Less than three months before he faces his first electoral test, Keith Micallef interviews Nationalist Party leader Adrian Delia about his recent past, his poor poll numbers and his party’s policies.

At the turn of the year there were calls for your resignation but somehow you managed to weather the storm within the party. However, you did not ask for a secret vote of the PN’s parliamentary group, which was only summoned when the dust had settled. Why?

Storms happen all the time in politics. I never considered holding such a vote as I never had the feeling that circumstances dictated it. Had there been a moment in my political life when I felt I had failed in my duties to the extent of seeking a confidence vote, I would have called it.

Are you saying that reports in the media that a significant number of MPs lost confidence in you are fake news?

It is not my duty to judge what is being written. My job is to ensure I have a good relationship with the people around me whereby they would be comfortable to criticise. My role is to clarify any issues which they might raise.

How did you feel in the executive committee and administrative council, when you were questioned on allegations regarding domestic violence, money laundering and personal finances?

I felt very comfortable. The only difference is that the atmosphere in the council was more intimate as it is a smaller body than the executive committee. In the latter case, I was overwhelmed by the level of support. Maybe this was due to the fact that by the time the executive committee met, members had a better understanding of the issues at stake

Could it be a case of the administrative council, which met first, influencing the outcome of the executive committee? I could not have imagined a scenario of one organ contradicting the other, so the battle was effectively won within the administrative council.

Not necessarily. The executive is composed of a much higher number of members to the order of eight to one. My reading of the situation is that people had enough time to understand the replies I had given on the various allegations made and that there was nothing untoward.

However, outside the party circles these allegations are still overshadowing you. Some traditional PN voters believe you have made the party unelectable and they are unwilling to vote for a party led by somebody whose integrity they question. How are you planning to gain their support?

As you said, this is just a shadow. There is nothing else. Who is casting that shadow? Whenever I have been asked about anything, I was able to give a reply about everything, be it in the media or other fora. Factually, I can do nothing else. Facts are facts, fiction is fiction and lies are lies. However, it has been quite some time since I was questioned on certain issues which go back a long way. I meet thousands of people but these lies and rumours are not raised.

Are you saying that the FIAU report in which you were mentioned in money laundering activities and a Soho-based prostitution racket is a fabrication?

The money laundering allegation is a downright lie based on manipulated and incorrect information. I know nothing about the FIAU report, and if it is true that the police have been aware since March last year of certain allegations, the fact that they never spoke to me certifies their incompetence.

We are simply building more buildings rather than constructing our future

I was never personally involved nor gave any advice in anything related to money laundering. There was one allegation on which I gave an explanation countless times based on hard evidence, including to the Times of Malta. If there is somebody who does not want to believe documented facts, there is little more that I can do.

As for your personal finances, this newspaper last month enquired if you still had any pending tax bills, but you did not reply. The story was based on an e-mail addressed to you that was sent in January 2018, which outlined the agreement reached on a pending tax bill totalling €81,751 for the period 2007-2013 and another one of €64,086 for the period 2014-2017. While you had said that the first had been settled, you had refused to answer on the second, saying you needed to see the documentation first. Are you now in a position to confirm that this bill has been settled?

You are asking me a question on a document which I have never seen.

[Dr Delia is shown a copy of this e-mail]

I have no recollection whatsoever of this e-mail. Had I been prepared beforehand I would have brought my records and replied on the spot.

How can you be unable to recollect if a €64,000 tax bill is still pending or not? This is a lot of money.

I can assure you I have no such pending bill. I have documented evidence about this.

Can you produce it to lay everybody’s mind to rest on the matter?

Had I known about the question beforehand I would have. I never went to the Inland Revenue Department, as the accountant used to handle such matters for me. If you are interested in my personal finances, I am available to set up a meeting with my accountant and give you a detailed month by month breakdown. I have no pending bills.

Read: Income tax saga comes back to haunt Adrian Delia

Why did not you say so in the first place and produced the evidence at a later stage?

Your document is no evidence at all!

[Dr Delia interrupts the interview and goes to his desk to look for a document. Meanwhile, PN media chief Pierre Portelli, who was present throughout the interview, interjects remarks including that the Times of Malta has an agenda against Dr Delia. The interview resumes a while later following a colourful exchange, with the tax issue left pending.]

With the EP and council elections just three months away, the gap between the PN and PL is not getting any narrower according to the latest Malta Today survey. Is not this a very worrying sign for you?

