Former prime minister Joseph Muscat breaks his silence. In the first part of a two-part interview with Herman Grech, he speaks about his political legacy

Former prime minister Joseph Muscat says he will not rule out a return to politics, 19 months after he resigned amid scandal in the wake of the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder case.

“If they keep annoying me, I do not exclude it,” the 47-year-old replies cryptically, when asked if he mulled a return to Maltese politics.

“I’m giving you something for people to think about. Because people say I’m going to contest, so I figured I’d say I don’t exclude it,” he says, though he rejects the possibility of contesting the upcoming general election or making a future bid for party leader.

In the first part of his first sit-down interview with Times of Malta in more than five years, Muscat fields questions about his political term and his outlook on the country.

Asked what he makes of his legacy, he replies: “It’s too early. I’m still 47. There’s still more to say and do,” fuelling speculation that his time is not up.

He says he could not gauge whether his popularity is waning, even if a number of Labour supporters and activists have openly called for his dismissal from the party after a damning public inquiry probing Caruana Galizia’s murder.

“There are a number of people who have a right to express themselves and the media is promoting that opinion. What I can say is there’s a lot of support,” says the former prime minister who won the 2013 and 2017 elections with overwhelming majorities.

Muscat rejects claims that he threw his weight behind Robert Abela to succeed him in January 2020, but admits his wife Michelle had spoken out about her preference for the man who went on to replace him.

Adopting a defensive role throughout the interview, Muscat says he had a number of regrets but adds he was proud of his achievements in his years in power, especially for managing to build a “new” middle class. 

He says the FATF’s decision to greylist Malta was “not insignificant” but says it is “manageable”.

Muscat repeatedly blames the Nationalist opposition for several of the problems facing the country, saying it failed to back up the government when national unity was required.

While shooting down claims that he is a regular visitor to Turkey or Dubai, Muscat says he now serves as an economic advisor.

This is the full text of the first part of the interview

Thank you for accepting our invitation for an interview. We’ve been chasing you for more than five years. What made you change your mind?

Well, today, I’m retired from politics. If I had to speak out every time someone mentions me or asks me for a comment, I think I would be occupying a space I shouldn’t. I don’t think I should be too much of a protagonist.

We can’t contest the fact that Joseph Muscat remains one of the most popular prime ministers. You won two elections by a landslide but, 18 months after your resignation, there’s a growing chorus of people, including from the Labour Party, who want to see you ejected from their own party. Don’t you feel you’ve betrayed your party and country?

I see a chorus of people supporting me. While others might share different views, in the last weeks I’ve seen an unprecedented number of people supporting me. In reality, it’s irrelevant. I still feel the people’s love but I can’t gauge if I’m still popular or not.

So aren’t you acknowledging there are many in the Labour Party who…

… There are a number of people who have a right to express themselves and the media is promoting that opinion. What I can say is there’s a lot of support. I did what I had to do, I never feared people’s judgement and I never told anyone to shut up. I hope I’m allowed the same freedom to express myself…

… And that’s why we’re talking to you. I’m referring to staunch Labourites like Desmond Zammit Marmarà who said the PL should distance itself from you.

I can mention scores of others who think differently.

Your administration certainly cannot be accused of sleeping at the wheel. Even your biggest critics acknowledge that. But you had an opportunity to overhaul the country because of the phenomenal majority you had. When you see the way the country ended up at the end of your tenure, not only did things not change, but many things took a turn for the worse. The level of nepotism is incredible and we’ve screwed up the environment. Don’t you feel it was a missed opportunity?

The PL still has a massive majority. It’s the same government, this is not in the past. If there’s the ‘disaster’ some people are portraying, then I shouldn’t believe your own opinion polls, which show that the vast majority will once again vote for Labour.

That doesn’t mean things were perfect. But I was the prime minister who was responsible for the biggest economic growth, who oversaw the best improvement in people’s quality of life since the 1970s. There’s no doubt about that. Yes, I was the prime minister who received most criticism because of the rhythm of construction and I accept that, even though it was based on the 2006 rationalisation plans. By the way, the people who took those decisions in 2006 are still involved in the PN.

