The Malta Independent 21 October 2019, Monday

Prime Minister does not see Labour winning a fourth seat in the EP

Rachel Attard Sunday, 19 May 2019, 09:30 Last update: about 5 months ago

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat warns that next week’s European Parliamentary election will be anything but a walkover for the Labour Party. In an interview, he tells Rachel Attard that if the Labour Party is complacent, it will be in for a big surprise and that he certainly does not agree with those saying the party will win a fourth seat

Recent surveys show that the Labour Party will win the coming election. Why do you keep calling yourself the underdog? Could you please stop saying it?

No, I will not stop saying it. These are mid-term elections and people – almost in a natural way in any country in the world – use these elections to convey a message, mainly to the government of the day.

 

But that is not what the surveys are showing...

If the Labour Party is complacent, we will be in for a big surprise. I do not agree with those who are saying that the Labour party is going to get a fourth seat: it’s unheard of. In 2014, during the MEP election, the Labour Party won with a bigger percentage margin than at the general election, but the number of MEPs elected was three. Also, in most cases people will not vote for all the candidates but mostly for the first three that they prefer.

 

In this election campaign you are saying that this is an election between you and Adrian Delia. Why are you describing it as if it is a ‘presidential campaign’?

Because ultimately this is about two different styles of leadership. Let’s not fool ourselves; these elections are a choice between one party and another. It has always been like this and also this is the first time that a Labour Prime Minister, in his second term, is facing a mid-term election against a new Leader of the Opposition. So it is automatic that people will choose between my leadership and Adrian Delia. 

 

Abortion is being used by the PN as one of the issues that will determine these elections. Has the PL committed itself to introduce abortion some time in the future?

It is open for the general public to see that we have sent our provisos to the PES (Party of European Socialists) manifesto on abortion and taxation. Also, if you look at the way the PES voted in parliament, the majority of them vote on a pro-choice platform. This is not a question of the PES being pro-abortion and the EPP (European People’s Party) being against it. In the case of the PES, the majority of the members vote pro-choice and in the EPP there are about 60 per cent who are pro-choice and 40 per cent pro-life.

For Delia these elections are not about Muscat versus Delia but a referendum on abortion in order to bring the conservatives back to the Party. I think this is a short-sighted tactic. Abortion deserves a serious debate in a county but the government does not have a mandate for it. However, I will obviously not stop the debate that the different civil society groups are raising. I just remind people that our current President, George Vella, was very categorical in his words and that an abortion law will not be signed on his watch. This was a sign which confirms our mandate.

 

While it is true that the economy is doing well, there are people who cannot afford to buy or rent a property because their salary is too low. What do you think should happen: should wages increase or property prices go down?

First of all, I want to start by saying that 80 per cent of the Maltese people are home-owners, 15 per cent live in rented accommodation that is protected and about five per cent live in substandard conditions. The problems generated by an increase in property prices cannot be put in one basket and we need to divide them into different categories.

The first problem is that, over the years, the renting situation has not been regularised. In the past years, we have seen a rapid increase in property prices but these prices are now stabilising. The aim is not to bring property prices down, because that would affect the majority of the population who are home-owners, but to be more realistic and ensure that the increase in property prices reflects the present situation in Malta.

 

But what happened to the Rent Law white paper, on the subject of which a consultation period ended last October?

I can tell you that the proposals are practically ready and will be announced in the coming weeks. At the moment we are making sure that, from a legal point of view, we will be covered because I do not want a situation where we would be challenged constitutionally. We are committed to make sure that all rental contracts are registered because one of the reasons why certain people live in sub-standard conditions is because there is no contract that binds the two parties. Another regulation that we need to introduce is that landlords do not increase the rent price haphazardly, but we need to be careful what regulation to introduce because we do not want the deal to end up in the black economy. Our idea is to give an incentive to landlords who choose the long-let approach. With a Rent Law in place, I am sure that we will have stabilisation in the rental market.

I think the biggest problem in Malta at the moment is not the cost of renting but the cost of buying a property. In Malta we tend to mix social housing with affordable housing. Social housing refers to the 1,700 places which we are building for people who have a real social problem. In certain parts of the country, the prices of property are not realistic at all. They are practically out of reach and certain prices that are being asked definitely do not make sense. In fact, what the KPMG Report says is that property prices are now stabilising and have stopped increasing at such a fast rate. In fact, next week we are going to announce the equity-sharing scheme for people who are over 40 years old and for whom it is very difficult to obtain a bank loan.

 

Does it worry you that Malta could end up with ‘ghost towns’, once the construction boom is over?

No, it does not because, according to the KPMG Report, the banks are not worried that this will happen. If the banks realise that it might happen, they will be the first to pull out. Also, statistically, the demand is strong because it is not the construction industry that is helping the economy to grow but the other way around.

 

Malta Developers Association President Sandro Chetcuti said recently that we need to have a register of approved developers to ensure that rogue developers are easily identified. On the other hand, architect Alex Torpiano said that we need to have a public register that gives a list of workers in the construction industry. Do you agree with them?

In an ideal world, I would like to have self-regulation in this sector. I find it irritating when a developer or an architect just goes ahead and submits an application, chances it and sees if it gets approved. Architects and developers should take responsibility and not waste the Authority’s time. For this to happen the planning system should change and from guidelines we need to go to the next level, which is a system of regulations. This is what the future of the Planning Authority should be.

I agree with Chetcuti that developers should be registered and I know that for now the plan is to have a voluntary registration, but I firmly believe that in the future this should be mandatory.

With respect to the Building Regulations Office, I think it is inundated with work and I believe that we should give this authority more tools to work with.

