The Malta Independent 22 January 2021, Friday

‘The writing had been on the wall since 2009’ - Carm Mifsud Bonnici

Malta Independent Monday, 3 June 2013, 09:00 Last update: about 8 years ago

Did you expect such a landslide defeat?  

The writing had been on the wall since the 2009 European Parliament elections. With the party split between various factions, it was very hard to see any disgruntled voters coming back onboard.  During house visits, it transpired that people were fed up with the never-ending election campaign. This reaction could have led to three possible outcomes – a landslide defeat for the PN, a high abstention rate or an unlikely PN victory. Throughout the campaign the overwhelming feedback was that the party only looking at the bigger picture.

 

One of the main reasons for the defeat seemed to be that the party was detached from the people. Do you agree with this interpretation?

I do not concur completely as a number of MPs and cabinet members including myself did their utmost to remain close to the people throughout the legislature. For me, the overriding feeling out there was that “we don’t care” and that all priorities centred around the economy, with everything else relegated to the back burner.

Reality was that the PN-led administration failed to inform people about its achievements to the point that the Labour administration is now taking credits for work that went unnoticed during the previous legislature. Apart from the fact that being in government for so long is of no help,  there was a perception that this was not a ‘caring government’.

 

What is your opinion about Lawrence Gonzi as prime minister and party leader?

The fact that Dr Gonzi immediately found himself at the top, as prime minister was a disadvantage as there was not enough time for him to be nurtured as party leader. Another disadvantage was that he was expected to tackle issues which had bee long overdue. To his credit, he succeeded in doing this especially in his second term in office, but had serious difficulties to deal with internal dissent. Though he was an excellent technocrat, he struggled to understand what was behind the behaviour of some MPs. He did not have the required human element to understand the rebellion. He also failed to understand that with some people you have to take a stand rather than let them dictate their agenda to you. All this drained him to the point that he no longer felt accomplished being prime minister. Dr Gonzi deserves much more credit for his efforts, but found himself with his back against the wall due to the fact that he had a wafer-thin majority.  Another issue was that some cabinet members were behaving as if the PN had a five-seat majority rather than one, or even half a seat. There was also the feeling that the parliamentary group was split between those sitting at the front benches and the rest of the group. In a sense Dr Gonzi found himself in a straightjacket.

 

What were the highlights and the darkest days during your spell as minister in the previous administration?

I regard the EU’s decision to set up the European Asylum office in Malta as a major highlight. Undoubtedly the darkest day was on 30 May of last year when parliament voted in favour of a no-confidence motion intended to oust me from cabinet, simply for political expediency.

 

Some people considered your approach at the height of the crisis as too timid. Now that this has become an episode in history do you have any regrets about the manner in which the case was handled by the party?

Had I opted to take a different approach, and possibly tried to react, it would have meant a higher probability of government collapsing. Reality was that each time I used to pronounce myself on something, somebody [Franco Debono], would resort to his usual antics. A case in point was the news conference marking the launch of a white paper outlining 150 proposals in the justice sector. Immediately afterwards he came out guns blazing against me accusing me, among other things, of not consulting him.  I was very well aware I was treading on thin ice and did not want to be the final straw which broke the camel’s back.

The only opportunity for me to make my case was the parliamentary debate itself. Politically, I had no other way rather than renounce my cabinet position in order to defend myself. On the other hand, after 30 May I feel that my stature grew immensely. With hindsight I think it was the best decision.

 

Last year a lot of fuss was made about the need of separating having justice and home affairs in different ministries. A year on we are back to square one, with justice a step below the home affairs ministry and nobody complaining. What do you make of this?

This is clear testament to the fact that all the talk about the conflict between justice and home affairs was just a cover up as the PL had no sound arguments on which to make its case. My track record proves that justice and home affairs can cohabitate, without jeopardising any principles. The perception that the home affairs minister is the one who sends people behind bars, whereas the justice minister is the one who breaks them out of jail is totally wrong. Reality is that I set a good example of how to achieve this delicate balance, to the point that the Labour administration decided to adopt this model, despite its criticism some months back.