Video: Karl Andrew Micallef

Construction is an argument for another day. I can bring you a million other policies you changed which led to the ruin of the environment.

I prefer to have a policy which designates areas for the construction of towers.

Don’t you agree with me that with your government it ultimately boiled down to money?

The quality of life doesn’t just boil down to money. Before we were elected, a lot of people couldn’t cope with the cost of living, we built a new middle class, and then other themes became important, like the environment.

You made it clear from the outset your government was going to be business friendly. There’s nothing wrong with being close to business, but we ended up in a situation where the government became a business and ended up getting involved in business.

Absolutely not true.

Really? We saw businessmen at Castille smiling for the cameras; you’d think they occupied part of the building. We ended up stuck with faceless entities like Vitals, the Jordanian investors… There were no checks and balances.

I think we improved the system of governance. For example, the suggestions made by the Venice Commission and other international entities were only adopted by this government, which changed the laws which we’ve had since the 1960s. You mention corruption. One of the first laws I introduced related to time-barring of political corruption.

On paper, the laws were introduced. But in practice?

Do you think I’d have been such a fool as to introduce a law if I had something [sinister] planned?

No, but there were other means to ensure investigations are not carried out.

I disagree with you. The PN has now appointed a businessman to run its strategy.

Are you referring to Christian Peregin? Oh, come on.

With all due respect, he quit journalism, set up his own business… and now he’s into politics.

… Peregin was also a good journalist.

That is double standards.

Let’s talk about money. The economy was booming at one point but look where we’ve ended up today – we’ve been greylisted and placed in a league along with the likes of Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe.

First of all, I agree with the government’s strategy, which is heeding the advice of international experts. I cannot know the full reasons behind the greylisting. If you tell me that the criticism surrounding Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder and the subsequent fallout contributed to it, I have no doubt it did. Were there other competing countries that pushed Malta to be on the grey list because of legacy issues, like taxation and gaming?

Which countries?

I don’t want to speculate. But I was told of specific countries, not specifically those that are mentioned in the media. Finland’s report compared to ours is much worse. The difference is that other countries were united. In our case, whenever Labour’s in government, the opposition doesn’t help.

Are you saying FATF punished us because of the Nationalists?

Don’t put words in my mouth. Let me explain. In the Erika case (the Maltese-flagged oil vessel which caused an environmental disaster off France in 1999), the (Labour) opposition at the time didn’t work against Malta’s interests. Nowadays, we have an opposition that incites people against Malta.

Video: Karl Andrew Micallef

It’s incredible how you keep bringing up the opposition. The FATF probably acted against us because it doesn’t trust Malta, because it saw unprecedented money laundering, because a journalist was killed and because certain elements of the police did their utmost to make sure her murder remains unsolved…

I won’t identify countries, but I had been asked why we didn’t take tougher steps against Nemea Bank where there was money laundering. My predecessor was a director at the bank and I was asked if I wanted to go easy on Lawrence Gonzi. I was asked why we weren’t tough with his son who was linked to the gaming mafia, though I’m proud we didn’t proceed because he shouldn’t have been accused. Someone else asked why we stayed quiet when John Dalli was removed as EU Commissioner.

John Dalli who you went on to appoint…

… Before I won the election they sent for me and asked me to keep it quiet because Malta will suffer. And I said nothing.

I get your narrative: It’s the Nationalist Party, Lawrence Gonzi, his son, Christian Peregin, John Dalli. I’m asking about your term as prime minister.

I’m trying to complete that incorrect narrative.

How would you describe Joseph Muscat’s legacy?

JM: It’s too early. I’m still 47 years old. There’s still more to say and do.

I still feel the people’s love, but I can’t gauge if I’m still popular or not

With the benefit of hindsight, if you were prime minister today, what would you do differently?

