Evarist Bartolo has spoken about the discomfort he felt when links emerged between top government officials and the Panama Papers as well as their connection to Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder.
The former education and foreign minister said he had told Joseph Muscat that both Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri should leave, even in their presence. “I would speak about my discomfort with the situation. I would say we need to take action and that we cannot go on like this,” he tells The Sunday Times of Malta in an interview.
“At the time of the Panama Papers I would argue it did not make sense for a socialist party that believed in fiscal justice, to have members within it implicated in avoiding taxes or hiding money somewhere else. Then when facts started to surface around the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, I felt very uncomfortable, like many others. I’m happy to say Robert Abela made huge strides forward in that regard.”
For the first time in 30 years, Bartolo will not be in parliament and in this wide-ranging interview speaks about the highs and lows of his career and life after politics. He blames his constant travels as one of the reasons for losing touch with constituents.
This is the transcript of the interview with Mark Laurence Zammit
MLZ: At the beginning of the election campaign, you said your six-year-old granddaughter had staged a ‘protest’ with a placard that read ‘Don’t vote for Varist, so he can retire from politics’. She must be ecstatic. Her campaign worked.
EB: Yes, correct. On Sunday evening, when it started becoming clear that I was not going to be elected, she started yelling “I won my grandpa back!” It’s clear now that her campaign was more effective than mine.
MLZ: Did you suspect you wouldn’t get re-elected?
EB: Yes, I knew. I still hoped to be elected, but I knew it was difficult this time. First of all, I recently gave people the impression I would not run for re-election. But what really set me back was that I lost much of my usual contact with people, because I spent most of the past two years focusing almost exclusively on international relations. The pandemic halted most foreign affairs appointments around the world, and I took the opportunity to ask for meetings with foreign diplomats. They’re usually more hesitant to accept invitations from small countries like ours, but I knew this time they were more likely to accept because they had less on their plate. I travelled a lot around the world, and that pulled me apart from my constituents, who want and need their politicians to be close to them. I did some of that towards the end of the campaign but it was too little, too late. I was so invested in international relations before the election that I used to joke around, saying that I had a better chance of getting elected from Morocco, Kosovo and Libya, than from my districts in Malta.
MLZ: Could it be that people did not vote for you because they don’t want you anymore?
EB: It could be, and I have no problem with that.
MLZ: Weren’t you angry that they didn’t vote for you?
EB: After the election, some people texted me saying that people were wrong not to re-elect me. That’s not true. It’s not fair to say people don’t know how to vote, just because I don’t like the result. People were right when they elected me and they were right this time as well. People felt that if they voted for me, I wouldn’t be there for them in their everyday lives. And that’s fine. I respect their feelings. That’s what democracy is all about.
MLZ: I have the impression that you did not want to be re-elected; because you could have thrown your name in the hat for casual elections and you could have probably been elected.
EB: I could have and I would have got elected. But I felt I shouldn’t, to respect the people’s feelings.
MLZ: Could it be that people did not vote for you because you did not curry enough favours? I’m hearing several Labour MPs promised extraordinary favours to their constituents days before the election.
EB: I have contested eight elections since 1992 and I got elected in two districts in each one, except this one. And I never promised fridges or microwave ovens, and I kept my coffee mornings and events to a minimum. I would simply knock on doors all year round. So, it’s not true.
MLZ: You do acknowledge though, that MPs in your own party are promising many favours, right?
EB: That culture is dangerous, and a percentage of people do look at politics that way. But a recent survey showed only six per cent of people see it that way.
MLZ: Then why do people constantly seek to speak to ministers? Why do MPs open offices in villages and why do people queue for hours in front of their doors?
EB: They queue up to ask for help, sometimes because they have not been served by the institutions.
MLZ: If an institution isn’t working and I need the minister to solve my problem, something is wrong with the system.
EB: People who seek help aren’t necessarily asking for illegitimate favours. As education minister, a family would come to me to tell me they have an autistic son who is still waiting for an LSE. They did not come to ask for something they are not entitled to.
