Political parties continue to regularly nag business people for donations, according to outgoing developers’ lobby boss Sandro Chetcuti.
“Many people think we are constantly trying to compromise politicians with donations; the reality is that most of us don’t need the help of politicians to do well in our business,” Chetcuti tells Times of Malta in an interview.
“Sometimes it feels like harassment. Some business people get embarrassed by their persistence.”
Interview with Sandro Chetcuti
Mark Laurence Zammit: You are somewhat of an enigma to me. Many people around you respect you very much. However, you’re heavily criticised by many others who believe you represent all the corrupt people responsible for the excessive building and the uglification of Malta’s landscape. Do you ever think they may be right?
Sandro Chetcuti: Yes, sometimes they are right. I have become a point of reference for the most controversial industry in Malta, and many people who criticise it are right.
What are they right about when they criticise you?
People are disappointed when they see negligent construction works and developers working with no regard for the neighbours.
Another reason why people may be angry is there’s this feeling in the country that business people have politicians in their pockets. You constantly go to politicians, give them money, fund their campaigns and then expect favours in return. You are compromising them.
But that is just the perception.
What do you mean, perception? Business people give political parties a lot of money.
Business people do what they want. I cannot oblige them not to do it.
But do you think it is right for a businessman to constantly nag politicians for money?
The truth is it happens the other way round. It is the politicians who constantly come to us for money. Political parties are constantly nagging us for donations, they organise marathons and send people to collect money...
You mean, they call you, send you messages to give them money?
Of course, isn’t it obvious?
No, it is not to me, I am not a businessman, no one sends me messages.
Sometimes it feels like harassment. Some business people get embarrassed by their persistence.
And both parties do this?
Of course. Both parties collect money every two months. I showed you the messages. [Editorial note: Chetcuti read out an example of a standard fundraising message sent by a politician on behalf of their party.] But I do not blame the parties either. They need funds to run their organisation and work on their policies. But just because a businessman donates money to a party does not mean they are bribing it. If a corrupt businessman wanted something in return, he would not give money to a party. The party cannot give you anything in return.
If it were not for business people, we would all die of hunger
Of course, it can. It can help you acquire a permit on an Outside Development Zone, for example. The parties can offer you a lot of stuff. Look at what we are learning about corrupt practices in Malta in the last years. Corruption was rife with business people.
Those business people are not MDA members, though.
OK fine, fair enough, but they were business people and they were cosying up with some of the authorities.
It is not fair to look at business people as if they are all corrupt. Let’s make one thing clear – a corrupt business person will give money to an individual in the party, and not the party. Because it is only through an individual within the party that you can acquire a favour. And no individual will do you favours unless you bribe them directly.
Still, I believe that political parties should be state-funded from taxpayers’ money. That way, no more business people would need to give donations to political parties. And it would rid us of all the doubts that constantly lurk around business people and politicians.
Should a politician exchange friendly messages with a business person? Let’s take the recent story focusing on the messages between Minister Edward Zammit Lewis and Yorgen Fenech, for example. Should a politician have such a comfortable relationship with such a powerful businessman?
It is not fair to speak about certain business people and assume all are the same. Today we are learning about certain messages which I do not think are right. I don’t think that kind of harmony between a politician and businessman is right.
Because a good entrepreneur does not need to take shortcuts. Otherwise, he is not an entrepreneur. Talented business people do not feel the need to bend the rules to succeed. They know they can succeed on their own merits, just as a good football player knows he can win a match without bribing the referee.
But, in fact, we have learnt of business people who did bend the rules.
You will always find all kinds of people everywhere. That is how the world operates.
But if that is how the world operates, do you believe it is right for a politician to have such a friendship?
No, it is not right. Politicians need to behave ethically. Whoever they are. I agree with you.
You have been quoted saying that political parties are like two big shops. Isn’t this exactly the problem we are talking about? You are giving the impression that parties are something you can buy.
That is not what I meant. As an election approaches, citizens are called to choose the vision of a party as opposed to the vision of another party. When in 2013, both parties showed us their proposals, they were telling us about the product they were willing to offer.
Isn’t that exactly like a shop selling its best items? Labour offered us slashed electricity bills, while the PN insisted it was not possible. Back then, people chose the product they thought was best for them, exactly like they would do in a shop. And there is nothing wrong with that. That is politics.
People also choose the party who they think will serve their own personal interests.
The party will not serve you. No party can attract 40,000 voters and serve all of them.
Of course, it can. A party finds many ways to serve its people.
You are mistaken. People want fair play.
Really? Because I hear people saying they will vote for whoever tends to their personal needs. That is not fair play.
Some people are like that, yes, but does that mean that everyone is like that? Are you like that? Do you vote for whoever serves you personally?
So far no one has served me. But I do not expect to be served either.
There you go. You are one of the many who are not like that. During my tenure, the most successful business people in Malta came together with MDA to propose nationwide policies, and that shows you they want fair play. If they were as selfish as you say, they would have sought politicians individually. If that were the case, they would have been competing, not collaborating. We have this idea that all business people are thieves. If it were not for them, we would all die of hunger. We tell people that just because some people earn more money than others, then they are to blame for those who do not earn as much. I have been proposing that the minimum wage is pushed to €1,000.
In 2019, a report estimated that Maltese people evaded one billion euros in taxes. Can you assure me that MDA members pay all their due taxes?
That is the easiest thing. Of course, they do, because whenever you sell a property, you must register it and pay tax on it at source. They have no other way but to pay all their taxes. People want to pay taxes if taxes are reasonable. People get frustrated only when they see their money spent poorly, when, for example, government sells public land at ridiculously low prices to business people.
Do you think that no public land should be sold?
