The Malta Independent 9 August 2020, Sunday

‘PL’s role is not to be a supporters' club for the government’ – Daniel Micallef

Kevin Schembri Orland Sunday, 2 August 2020, 08:00 Last update: about 7 days ago

Newly appointed PL Deputy Leader for Party Affairs Daniel Micallef tells Kevin Schembri Orland that he is not a fan of the current electoral system, while stressing that he was speaking in his personal capacity. He also speaks about his vision for the party, as well as responded to questions regarding the party being too close to big business, among other things.

The newly appointed Labour Party Deputy Leader for Party Affairs Daniel Micallef said that as a party, the PL’s role isn’t to be a government supporter’s club, but something more.

In an interview with The Malta Independent on Sunday, the PL Deputy Leader spoke about his vision for the party. He said that while supporting the government’s work, he wants the party to – through its resources, structures and people – contribute more, especially in terms of policy, be it participating in public consultation processes on government policy implementation, and also on new policy directions.

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He also revealed that he is not a fan of the current electoral system in Malta, but stressed that this is his own personal opinion, and not that of the party. “I don't have a perfect solution to the system we have. But if you ask me what I think, I think that the current system incentivises a certain amount of tribal politics at times.”

Asked, if he were to re-imagine the electoral system in Malta what it would look like, he said: “I foresee a political system where there would even be the possibility for part of our representatives, as well as part of the government itself to have technocratic elements where needed. What we need to assure is that there are systems that can attract the best talent for the leadership of the country.”

He highlighted that the current system does have positive sides, such as bringing politicians close to the people, helping them get a better grasp of how the public is being affected, and that the system does work.

He was also asked about the party being too close to big business, and the issue of people in power not being seen to be held accountable for their actions.

Where would you like the party to be in five years’ time? What would be different?

What I would like to see change is the role of a political party when it is in government. We have the opportunity to differentiate our operational and political roles.

I want to see the Labour Party evolve into a stakeholder in society. The difference to other stakeholders is that we do not represent a particular niche or a sector of people. We are a mainstream political party and our appeal and reach is very wide, so we must have the structures, the people, to create internal debate in a way that allows us to focus more on anything that has to do with policy. Both in terms of participating in the public consultation processes on government policy implementation, as others do, and also on new policy directions. 

We live in the context of an ever-evolving world. The past months were hard for the whole world, and while there are still difficulties, there are also opportunities. As a political party, we go before the people to be judged every five years. We will have that appointment in the coming years, and people will base their decision on what was implemented by the government, and also on our vision for the future.

One of the main issues is that there is not much differentiation being made between a political party that is in government, and the government itself. This has been the case now and in the past...

During the PN administrations, even in the way government structures worked and reported certain aspects of confidential government work to the party is public knowledge. But in our case, as a party that came from many years in Opposition, it took us time to carve out our role as a party in government. Not because there isn't a distinction, but because the role, I think, was subdued. There is a difference.

I come from the party structures. I am not involved in the government's executive. The distinction exists. It needs to strengthen not on an operational level - which exists - but rather the distinction would be in terms of political content where we do not mind, if needed, even taking a position that could be different from the government's. Our aim is to improve things, and to contribute positively.

 

But backbench MPs are meant to be PL MPs, and yet a number of them were employed as government persons of trust over the years. How is that showing any differentiation between the government and the party?

That depends on what kind of roles you are referring to. I believe the aim was to have the whole Parliamentary Group being engaged and involved in the running of the country.

The party is far more than the Parliamentary Group. The Parliamentary Group is a party structure that represents the party in Parliament, and then from the Parliamentary Group the Prime Minister appoints the Cabinet, which is the government's executive.

What I see, in terms of differentiation, is that as a party our role is not to be a supporter's club for the government. Obviously, we support the government in its good work, but we have many resources, structures and people through which we can contribute a lot more, especially on a policy level. 