MLZ: But that’s your fault as education minister, because the system was not good enough to cater for that student, and now his family had to come to you for the solution to the problem. That shows the system isn’t working.
EB: You’re partially right. But there’s no harm in politics being a mix of the two. In a small country like ours, people value personal relationships and there’s nothing wrong with people seeking a minister’s help if they really need it. What is wrong is making promises you can’t keep or giving people stuff just to draw them towards you.
MLZ: Like the cheques a week before the election...
EB: I disagree with you. That’s different. The Ukraine war is affecting the prices of energy, food and materials, and people needed help immediately. The government was right to send the cheques then.
MLZ: Do you think people might not have voted for you because you had openly criticised the Muscat administration in 2019?
EB: I don’t think so, because before the 2017 election I had already voiced my concerns and I was elected anyway. Some people told me I should have voiced my concerns behind closed doors, not publicly, and I would tell them I did voice my concerns internally, but it did not always work.
MLZ: What do you mean when you say you voiced your concerns internally?
EB: I would speak up about my discomfort with the situation. I would say that we need to take action and that we cannot go on like this.
MLZ: To whom would you say this?
EB: I would tell Joseph Muscat as well and he always listened.
MLZ: What would you tell Joseph Muscat?
EB: That we cannot go on like this. At the time of the Panama Papers I would argue that it did not make sense for a socialist party that believed in fiscal justice, to have members within it implicated in avoiding taxes or hiding money somewhere else. Then when facts started to surface around the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, I felt very uncomfortable, like many others. And I would try to put pressure on the government. And I’m happy to say Robert Abela made huge strides forward in that regard.
MLZ: Did you ever tell Joseph Muscat to fire Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi?
EB: Yes of course.
MLZ: And what did he tell you?
EB: In Konrad’s case, he would say that he would eventually leave. In Schembri’s case, it was more difficult. But I told him, and I even told him in their presence.
MLZ: You said it to them face to face?
EB: Yes, that’s how it should be done. I would tell them they should leave, for the good of the Prime Minister, the party and the country. They disagreed with me, of course, but I believe you should say these things to people’s faces.
MLZ: I admire you for that, but then, on November 25, 2019, you voted in favour of Joseph Muscat in a vote of confidence. What was that about? Isn’t that incoherent with all that you just told me?
EB: No, it’s not. I did that to be able to keep my place in the party and continue to work for change.
MLZ: So, it was a strategic move?
EB: Of course. Had I voted against the government, I would have achieved nothing. I would have only made some temporary noise with a symbolic but futile gesture. Meanwhile, the final outcome of the vote would have not changed and I would have lost my chance to keep pressuring for change internally. I decided to take the slow, persevering road that enabled me to keep changing things internally. And I would do it all over again today.
MLZ: Who were the other Labour MPs pressuring Muscat internally? Or was it just you?
EB: There were others. They would speak. I don’t know all of them but I’m sure they used to speak up.
MLZ: (Author) Mark Camilleri says there were six rebel MPs. He says you were one of them, and he was right about you. Is he right about the others?
EB: I don’t know. I think you should ask him that.
MLZ: The Daphne Caruana Galizia public inquiry concluded that Muscat and his cabinet were responsible for her murder. You were in his cabinet back then. Do you feel responsible?
EB: No, I don’t agree with that conclusion. I was asked this question during the inquiry itself and I told them I was among the people who pressured for change the most.
MLZ: There are allegations that Keith Schembri and Neville Gafà made deals with Libyan mercenaries on migration. Are these allegations true?
EB: I don’t have information that shows those allegations are true.
MLZ: While speaking on TVM during the Pope’s visit last weekend, you commended Pope Francis on his speech to the Maltese authorities and highlighted his words on corruption, unlike TVM news itself, which did not cover the Pope’s corruption plea at all. TVM seems to be frequently, similarly favouring the government in its coverage. Do you think this is right?
EB: PBS must move from being a state broadcaster to being a public broadcaster. Changing the name is not enough. Its essence must be changed. Everything needs to change, from the way the board is appointed to the way people are recruited and the way it operates.
