Bernard Grech marks one year as Nationalist Party leader this weekend. He spoke to Bertrand Borg about the party’s view of big business and development, the changes he’d like to see in Malta’s political system and why he thinks a PN electoral victory will be an FATF gamechanger. 

If you compare the polls when you became leader to those of today, they’re pretty much the same if not worse. What’s going on? Why aren’t the people responding?

Well, we’ve made advances. Our message is not reaching people enough. There are also many challenges and limitations that we are not necessarily responsible for.

Public broadcasting has been captured by the Labour Party and Castille. It doesn’t allow our message to reach the people as it should.

You are getting more airtime now than you did before you were party leader. And yet trust in you is down. Appearing (on the news) is not enough in itself. Getting your message across, regularly and in the way it is intended, is another thing. This is not a beauty contest or a competition for airtime. This is about ensuring that what we are developing reaches people, and reaches them correctly. That’s not happening yet. Perhaps that is partly our fault, but it’s also because of the limitations I mentioned.

During a speech in Gozo, you said: “The PN is the only path to change. If you are not moving closer to the Nationalist Party, you are not helping to bring about change.”

So are activists or third party politicians not helping to bring about change? Is it only the PN that brings about change?

What I meant was that ultimately, forming a government requires a majority vote. It is pointless having 100 NGOs and 100 pressure groups, which are good and doing a lot of work, if they are not represented within the PN.

I am saying that the Nationalist Party is a vehicle for anyone – even those who are not Nationalists or don’t want to be Nationalists – to help the party.   Change cannot be academic – it cannot be all talk on Facebook or street activism. It needs to be change behind one party that is willing to acknowledge everyone.

That talk smacks of Joseph Muscat. He used to talk about a ‘movement’. We all know how that ended. Why should people believe you when you say the same thing?

Unfortunately, that’s the damage Joseph Muscat did to our country and politics. As they say, once bitten, twice shy. And that is now the challenge that I face as party leader and Opposition leader: to convince people that not all politicians are corrupt. There are politicians on both sides of the House that want to improve this country.

But it’s clear that whenever Labour Party MPs voted on important issues, or voted on a no-confidence motion in someone, they voted for that person, not their country. We have our defects, but we have no ties whatsoever with anyone who has seized this country in various ways over these years.

Bernard Grech in his own words. Video: Karl Andrew Micallef

Undue influence

One of the Caruana Galizia inquiry conclusions was that there are too many ties between big business and the government and politicians. ADPD noted that nobody from either the government or Opposition benches spoke about that in parliament, at all. What guarantee can you give that the PN is not controlled by big business?

There are many businessmen and women in this country that are genuine and only want a level playing field.  But then there are a few, as there are in other professions, that abuse this.

Let me make it clear: the PN is not controlled, and I will never allow it to be controlled, by any person – not big business, because saying that categorises them as bad – but by any people who only want to fatten their pockets to the detriment of the Maltese.

PN headquarters. Photo: Matthew MirabelliPN headquarters. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

But a big business poses a bigger threat to a party than a shopkeeper.

When I say that I don’t want anyone with bad intentions to control the PN, I am effectively telling them ‘don’t give me money’.

I’m telling them ‘if you want to be dirty and gobble things up, go to the Labour Party.’ It’s not an easy thing to say, but I will keep saying it whenever I can.

You say big business poses a risk. What is dangerous is having a few people who think that money can buy everyone, getting the chance to buy me or the Nationalist Party.

But our door is open to everyone. To workers, professionals, investors and business people who want to improve the party and country.

Sandro Chetcuti said that parties pester them for donations. Is it true?

It’s true that politicians speak to various businesses. But when you mention Sandro Chetcuti in the context of what I just said, it’s as though you’re lumping him with that group.

Not at all. He said that political parties tire them out with requests.

I think there should be dialogue, as normal. That’s our duty as politicians, across the board.

This blanket suspicion that is cast on all political work, as though there’s always something underhand at play…I can assure you that there will be nothing underhand with me.

Joseph Portelli told us he speaks to the Opposition to ensure they are not going to oppose his projects. Does Joseph Portelli speak to you?

Joseph Portelli has never been to my office, save for the time he came as president of Ħamrun Spartans to celebrate their league title win.

Don’t you think we need more transparency here?

Yes, I think we can do better and be more transparent. The Chamber of Commerce made a very good suggestion to have a lobbyist register. So that whenever somebody approaches a minister it will be known. We’re in favour of this.

The way politics works

The prime minister has said that he wants to discuss electoral reform.

This country has heart specialists, financial service specialists, even mechanics are specialised nowadays. But then we expect our politicians on one side to work in the mornings, and then attend parliament in the afternoons, meet constituents, prepare policies and speeches.

You’re speaking about having full-time MPs.

We should allow people to be part-time politicians if they wish. Because I don’t want to deny anyone the opportunity to enter politics because of they want to continue their profession.

But we also need backup. How can the Opposition Leader in a modern country in 2021 only have a driver paid for by the State? Look at the other side. They have 28 ministers together with consultants and staff.

If we need an expert, why should we have to beg someone to write a report for us?

Good governance

You said that the PN would get us off the FATF grey list in 90 days.

