Prime Minister Joseph Muscat believes the past 100 days went by without a crisis but the Government’s pace has yet to pick up. Although he defends all the controversial appointments, he tells Christian Peregin he is willing to admit mistakes.
The Government has been in place for around 100 days. Are you satisfied with your performance so far?
I will never be satisfied because I always think one can do better.
Did you adapt to becoming Prime Minister? Do you still find time to go to the gym, for instance?
Yes, every day. I’ve adapted and I must admit it is not that different from what I expected. It means taking decisions all the time.
Was there a moment in these last three months that was more satisfying than the rest?
Honestly, it is the small things that do not make the headlines... When a small decision has a big impact on a person.
I want to apologise to Lawrence Gonzi because I think I was insensitive when I made that comment. I admit my mistakes
Can you give an example?
There were situations that hit the headlines, like the issue of [transgender activist] Joanne Cassar who was finally able to feel like a citizen of this country. But also other small things which create no publicity such as important decisions we took for people with disabilities.
Were there any difficult moments?
No, I don’t think there were any moments of crisis... Just some difficult decisions.
Did you do anything which you would not do again? Were any mistakes committed?
That always happens.
Give me some examples of things you regret.
It is not an issue of regrets but sometimes you set a standard... I set a standard as Opposition leader to reply to all e-mails personally. I decided to keep that standard as Prime Minister. Before I received a maximum of 200 e-mails a day. I now receive an average of 500. I didn’t expect that.
How much pressure is there from the Labour hardcore? Are there many people demanding jobs or pressuring you to get rid of certain people?
As much pressure as there is from Times of Malta and others whenever there is an appointment of someone traditionally Labour. When you create a coalition, a movement, you cannot please everyone all of the time. What we promised, and what we are doing, is not limiting ourselves to traditionally Labourite supporters. We opened our doors.
In these last three months we have seen many appointments. Almost everyone who helped the Labour Party was given some form of Government salary. The impression is that many of them, maybe not all, were given a job as a reward and not because they really deserved it.
I don’t think former MP Frans Agius or former PN president Frank Portelli or Giovanni Bonello helped the Labour Party.
But for every Giovanni Bonello there seem to be two William Mangions getting paid to find rehearsal space for bands – an appointment which even bands themselves have criticised. Is this the meritocracy people wanted?
Meritocracy is about choosing people from a wide pool. Not closing doors but opening them. I think we are opening doors in the widest way possible.
In your manifesto you said we would be able to vote online for members of boards. What happened here?
A system like that cannot be put in place 12 weeks but that is our aim. During this legislature, in places like Water Services Corporation and others, there would be places dedicated to people who get elected online.
One of the differences between your Government and the previous PN administration was that you were elected on slogans like Malta Tagħna Lkoll. You told people that they could work with you, even if they disagreed with you. Don’t you think you were deceiving people?
Not at all. We did not get rid of the Children’s Commissioner, a former Nationalist MP and parliamentary secretary. We are a providing a lot of continuity especially compared with what happened in 1987 and 1998. However, if we spent 25 years seeing the same faces and suddenly there is a change... Well, people voted for change. The change we are providing is reasonable.
Didn’t these slogans apply to the permanent secretaries?
There were permanent secretaries who took on a prominent role of propaganda, I would say, during the election. I don’t think they were showing they were prepared to work with the Labour Party.
But wasn’t that the point of the slogan? That even if they disagreed with you, you were ready to work with them?
This was not a question of disagreeing but antagonising.
So those who helped the Nationalist Party do not have a place in this movement?
There is a difference between doing your work, saying what you believe and actively showing that you do not agree. If someone tells you they do not believe in the Government’s plan to reduce the water and electricity prices, can you trust them to move the project forward? I don’t think so.
Does this mean the clean sweep of permanent secretaries was grounded in ideological differences rather than the belief that they were not up to the job?
