She has been a solitary critical voice on the government’s backbench but Labour MP Marlene Farrugia tells Kurt Sansone she will not be able to live with herself if she shuts up.
Marlene Farrugia agrees with the choice of the next President but the backbench MP insists the presidency should not become an extension of a ministry.
The Labour MP says Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca befits the role of President but argues policy-making at a national level is a job for the executive.
Her cautionary note refers to Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s decision to expand the remit of the forthcoming presidency that will include responsibility for a number of agencies in the social field.
Dr Farrugia says giving the President more powers would require changes to the Constitution although she can foresee a more active social role.
“The presidency can take on a more social role, like George Abela did in the past five years, but this should not come at the expense of policy-making by the executive. I don’t agree that the presidency should become an extension of a ministry.”
We are at the tail-end of an hour-long interview in the courtyard of her perfectly restored Qrendi house that includes an octagonal-shaped medieval tower.
Known as the Captain’s Tower and marked by an information plaque outside the house, it is a unique specimen in Malta.
The two chairs are situated at one corner of the courtyard where silence is punctured by our conversation, the chirping of birds and the occasional barks of her three adopted stray dogs.
Dr Farrugia has for the past year been a vocal critic of some decisions taken by her own government.
It may be pure coincidence that she also hails from the same district as former Nationalist MP Franco Debono, whose constant criticism of the Lawrence Gonzi administration culminated in him bringing down the government.
But although there are similarities between the two, Dr Farrugia insists she will never vote against the government.
“I was elected on the ticket of the Labour movement and if I feel things turn out to be different from the platform people voted for I will resign and give my seat back to the electors who chose me,” she says, underlining the word movement.
Her emphasis on “movement” is constant throughout the interview: a reminder of the broad coalition Dr Muscat managed to build around the Labour Party.
“The recipe for victory was the creation of something that went beyond the party and included different ideas that were listened to and developed,” she says, justifying her sometimes off-the-track comments that are critical of government’s actions.
I ask her whether she still feels comfortable within the movement and what her relationship with the Prime Minister is.
“I communicate my views regularly and the Prime Minister listens. We don’t agree on everything but the relationship is good. I do not feel marginalised,” she says.
But she assures me that hers is not the only critical voice. Within the parliamentary group there are others who sometimes criticise government’s actions but refrain from going public with their views.
“It is not an easy life to be openly critical but I won’t be able to live with myself if there is something I disagree with or feel could be done better and simply keep it inside.”
We were elected to do things differently and someone somewhere has to start changing things
Dr Farrugia has over the past year criticised the government’s handling of the cash-for-citizenship scheme, voiced concern at the way former broadcaster Norman Vella – now a Nationalist MEP candidate – was treated when his secondment with TVM was withdrawn and more recently expressed concern over the proposed floating gas storage unit in Marsaxlokk.
With the planning authority tomorrow expected to decide on the permit for the gas power station and the gas-handling infrastructure, Dr Farrugia admits being uncomfortable with a large liquefied natural gas storage ship inside Marsaxlokk.
However, her argument is a balancing act. The government has an electoral mandate to implement the project, including respecting the pledged timeframes, she argues, but it is experts who should inform the decision of where the ship should be berthed.
“If safety and security can be ascertained by the experts and Mepa, the timeframe has to be respected, notwithstanding the atrociously negative visual impact,” she says.
But if safety and security are still in doubt when all expert advice is taken into consideration, Dr Farrugia insists safety should come before timeframes.
She points out that people voted to have cheaper bills within the set timeframes, cleaner air and a shift to natural gas. This coupled with the drive to save Enemalta from financial ruin has left the government with little choice but to opt for a temporary solution until the gas pipeline becomes available, she adds.
“The Prime Minister has put my mind at rest that the best choice for now is the one being proposed. It does not mean that I am happy with a tanker inside Marsaxlokk and I hope every effort is done to file an application for EU funds to finance the pipeline.”
But are eight or nine years, the time estimated to get a gas pipeline, temporary?
She swings her head from side to side and insists that ideally the period is much shorter.
The argument shifts to meritocracy and the numerous questionable appointments to the boards of public agencies of people close to the Labour Party.
With all the people who appeared on the party’s election billboards having been awarded directorships, posts or jobs, Dr Muscat has been criticised for dumping the electoral slogan Malta for All.
Dr Farrugia smiles and reiterates her hope the government will, over its full term, fulfil the electoral pledge to fill such posts in a transparent way after a call for applications and with people having a chance to choose.
“The billboard appointees are in your face, which does not mean they are incompetent, but it is a misfortune that people ended up reasoning that they should appear on a billboard to get a job,” she says.
Dr Farrugia agrees that after a change in power every government would want to quickly fill key positions with people it can trust and work with.
But there are ways and means of going about change, she adds, citing the way all permanent secretaries were abruptly asked to resign soon after the election.
