuwaiti investors behind the project could be offered an alternative investment opportunity, perhaps through land reclamation.

The government has maintained that it could be sued for €70 million over the project, but Dr Farrugia points out that the public will have to pay for the construction of a new road due to the traffic woes it will cause, suffer the health effects of the ensuing congestion, and the permanent loss of further pristine land.

“We are robbing future generation of their heritage... and to me, this is inexcusable,” the MP exclaims.

 

 
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