My concern is not this but whether we have enough time to persuade enough people that the country is not heading in the right direction. I have been at the helm for 18 months and my initial task was to restructure the party and face a number of internal challenges. It is not good for the country to adopt a policy whereby the only drive behind economic growth is a rise in population, as this is not sustainable for an EU Member State with the highest population density. 

'We are not attracting new banks or serious financial institutions'. Photo: Mark Zammit Cordina'We are not attracting new banks or serious financial institutions'. Photo: Mark Zammit Cordina

The government is importing thousands of foreign construction workers in response to the needs of unplanned development. We are simply building more buildings rather than constructing our future. The government is measuring success solely in terms of economic growth but this is not reflecting people’s spending power. The construction industry is doing well, but in the last six months there have been cash flow problems.

Nonetheless, the party in government is going from strength to strength. Does not this contradict what you are saying?

When an economy is overheating, the consequences will only emerge at a later stage. It is like giving children unlimited access to candy. They will enjoy it at first but when it starts harming them they will regret it.

Are you saying there is an economic bubble which will soon burst?

I am not saying it is a bubble as my job as a politician is not to scaremonger. My point is that such a model is not sustainable as there are physical constraints. No effort is being made to attract value-added economic sectors.

One of the government’s biggest projects was to attract blockchain and cryptocurrency investors, which rely heavily on the banking sector. Nonetheless, the government first ruined Malta’s reputation, then the Finance Minister ignored the warnings sounded by the European Banking Authority, did nothing to strengthen the safeguards of this sector, and eventually the Prime Minister appealed to the banks not to be so stringent. Subsequently, a global bank [HSBC] warned that their profits had fallen by 23 per cent due to Malta’s reputational damage.

We are not attracting new banks nor serious financial services institutions while the banks are being encouraged to break the law.

Can you elaborate on this? 

Joseph Muscat has lamented that banks are being too stringent when it comes to loans. He urged them to be more lax. Procedures such as due diligence and know-your-client have to be followed. Certain parameters need to be adhered to, like having a healthy distribution of loans across various economic sectors, so as not to have all eggs in one basket, in this case the construction industry.

The government is creating problems and shifting the blame on others. It has no solutions on pensions and tries to justify its decision to bring in thousands of foreign workers, saying these are necessary to guarantee pensions. And he blames the people for living longer when the increase in life expectancy should be a reason to celebrate as it is the result of a better quality of life.

Are you saying that the PN is still trailing heavily in the polls because the negative repercussions of certain government policies are not yet being felt?

This is one of the reasons. The second is that Labour has only been in government for five years.

But the norm is that the decline of a party in government starts in the second legislature, where we are right now.

The feedback I am receiving is that people are starting to feel the pinch of corruption and have less money in their pockets. Meanwhile, the government is unashamedly using its power of incumbency to convey its message. At the Office of the Prime Minister alone there are 27 people with this duty. I believe that people are realizing what is going on, especially pensioners, families depending on one breadwinner and young people seeking to buy their first home.

Yet, this is not reflected in the polls

Thing will start to change after some time. I feel that there are already signs that this is happening but it might not necessarily have an immediate impact on opinion polls. The largest survey is that done with the electorate.

Let us not forget that the Opposition suffered two landslide defeats and this affects its ability to persuade voters. I feel that not enough efforts to renew the party were made between 2013 and 2017, and I am trying to address this matter.

However, it takes time before a party can project itself as reformed and regenerated. We have started outlining proposals in sectors like the fight against cancer, agriculture, pre-budget documents and the work-life balance directive by the MEPs.

Let us not forget that our resources are limited, unlike the government that can also rely on PBS, which at times reports issues in a certain manner. Recently PBS changed Malta’s ranking in the corruption index issued by Transparency International.

What are the party’s expectations in the local council elections? Where is the PN expecting to make gains?

My personal wish is to win back Birkirkara. Among the localities I visited, Iklin, which has been led by the PN for 23 years, stands out, as the council has developed a healthy relationship with the entire community. This is completely different from Rabat which is led by Labour.

This is only part of the picture. The PN had problems of its own in St Paul’s Bay. So the PN is no guarantee either.

Fair point. The party is giving a lot of importance to local councils like Siġġiewi which is taking initiatives such as a night shelter for the elderly, a children’s council and roadworks in rural areas. It has also developed a bond with residents. This is exactly what we want. On the other hand Labour has stripped councils of important responsibilities like roads, domestic waste collection and encroachment permits, and has starved them of funds.

The latest example is the setting up of the Gozo Regional Authority which lacks executive powers and is completely dominated by the ministry.

