Former Labour minister Godfrey Farrugia speaks to Ivan Camilleri about his direct experience of power and why the Democratic Party has an important role to play in building a stronger Opposition.
You have been in politics for a very long time. Decades ago you were the first independent mayor of Żebbuġ. What recollections do you have of that time and what pushed you into politics?
I was an independent mayor and always believed that civic sense should come before polarisation of politics. I always believed and worked with the rest of the councillors and believed that a local council is a local government. Our priority at that time was to sow the seeds for a cultural regeneration based on voluntary work.
During my two terms as mayor of Żebbuġ we made significant changes. We embellished the village core, restored Wied Qirda and organised the village. I always wanted to be accountable for taxpayers’ money and we didn’t leave a single euro – Maltese lira at the time – of debt.
Like you, I’ve been around for quite some time, although in journalism. I remember Prime Minster Eddie Fenech Adami trying to convince you to become a PN MP, eventually a possible member of his Cabinet. Why did you refuse?
I never refused the offer. Dr Fenech Adami wanted me to be part of his team but the prevailing circumstances in the Żebbuġ district at the time, and other forces within the same party, made it difficult for me to contest.
So you didn’t actually say no?
No. I never refused. But there were other forces in the district who made sure that I did not contest. You can assume why. At the time I was very popular and some thought I was too big of a risk.
I fully understand... So tell me, after this political lull what made you move towards Labour and Joseph Muscat?
To tell you the truth I don’t think that I moved towards Joseph Muscat but he moved towards me.
At the time, he had changed his party’s position towards the EU, preached about good governance, transparency and accountability and honest politics. These are all the things I always believed in. The movement idea of making one nation was always my mantra. It was my language.
Dr Muscat had been pressuring me to be on his ticket for a long time. It was only at the end that I said yes when I was sure about this important step. I thought that 2013 was the best moment for our country to really make a fresh start.
Today, looking back even as one of his first Cabinet ministers, how do you look at Joseph Muscat?
The answer is simple and obvious for everyone. He is not the same person. Joseph Muscat is not what he portrayed himself to be.
In what sense?
He always had certain abilities like he was always surgical, decisive and charismatic in the way he spoke. Those abilities are still there. But what he promised before 2013 and what happened after made Muscat a different person and his credibility suffered with many people.
Joseph Muscat is not what he portrayed himself to be
You had an important portfolio in Dr Muscat’s Cabinet, the health ministry. Did you feel from the start that there was something wrong within the new government?
I was very happy at the time when I was appointed minster, as I saw this challenge as an opportunity to turn my vision for Maltese patients into reality. I worked very hard and dedicated all my time to that cause.
But yes, there were instances after just a few months when I started getting doubts on what was going on. A certain level of interference on what I was working on had already started from persons who did not have the right to do so.
Now, I am my own man and I’ve never let anyone interfere. However, a movement had begun to try to make me do things they wanted done.
You were removed as health minister after only a year. No one ever expected that after 25 years in Opposition, Labour would revolutionise the health sector in 12 months. Was it Joseph Muscat’s idea to move you out of the way or someone else’s – who deemed that without you his ideas would be easier to implement?
When I realised that my objectives in health were not being reached and there were elements which wanted me out of their way, I refused to take any other ministry despite Muscat offering me social services or the environment portfolio.
After a year in government, I was already seeing a metamorphosis of a Labour government which from an open one had transformed into a closed cult. That was something I didn’t want. What I was living through was something that was different from what Labour had spoken about just 12 months earlier.
So are you telling me that Labour started getting it wrong after only a year?
Yes, if not before.
During your year in the Cabinet, did you ever think that your days as health minister were numbered?
Yes. I had been given the understanding that this was going to happen and the person responsible for my eventual removal was Keith Schembri because he had different ideas on how the health sector should be developed.
Did Mr Schembri’s ideas include the now defunct Vitals deal and privatisation of health?
As a Maltese citizen and a medical practitioner I was never going to accept the private-public mix in the health sector, let alone as a minister. At the time I was not aware of any proposal such as the Vitals one.
So it was convenient for Dr Muscat to take health away from you and give you another portfolio…
And I didn’t accept, as I am a man of principle.
But was it humiliating?
It would have been humiliating had I accepted to do what they wanted me to do and take another portfolio. My decision made me a better person even when it comes to my public role.
Despite this setback, you stayed loyal to the party and even accepted to become the Whip. Why was this?
I was voted in by my colleagues to be their Whip in January 2015. At the time I thought that my position as a Whip could be an important tool so that the country and the party would not end up in the position it is in today.