As MDA, we insist that public land should not be sold at a low price. It should preferably be given for a limited amount of time and it should be charged at market value. I argued a lot over this principle with members of our association.
Did you ever stop any of your members from buying public land from the government at low prices?
I stopped the government from selling the White Rocks complex. Most of the people who had tendered for it were members in the association, but I believed it would not be right for the government to sell it. I did the same thing with the AUM University proposed at Żonqor Point. I had told the government that we do not need to give up precious, seafront land to build a school.
Back in 2013 you were very close to Joseph Muscat. You believed in him and I had heard you say that he could win with a record majority of votes. You were right. Do you regret believing in him?
I still believe I did the right thing to support change. PN was at the edge of a precipice, and I did not see hope in it. And it was not just me ‒ 35,000 others agreed with me, and Joseph Muscat brought a lot of positive change.
Our only hope is to demolish the shabby buildings and build more beautiful ones instead
But now, with all that we have learnt, are you sorry for that decision?
I am sorry for the way things turned out, but not for my decision. I did not contribute to any wrongdoing.
Many people are furious as well because of the rampant construction and the uglification of Malta’s landscape. Be honest, when you look out and see all those concrete buildings, do you like them?
I like some of them and I do not like others. But the problem there is lack of planning. Following the end of British rule, we planned our landscape badly. This is not the fault of today’s minister. He has been handed down a generations-long problem of planning.
Do you agree that Malta is becoming uglier?
We are developing what we have planned. You cannot say that Malta is getting uglier.
I think it is.
But you are generalising.
Yes, in general when I drive through the streets, I see regress. Because we are demolishing Maltese houses with their typical character to make way for five-storey blocks of flats instead. If the planning authority lets you do it, does that mean you should do it? What principle is that?
What are you suggesting though? That Maltese people should not be able to sell their old houses to develop apartment blocks? Is there any Maltese person who would agree to pass on that offer from a developer? The real issue is planning. Let’s take Vittoriosa as an example. That was a slum area. But now it has been planned in a beautiful way.
Of course, Vittoriosa is beautiful, but I am not talking about Vittoriosa. I will never be able to afford a house there.
Ah, ok, but you see, that is the problem. If everywhere was as beautiful and expensive as Vittoriosa, you would never be able to afford any house, anywhere. That is why we had to strike this balance – to build affordable housing in certain areas...
... Which comes in ugly, concrete boxes.
Do you mean to say that every new building is ugly? It is the authorities that should plan and decide how we should build. Why do we always blame the developer? I have never really understood that.
We need to take planning more seriously. Too much damage has already been done over the years. Our only hope is to demolish the shabby buildings and build more beautiful ones instead. But let’s not blame our industry for everything. 80 per cent of Maltese people own land or property of their own. So naturally, everybody is part of this industry. And the environment is not one of their biggest concerns either. According to a survey published by your own newspaper, only nine per cent are concerned about the environment.
But that does not mean that the state should not be concerned.
Of course, and those nine per cent include most of our members...
You mean to tell me the developers are concerned about the environment?
Had they really been worried, would they build what they are building?
Let me tell you why. Developers who are investing wisely in large projects know that a beautiful environment will benefit society and will add value to their projects.
What about those who are building over every piece of green land?
I am not talking about those. I am talking about the good developers, the conscientious ones. Not everyone is the same. The good ones are doing a fantastic job for the country, and they are bringing in millions of euros of investment. But then there is another issue, the issue of affordability.
Speaking of that. This morning before I came here, I found a website selling property in the south of France. It is a beautiful area with a lot of greenery, it is where we go on holiday to see the wonders of nature. I found a chateau selling for €490,000, another 16th-century small palace, 160 kilometres from Paris, for the same price, and I found a restored 16th-century castle for €360,000. For €360,000, I would not even find a two-bedroom apartment with a window overlooking the shaft in Malta. What is so special about Malta that we need to pay so much money to buy a concrete box and be able to live in it?
Malta is small and space is limited. This is why land is extremely expensive. Because of this, we have become one big city, and there are no outskirts anymore. So, all land and property are at city value. Cities are always like that. You are speaking about properties in the middle of nowhere in France. Let’s speak about prices in cities. My daughter is studying in Leeds. She pays £1,000 a month to rent a room. Prices are like that in all cities, and we have become one big city.
You have left MDA. Did you leave because you accomplished it all, or because you gave up?
No, I did not give up. During my tenure as president, we achieved constant positive results. However, during our last AGM, I had expressed my intention to step down from the helm of the association, to rest and make way for new blood. At the time, the association urged me to stay, and seeing we were going through political turmoil, and we could sense COVID lurking on the horizon, I accepted to stay on. And I do not regret it because this year we hit an all-time record in property sales.
The council is refusing your letter of resignation again, and they are urging you to stay on. They are even saying that if you go ahead with your plan, all of them will resign with you. The last time they urged you to stay, you had a change of heart. Will it be the same?
I am 50 now, I feel I am getting older, and I am determined to move on with my life.
Do you consider a political career?
I am not thinking about it, no.
Do you rule it out, though?
You cannot rule anything out in life, but I am not thinking about it right now. I have a good relationship both with Robert Abela and with Bernard Grech, but I am not thinking about it.
Besides, politics has become no easy job in this country. It is a pity that we treat politicians as if they are all criminals or bad people. The way politics evolved in this country does not encourage me at all. We have too many politicians dancing to the tune of populist ideologies, instead of being true leaders.
Politicians should be leaders, not followers of public opinion. They should lead with vision and persuade people to share that vision. Any party who wants to win an election must envision a dream and sell it the people.
I do not believe many politicians are doing that nowadays.