Days away from the election, BERNARD GRECH sits with Mark Laurence Zammit to talk about the PN’s vision, hunting, construction, transport, Robert Abela, and his own future if he loses.
MLZ: Do you think you'll win?
BG: I don’t think about whether I will win. I’m interested in seeing the country win. We could end up with the same prime minister and the same majority, or a worse one, if people don’t go out to vote. If Labour is re-elected with a huge majority, your work as journalists will have been futile and Daphne Caruana Galizia will have died in vain. If you’re fed up, you can’t just stay there and complain. You must vote to narrow the majority or elect PN to government.
MLZ: If you lose the election by 30,000 or 40,000 votes, would you step down?
BG: At this moment I’m focusing solely on narrowing the gap and potentially being elected to government.
MLZ: But we’re not far away from that decision. If you lose badly, you’ll be making that decision today week.
BG: I went into politics for my country, and whatever the result, I will keep offering my service to my country.
MLZ: Would you stay on as opposition leader?
BG: I would go before the party and we’d see whether they want me to serve on. Because our party is democratic.
MLZ: If you lose by 40,000 votes, you will have achieved nothing in a year and four months.
BG: I disagree. I took over a Nationalist Party that was trailing Labour by 70,000 or 80,000 votes, so this week’s election will reveal how much we have improved since then. And let’s not forget who we’re competing against in this election. Our competitor is administering public funds and has used them to send out cheques to people in election week. It’s shameful and unheard of. I’m all for sending out cheques, but not a week before the election.
And not just that. He controls the national broadcaster as well, for instance. In the face of all this, we managed to achieve all of this in just a year and four months. We still have more to go and we are inching closer every day.
We’ve come a long way, from a divided and weak party to a much better situation. Just imagine where I can take the party if we’re not elected and imagine where we can take the country if we’re elected.
MLZ: Let’s talk vision. €1 billion investment for the creation of 10 new economic sectors. But you told us nothing about how and when they will happen and how much they will cost. We don’t even know which sector will be up and running first.
BG: I get why you ask me about my vision, because you can’t ask Robert Abela about it, because he won’t sit down with you for an interview. You must first create economic prosperity which would then be distributed to reach people in all parts of society.
Just like a PN government did when it created the aviation, pharmaceutical, maritime and i-gaming sectors, we will also create these new sectors. Those sectors are still yielding wealth years after they were created and the whole country is benefitting from them. That’s what we will do again. Therefore, it doesn’t matter from which sector you begin...
MLZ: Well, I think we should know where you plan to start. When will we reap the benefits of the first sector?
BG: Let me explain. The good thing is that we don’t need construction to create them. We will first generate the €1 billion...
MLZ: Where will that come from?
BG: Seventy per cent will come from private investment and the rest will be generated from the economy. There is currently around €900 billion being invested in the metaverse sector alone. Just imagine what potential there is for Malta. Our costings will reveal all of this and more.
MLZ: But when will you reveal the costings? The election is in a week.
BG: We will release them very soon. They surely won’t be like Robert Abela’s costings, who said his manifesto costs €3.3 billion and forgot that the metro alone costs €6.2 billion. Our costings will not be a price tag but a detailed overview of our investment plans. And we plan to reduce our economic dependency on construction, which currently only benefits a few people.
MLZ: Let’s talk about one of your other proposed sectors. Artificial intelligence. It is a network of sophisticated algorithms that do human jobs and are programmed to learn quickly and become even better than humans at those jobs. The more you invest in AI, more workers become redundant, including many government workers. And not just secretaries and receptionists, but also doctors and artists. And we’re not that far. The government has just purchased a robot that performs prostate operations at Mater Dei. What plan do you have for all these people who will become redundant? International experts advise any government that intends to invest in AI to make a complete overhaul of the education system, because the current system prepares students for jobs that will not exist in a future run by AI. Will you change the education system as well?
BG: Are you suggesting we should shy away from it just because it’s challenging? We’re not afraid to make it happen, and I don’t agree it will make workers redundant. It will create new jobs in new sectors. We will also complement it with courses at university, MCAST and other institutions, and a change in our education system.
