The Malta Independent 20 October 2019, Sunday

People are critical of the government and they are angry – Adrian Delia

Kevin Schembri Orland Sunday, 15 September 2019, 11:00 Last update: about 2 months ago

People have been critical of the government and are angry, according to feedback Opposition leader Adrian Delia has received from the public, he tells Kevin Schembri Orland. He also discusses the controversial choice of the party’s headquarters, over the Floriana granaries, for its traditional Independence Day activities, the Planning Authority and the Gozo tunnel project.

The PN recently said it was working on a long-term economic plan, aiming for sustainability, fair distribution of wealth and good salaries. Can you reveal any such proposals?

Not proposals, per se, as it is the directional decision which we have taken. We have been criticising the government, which has been unable to come up with a long-term plan. 

During one particular intervention at a seminar, I specifically criticised them for not having a long-term plan, and Prime Minister Joseph Muscat took pride in agreeing he did not. It seems that he is actually boasting about this.

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So, yes, we need a long-term plan and that is the direction we're taking.

We are seeing the consequences of a lack of planning - especially over the past six months. Unless you anticipate population growth and plan for it, insofar as infrastructure, services, transport, education and healthcare are concerned, then you can't actually achieve balance against the growth you need. How fast can we grow without then ruining what we have in terms of national resources, as well as societal makeup? 

Economies grow and population grows at a normal, natural rate. If there is overpopulation, then that perverts natural growth. If there is overdevelopment, then that has collateral damage, and now we are seeing it.

You mentioned that this was more of a 'directional decision'; what is the next step and will you be setting up a specific committee?

We already have focus groups within the party, but we are trying contact various stakeholders for consultation. But the direction is very clear in my mind.

If we cannot depend on economic growth through population alone -­­­ the consumption model - what is the other model? It is high value-added; the creation of new resources which can bring in not just people, but investment. 

We used to speak of attracting investment to Malta. Today, we do not measure success through the investment we bring to Malta. We used to boast about X amount of euros in investment coming from this and that country and sector - aviation, pharmaceuticals, insurance, shipping, etc. Now we speak of 16,000 more people, 60,000 more people in five years and, therefore, the impact on consumption levels as a measure of GDP. That is what we mean when we criticise economic growth through population alone. 

Among other things, the Moneyval report criticises the way the government jumped head-first into the crypto sector, without carrying out any due diligence, stress tests, or anticipating what this would meant for our anti-money laundering regimes. That is a perfect example of what happens when you simply move ahead without looking at where you need to arrive.

It is good to look at the digital age and say that you want to be a trailblazer there, but not without considering the consequences. So, yes, let us look at which economic sectors we want to develop - ideally, not simply by building everywhere without purpose or scope, but by deciding what we would need to host in those buildings in the future.

This can be done. Speaking to professionals across various economic sectors, it is clear that there is a lot of potential investment around the world which could make Malta the hub of excellence it was a few years ago.

Our reputational damage has been so great, however, that it is going to take quite a while to actually regain that momentum.

 

The budget is round the corner. Will the PN be releasing some form of pre-budget document, and, if so, when?

Yes, we always do, and have been doing so for a number of years. We weren't idle over summer and had a healthy group of people working on the pre-budget document. 

I am very happy we received the most positive, structured feedback from all our MPs this year. Most of them already had a team structured around them, which then helped them send us input. I think we are going to come up with a very structured, constructively critical - but also propositive - pre-budget document.

Next week, we will be able to announce when it will be released. I'm already reading through a draft version.

 

What are some of the proposals?

We will reveal them in the days and weeks to come.

You faced a confidence vote a few months ago and a number of MPs were vocal against your leadership. Have you met those MPs individually since the vote?

I don't know who you are referring to but what I can say is that I am in contact with most of my MPs practically every day, depending on the matter at hand.

There isn't a single MP with whom I do not have a clear direct line of communication if the need arises.

There are areas and issues where something is happening all the time. Moving closer to the budget I am talking to people involved in that area all the time. The environment is also at the top of the agenda, so we are constantly in contact. 

The odd thing is that with so much going on, you need to consider what not to talk about in order not to spread yourself out too thinly.

I was in Gozo for three days with my children and there was the Xlendi tree issue, and so people were calling me to see what was happening. In the meantime, there were people irritated with the lack of sales in so far as tourism is concerned; people in the construction industry are complaining about money and barter. People are now constantly angry.
Some say that the Opposition is asleep. Actually, calling on the Opposition to wake up is positive in itself if you want to be an optimist, because over the last two years we've seen only criticism on the Opposition side.

But I think that phase is over, and now the phase of show what we have been doing over those two years has come to term and we are getting feedback which is, at this stage, critical of the government, angry about government, not happy with what is happening.

Our responsibility now is to respond to that, not by hysterically jumping on every band wagon, but through structured perseverance on the path we have taken.

We've been talking about overpopulation for two years. Now people are catching on and understanding. We've been talking about the environment for years.

