Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi tells Herman Grech he believes his entire team still backs him, despite the honorarium fiasco.
You’ve just asked ministers to refund part of their pay increase. What made you change your mind?
After three years of discussions and contacts with the opposition, hoping for an agreement, and after indications that there would be agreement on reviewing the honorarium to MPs, it was clear in recent weeks that the Labour Party had withdrawn from its position and no agreement was going to be reached. This meant the overpayments made to ministers had to be refunded. That’s €19,000 per minister.
In a democracy where public opinion matters, prime ministers are meant to stop, reflect and show they’re prepared to listen. In the last few weeks we’ve seen a chorus of disapproval on the honoraria issue? Did you listen to people?
Of course. Had I not listened to them I would have argued it was a decision taken three years ago. I took note of what people were saying.
More importantly, I took note that there was no agreement at parliamentary level.
This morning (on Thursday) a lot of people are saying the climbdown was merely because you feared political ramifications within your own party.
Absolutely not. Yesterday I spent a whole day in meetings, first in Cabinet with ministers who have to shoulder part of the burden by refunding a part of the money.
In a way they were taken by surprise. It’s the right thing to do and we have to shoulder the consequences. I later had a meeting with the parliamentary group explaining the circumstances.
There was agreement on the position. It was the correct way to put the case to Parliament and give the opposition leader the right to respond.
Despite asking the ministers to refund their pay, there is still a general sentiment it was merely a cosmetic exercise...
...Refunding €19,000 covering payments made over two-and-a-half years was no cosmetic exercise at all.
That’s what (backbencher) Jean Pierre Farrugia wanted.
Not at all. I met Dr Farrugia because it was evident that a meeting between the two of us had to take place. It was a very good meeting. I explained to him my line of thought and when he heard me out he agreed with it. It had nothing to do with any condition set by him. I came to the decision logically, fairly and responsibly.
So what you’re saying is that Dr Pierre Farrugia had nothing to do with this U-turn?
Absolutely not. And I wouldn’t describe it as a U-turn. Once agreement was not reached by the opposition, who made it very clear they were criticising us when they themselves pressed us to revise MPs’ honoraria, I decided no agreement was possible and therefore ordered a revision.
You’re blaming the opposition, but do you admit that the whole case was mishandled, at least strategically?
Well yes... I think we were naive enough to think the opposition would be consistent and loyal. They weren’t. In Parliament I quoted a document signed by ex-Labour MPs of meetings held in 2009 which states that Joseph Muscat knew about everything. And he says he knows nothing about it, which is ridiculous.
If the opposition leader wants to play games, I don’t. So fine, the decision was reversed and I’ve asked the House Business Committee to handle this issue.
So are you saying that the tens of thousands out there who disagreed with this increase are simply swallowing whatever the Labour Party tells them?
No. Absolutely not. The electorate out there was genuinely concerned about the whole issue. I could feel... I received messages and heard people saying the increase wasn’t justified considering the circumstances.
I went on the media explaining that the timing was wrong, but this decision was taken three years ago. But for those who said the sentiment was there I didn’t shirk from shouldering my responsibility.
Do you fear ramifications from your ministers, now that they’ve been asked to refund thousands?
No. I know some of them have a financial difficulty but that’s the price we pay when we enter public office.
Yes, there will be some ministers who will find it difficult but we have to face the music. I think it’s the correct decision to take.
There are claims one parliamentary secretary said he can’t afford to repay.
I won’t go into details... But I do understand that being informed overnight that you have to refund a sum of money paid over nearly three years isn’t easy. But it has to be done, it’s collective responsibility.
I’m pleased that all ministers and parliamentary secretaries understood this and agreed with my decision.
Were you criticised by any Cabinet ministers, directly or indirectly, that you’re being held hostage by some backbenchers?
No. Everyone supported me when I explained the reasoning behind the decision and the logic.
This is the third time the government has backtracked from a decision – the primary health care system, the St John’s Co-Cathedral extension and now the honoraria. All of them have been somewhat dictated by backbenchers.
Not at all. The health reform was a document that created massive national debate. I had meetings with private family doctors and associations and they expressed serious concern about some aspects of it. I just reacted to some valid points being raised.
I’m not afraid of changing my position if it’s right. But if I believe in something that’s correct, unless I’m persuaded otherwise, I will stand by my decision.
