In his first interview with Times of Malta, Prime Minister Robert Abela fields questions about corruption, construction, online hatred and more.
MLZ: Let’s talk corruption. This week a driving test examiner testified in court that his boss at Transport Malta would occasionally tell him to let a student learner pass the test as instructed by some ministry or Castille. Aren’t you concerned about such a serious allegation about your office?
RA: The examiner was referring to incidents that allegedly happened three years ago, when I was not prime minister. I can only answer to what happened from January 2020 onwards. More importantly, this case shows how effective and robust our institutions are.
MLZ: How can you say the institutions were working if student drivers were being granted a driving licence even if they shouldn’t have passed the test?
RA: The police investigated the case and arraigned people. The case is ongoing. Had there been some sort of cover-up, I would have understood your argument but in this case, the institutions are working.
MLZ: If the institutions were working, there wouldn’t be telephone calls ordering examiners to let students pass the test.
RA: If the institutions were not working, there wouldn’t have been arraignments.
MLZ: But if the institutions were working, the alleged corruption wouldn’t have happened in the first place.
RA: I will not justify any wrongdoing. Just as I cannot justify shortcomings in Transport Malta during a PN administration. Back then, people would pass their nautical exams without even doing the test. They would also meddle with the driving licence categories during a PN administration.
MLZ: But you’re in government now.
RA: Yes. Can you mention even one incident in Transport Malta that reeks of corruption from January 2020 till today? That’s why I appointed a CEO and chairman known for their integrity, so that I’m able to ensure incidents of the sort do not happen.
MLZ: Well, here’s one incident. In 2020, under your administration, a driving examiner was caught on tape soliciting a bribe from a student driver in return for a pass, even though the student was going to fail.
RA: And what happened in that case?
MLZ: The point is it happened.
RA: You’re looking at it the wrong way. The government’s role is to create robust institutions that are able to detect abuse and bring responsible people to justice. No government in the world will ever be able to eradicate every form of wrongdoing. That would be ideal, but let’s be realistic. Human beings have a proclivity to do bad things. The government’s duty is to ensure effective institutions.
MLZ: Here, what matters is not just what’s legal, but what’s right. A driving examiner mentioned alleged corruption here in Castille. It’s still an allegation, but if I had been prime minister, the day after such an allegation I would do whatever I could to find out if it’s true and whether the responsible person is still here. Don’t you feel you should do this?
RA: I already answered. All I can say is the people I trusted and appointed since the beginning of my tenure in January 2020 were not involved in similar allegations. So, I actually created structures to avoid corruption. I went even further. We created a new method of appointing a new police commissioner. We also changed the method of appointing magistrates and judges. Same goes for the FIAU.
Just a few weeks ago, the head of the FIAU was recognised by the US government. I can’t say we had an exceptional diplomatic relationship with the US government till a few months ago, but after a lot of work, we showed them we mean business.
We strengthened the Permanent Commission Against Corruption and I let go of powers the prime minister traditionally had – namely the appointment of the president and chief judge – both of whom are now appointed after with a two-thirds parliamentary majority.
MLZ: I agree, but let’s speak about the corruption that allegedly came from within Castille. Are you investigating to make sure there isn’t someone still calling Transport Malta officials telling them to allow students to pass when they shouldn’t?
RA: Rest assured nothing of the sort has happened under my watch.
MLZ: Are you convinced?
RA: I am convinced.
MLZ: Are you convinced because you already investigated or because you trust people here were not involved in wrongdoing.
RA: I’m convinced because I have full faith in my people.
MLZ: So, are the examiners testifying in court lying?
RA: It doesn’t matter whether or not they’re telling the truth. All I’m saying is that the alleged incidents did not happen under my watch.
MLZ: But under your watch, a young man repeatedly failed his police exams and graduated as a constable anyway. He failed the first exam, failed the resit, and then they allowed him to take a resit of the resit. This is unheard of.
RA: And that is where the institutions kicked off and functioned accordingly.
MLZ: But he should not have been allowed to graduate in the first place. And we only learned about this incidentally when he was charged in court after beating black people.
RA: The institutions worked as they should have.
MLZ: Last week, the declaration of assets of cabinet members was published. For 2021 your declared income was your salary as prime minister – €65,000 – and an income from rent, without specifying how much and from what. What is this income?