 

Last September, your government announced the setting up of an Authority that brings together all current entities involved in the construction industry but we have recently found out that the CEO has already resigned. What do you say to this?

Minister Ian Borg is adamant that this Authority will be set up and running smoothly. I can understand people’s frustrations that certain enforcement does not take place.

 

In the past few days of the election campaign we saw you and other Ministers announcing the Birzebbuga afforestation and the expansion of Ta’ Qali park. Are you becoming an environmentalist now?

I am fully aware that the priorities of the public are changing and it is healthy that this is so. Six years ago, people’s concerns were the water and electricity bills and employment. Nowadays, their main worry is ‘how am I going to spend more time with my family and where will this happen?’ For us, it would have been easier for the 50,000 square metres of land at Ta Qali to be used for industrial purposes but we decided to build a park instead because we want to send a strong political message.

I would say that, when it comes to the environment, the criticism we have received is partly justified and partly not. So these two projects you’ve mentioned, and others, show that the government is listening to the people’s plea and we want to continue creating spaces where families can go for recreational purposes. And I promise that more similar projects will be announced in the coming months and years.

 

But don’t you think that this is a question of too little too late?

No, I don’t. With the exception of the American University, the government did not take up any ODZ land. In addition, our environmental credentials speak for themselves: we have closed Marsa Power Station; we have switched from heavy fuel oil to gas at the Delimara power station; we are going to be one of the first EU countries to switch to electric cars; this year we will be introducing the plastic bottle return scheme and we are one of the first EU countries to ban single-use plastic.

 

One of the promises in the 2017 Labour Party Manifesto was the building of a race track at Ta’ Qali. At present an independent architect is proposing that a racetrack be built on mainly industrial land in Hal Far. Do you still intend to build the one in Ta’ Qali and do we need two?

First of all, the land that this architect is proposing is government land so the government needs to take the final decision on it. On the other hand, it is true that in the past we were looking at Ta’ Qali but now instead of the race track we will be making the park that we announced this week.

However, there are ideas for a race track but at the moment it is not appropriate to talk about them. The question on this issue is opportunity cost, but I do believe that we will reach an agreement. There are two costs: environmental – which is giving up virgin land and commercial – giving up industrial land. My idea is one where we can have a hybrid, take up as little or no virgin land as possible and have a multi-use complex. I believe we can come up with a solution.

 

In recent days, the court has decided that the evidence presented by Simon Busuttil to the court on Minister Konrad Mizzi and OPM Chief of Staff Keith Schembri is admissible. Whatever the legal arguments, the reality is  that a Minister and your Chief of Staff are being investigated for corruption. Why have you not decided to fire them or asked them to suspend themselves?

What the court has decided is in relation to what Mizzi and Schembri had originally argued and the court did not feel the need to open another investigation but to expand the current investigation.

However, my position has not changed. I am waiting for the magistrate’s decision and then I will draw my own conclusions. It is the magistrate who needs to establish whether a criminal investigation should start.

What I am sure of is that Simon Busuttil continues to shop around in the Law Courts which have, however, refused his legal applications.

 

But for the time being forget the legal arguments: politically and morally should you not have sent a sign to the public and asked Mizzi and Schembri to at least suspend themselves?

In the case of Konrad Mizzi, I removed him from the position of Energy Minister and kept him under my watch, and removed him from being deputy leader of the Labour party. Then we had the 2017 election and he was elected again and now has another portfolio and is doing a good job. All this shows that all the necessary steps were taken and the public judged me.

I want to remind people that if Magistrate Aaron Bugeja found that I or my family had been involved in the Egrant allegations I would have resigned immediately and today I would not be here.

 

You have said that you will not be contesting another general election. Can you tell us exactly what your plans are, or is this a state secret?

I think with hindsight I made a mistake when I said what my plan is. As Prime Minister, I am focused on my work and, yes, it is not my plan to contest a third election. I will do what is good for the country and for the Labour Party. What I can assure you is that I will not wake up one day and say that I am going to pack my bags and leave. That is not my plan.

 

It is true that journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia refused police protection and should the state not have protected her?

If the government or the police had known that there was a plan for her to be killed then, yes, we would have had an obligation to protect her, even if she had not wanted us to, but we had no such information. 

 

The family are asking for an independent inquiry to see if her assassination could have been avoided. Do you agree?

Yes, I do agree with them, but both the Attorney General and other legal experts are saying that we should first let the present investigation by Magistrate Neville Camilleri be concluded and then an independent inquiry would take place. The Caruana Galizia family, as well as the government, has trust in this magistrate and the ultimate aim is that we identify the mastermind behind this killing.

We tend to forget that, in our history, whenever a high-profile person has been murdered, those suspected of carrying out the killing have never been caught – and this is something we should not take lightly.

What I want is that, when the mastermind has been caught, there will be enough evidence to prosecute him/her/them and not just a quick win. In the past we have had cases where people were arrested and arraigned but then there was insufficient evidence to prosecute them.

 

The Caruana Galizia family has been saying that this was a political murder and in a Facebook post her son, Matthew, has also said that the Police Commissioner should also take your laptop and check it. Do you exclude that this was a political murder?

Let me say something which is obvious. It was definitely not me. I am not an investigator so I cannot tell you if it was a political murder or not. I am convinced it was not but, on the other hand, I am not an investigator who can collect evidence.

 

Law Commissioner Franco Debono said you promised him that he would be the one to chair the Reform of the Constitution. Recently, we learned that it will be President George Vella who will do that. So now Franco is no good anymore?

Whatever he said and wrote about me, I still think that Franco is a brilliant legal mind. It takes two to tango and with him the strategy did not work. The President has the trust of both sides of the House and he will be the one that will chair the discussions.

  • don't miss