I wanted to act as a kind of ‘handbrake’ on certain extravagances. Even in this case, I made personal sacrifices and took this as a full-time job while staying away from my profession. I was still attending Cabinet as the Whip and could also influence the way certain members of the party could at least be controlled.
Did you reach your objectives?
In some instances yes, in others no.
A case in point where the handbrake should have gone up in full force was the Panama Papers scandal. In May 2016, Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri were outed. The beginning of the political (not popular) collapse of Joseph Muscat. What happened internally?
From my end I did whatever I could possibly do and left no stone unturned.
Publicly, I said that they should resign. Even Evarist Bartolo and Alfred Sant said it publicly. Internally there were many saying the same thing.
What happened then was that, despite the situation and our stance, the correct thing did not happen. Not only, but Muscat even imposed the Whip on our position. There were many who had concerns on what was discovered.
In the case of Konrad Mizzi, the Prime Minster tried to do something, even though he still kept him on as a minister. But, in Mr Schembri’s case, despite all the conflicts of interests as a businessman, his fingers in many pies and now the secret Panama accounts, Muscat continued to defend him and no action was ever taken. Why?
Let me just make some observations.
Before the Prime Minister announced the elections in 2017, Keith (Schembri) had already made all his political moves, making it obvious that the election was around the corner.
During the campaign, the Prime Minister gave the impression that he was going to get rid of Keith and others like him once re-elected. Nothing of the sort happened.
We all know that the Prime Minister was always keen on trying to get some sort of prestigious role abroad not only for himself but also for the country. He even sacrificed that credibility to keep on Keith Schembri.
Why? To me that has been really confusing.
So are you saying that Mr Schembri has an absolute influence on Dr Muscat?
From my observations, which I already mentioned, I am sure that Keith has a very big influence on Muscat.
Just before the last elections you made a move and decided to join Forza Nazzjonali – an alliance between the PN and the PD – and contest the elections. Was this a strategic move on your part or something which you felt necessary at the time?
When I resigned from Labour, the Democratic Party was already in agreement with the Nationalist Party over Forza Nazzjonali.
An election is always a battle. I could have easily stayed out and remained an observer. I believe that the PN with the PD could be an alternative for the country to return to the principles I believed in.
A win is important but a real victory is when one sticks by one’s principles. We are still seeking this victory and the Maltese deserve this.
The Prime Minister gave the impression that he was going to get rid of Keith Schembri and others like him once re-elected. Nothing of the sort happened
Were you surprised by the margin of Labour victory? What made it happen?
The way Labour acted during the electoral campaign, in the period when it was supposed to act as a caretaker, was outrageous. All government ministries and departments become part of the campaign and it was a free-for-all where it came to dishing out favours. Cohorts of people were targeted.
There was another factor. Despite the fact that then PN leader Simon Busuttil was working hard and collaborated immensely with the PD, there were some inside the PN itself who were working against him.
So these two elements made a win for the Forza Nazzjonali very difficult.
You still managed to win two parliamentary seats. What’s your relationship today as part of the Opposition together with Adrian Delia’s PN?
The situation inside the PN today is already not that good. You can just imagine the relationship between Adrian Delia and two members of the Opposition who are not in his party.
The PN Opposition today is too weak. The PD, with all its limitations, is the only credible Opposition.
There are many difficulties particularly as our message doesn’t have the same reach as that of the other parties. We are still in a country based on a two-party system so we are working against the currents.
But is it only the message? You look too much like the party of Godfrey and Marlene.
That is also true, as the PD is personified by us. But that is not the real picture and we have many more members.
We want to become a party representing all those people who wish that this country moves forward on principles of transparency, accountability and good governance.
I think that by now everyone knows that we are not after power. We would have been much better off if we had stayed where we were in Labour.
Recently the PD’s leader resigned in order to concentrate on the MEP elections. Who is taking over?
Every party evolves and we have made very rapid progress in the past months. It is in Malta’s and the PD’s interest to contest the MEP elections and we have just announced the first candidate. Obviously, there is now a vacancy for a new leader.
Will you be taking over?
I will contest the role as I will be submitting my nomination. Obviously, there is a process and I need to be elected.
I think that together with other PD members we will continue laying the ground to make this Opposition party bigger to reflect the views of those many Maltese who want this country to be governed properly.
I want Malta to excel in many areas and not to be a mediocre island.
Let’s be frank. The country is progressing but there is absolutely no sense of direction. This is not the way forward as there will be consequences. We are after progress with a direction.