RA: I referred to the tax form TA24. The information is there.
MLZ: Yes, but we cannot see that.
RA: You can see it if your editor files a formal request with the tax commissioner.
MLZ: What is your problem with just telling us how much that income is? How much was the rent?
RA: I have no problem. €1,500 monthly.
MLZ: Who did you rent it to?
RA: You know who it is because you already made it public.
MLZ: Was it your villa in Żejtun?
RA: Yes, that’s the one. And I paid all due taxes, of course.
MLZ: One more question on the topic of corruption. You were not just the lawyer of Christian Borg (charged with kidnapping). He says you are his friend...
RA: I was his lawyer and I have always maintained a cordial relationship with my clients.
MLZ: You were also involved in a property deal with him.
RA: Yes, there was a promise of sales agreement. This was an entirely legal procedure that was declared and due taxes were paid. I had nothing to hide.
MLZ: People often engage in this type of manoeuvring when they want to circumvent the system to make money that is possibly illicit.
RA: Absolutely not. I categorically deny I did anything wrong. Thousands of Maltese people engage in such a procedure legally every year and it is regulated by law. Rest assured, there is no wrongdoing.
MLZ: Let’s talk about Joseph Muscat. He has never been arraigned and there is no clear evidence of any corruption on his part. But we learned that at least three private companies put him on their payroll as their consultant since he stepped down as prime minister. All had won big contracts when he was still in power.
Do you think this is right? Let’s say I have a business and I come up to you and ask you to award me a big government contract. In return, when you’re no longer prime minister, I’ll hire you as a consultant. Nobody will be able to tell you that you cannot take that contract when you’re not prime minister, but it could still be a corrupt deal. Do you think that’s right?
RA: You are making dangerous speculations. You’re suggesting Muscat’s consultation contract was a form of repayment in a corrupt deal.
MLZ: Not at all. I am in no way saying that Joseph Muscat was involved in any wrongdoing. What I’m saying is that the practice could be corrupt. Do you think it is right to accept that consultancy?
RA: Joseph Muscat has been out of government for almost three years.
MLZ: With Bernard Grech, you constantly bring up the “bad” things that happened during the tenures of Lawrence Gonzi and Eddie Fenech Adami, 20 and 25 years ago, when Grech didn’t form part of government. So why can’t I ask you about the things that happened during Muscat’s tenure, just two years ago, when you were cabinet adviser?
RA: I have no problem with you asking me about him. But you’re asking me about things that happened after January 2020. To avoid situations like that, we need to introduce a revolving door policy.
MLZ: Exactly. A policy which already exists for permanent secretaries and heads of departments. It’s not fair the same rule doesn’t apply to ministers and the prime minister.
RA: Such a policy would mean cabinet members would not be allowed to work in a sector they used to regulate for a few years. That would mean that after their tenure is over, ministers like Chris Fearne and JoEtienne Abela would not be allowed to go back to performing surgeries for a few years. We would have lost some brilliant professionals for a few years. Same with Jonathan Attard, who is a lawyer.
MLZ: No, they would be able to go back to their government job. The problem here is with private companies that bid for government money.
RA: No, not at all. They will not be allowed to work anywhere in the sector they regulated. A revolving doors policy does not make that distinction.
MLZ: You can design a law that makes that distinction. That’s not a problem.
RA: I’m not against discussing, but that would inevitably mean the government must guarantee a salary to all cabinet members so that they can stay at home.
MLZ: Let’s talk about the economy. Bernard Grech criticised the budget for not having a long-term economic plan. You don’t agree with him, but even Joseph Muscat said something along those lines last week.
RA: By the first half of this year, the economy grew by 8.5%. Don’t tell me we have an economy that’s slowing down, because by June this year we had already done way better than what the International Monetary Fund and the European Commission predicted. We’re also in a position to choose which investment we want to attract.
MLZ: The economy is growing, but it will grow at a slower rate next year.
RA: According to the International Monetary Fund, it will be six times as much as predicted for the eurozone. This year, our economic growth was double the growth in the eurozone.
MLZ: We understand you’re not happy with the performance of some ministers. We have been told that during a cabinet meeting two weeks ago you told them half of them are underperforming. Who are they?