We’re not afraid of change. Just like we weren’t when we got the country in the European Union or when we changed our currency to the euro. Think about the economic crises we’re surrounded with and just imagine where we would be today had it not been for a Nationalist government that ushered us into the eurozone.
MLZ: Do you think the country will descend into a financial crisis if Robert Abela is re-elected?
BG: I think he has already done that and he will continue to do it if he is re-elected.
MLZ: Do you believe we’ll go bankrupt?
BG: We’re already in so much more debt. Abela has no idea how to generate economic prosperity and he will continue to destroy the economy. So yes.
MLZ: Yes to what?
BG: Yes to your question. He will continue to destroy the economy.
MLZ: I did not ask you whether he will continue to destroy the economy. I asked you whether we will go bankrupt. Don’t lawyer me.
BG: No, I’m being a lawyer and a politician. He already failed us and our children, because 70 per cent of our young people want to leave the country because they feel suffocated and without a future.
MLZ: Most of those 70 per cent want to leave not just because of Labour, but because of PN as well. They feel you’re all the same. I know you disagree and I’m with you on that one – not all politicians are the same. But young people still feel it and consequently, they don’t trust you.
BG: That happened because politics was tainted...
MLZ: Tainted even when PN was in government...
BG: Yes, sure, but in 2013 the country ditched PN, hoping to elect a better government. That was the dream but it never came true. That’s why all the disillusionment. So much so that we’re living through the last days of a term during which a journalist was murdered and we were grey-listed, among many other failures. So Robert Abela and the Labour party have, in fact, failed us.
MLZ: Construction. Clearly, people want less of it, but clearly, neither you nor Robert Abela are promising less of it. You’re promising more green spaces, somehow, but not restrained construction. People are worried about that.
BG: I don’t believe in the politics of restraint. First, we need to talk about serious planning. We can’t have everyone build as much as they want and wherever they want. Secondly, we need to prioritise aesthetics again. We need to rediscover how to build beautiful buildings. This country is too dependent on construction, because in 10 years Labour failed to create even one new economic sector, and the fact that he’s proposing no other way to generate money is a confirmation that he will keep going down that road.
MLZ: But how will you reduce construction?
BG: Reducing construction means knocking down existing buildings.
MLZ: Not necessarily. You could prevent developers from further knocking down old town houses to erect blocks of flats.
BG: We will reduce unbridled construction, not by restraining it, but by incentivising developers to invest in one of the new sectors, none of which are harmful to the environment.
MLZ: But do you really believe Joseph Portelli will say: ‘You know what, I’ll stop building towers and start building robots instead’. Do you believe that will happen?
BG: Could be. Why not? And if Joseph Portelli decides to do that, I will be meeting with him, not to issue him a permit against his donation but to encourage him to invest in AI, yes.
MLZ: There is still the problem of the local plans. In 2006, a PN government drafted a plan indicating which areas can be built and which areas cannot. It also determined how many storeys buildings in different areas could have...
BG: No, no, you’re wrong. That’s not what it said. Firstly, before 2006 there was already a local plan.
MLZ: Yes, but they were updated in 2006.
BG: Before 2006, there were zones that could not be developed, even though they were surrounded with already developed zones. The 2006 rationalisation exercise rectified that, allowing those zones to be developed. Could we have allowed for less zones to be developed? Yes. But back then Labour suggested we should allow for even more zones to be developed. And since then, Labour has spent almost 10 years in government and done nothing to rectify that situation. Now we’ve come to a point where developers in those zones are being allowed to build an excessive number of storeys. So, you can’t just pin the blame on PN for what happened in 2006. Labour has allowed the rampant construction for nine years.
MLZ: When you look at our traffic situation and the frequent fatal traffic accidents on our roads, don’t you think it’s time we introduced a tax on car use?
BG: I refuse to punish people to change their ways. That’s not my style. I want to incentivise them to take on a different practice. I am incentivising people by offering them the only mass transport plan this country has. Labour doesn’t have a plan. After spending €700 million on new roads, it tried to persuade us the real solution was, in fact, an underground metro.