With respect to St John’s, the issue was also a matter of public concern and there was the Church and the foundation involved. I decided to withdraw and revisit the concept. With hindsight I would have made a terrible mistake if I was pig-headed.
But in all three cases, there was a backbencher threatening to vote against the government.
No, that’s not correct at all. If there’s a backbencher who expresses a particular position, you have to see whether it reflects valid public opinion. My assessment with health reform and now with the honoraria issue is that public opinion demanded an explanation which we tried to give.
And when I realised that the objective of having equal treatment of MPs wasn’t being reached, and because of the opposition I reversed it. I’m totally serene that I took the right decision in all three cases.
One issue thrown into your lap is divorce. The Nationalist Party’s executive arm is expected to take a decision on divorce in the coming days. Will the executive be saying a categorical yes or no to divorce or will it leave the decision open?
I won’t answer the question directly because I want to allow all executive members to express their opinion freely and eventually reach a conclusion. Answering your question would pre-judge the outcome.
But in a way you’ve already pre-judged the outcome because you’ve made it very clear you’re against the introduction of divorce. To what extent will your beliefs impact the executive’s decision?
That’s my personal opinion. I think I have the right. I can never be silenced on issues of importance, of principles. I have a duty and responsibility.
We’re talking about the executive arm of the Nationalist Party...
...but you have a major influence...
This is the highest institution of our party that’s expressing itself in a debate. I should be asking what Labour is doing on such an important issue. The leader made a whole hullabaloo at the beginning of this legislature and now they’ve gone silent on the issue.
What if the PN executive decides to come out in favour of divorce?
They’re free to do so.
How would you feel about it?
We’ve had people in our party in favour of divorce and we’ve accepted them as candidates. In our party we don’t shoot down people of different opinions.
The strength of the PN over the years is that we have always been open to different opinions on a number of areas, but once a position is taken then it’s respected by the members.
Is the divorce issue a social or religious argument for you?
I make a clear distinction between my faith and my responsibility as a prime minister. After 23 years in politics I have a track record of distinguishing between my faith, which I treasure, and my responsibility as a person contributing to politics.
How important is the divorce decision for you, especially since it’s something we might decide upon this year?
I’ve been talking about the family and the social network... It’s as important as all the major aspects of our society. Divorce is about family. You cannot separate the two issues. It’s extremely important.
I think on this issue, both those in favour and against divorce are in agreement – they are both in favour of marriage. We need to see how we can strengthen the institution of marriage.
People like (former European Court of Human Rights judge) Giovanni Bonello believe divorce is a human rights issue which should be decided by Parliament. Aren’t politicians shirking their responsibility and pa ssing the buck by opting for a referendum?
I wonder why someone leaves out the fundamental issue that there’s no mandate...
...the same way there wasn’t a mandate for Malta to re-join the Partn for Peace, for the honoraria increase...
Come off it. That’s insulting to the divorce movement. Divorce is one of the most important issues this country has faced in recent years. Something as fundamental as that should have been part and parcel of an electoral mandate. It was not.
We have to keep in mind that the Maltese electorate has been taken by surprise and no one can contradict this. But there is a consequence. I could have chosen not to discuss it, but I didn’t.
I said it’s time to discuss it rationally, calmly, logically. I chose the route of a debate. Once we politicians don’t have the mandate, we will tell the electorate to vote, not the 65 people who haven’t been entrusted with this responsibility.
Can you see a decision via referendum taken this year?
I think it’s a process we will have to decide upon within the party.
I hope... Yes, this year. I have to choose my words carefully. I don’t want people to think I’m acting as a guillotine on this important process. I don’t want the pro-divorce movement to think I’m delaying or avoiding this issue.
My preference is to have a decision in the shortest possible time but without prejudicing the debate. I will not play games with the Maltese public on anything, especially something as important as this.
Last week, European Commissioner John Dalli once again felt at ease attacking you publicly. Does it bother you?
No. Mr Dalli has the freedom to express his opinions. I’ve answered several times on this issue and I have nothing to add. I respect the opinion of anyone who comes forward with arguments, suggestions and recommendations on how to make the party and country better.
But he’s attacking you directly. He said you should shoulder the responsibility for his forced resignation in 2004. Will you shoulder it?