MLZ: So, you admit there’s a problem.
EB: Of course there’s a problem. A public broadcaster should not be a government broadcaster. It needs a thorough change from top to bottom. We must do with our state broadcaster what we have already done with our justice system – take courageous, good governance decisions so that the broadcaster does not remain the government’s mouthpiece. I tabled this proposal before 2013, when I was still shadow minister for the state broadcaster, but it was never acted upon.
PBS must move from being a state broadcaster to being a public broadcaster
MLZ: You frequently write about the beauty of nature and how we might be losing it. You also praised Moviment Graffitti for their work recently. We’re losing nature to construction. Isn’t that your fault as well since you were part of a government enabling this environmental destruction?
EB: It’s not just Graffitti that I admire. I also admire Labour mayors who are trying to speak up against environmental destruction. Yes, there’s too much construction. Was I part of that government? Yes, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t continue to speak up for the environment.
MLZ: What should Robert Abela do to clamp down on excessive construction? Because it doesn’t look like there’s any plan for that any time soon.
EB: Surely, we shouldn’t build on the few remaining open spaces.
MLZ: Obviously, that. But what about the areas that are already built up? There are town houses in these areas that are being demolished to make way for apartment blocks.
EB: There should be areas designated for high-rises, yes, but in other areas, building heights should be restricted to, say, four storeys. And one other thing – I ask whether we really need all these housing units. Who will live in all of these apartments?
MLZ: They sell like crazy, though. The demand is there.
EB: But that’s because we have a culture of investment in property. People here believe the best way to invest their money is to buy property.
MLZ: Let’s talk about education. You spent around nine years as education minister. If there was anyone who had the power to change the education system in this country, it was you. Do you feel it changed enough?
EB: No, it didn’t. No doubt about that.
MLZ: Do you feel you are partly to blame for that?
EB: There’s no doubt I could have done better in some areas, but I must say – contrary to what most people believe, you don’t change an educational system by being the man at the top, telling everyone what they should be doing. Change must be accompanied by a gradual shift in culture and mentality. Our educational system needs a radical change, but the method of change cannot be radical. Whenever we tried to change things radically, we ended up sidelining parents, children and teachers. Change must happen slowly and with the participation of everyone.
Our educational system needs a radical change, but the method of change cannot be radical
MLZ: You can understand what the PN is going through, because you were in opposition for a long time. What are they doing wrong in your opinion?
EB: It’s a tragedy. Firstly, they must learn to be humble and stop blaming voters for their own flaws. So far, the changes they implemented have been merely cosmetic. They need to look seriously within themselves and change their attitude.
MLZ: Will you pursue politics? Or will you retire?
EB: I won’t stop. If I stop, I die. I plan to read and write more, and I will be lecturing and attending foreign policy conferences abroad. I will be very busy. The real problem is how to make sure I’m not busier than I was as minister. My granddaughter wouldn’t be happy with that.
MLZ: Do you consider running for the European Parliament election?
EB: No, not at all.
MLZ: There’s talk of you becoming the next president.
EB: (laughs) It means nothing.
MLZ: Do you want it? Would you accept?
EB: That’s a hypothesis.
MLZ: Well, not really. You tick all the boxes and it’s quite plausible. Would you accept?
EB: What I want right now is to be able to spend the rest of my days working for the benefit of this country.
MLZ: Did you expect Abela to appoint Ian Borg in your stead?
EB: I don’t agree with people who think Ian Borg is not good enough for this job. Remember that Ian Borg worked on European affairs in Louis Grech’s ministry. I worked with him in this sector and I believe he can do a good job.
MLZ: What’s your advice to him?
EB: Malta first and foremost, try to understand the culture and the history of the people you deal with, and even though we’re a small country, we can achieve encouraging results. Malta must be humble but must not let itself be humiliated.
MLZ: Thank you for answering our questions. Many politicians do not answer our questions. During interviews they do a lot a talking, but not a lot of answering. So thank you.
EB: Thank you.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Watch excerpts on Times of Malta.
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