I think we were proven right about these changes even by the PN’s defeat report, which was very sceptical about the civil service. The civil service has operated more smoothly in these last 12 weeks. Part of it has been because of these changes. I assure you that permanent secretaries were chosen on their capabilities and some were kept from the previous legislature. I am still not satisfied. Some people told me they expected things to slow down after these 100 days, but I told them: you ain’t seen nothing yet. The pace has to pick up even more.
Another decision many criticised was the appointment of the person who brought down the Government as coordinator of the Constitutional Convention. Wasn’t this a deliberately divisive appointment?
My idea was and is that Franco Debono is a person who contributed a lot... I remember my predecessor [Lawrence Gonzi] used to say Dr Debono makes sense. He was the person who spoke most about this subject.
But you knew about the situation between him and the PN.
The new PN leader said he wanted to close the wounds of the past...
Imagine the Nationalists gave a similar appointment to Dom Mintoff in 1998 after he brought down the Labour Government. As a Labour supporter, wouldn’t you have been hurt by that decision?
Let me give you an even clearer example. Take the appointment of the current President by my predecessor. Everyone knew the history between former Prime Minister Alfred Sant and George Abela.
I was in a situation where I had pressure from my party. Dr Abela and I had both just contested for Labour leader...
So was this payback?
Not at all... What I am saying is that when the appointment was made I had internal pressure to go against the nomination. The decision I took was that the appointment of Dr Abela was a good one and I supported it from beginning to end.
But Dr Abela did not bring down the Government. He did not mount a very harsh campaign against many members of the Cabinet.
I am not saying that...
So let’s focus on the case of Franco Debono.
You mentioned a hypothetical case and I am saying that in a factual way when I was in a situation where my supporters were applying pressure... This is what identifies a leader from another. A leader cannot cave in to the hardcore. He must lead. And in this case the PN leader is saying he closed the wound... I don’t know how you can close the wound so early...
But that’s the point. You cannot close a wound so early. Therefore, isn’t it obvious that Franco Debono does not enjoy enough confidence from the PN for him to coordinate something which by definition requires the support of PN? Couldn’t you have chosen someone better?
You can always choose someone better or someone worse... From my point of view, since Dr Debono was given this role, he has been very prudent and that was an important signal to send out.
Let’s talk about Jason Micallef. Why did you feel the need to remove David Felice and put Jason Micallef on the V18 foundation?
You are totally mistaken. David Felice is still on the board of V18.
He’s been replaced as chairman.
Ok, because first you said he was removed. Now we agree he was not.
Why did you decide to put Mr Micallef instead of Mr Felice in that position?
Because we believe Jason Micallef can offer certain experience including from a media perspective... and together with David Felice would make a very good team.
Some said this decision was taken by parliamentary secretary Jose Herrera, not you. Did you approve the decision?
Absolutely. It was my decision. And I assume responsibility for all decisions.
When you were asked why you chose Mr Micallef, you replied with: Why not? Don’t you think you had a duty to explain yourself better?
Yes, but why are you questioning Jason Micallef?
I am asking the questions.
I am answering with a question. They say Gozitans like to do this. You’re questioning Jason Micallef because...
Maybe because of his performance as general secretary before 2008.
Ok, fine. As One chairman, Mr Micallef has proved himself. I think he can prove himself even more and the way he is behaving today, trying to unite as much as possible, even with the help of David Felice, I think they will make a good bi-partisan team.
The Labour Party had a very long manifesto but did not include things like the amnesty granted to prisoners, the relocation of the monti and the revision of the Code of Ethics. Were you not comfortable saying these things before the election?
First of all, I don’t know who thinks you can include an amnesty in a manifesto. The first time we spoke about it was in the Cabinet after the election.
So you never spoke to the prisoners or their families about it beforehand?
Me? Definitely not.
Did others from your party?
This is what the Opposition claims. If they are alleging something they should say it clearly. I am saying a promise was never made.
Were you comfortable with the way Home Affairs Minister Manuel Mallia embraced the prisoners when the amnesty was granted?
An element of criticism we often got, even from you, and I think it is constructive, is that Labour was populist over the past five years. The amnesty was not something popular. But when I saw the presentations by the NGOs for prisoners’ rights, I was convinced it had to be done.