I refer everyone to a press conference I had held and a press release issued together with John Dalli in November 2007 where I gave a clear outline of the developments. That statement says it all and I have nothing to add.
If he wasn’t forced to resign over the hospital tender then what was the cause?
If you have a look at the press release dated November 2007 you have all the answers.
We still don’t know why... John Dalli is asking why he was forced to resign.
There is nothing more to add than that press release.
At the time, Mr Dalli (who was foreign minister) was also accused on the air tickets issue (the foreign ministry was buying tickets from a company in which his daughter was involved). Was that part of the reason behind your decision?
It’s in the press release.
It seems quite clear to me Mr Dalli is going to criticise you at will. Do you think he’s using it as a strategy to make a comeback and bid for PN leader in future?
I won’t go into hypothetical questions. I respect Mr Dalli for what he has done in this country.
I remind everyone that it was Mr Dalli himself who expressed interest in the position of EU Commissioner. I took it upon myself to put forward his name to the EU President. I backed him throughout.
Now if that wasn’t a vote of confidence in someone for one of the most prestigious jobs around, I don’t know what is.
He’s obviously not appreciating it.
That’s not fair. I’m sure he appreciates it and he’s gone public with that as well.
John Dalli and a number of other critics keep saying the PN is nowadays run by half a dozen people. Is he far off the mark?
He is far off the mark. The party has always been run in the same way. One of my responsibilities is to massage a generational change, to bring new blood into the party. When you are in my position, it’s not just about winning elections, which I’ve done, it’s not about achieving economic targets, which I’ve done, it’s not about reforms sectors like the drydocks and public transport, which have been pending for years. I always tell people to judge us not only by what we say, but by the results.
Does it mean we’re functioning perfectly? No. There’s still more to do to respond to people’s needs.
Three years into this administration do you feel you’re a strong leader?
Austin Gatt once rightly said we won one of the most difficult elections ever (in 2008). Winning an election for the third time is always more difficult than the first. I’ve lived through previous legislatures with people discounting us, telling us we’re heading towards disaster.
We proved everybody wrong. We presented a vision, a programme and delivered results – and we won the election. This time round we’ve had to face the worst economic crisis since the 1920s when countries much larger than ours were on their knees begging. We are standing up and proud of our achievements.
When the time comes, I will go to the public and give the results – no thanks to the Labour Party, which has been criticising and saying everything’s bad. Labour has changed its leader but retained its negative approach on everything.
We are two years away from the next election. What have you learnt from this legislature so far and what will you do differently?
This is not an easy question... Because hindsight is always a fairytale and I don’t live in fairytales. I live reality. This time last year I had one of the largest factories in Malta on the brink of taking a dramatic decision. Few people understand what this means.
The next two years will be challenging and full of opportunities. This year we will hopefully succeed with Air Malta, which will be a major issue. Energy will continue to be a haunting reality.
Next year will show the difference between the shallow politics of Labour and the in-depth reforms of the PN in government, to guarantee the country’s success for the next 10 to 15 years.
Perhaps one mistake we’ve made is that we need to explain more. We need to continue undertaking important reforms but we have to understand they will succeed a lot more if they’re taken on board by those who are being impacted – and by public opinion.
Do you think you’re not putting your message across well?
The economic strategy was correct. The results are there. But the way we should have had people on board didn’t function as well as it should.
What are you going to do about it now?
We need to explain more. We need to meet people more. For example, with the primary health reform, I realised too late in the day that the meetings I had with family doctors were enlightening.
I should have had those meetings before and not after (the reform was announced). They’re lessons we try to take on board.
Another lesson is that I can’t trust the opposition.
Can you trust your own MPs?
Of course I can trust them. I’ve been Prime Minister for seven years, I’ve won elections, I’ve introduced reforms. Together we’ve achieved the most important things – we’ve introduced the euro without shocks, we’ve transformed it into an economic advantage, we’ve achieved economic results which are the envy of other countries and that’s thanks to the whole parliamentary group, which has been backing me, advising me, and sometimes criticising me.
Yes, that’s part of reality.
Do you believe the parliamentary group will keep backing you as leader come the next election?
I’m sure they will. I think the parliamentary group is made up of people who understand Malta’s long- term interests.
Watch excerpts of the interview on www.timesofmalta.com.
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