In what sense?

In the way you govern.

The world is changing. It sounds clichéd, but it’s true. And I realise it when I speak to my children. If I were to give politicians – not the prime minister, all politicians – a word of advice, it would be to pay less attention to social media and more attention to people. Don’t close yourself into the resonance box of social media. Get a sense of trends on social media, but get the depth of arguments from people.

Today, I would speak more to people but even more to young people. I’ve had time to speak to my children and their friends. It’s a different world with a different set of values. We’re talking about 13-year-olds, not 18 or 20-year-olds. Even if you consider yourself avant garde, you get the sense of being distinctly cut off from the frame of thinking that is coming.

If you were to turn the clock back and revisit your mistakes, what would you change?

I prefer to focus on the future. I’m not trying to dodge the question. Do I have regrets? Obviously, I have regrets.

What’s your biggest regret?

I have regrets. I definitely have regrets. But I also have things that I am very proud of.

And that’s why I say time will tell, and the legacy will emerge from there.

What is Joseph Muscat doing nowadays, apart from flying here and there?

I’m not going abroad that much.

There’s a lot of curiosity. Perhaps you can illuminate us. There’s talk of you going regularly to Turkey and Dubai.

They said I’ve fled to Turkey so many times. I haven’t been to Turkey for so long. I went to Dubai last year, for work reasons.

As a consultant?

Give me a second. It makes me laugh. If I was a lawyer, nobody would ask me this question. They would say ‘he went to give legal advice’. I am an economist. I give economic advice. I provide advisory services to people locally and internationally. I look at trends in their industries, strategies in their sectors and advise on how they can perfect them.

Are you providing consultancy services to Steward Global Healthcare?

No. I do not consult for companies that have that sort of contract with the government.

Do you exclude a return to Maltese politics?

If they keep annoying me, I do not exclude it.

So you exclude a return?

No, I’m saying if they keep annoying me, I don’t exclude…

What do you mean by ‘annoying’?

If it’s constantly ‘Joseph Muscat, Joseph Muscat, Joseph Muscat’... at some point Joseph Muscat has to reply. Alright? I don’t mean as prime minister or anything like that; that’s a closed chapter.

For the next general election?

No, no.

But you don’t exclude returning for the following one?

Well, I’m giving you something for people to think about. Because people say I’m going to contest, so I figured I’d say I don’t exclude it.

And as a public role? If the government were to offer you one, would you accept it?

I think my presence would be too overbearing for the government.

You told me that you still have a degree of popularity.

You said that.

When I said you have many critics, you replied that you have a lot of support. And I believe that. But the fact remains that we have people (within government and PL) now saying that ‘the state has changed’. That includes people like Robert Abela, or Labour Party president Ramona Attard. They even hung your portrait in Castille quietly, without any fanfare. It seems like they’re ashamed.

As far as I know, my portrait has been there for months. I haven’t been to Castille for a while, but it’s been there for months. Perhaps you guys realised that it was hung up there last week. Look… I will never utter a word that will damage the Labour Party. Never. I am not bitter, unlike someone from the other side whose name I won’t mention who tries to trip up his successor because he’s no longer in charge.

Joseph Muscat leaves Auberge de Castille for the last time January 13, 2020, accompanied by his wife, Michelle. Photo: Matthew MirabelliJoseph Muscat leaves Auberge de Castille for the last time January 13, 2020, accompanied by his wife, Michelle. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Are you referring to Simon Busuttil?

How did you reach that conclusion [laughs]?

Come on, Simon Busuttil is in Brussels today.

You reached that conclusion. I mentioned two words and you reached that conclusion.

I want my successor, Robert Abela, to have an open road in front of him. I accept those statements, in the context of it being a different path. Whether or not the state has changed… I believe the state, as I told the inquiry… The definition of ‘state’ has been interpreted very narrowly. The state includes all its institutions. All its branches, from the legislative to the administrative, the judiciary. You don’t change the state by changing some people or a law.