As the first step of reform. It was a message to prisoners, especially those who had been waiting for parole, that there was a ray of hope. Having said that, I think we could have spoken to the families of victims a bit more. That was one of our regrets.
Dr Mallia met the victims some days after. Did you go back to being populist?
No, we did not do that to be populist. You asked me if I had any regrets... I think there should have been more sensitivity. And I don’t mean by Dr Mallia. That was a Cabinet decision, so I shoulder responsibility.
What hurt people most was the way it was done... Those celebrations and the way the minister hugged prisoners who could have been his former clients.
I think it got out of hand, not by the minister but the people who were emotional. However, I must speak as a social democrat. Having mercy for the poor and those in prison is part of my beliefs and the Catholic teaching too.
Let’s talk about the case of parliamentary secretary Franco Mercieca. On the last day of May, when you were asked whether his waiver allowed him to conduct cataract operations, you said No. A week later, we found that he was carrying out those operations and laser surgery at a private hospital. Were you surprised?
I was surprised that you said he went to work with his official car.
We corrected that. That was not the question.
But if you made a mistake on such a basic point...
We accepted that we made a mistake and we apologised. Were you surprised about the fact that he was conducting cataract operations a week after you said he was not?
Mr Mercieca cleared things out with me. And we discussed this at length. He said he was simply seeing patients that were booked beforehand.
Did he tell you before our story?
No, he was dealing with the clients he had already booked...
So you must have been surprised because he hadn’t told you he was.
There’s only one thing I am not surprised about: Franco Mercieca’s genuineness. I thank Times of Malta for that story because now things are much clearer for everyone. I don’t think it is a problem for anyone that he is now operating for free both in Malta and in Gozo.
Don’t you think that he took advantage of his limited waiver from the Code of Ethics? Was it a case of you giving him an inch and him taking a mile?
I don’t think so. Franco is a very genuine person. His priority is the patient.
But was there a breach of the waiver? Can you explain why after giving him a waiver in writing, he was doing operations you did not know about?
There was an issue of interpretation and I think today, honestly thanks to you, the situation is now crystallised for everyone. Even regarding his car.
From our calculations, Mr Mercieca could have been making €200,000 a year. More if he was working full-time. Now he has a salary of less than €50,000. Are you still of the opinion that politicians’ salaries are decent if we are to attract the best minds for politics?
I still believe politicians’ salaries during this legislature should not increase. This was a part of our manifesto. All the candidates knew this. There is no way out.
Has this discussion arisen internally?
We are paying, as is the entire political class, for the gargantuan mistake committed by the PN Government when it took a decision to raise ministers’ salaries by €500 per week behind everyone’s backs. It is not only the PN that is paying for this. We need to set the example.
As a punishment?
Yes. It could have been very easy for me to keep quiet and take the money...
Maybe you should have focused your criticism on the fact that they did this behind people’s backs, not the actual amounts of money in question.
I think it would have smacked of hypocrisy. In my opinion that was the best stand. What is happening now is that there are discussions between the Auditor General, the Chief Electoral Commissioner and the Ombudsman about creating a transparent mechanism. It will be the first time we have a transparent mechanism of how politicians are paid. But this will not start in this legislature. It will be included in the next legislature.
When you create a coalition, a movement, you cannot please everyone all of the time
When you were asked to make a ministerial statement about the case of Mr Mercieca you said Dr Gonzi did not do that in the case of former Finance Minister Tonio Fenech. But didn’t you promise to act differently and not use what happened in the past as justification for doing the same?
It was a tongue-in-cheek comment.
You seem to like tongue-in-cheek comments. It reminds me of when you said you had already created a job vacancy in the role of Opposition leader. Don’t you think that was unreasonable?
It was in bad taste. That is one of the things I regret.
Do you also regret the Speech from the Throne?
No, I think that was blown out of proportion by an Opposition that was clutching at straws and should have looked at the speeches it wrote in the past. But yes, I want to apologise to Dr Gonzi because I think I was insensitive when I made that comment. I admit my mistakes.
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