In the case of St Paul’s Bay, the PN lost its majority as a result of the defection of two councillors and consequently the party ended up in a weak position. Our target will be to have a new but more united majority in this locality.

The bottom line is that local council elections are a gauge for any party seeking to make inroads. What is the party targeting?

We are trying to attract new blood, targeting certain localities where the PN had lost its majority, seeking new ones and at least gaining a seat.

People are starting to feel the pinch of corruption and have less money in their pockets

Do you subscribe to the view that in the event of a resounding defeat, you should resign in the best interests of the party so as to stand a chance in the next general election?

I did not venture into politics on a two-year project. That would have been arrogant and imprudent. This was no experiment. I believe the PN needs to renew itself. I need to measure myself in the 2022 general election. The forthcoming elections are a test and we need to do our best to overcome the first hurdle. My considerations when the result is out is to rectify and understand what went wrong and improve on our successes.

Would you not seriously think about resigning if, deep down, you consider yourself a liability to the party?

If such extraordinary circumstances were to arise, I would resign as I would not only be harming the party but the country. It does not have to be an election. However, so far I have felt the complete opposite, as I have been given huge support at every step. Whenever I did not have backing, I managed to persuade the doubters and move forward. Certainly, I have not reached out to everybody yet.

The leadership has no perks but sacrifices, work and responsibilities. My sole satisfaction is to give something back to party and country.

[At this point Dr Delia’s secretary hands him a document in the form of a certificate from the Inland Revenue, dated May 14, 2018, which said that he had no pending bills with the department. The interview shifts back to the tax issue. He insists that he had already shown this document to this newspaper but not to the interviewer.]

What is the reason that this €64,000 bill was never mentioned, not even in the personal audit you had published on the eve of the leadership election in 2017?

I cannot say as I have never seen the document you produced. €64,000 does not exist in my mind. But if there had been any other pending amount, it has been settled. The only exception is the period of 2017 in which I transitioned from private practice until I became Opposition leader, but I have already put aside money to settle that as well.

Do you take any salary from the party as leader?

No. I had announced this from the very beginning, and never received any remuneration from the party. However, I had also said that there would be nothing wrong for the leader to be paid, but only after the party’s finances have been sorted out. My message was simple. I will be the last one to get it. Today I am the only one who is not paid by the party.

You have been very vocal on the issue of foreign workers. Can you outline the PN’s policy in this regard? Will the party limit the number of third country nationals entering Malta?

We will end up in a situation where 60,000 additional workers are be engaged by the private sector. What impact will this have on employment conditions? Many foreign workers are living in containers, getting a meagre pay, and spending nothing. We are using foreigners to build for foreigners. The country is not receiving any new tax revenue but just the social security contribution, as they are on the minimum wage.

Can the Prime Minister tell us how many foreigners are needed to sustain every pension? What is the ratio? How many Turks at minimum wage are required for every 1,000 pensioners? How much does the country need to spend in order to upgrade its infrastructure to cater for this influx? Does it make sense financially? 

Joseph Muscat has said he is leaving, and he is leaving a mess. He only planned for a few years, for 10 years. When the economy overheats the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer.

What are the PN’s plans in this regard?

Change cannot materialise overnight. There needs to be a gradual plan and this does not mean we do not want foreign workers. The government needs to shift certain economic priorities onto sectors like alternative energy, not fuel stations as it is currently happening.

Has the government ever outlined the number of schools, hospitals or teachers required for the next decade? The PN will focus on the circular economy.  

How do you plan to implement your pledge of guaranteeing accommodation for everybody? It sounds like a pre-election stunt.

The solution is either providing accommodation or lifting people out of poverty. However, there is a category who can never make it on their own except through social measures. We are not on the eve of the election and it is early days. I have three years to beef up my proposal.

Is it a case of pledging now and seeing how to work it out later, or have you already got a clear idea of how to implement this ambitious proposal?

We have to make better use of government land, lift people out of poverty and it does not necessary imply dishing out apartments. We have to adapt to each and every circumstance. 

How will the PN make up for the revenue gap which will result if it halts the sale of passports?

The government is linking the sale of passports to social housing, to cleanse this filthy scheme. There are other ways to attract investment. Moreover, the impact on the real estate sector of the IIP is being blown out of proportion. Bed and breakfast tourists are having a much higher impact. I am against this scheme in principle. We need to plan to attract serious foreign investment, and the PN’s track record in this respect is very good.

Use of a differently-styled emblem in the ongoing general council has fuelled speculation that the PN could ditch its traditional ‘maduma’. Is this the case?

No such plan is in the pipeline. It is just a stylistic design.

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