The state was, is and will be. The way it operates can be modified. It is the government that can change. In my view, the Labour Party’s biggest danger is not losing the election. Because I think its popular support will remain, because the Nationalist Party has not changed its tactics. It remains bitter. So the Nationalist Party, or some of its people, have decided that because they cannot be in government, they should try to jam the institutions. Hence, the attacks on the attorney general.

I did what I had to do, I never feared people’s judgement, and I never told anyone to shut up

So the Nationalist Party is to blame for many of our problems?

You’re more intelligent than that – that’s not what I said. We’ve never had such attacks on the attorney general, not even when [former drug baron] Queiroz was released. We’ve never had attacks on the Finance Ministry’s permanent secretary.

Alfred Camilleri was appointed by Lawrence Gonzi. He was there even before Gonzi. And all because his testimony about the hospitals deal was absolutely correct. So they are forcing civil servants and people in government – politicians to not take decisions, because every decision they take is attacked.

And I think that is the challenge the government faces. To continue taking decisions. It can take different decisions – I hope it takes better ones than I did, just like I believe I took better decisions than those who came before me, and they took decisions better than their predecessors.

Our economy risks to stutter because of the greylisting, and I hope it does not, but there is concern in certain industries, such as gaming...

I think the greylisting and other issues are manageable. The biggest problem was the banking one, and banks were already operating in a greylisting scenario because Maltese banks... this is not technically correct, but I want people to understand. Malta relies on one bank – Bank of Valletta. HSBC, because of its international problems that included money laundering, not in Malta, had to cut certain activities. That meant that things like gaming ended up almost entirely with Bank of Valletta. The moment Bank of Valletta began carrying that entire sector almost alone, it started being considered high-risk by international entities that have, for several years now, looked at Bank of Valletta and Malta in the same way greylisting [does]. I’m not saying greylisting is insignficant.

So you don’t think greylisting is almost a collective punishment for a country in which a journalist was killed, where certain arraignments did not happen, and which in some ways resembled a banana republic?

The Daphne issue was certainly a factor. In terms of prosecutions – don’t look at the last two years, five years or seven. Go back in time – nobody was ever prosecuted, OK?

And that’s where the government is right. Both when I was prime minister but especially with Robert Abela, there has been a big improvement.

Chris Fearne, Joseph Muscat and Robert Abela in January 2020.Chris Fearne, Joseph Muscat and Robert Abela in January 2020.

What’s your opinion of Robert Abela?

It’s very good.

All the way?


Video: Karl Andrew Micallef

He’s different from you.

Well, he’s a lawyer for starters. He won’t make mistakes that I made but he won’t take decisions I took. The style is totally different, the pace is different. It’s like comparing oranges and apples.

Do you confirm that you put your party machine behind Robert Abela to succeed you at the expense of Chris Fearne?

No. I challenge anyone to say that I advised him to back anyone in particular. My team was split between the two. In a battle, the victors say they deserved it and the ones that lose believe it’s someone else’s fault. It was closer than people think.

So at no point did you intervene to say ‘Robert is my man’?

No, but the truth is Michelle did speak with some people and expressed the fact she favoured Robert Abela. I did not intervene.

Was Robert Abela handed a poisoned chalice?

I believe there has to be detachment from your predecessor, the same way I had to detach myself from Alfred Sant. Daphne used to call me ‘Sant’s poodle’. I had to show I was different. Maybe people forget the fact that when Lawrence Gonzi – and one day I will write my version of history – came to me to nominate George Abela for president, he was convinced I would disagree.

I said yes to the proposal. So I think it’s good for Robert Abela to detach himself from me and from the events that happened before him. When I went to Castille a year and a half ago, they said Abela is doing what Muscat instructs him to do. Now that we’re not seen together, some say we have an ‘icy’ relationship. It’s not true. If the prime minister wants to speak to me, he’s free to do so.

The second part of the interview on Sunday will deal with corruption claims and Daphne Caruana Galizia's murder

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