Chris Fearne says he will not call an early election if he becomes prime minister. He says in an interview it was Keith Schembri, not Labour, that was too close to big business. He wants a passport scheme that does not embarrass Malta internationally and would apologise to the Caruana Galizia family if an inquiry established that the government was at fault.
How will Chris Fearne be different from Joseph Muscat?
Joseph Muscat did a lot of good for this country. He did a lot of good for the party too. Our party had practically given up on ever winning an election. Joseph Muscat won one election after another with extra-ordinary margins.
But I believe that aside from this good – which we must continue delivering on – the situation in the country shows that we need firmer governance, we need to strengthen institutions, and we need to be more transparent and fairer in what we are doing.
If the Labour Party members put their trust in me, then in the first 100 days of my leadership we will introduce reforms to the country’s institutions to make them more effective and independent. In so doing, we will ensure that what has happened in the country over the past few months won’t happen again.
You’ve been a minister and deputy prime minister for quite some time. Do you feel partly responsible for the current crisis?
I have been a minister for five years and deputy prime minister for two and a half years. I have worked closely with Joseph Muscat.
So, these past years have served me well when it comes to getting to grips with the mechanisms of government and the running of a country. I think the best position from which to gain experience to be prime minister is that of deputy prime minister.
Looking back is always easier but I think one of the mistakes we made – including myself as a member of the parliamentary group and a parliamentary secretary at the time – was when the issue of the Panama Papers first came up.
Our decisions were not strong enough when it came to removing the people involved.
So, if you were to ask me what we should have done differently, it was this.
What started with the Panama Papers eventually ended in murder. A murder that is increasingly looking as though it may have ties to the office of the prime minister. Do you think the Caruana Galizia family deserves an apology from the government?
Daphne Caruana Galizia was no stranger to controversy. She did good investigative journalism but she also wrote stories about whether someone was wearing shorts while dining in public, which led to an atmosphere of some people feeling uncomfortable to dine out.
On the other hand, she did very good work – and nothing, absolutely nothing, can justify the assassination of a journalist who was also a mother, a daughter...
So, the question arises, how can you console the Caruana Galizia family? Difficult.
However, if I am prime minister, I will ensure – and this is already happening – that all the government’s resources are made available to the authorities to solve this case and for justice to be served to all those involved – whoever they may be.
Is that a yes or a no for the apology?
I am saying that if, for instance, the [public] inquiry establishes that there were some measures that could have been taken to stop the assassination, then yes, I will apologise to the family.
Furthermore, I will see to it that whoever was negligent will be made to answer to the authorities and face justice.
Do you think the Maltese people at large deserve an apology for the current crisis?
Let’s wait for the result of the public inquiry and take it from there.
I have been in the Labour Party for 40 years and I know exactly how party members feel. What is clear is that many, including those who voted Labour in 2013 and in 2017, feel that the trust they placed in the party has perhaps been lost.
And I understand these people. But I pledge to them that this is not the Labour Party. The President of the Republic [speaking on Republic Day] was clear when he said this “gang” doesn’t represent the values of this country. And they certainly do not represent the values of the Labour Party.
The Labour Party will once again be the party on the right side of history, the party whose values it has been true to for 100 years – values of better quality of living for all, helping those most in need.
These are still our values. So yes, I believe that the trust placed in us by the Maltese will be won back.
Has Labour become too close to big business?
I have already said that we have to work with business.
The atmosphere in government has to encourage investment across the board. Both Maltese and foreigners considering investment in Malta need to find a hospitable environment to do so, with as little bureaucracy as possible.
However, I want more transparency and for opportunities to be equal for all not restricted to the same four or five people, so that everyone will have the opportunity to invest and do business in this country.
I think the economic model we have built is good. It needs to be sustained, to continue generating wealth which can then be distributed fairly.
Looking back, however, do you think that Labour became too close to big business?
I don’t think so, no. If there was someone who became close to big business, I don’t think it was the Labour Party. If anything it was [former chief of staff to the prime minister], Keith Schembri.
What about development and construction... do we need to speed it up or slow it down?
The country has also benefitted from the development that has taken place over these past years, so let’s not say that all development that has happened was bad.
Development needs to happen, we need to continue improving the places where we live and work, we need to keep improving our infrastructure, be it transport or tourism-related, for instance.
However, as I have already announced, we need to have green lungs in the core of our towns and villages. Back when our localities were first built, they had churches and large squares with the locality then built around them. We have to go back to having recreational spaces, gardens. The natural environment should not only be something distant but something close to home.
So, I believe that development is important, but we need development that goes hand in hand with a better quality of life.
Do you think we are facing an economic slowdown?
I understand that, in these past few weeks and months, the situation in the country – and I say it loud and clear, it has not been a normal situation – led to hesitation from in-vestors and even everyday citizens.
I also understand that once we resolve the situation facing the country – and I am confident that we will – the economy will pick up again, business will pick up again.
We have an economic track record of seven years that we will continue building on. We will not be changing our economic model. We may make it more transparent but we won’t be changing it. I am confident that just as the country’s economy grew at one of the highest rates in Europe in these past years, it will continue to do so for many more years to come.
You have said you want to improve Malta’s standing among its European neighbours. One of the things that has impacted Malta’s reputation over the years is the sale of citizenship known as the Individual Investor Programme. Do you plan on keeping the IIP?
The IIP scheme has been a good source of income for the country – for the country in general and also for a number of practitioners who work in this field locally.
The existing programme is close to reaching its cap. I am in fact informed that by the time the leadership race has been run and the first 100 days of new leadership have passed, this cap will have been reached.
This means the existing scheme will have been fully subscribed.
I am saying we should not extend that cap and we should not start a new scheme until we have spoken to local practitioners, European institutions including the European Parliament and the Commission, and with the Council of Europe, and until a strong in-depth analysis of what has taken place so far is carried out.
It could be that once this process has run its course, we will find a system that is different to that in place today, which will continue to generate income for the country, but will also be accepted across the board and be a system which does not harm Malta’s image abroad.
If you are elected Labour Party leader and prime minister, do you think you should call an early election to secure a mandate to lead the country?
No, we have a clear and strong mandate drawn from the greatest electoral victory since independence.
No doubt, there is no crisis over the legitimacy of this government... all that is happening is that the prime minister is changing.
Labour’s parliamentary majority will remain and so the next election will happen as scheduled. I am convinced that with a united party and new leader, when that election comes, Labour will win it again.
Times of Malta was given 15 minutes with Mr Fearne.
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