Now they’re saying they’re not even sure they will go ahead with the metro. Excuse the pun, but they don’t have a roadmap. We have that, not for secret offshore companies and for murdering a journalist, but for a real and sensible mass transport system.
Our trackless tram acknowledges the huge investment in new roads over the past years and uses it. We then coupled that with research on the latest technology, which has developed trackless trains, and that can be a very sensible and plausible solution. They don’t harm the environment, they’re silent because they don’t run on steel tracks, they’re efficient and they’re punctual. And that’s really what our people want – to know they will get to where they want to be when they want to be there.
MLZ: Hunting. Is PN for or against it? Because it’s still not clear.
BG: The PN was for hunting during the 2015 referendum and we still are. Because nobody has the right to take away someone’s hobby, so long as it’s legal. I am all for legal hunting. You should have the right to practise that hobby. And not just that. I’m talking fireworks, festas... Mine is camping, for example. Some don’t understand that. But just because you don’t understand it, you shouldn’t take it away from someone.
MLZ: Before the election, everybody agreed that one of our biggest problems is migration. The moment the election campaign took off, neither you nor Robert Abela said a word about it. If you’re prime minister next week, what will you do when you receive a call informing you of a migrant boat in distress? Will you let them in?
BG: We spoke about migration in our electoral manifesto. But let me answer you. For me, every person is a human being, and I refuse to let human beings die at sea or in undignified conditions. So, if they really need help, I will help them.
MLZ: They always need help. They’re usually fleeing Libya, a country where they’re tortured and which could possibly descend in another war very soon.
BG: We are just speaking on the end game. Let’s see where they came from before ending up in Libya. We must help these countries find prosperity. We must help these human beings find dignity and happiness in their own homes. That is how we must solve migration. As for those migrants who end up here, we must process them more quickly, and those who have a right to refugee status should have it granted and be integrated within the economy. We constantly brag about how we need more foreign workers; I don’t see why these migrants cannot be among those.
MLZ: What did you feel this week when you saw Mario Galea speak at a mental health event organised by the Labour Party?
BG: Mario Galea has always spoken openly about mental health problems and he is right to do so. I did not worry about it, because as he said himself, he was, and still is, a Nationalist.
MLZ: I noticed during the campaign that you frequently apologise to Nationalists who were hurt by the PN. I have been hearing PN apologising like this since 2013 and it didn’t seem to work that much. Also, what are you apologising for exactly?
BG: I disagree. People have returned and are still coming back to the party. I meet many Nationalists who tell me they forgot the pains of the past and will vote PN again because they want to drive Robert Abela out of power. However, I still apologise to those who may still be hurt.
MLZ: Why are they hurt though? If they’re hurt because they expected a PN government to grant them an illegal permit, then it’s their fault and you shouldn’t be apologising for it.
BG: No, they are hurt for various reasons. Some feel they were shoved aside in decision-making, some feel they were up next for promotions but were skipped several times. Others say they found closed doors when they sought some minister’s help. These things happen by time, through fatigue, arrogance.
Labour is going through that now. And that’s why we need to choose. If you’re not happy with Abela’s arrogance, vote him out. He is asking for more power. What more does he want?
When he worked as a PA lawyer, he abused his power to purchase a property for a ridiculous price when he knew it would be worth much more after he arranged for the permits to be issued just five days before he signed the contract.
As prime minister, he hijacked PBS and we just learnt that a massive development permit was issued to Joseph Portelli after he dined with the prime minister. Just think about that abuse. And he is now asking you to bestow him with even more power. What else does he want to do?
So anyone who is reading this interview must vote PN, because imagine where we can take this country if we’re elected. Together, with you, for Malta.
MLZ: I can’t ask you any more questions now, because you closed it off like you do with your rally speeches.
BG: Well, if I don’t do that, you’ll keep going. Thank you.
This interview has been edited slightly for brevity.
Note: Times of Malta invited Prime Minister Robert Abela for an identical interview. He still has not confirmed his participation at the time of writing.