RA: I’m very proud of my cabinet and they are all doing very well and the results show. But that’s my character. I always push my team to do better. I’m never satisfied.
MLZ: When Lovin Malta asked Joseph Muscat what he would have done differently over the past two years he said: “I would have tried to reduce further taxes in one way or another.” In a way, he’s saying that you could have lowered taxes but didn’t.
RA: He was speaking about two years ago, when there was no pandemic or war. I don’t want to compare and contrast, but look at what happened in the UK when Liz Truss tried to lower taxes for the people who earn the most. She only survived 44 days in the role. I’m not saying lowering taxes is not a good idea. It is, but when I suggested it to Clyde Caruana, he advised against it, in a context where the European Central Bank is spiking interest rates to battle inflation. But we still raised tax brackets for pensioners.
MLZ: You didn’t widen tax brackets for workers, however.
RA: I’m speaking about the working pensioners though. We did offer tax relief. And we will, in time, lower other taxes, including corporate tax. This is just the first of five budgets. We wouldn’t have been prudent had we implemented them now.
MLZ: How can we get stuck less in traffic next year?
RA: We can’t deny the problem. But we implemented a number of solutions even before the budget. Free public transport kicked off last month and we saw a 14 per cent increase of public transport use over the previous month. That’s a strong indicator.
MLZ: Yes, but the other solutions were a metro, on which we heard nothing else. The Gozo tunnel has been shelved. The fast ferry has been rendered almost unusable. Many Gozitans have stopped using it because the trips are few.
RA: Remember right now there’s an ongoing road project near the airport. Traffic will be eased greatly when that is completed.
MLZ: This morning I was stuck in traffic on the central link, and that’s finished. We learned traffic will persist even when the roads are completed.
RA: The Mrieħel underpass is yet to be completed. But I also believe in traffic management and incentivising people to use their private car less. As for the fast ferry service, we’re waiting for the Euopean Commission to approve financial aid to the operators so they’re able to increase trips. As for the metro, the studies are ongoing.
MLZ: Haven’t you already published the studies?
RA: There are other studies to be done, such as viability and geological studies. But the metro will take at least 20 years to get done, so that is not one of the short-term solutions. As for the tunnel, it’s not a priority right now.
MLZ: Construction. People want less of it. What are you doing about it?
RA: We already signalled a change in priorities, but we can never kill the construction industry. It’s easy to do that, but it will have serious ramifications. Construction contributes to significant income for the country. But we have to change our methods.
MLZ: So what are you going to do?
RA: We have already incentivised people to buy empty properties and old properties in village cores.
MLZ: Will you allow more huge apartment blocks?
RA: In 2006, a PN government changed the local plans...
MLZ: Change them. Labour has been in government for 10 years. You have been prime minister for two years. You can do it. You can open the local plans and change them. You can’t keep blaming PN after 10 years in government.
RA: Nobody, not even the Opposition has contested the local plans. If we had to do that, we would create great uncertainty in the country. Property value would change drastically causing huge, dangerous uncertainty.
MLZ: So we’re never going to start pushing the breaks?
RA: We cannot revoke people’s property rights. But there are other ways around it, including incentivising people to buy old properties, investing €700 million more in open spaces and improve regulations on the aesthetic beauty and preservation of buildings.
MLZ: So you’re not going to change the local plans?
RA: I believe they shouldn’t be changed because it creates great injustice for people.
MLZ: So, that means we can expect to keep seeing developers erect high apartment blocks?
RA: We can build intelligently and in an aesthetically pleasing way.
MLZ: What about Ħondoq ir-Rummien? Will you buy the land from the private owners?
RA: They asked for €17 million.
MLZ: Will you buy it?
RA: No we won’t pay that amount but it will remain preserved.
MLZ: How are you going to preserve it if you don’t intend to buy it? Because the land owners can still fight the case in court and submit fresh applications for development in the future.
RA: It will remain preserved.
MLZ: Abortion. Everybody knows it’s bound to be legalised but you’re not being clear about it. Will it be decriminalised? Legalised?
RA: We will be tabling an amendment to the law in the coming days. I want to make it clear this is not abortion, but I can speak about it now. The amendment follows what happened in the case of Andrea Prudente. When this case happened this summer, Malta was in the international media for the wrong reasons.
