The Malta Independent 2 April 2020, Thursday

Partners in Europe 'have lost trust in us, but if we pull same rope we can change that' - Fearne

Albert Galea Friday, 10 January 2020, 14:29 Last update: about 4 months ago

Labour leadership and Prime Minister hopeful Chris Fearne told an audience made up of members of the business community that as a result of recent events, a lot of Malta’s partners in Europe had lost trust in the country, but noted that if everyone pulls the same rope that can be changed.

Fearne was speaking at an event organised by the Chamber of Commerce titled Let’s Talk Business, which saw him being first interviewed by PBS’ Mario Xuereb and then facing questions from the packed room.

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Fearne’s opponent – Robert Abela – was also meant to be interviewed, but cancelled his attendance late the night before and had not sent his video answers to the questions asked in time for the event.

The first question asked to Fearne is perhaps the one which is on everyone’s lips; how the new Prime Minister will, come Monday, seek to address the current moment of crisis that the country finds itself in.

Answering this question, Fearne said that what is most important is that there is peace of mind that the country is stable and that the economy has sustainable structures.  He said that the economy had over the last two months slowed down, and Fearne put this down primarily to there not being peace of mind as to the stability of the country.

He said that to ensure that the country will return to stability, a rule of law conference will be organised while he will make sure that the law counts for everyone and that institutions do their job without the interference of any politicians, while also speaking of reforms so that the Public Prosecutor can work independently and can only be removed with 2/3s of parliament voting in favour of the removal.

“A lot of our partners in Europe have lost trust in us. I need to go to Europe with results – not necessarily that we have arrived at the ideal destination, but at least to show that we have started getting there.  I am confident that if we all pull the same rope, we can get there”, he said.

Asked about the interconnector and recent problems that have affected Malta’s electricity supply, Fearne began by saying that the political response to this question would be that he had the government listened to the Opposition and only had the interconnector, Malta’s businesses would have been ground to a complete halt for almost two weeks now.

This being said, he noted that this is not enough for the future.  He said that discussions are underway for plans for a gas pipeline between Malta and Sicily, while he also noted that the country needs to seriously begin to look into the use of alternative, renewable sources of energy.

Asked about what new sectors he would focus on, Fearne started by saying that he believes that the government must look to consolidate what the country already has, citing the manufacturing industry as one such industry. He said that Malta has the potential to become a hub for education and academia, citing the opening of Barts Medical School as an example of how this potential can be nurtured.

He said that it was important for the country to keep diversifying into new sectors and not put all its eggs in one basket, but also noted that the time has come for the government to help Maltese businesses increase their presence abroad.

Asked about the issues surrounding correspondent banks afxter BOV lost ING as its correspondent bank for dollars, Fearne said that a lot of work is going on behind the scenes and that there are two particular major banks which are close to an agreement in this regard.  He said that he hoped that by the end of the first quarter of this year, an announcement will be made on this.

Asked by Joe Pace from the Chamber about transport and the long-term need for a mass transit system, with the Gozo Tunnel being used as an example of short term thinking, Fearne reiterated the government’s plan to make public transport free for everyone, but spoke also of the need for a mass transport system away from the busses.  This, however, would have to be sustainable and financially feasible.  For Gozo for instance, he said, it doesn’t make financial sense for a mass transit system to be made to cater for 35,000 people only.

Fearne was also asked by former Chamber President Anton Borg about the foreign tax repatriation scheme which Malta has – wherein foreign investors are charged 35% tax but refunded six-sevenths of it – and what plans he has to address this matter, given that Maltese businesses do not take advantage of such a scheme.

He said if it is removed, it will leave a significant economic impact as a lot of people rely on the business that foreign investors bring through their companies.  What needs to be addressed however is those who merely come to Malta and open, for instance, a small restaurant and take advantage of the aforementioned tax refund.

Fearne said that he will address things which are bothering people when it comes to the Planning Authority. There is not enough enforcement at the moment, he saw, and it must be seen to that the rules are there for everyone. He said that he has a no nonsense background as surgeon and that he wants that attitude for everyone.  If something is wrong, he said, the law must be changed, not ignored.

Answering a question related to whether he would remove the stipulation for the registration of rental contracts in the new law, Fearne said that he agreed that contracts must be registered so that people do not evade taxes.

Fearne had said earlier that he was, however, open to discussions on certain parts of the new legislation.

Chamber of Commerce President David Xuereb meanwhile said that the Chamber had approved a document with 65 recommendations, and asked Fearne for his word that – if he is elected – he would spare the Chamber 15 minutes for them to present these recommendations.

One recommendation, Xuereb said, was that the new Cabinet would feature a ministry dedicated to good governance.  This, he said, would be a statement of intent in the right direction.

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