Right now, a public consultation is ongoing on the Rural Policy, and this is not something that affects just lawyers and architects. It affects farmers and many more. We, as a party, need to have the structures to analyse these kinds of policies, provide feedback that results in scrutiny and discussion with the stakeholders. That is what I am going to ensure takes place in the coming months. We want to be, in parallel and in a different way, focusing on political work and not leaving the policy realm exclusively up to the government.

Just to be clear, the government never said that it needs to be that way. It was a question of us as a party adapting ourselves to the role of a party in government, that now through the experience of the past years, we are capable of doing.


You speak about not being just a supporters' club for the government, but now and in the past backbench MPs were given government roles and would not then really criticise the government. The only time such criticism took place in the recent past saw those people branded as traitors.

I don't think that is a correct analysis. You had and still have members of the government who, where they needed to criticise, did so openly. I subscribe to the notion that if we criticise internally it is because we want things to change for the better. That is in itself positive. 

I refer to what the Prime Minister said, that he wants to see the party be a tool of scrutiny on the government's operations. The Parliamentary Group is a structure within the Party, but the party per se goes beyond the Parliamentary Group. It has more activists and structures which have different jobs than the Parliamentary Group.

The PL has been criticised for moving away from its traditional roots of being the party for the workers and becoming too pro-business. What are your thoughts?

The PL was established 100 years ago, when society was completely different. At the same time, the basis and principles on which the PL was established are still applicable today. The PL was the prime mover for the country to address universal access to education and healthcare, as well as for everyone to have equal opportunities.

This movement of initiatives that began in the 50s and continued even in the 70s created strong social mobility. There were people born into poor families who, given the opportunities, managed to advance in their lives. That is where the middle class was created.

There, the principle PL's mission began to be realised. This does not mean that one needs to remain anchored to the mission, and one needs to adjust to the realities created.

So, the PL continues to be a party for everyone. We are criticised for talking a lot about the economy, but the economy goes part and parcel with the principles on which the party was established. In the past, the economy literally translated into the bread that reached families’ tables. Today, the economy in the way it developed in a globalised world, is emphasised on not because it only interests us from a business aspect but because a strong economy generates work. You mentioned a party for the workers. A good economy creates jobs, which equals work. Without a strong economy, we would not have work, but we would have unemployment. That defeats the very notion on which we were founded. Without a strong economy, you cannot sustain the social justice programme that we believe in.  


The party, however, has been criticised for being too close to powerful businessmen, with questions raised over the years with regard to contracts given. Is the PL government too close to powerful businessmen?

We are a party that represents everyone. The majority of businesses are SMEs, many of which are family run. But there are also a number of big businesses that employ hundreds of workers. They also contribute greatly to the economy. As a political party we must also represent the aspirations of these businesses. A political party, as much as possible, must have a good relationship with everyone. What is important is that policies and politics are in no way being dictated to by anyone or in a way that compromises the principles the party believes in. 

Traditionally, up until 2013, and it was used by opposing political forces, there was the notion that the PL breaks business, that the PL breaks the economy, that the PL does not attract foreign investment. It was an uphill struggle to convince people otherwise and I think that people are now convinced that as a party we can manage the economy, create jobs and create wealth. Then we can discuss as much as you wish on the distribution of the wealth the country creates, and that is the most important thing.

Doesn't the government need to have a good relationship with everyone? It’s important. But policies must be fair, there must be an equal and level playing-field for everyone, and we must remain loyal to our principles. I see no contradiction that we, as the PL, give priority to our social programme, the element of social justice, social mobility and equality, but the basis of all this is having a strong economy.

If we didn't have a strong economy over the past years that helped government finances, then the management of the pandemic would not have been as effective as it was.


Let's speak about clientelism in politics. Ministries have customer care officers to deal with the public. Do you think there should be that level of interaction between the ministries and the people, as it leads the public to believe that certain jobs are being given in return for votes?