Following that case, we discovered there’s a long-standing practice at Mater Dei that goes back decades. In cases where the mother’s life is at risk, clinicians decide among themselves to terminate. But there are questions about the legality. So, we discussed with our health department and they presented a legal amendment to be discussed at cabinet level.
The amendment will state that when there are medical complications during a pregnancy and the mother’s life is at risk, doctors can terminate a pregnancy to safeguard the mother’s life without the risk of legal prosecution. Of course, the mother will also be protected from prosecution.
RA: It will be tabled in about two weeks.
MLZ: So, this is a form of decriminalising abortion.
RA: Absolutely not. It has nothing to do with abortion.
MLZ: It’s the first step. This is the way laws are introduced. The IVF one was the same. Piecemeal. This is the first part of decriminalisation.
RA: No, it’s not. Our position today reflects what the parliamentary group believes and is informed by what I’ve experienced myself in the past months. This is a sensitive issue that shouldn’t be monopolised by politicians. It should be broader society that leads this discussion.
MLZ: So are you going for a referendum?
RA: No, we need to discuss this. A discussion. These past months I’ve met tens of women who aborted using a tablet. Conservatively, around 300 or 350 women abort this way every year. The number could reach 400. This happens in our country, everyone knows it happens but it’s easier to look away. And all these women told me the same thing: that they had been stigmatised and that none of them had found any sort of support. They only swallowed a tablet, but there are repercussions with that, too.
They told me that if they suffered complications, they couldn’t go to a health clinic or hospital for fear of getting locked up. So, while I still harbour the same beliefs we expressed as a parliamentary group, I have to recognise the realities of these tens of people. Over a ten-year period, we’re talking about 3,500, 4,000 people. How can I close my eyes to this? They could either get caught and end up arrested, or else we close our eyes...
MLZ: Nobody has ever been sent to prison or arrested over this.
RA: Yes, and why did it never happen? Because as a people, and you may call us hypocritical, we know that 400 abortions are happening every year but we all look away.
MLZ: So, are you still against abortion?
RA: My position is that of the parliamentary group.
MLZ: So, which is it?
RA: What I can say is that our electoral manifesto does not give me a mandate to introduce abortion.
MLZ: It seems you changed your views a bit after meeting these traumatised women.
RA: Tens of people are representative of a much bigger group. These were the women who had the courage to speak to me about their fears and risks including their fears of prosecution. We need discussion to continue, for it to be a mature discussion.
MLZ: Well, in that case, abortion will become legal.
RA: That’s not what I’m saying. It needs to be an informative discussion led by people who have gone through such experiences.
Daphne Caruana Galizia
MLZ: Five years after Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed, on Facebook you still find people like Joseph Camilleri, who said they should have killed her earlier. Joseph Abela said “you reap what you sow, may she rot in hell.” Renald Schembri said: “may she burn in hell for the harm she did to our country”. Mark Camilleri, a Labour activist and canvasser for Gozo Minister Clint Camilleri, wrote, “I’m one of those who was happy to see what happened to her.” Why don’t you condemn such comments? Why don’t you go to Bidnija and start a process that would heal the nation?
RA: I’m doing it right now: I condemn all these comments unreservedly, and our message from January 2020 onwards has always been to take the high moral ground.
I have consistently shown the Caruana Galizia family respect. When the public inquiry report was published, I was among the first to hold a press conference and send the family a message. I’ve met with them three times since then, with Daphne’s sons, husband and lawyer. There was reciprocal respect that is still there. And those talks have also led to a reform of media laws that’s currently before the committee of experts.
There are different ways of showing respect. I’ve shown it in a consistent way since January 2020 and will continue to do so.
Appointing a president
MLZ: Who will be the next president?
RA: In 2024? It’s too early for that.
MLZ: Would you consider appointing Lawrence Gonzi president?
RA: He’s definitely not a person who would unite the country.
MLZ: Lawrence Gonzi united the country by making your father president.
RA: That comparison doesn’t hold water.
MLZ: I disagree. Gonzi never said he wants to be president, but he’s said that he would like that tradition to continue.
RA: A president needs to unite the nation. A leader of a political party can never unite a nation, just like Eddie Fenech Adami couldn’t be a uniting figure.