Credibility is key. If you go shopping and discover that the shop is dirty, you won’t go back there again unless there’s a change in management.

So what’s a party that doesn’t pay its taxes?

That’s absolutely not true. The Nationalist Party is paying its taxes.

Through a payment plan.

Yes. A payment plan like that which many other people with problems paying their taxes have. What is important is that we keep to our commitments.

When the government changed in 1987, the international community understood that the Maltese people had made a clear choice and chosen the Nationalist Party. Malta started being seen in a different light.

I am certain that if the people choose the Nationalist Party, they will be sending that sort of message.

Anyone out there – people, politicians, the FATF - who is looking at Malta and thinking ‘this is a failed country, these are corrupt people’ will be shown that that is not true. 

The FATF listed three reasons for Malta’s greylisting. A change in government was not among them.

But it is the one thing that can give the FATF the assurance that those changes will happen.

Political parties have representatives on the Broadcasting Authority board. Is that part of the problem with public broadcasting?

I don’t think so.

You think they should remain.

Yes, I do. Then it’s a matter of seeing how they work. There are political representatives on the Electoral Commission and various boards.

Don’t you think that’s problematic?

I don’t think the problem is party representation. I think the problem is the legal and financial framework that these authorities must work within.

Our natural and built environment

The PN has not nominated a representative to the Planning Authority. Why?

Because we do not want to be involved, in any way, in what the PA is doing.

Well, you have an issue with broadcasting, but you’ve kept your representative on the Broadcasting Authority.

There’s a difference. The PA makes decisions about permits. And you have one person there who cannot change the outcome because they are in an absolute minority.

That’s the fate of being the Opposition.

The Broadcasting Authority is different, there are no third-party permits at play. We do not want to be party to what’s going on at the Planning Authority, where those with cash can speed through and others are given a hard time.

Critics will say that’s a convenient position. Permits are approved, and you get to sit it out. 

I disagree. We are publicly and forcefully criticising things, as we are with Marsascala.

You haven’t spoken much about the incinerator either. The PN did not take part in a waste committee, and the PN representative on ERA did not take part in the vote because of a potential conflict of interest. So what do you make of the project?

There’s a difference between dreams and reality. The country has certain needs. The incinerator is needed to control the amount of waste in the country. The fact that it will be used to control the amount of waste as well as to generate energy is, I think, a good thing.

Perhaps it could have been placed elsewhere or designed in another way. Things can always be done better. Hopefully this project will only bring good things to Malta.

The vast majority of the country’s waste cannot be burnt - it’s construction waste. So what can we do about that?

Instead of focusing on the end problem, we need to look at what we can do to prevent it. We must look at ways recycling of this waste. And we need to reuse too.

That’s all well and good. But it’s not going to solve the construction waste issue. What about land reclamation?

I don’t exclude it. I’ve said so.

Land reclamation will no doubt have an impact, regardless of where it is done. Let’s not treat people like fools. The question is: how will the country and people benefit from what is done? I have ideas about that but I won’t be revealing them for now.

Speculative uses?

Not speculative.

Waste dumped at Magħtab landfill. Photo: Chris Sant FournierWaste dumped at Magħtab landfill. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

There seems to be a consensus between the Labour and Nationalist parties that development needs to continue and continue at a rapid pace. I’ve spent an entire year saying that this country cannot go on like this. I spoke about construction abuses. About people with construction going on above their house, which breaches the rules.

That’s only a part of the problem. Having a neighbour build three floors higher, leaving my house in darkness and rendering my solar panels useless is also a problem.

That is a problem too. I’ve said it, clearly. People’s existing rights cannot be touched.

Why? Do you have legal advice to that effect?

Because we cannot get rid of a system where you have people who are planning to develop a property but haven’t done so for a personal reason.

But that’s life. Things change, and plans change with them.

You cannot do it. You cannot reverse something that a person was planning to do.

Why not? Local plans are changed.

You have people who bought a property thinking that they can build another storey, or two, or three. You cannot suddenly take that possibility away from them. That is a social injustice.

So if I have a terraced house and my neighbours on both sides choose to build apartment blocks, my option is to build a block myself.

Your option is to stay as you are. You don’t have to develop. You have the right to enjoy your home…

…in the dark.

I don’t think it’s about that. If that street has already been developed, aren’t there aesthetics to consider, too?

Cranes: a dominant feature of the Maltese skyline. Photo: Jonathan BorgCranes: a dominant feature of the Maltese skyline. Photo: Jonathan Borg

So both the 2006 rationalisation and 2015 changes [to planning rules] are immutable.

The interpretation of 2015 changes can be considered. But one thing is certain: anybody who currently has the ability to build will not have that taken away from them.

An election is coming. The polls do not paint a pretty picture for the PN. If you lose the election by the same margin that the PN lost the 2017 election, what then?

I don’t think it should be framed as ‘what if I lose’. It should be: ‘what are we doing today?’ And I am working. Not for me to win, but for the country to win. To give our country its credibility back.

Those are fine words, but you must be thinking about a negative outcome.

Of course I do. But I do not allow myself to be conditioned by the way things are in the present.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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