I see clientelism and customer care as different. Customer care at its essence is nothing wrong. Public entities have outlets where a person can go and file their complaints. If there is an entity that falls under a ministry that is not doing its job well in terms of deadlines or in terms of equal treatment for people, I see nothing wrong with politicians having that channel through which such message reaches them.

Politicians are very close to people, that is in itself something good. It is up to everyone to ensure that things are done in the most serious way, but the discussion is wider than that in my opinion - there is a quasi-cultural aspect, but there is also the electoral system.

If we want to speak about such things, then the truth is that we have an electoral system where the candidates of the same party, who are colleagues, at the end of the day race on an electoral district to gain the largest amount of votes. I'm combining them as you asked me about politicians being close to people and I see nothing wrong with it. 

But then, that closeness with the people, as a politician how would they utilise it? I meet people every day but that closeness, even though my role is limited to the party, provides insight that helps me in policy formulation within the party.

 

The concern raised is when that closeness turns into giving jobs for votes. In your opinion is there such a problem?

That there is a section of the public that resort to politicians for every difficulty they might have is the reality, and it bothers me. I spent a time unemployed years ago, but I did not go to speak to a politician. I prepared a CV, looked at job vacancies, applied and eventually I was employed. That is the message I try to convey, that people in no way should feel dependent on politicians. 

What I am saying might is not something everyone will like, but it is a culture that I dislike.

There are many things we need to discuss on this aspect. The fact that we are a small country remains... where everyone knows everyone, everyone is close to everyone else. I mentioned the electoral system, and I am speaking personally here not as a PL representative, I am not a fan of it as it is. 

In terms of how I would change it, it is a very long discussion. I don't have a magic wand and it is not even on the agenda. 

But I have to say that the system as it is does work, it is representative, each vote counts, not just the number 1, but even the number 17 given for example. What I am not a fan of is the actual system itself, where you have candidates of the same party on the same district etc. etc., and I think that eventually, not now but one day, there will be a discussion on it.

 

You said that you are not a fan of the electoral system, If you were to re-imagine the electoral system in Malta, what would it look like?

What I said is strictly my personal opinion and is not the position of the Labour Party. I know there are many people who do not agree with me, and that there are others that do. As I said, I don't have a perfect solution to the system we have. But if you ask me what I think, I think that the current system incentivises a certain amount of tribal politics at times.

I foresee a political system where there would even be the possibility for part of our representatives, as well as part of the government itself to have technocratic elements where needed. What we need to assure is that there are systems that can attract the best talent for the leadership of the country.

Speaking with a number of people who have great potential and a contribution to give, when asked if they would want to go out for politics, they would say that they want to, but they don't like the system. 

The current electoral system has good things. My point of departure is not the notion that close contact with people is something bad. Actually, it is very important, as that is where you learn, and understand what people are going through - families, children, pensioners, students, communities, NGOs, clubs, businesses etc. So, contact with people is crucial, and our system incentivises that, which is good and it is important that it continues to be incentivised.

At no time am I saying the system is all bad, I am just not a fan of how it works. 

 

The issue of people in power not being seen to be held accountable has been frequent. As an example, after the Panama Papers broke it took years for any real movement regarding those in power. What do you think is going wrong and how would you change things?

A lot has been said about this. If certain decisions had to be taken earlier - I think we discussed that. How do we increase checks and balances for everyone? Just a few days ago, as a country, we approved the largest package of rule of law reforms and I think that it was a positive step in the right direction. The institutions, how the judiciary are appointed, the functions of the President... these are not things that the PL created, but they already existed when we were elected.

There were many serious incidents in the past, when referring to the judiciary for example. There was never any form of change. In the last legislature, changes began and in this legislature are being accelerated even after consultation with the Venice Commission. I think it is a large step forward and as a country we must always continue maturing in terms of scrutiny, checks and balances across the board.

 

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