It is useless for people to say 'Well, didn't Nationalist governments also make mistakes?' They might have, but certainly not to this extent; not with such disdain for the environment. Nevertheless, we need to get things right.

The number of angry young people speaking to us... I delivered a speech, saying 'Press the panic button', which at the time the Labour Party tried to pour cold water over. But now this sentiment is picking up, and the Youth Parliament actually highlighted the need to do something about the situation and treat it as a national emergency. I think our message has been clear from the start. Perhaps we failed to get that message across, but we will persevere.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat uses the word 'cosmopolitan'. But what does it mean? It means a kind of city, right? Not a country that becomes a city because it basically has no more countryside.

So Muscat is telling us to turn a country into a city with no open spaces, no countryside on this tiny island which already has 1,400 people per square kilometre, and he wants to double that. We are the smallest and most densely populated, but we insist on growing our economy through numbers. It's madness.

 

You mentioned the perception that the PN has been silent, especially over the summer months, during which the party was practically nowhere to be seen. Why was that decision taken?

I don't think it was a decision. I think there was some fatigue following the MEP elections and our own internal elections. 

In the meantime, attention was taken away from the government and their wrongdoings. So, I think that strategically, we needed a period of reflection or quiet in order to then point at what the government is doing, and that is exactly what is happening right now. I am not saying that I don't expect the media to judge us. We are here as a party to be judged, but we are in opposition.

We are not taking the decisions which are changing our country forever. If such changes were positive, then even I would be comfortable admitting it. So let us understand criticism and redress ourselves, but let us look at the government and see where it is at fault; where it is ruining the democratic pillars which are the foundations of a democratic society; and let us focus on the lack of reaction from the government when all criticism seems to simply slip off its back. That is something we are addressing.

So, our silence has shifted the focus back onto the government and, while starting to benefit from internal restructuring, our responsibility is to slowly come up with the options, policies and alternatives the PN will offer; to slowly regain respect to be able to govern, while indicating where the government is at fault and raising people's awareness of that.

The Gozo tunnel issue has come up again. It was originally the PN's idea, but the need for such a project has been questioned, given that a fourth ferry has been introduced, along with a future fast-ferry service. Is the PN still in favour of the Gozo tunnel?

Yes, it is true the PN came up with this idea. When I took up office, this was one of the first things I discussed. I was clear that we needed a fourth ferry quickly and to reinstate the cargo ferry. I said that from day one. I didn't commit myself either way.

When we came to the bill, I was specific and said that it was the PN government that wanted it; that it seemed the majority of Gozitans still wanted it. But I also said we needed to carry out all studies and surveys; to see all the reports. We need to see them. Next, there would need to be a period of public consultation, and only then, after weighing the advantages and disadvantages, should the project go ahead.

 

The government said it had published all the reports...

It didn't. It said it had published the ones it had and didn't say it had published all the reports needed and required. They are playing with words, and this is not seriousness. This is not a decision that can easily be undone. This will, in one way or another, affect generations.

I certainly insist on first having a statement from the government confirming that it has drawn up all the necessary reports and published them all, not simply saying it has published the reports it has so far.

As soon as this happens, then we can debate the issue. There needs to be public consultation, and only then should we decide to go ahead. Now I am hearing that the government is publishing requests for tenders, as though they are already starting the process. This is unacceptable. 

First, there needs to be confirmation that all the necessary reports are have been drawn up. Then they need to be publicly discussed before proceeding either way. That has always been my position.

We need to do the right thing, so let us put aside the political spin and question what is good for our country. We need to get this decision right.

The Planning Authority has been criticised for being in the pockets of developers and being toothless when it comes to enforcement. How would you change this?

I think that we need to decide what we want our country to look like 50 years from now. Politicians have held back in actually taking bold decisions because they need the flexibility to accommodate. 

If we really care about the environment, we need to take a stand and say what we want Malta to be like in 60 years' time. We need to agree where we want to take our country. 

As soon as we do that, we need to have the courage to say, 'Listen, this is the plan, let us vote for it together and lock it in. Once it is locked in, irrespective of who is in government, we need to follow it."

You picked the PN HQ for the Independence Day festivities, presumably because a low turnout is expected. You have led the PN for two years but have not yet managed to sway those supporters who do not back you. What do you intend to do?

The PN does not have a mission to fill the granaries. It has a mission to understand that, in opposition, we need to drastically change in order to regain the respect of the people. The decision to organise the festivities at the HQ was taken specifically because I do not think it is wise for a party in financial difficulty to overspend on celebratory events. We are interested in passing on a message. So what we have chosen to do instead is to visit every single district, passing on a message each day - which takes more effort and social interaction but requires less funding - and identify sectors on which we need to communicate such messages.

Therefore, we are meeting youths to conduct clean-ups, visiting elderly people to see and understand the difficulties they face, interacting with companies who are passing through particular difficulties due to their size and lack of market liquidity. 

There are a variety of events which involve youths, music, exhibitions and the like. The PN is about a message, and not just celebration.


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