 

Why did you describe Manuel Mallia’s ministry as a mega aircraft carrier during the budget debate?

My view is that there is a huge concentration of power in one ministry, whereas other cabinet members have very little on their plate. Apart from the police force, this ministry includes is also responsible for the army and national broadcasting. Such a vast portfolio is unprecedented. Shouldering responsibility for immigration and home affairs alone is already a headache, but if you add other things like broadcasting and the film industry you will be running the risk of stretching yourself too far. While justice has been delegated to a parliamentary secretary, at the end of the day it is still the minister who has overall responsibility. This problem will emerge two or three years down the line when some things will have to be give, for the minister to be able to focus on the most important matters. Eventually I think that this will lead to a reshuffle.

 

Recently the EU commission published a report called the EU Justice Scoreboard which concluded that Malta has the longest court proceedings in the EU. Do you think it reflects badly on your track record as justice minister?

Parts of this report have been conveniently highlighted to score political points. The figures are not from the same period and not every country has our efficient system to record court cases. It is amply clear that no like-with-like comparison was made. I fail to understand how court cases in Malta take longer than in Italy. On the one hand, the commission said that it is not in a position to make a like-with-like comparison but at the same time, it relied on figures from the council of Europe without verifying them. As a matter of fact I was one of those lobbying for such a report, but expected much better from the commission.

One case in point is the length of proceedings in the administrative court which the report claims are taking over 2,000 days even though this court had been only set up for a year. Reality is that pending court cases are on the decrease. As a matter of fact over the last ten years there was a decrease in the number of cases which have been pending for more than three years. The report neither does justice with Malta nor with the commission itself.

 

What are your views about the ongoing judicial review?

I welcome this initiative and agree with its terms of reference, but I have my doubts about the timeframe as it is quite tight. I went through a similar experience in 2004 when publishing the White Paper ‘Towards a Better and More Expeditious Administration of Justice’ at the end of which some of the proposals were implemented whereas others were not.

 

What is your evaluation of the Labour government so far? Can you mention one good point and one bad point?

It is very difficult to draw conclusions in the first months. Having said that, I am quite concerned about Labour’s mentality of having its own people on all boards and government entities at all costs, irrespective of their abilities. Eventually these decisions will come back to haunt this administration as the right candidate to fill certain post is not necessarily Labour-leaning. On the other hand the tribute paid to Lawrence Gonzi in parliament was a very positive step forward.

 

Your decision not to contest the second district was a surprise and a break with family tradition. Can you explain?

One of the reasons was the revision of electoral boundaries which meant that my Fgura constituency was split into two. Due to the fact that a considerable number of constituents were transferred to the fourth district I expressed my desire with PN leader Lawrence Gonzi to contest this district. I also felt that this would not impact negatively on the list of candidates contesting the second district.

 

What do you make of the new PN leadership and what direction must the party take to win lost ground?

With Simon Busuttil at the helm I am pretty confident that the party will find its feet again, and at the same time understand its new role in opposition. The transition from government to opposition needs time, as one has to adapt to this new reality even in simple matters such as drafting parliamentary questions. Dr Busuttil is able to convey his vision to the people. In the next five years the biggest leap for the PN will be in open dialogue with people once again, under new leadership.

In a sense the roles have now reversed, as the PN will be the party with a fresher look and young faces. Our priority for now is to be a strong opposition and come up with alternatives, not at the end of the legislature, but in due course. In order for the people to feel safe voting PN, the party must start outlining policies well before the election.

 

You have been recently appointed as shadow minister for foreign affairs. How will you go about it?

This is a new challenge but at the same time a continuation of my previous work especially during the Libyan civil war, when I was in close contact with foreign embassies at the height of the humanitarian crisis.

 

What are the major challenges in Malta’s foreign policy?

The foreign affairs minister must take the lead and forge stronger ties with countries whose economies are emerging like China, India, Brazil South Africa, Indonesia, and neighbouring North African countries. This can be achieved by the setting up of an inter-ministerial committee to pool forces.

 

 

 

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