“It is not a good excuse to say these things happened in the past because we were elected to do things differently and someone somewhere has to start changing things,” she says. Dr Farrugia may harbour some disappointment but she is confident that things can improve. This is “a young” government and there is still time to do things better, she adds.
As she sips lemon tea, Dr Farrugia smiles again when I point out that it must be awkward for her to criticise certain decisions taken by a Cabinet that includes her partner, Health Minister Godfrey Farrugia.
She insists that an important ingredient of her relationship with Godfrey was the understanding that they both maintained their “singularity”.
“I never ask what is discussed in Cabinet and I know Godfrey will not tell me. I am conscious of the collective responsibility he shoulders as a Cabinet member and he equally recognises my duties as a backbench MP. He has never questioned my behaviour.”
Dr Farrugia acknowledges this may be difficult to understand by people who are used to seeing partners as an appendix of each other rather than as individuals.
However, in a recent Facebook post the personal did get in the way when she urged the Prime Minister to go ahead with the reshuffle rather than wait for weeks until this is done.
Her partner has been touted by the media as one of the possible Cabinet members who could lose his current portfolio.
“I have firsthand experience of what it means to be a minister under attack for a whole year like Godfrey was but who still ploughed ahead and the current situation where the minister’s authority is undermined because of an impending reshuffle.”
But it is not just her partner’s tribulations that prompted her to vent frustration with the situation. She assures me other ministers in Parliament have also expressed concern.
“It is only human nature that momentum drops, especially among those who are around ministers when the uncertainty of a reshuffle kicks in,” she says, adding her main gripe was with the length of time between the Prime Minister’s confirmation that a reshuffle will take place and when it will actually happen.
Will Dr Farrugia accept a Cabinet post if offered one by the Prime Minister?
“I cannot be in Cabinet,” is her prompt reply. She says that when Dr Muscat formed his Cabinet after the election he had made it a point that only one of them could be a Cabinet member.
“If my appointment to Cabinet is conditional on Godfrey being removed or is seen as a replacement of him, I will not accept,” she says.
But if Dr Muscat changes his mind and sees no problem in having both of them in Cabinet?
This is the first time Dr Farrugia takes a longish pause. Lifting up her eyes towards the Captain’s Tower, it feels like she is weighing her reply carefully.
“I will consider if it became absolutely necessary and both of us are in Cabinet but my preference is to remain a backbencher for the rest of the legislature,” she says.
Dr Farrugia argues that with a nine-seat majority and a weak Opposition, she prefers to have the freedom to constructively criticise the government as necessary. “I prefer it this way rather than being silenced by what I understand to be collective ministerial responsibility.”
If I feel things turn out to be different from the platform people voted for I will resign
Life on the backbench may not be so mundane with the government’s decision to change the law and allow MPs to be appointed to the boards of certain public agencies.
It is another of those issues Dr Farrugia has question marks on. She says the authorities and public agencies are part of the executive arm and MPs are expected to scrutinise the work of the executive.
“I feel such an appointment removes your strength as a backbencher because it becomes difficult to criticise certain decisions when you are part of the executive,” she says.
Is this the way that Dr Muscat ‘buys’ dissent?
“Only the Prime Minister can answer that question,” she says, adding her criticism is aimed at putting forward different ideas and getting the government to think about alternatives.
An issue that is expected to create public debate over the next year or so is the abrogative referendum to ban spring hunting.
A coalition of environmental groups and Alternattiva Demokratika are collecting signatures to force a referendum that will abolish the legal notice that makes spring hunting possible. If enough signatures are collected the referendum will have to take place.
Hailing from the fifth district, a hotbed for hunters, and being the daughter of a trapper, Dr Farrugia gives a complex answer when probed on the subject.
She disagrees with the holding of a referendum to “remove any rights of a minority” but then objects to the killing of birds that are migrating to their nesting grounds.
When I tell her that the objections to spring hunting are precisely linked to the killing of birds that are migrating over Malta to breed in Europe’s warmer climate, she insists there should be ongoing studies to analyse the situation.
“I disapprove of killing any bird that is migrating to breed but rather than a blanket spring ban we should have studies that take into consideration climate change and determine when the proper migration for breeding purposes takes place.”
I again point out that there are numerous studies related to bird migration and she reiterates that killing of birds heading towards their breeding grounds is not on but insists a referendum is not the way this issue should be tackled.
Dr Farrugia argues that it is unfair for all hunters to be blamed for the illegalities done by the few and insists that they should enjoy the same rights as their European counterparts.
“We have to approach this subject with an open mind and be able to talk with hunters, but unfortunately in this country issues are often taken to extremes,” she says.
Her reply may please neither side of the polarised hunting debate but once again Dr Farrugia’s independent streak emerges.
It is her maxim to stand up and be counted: “I always learnt to speak up before something happens rather than afterwards.”
She will continue to be the government’s internal critic when it matters but Dr Farrugia harbours hope that the administration will learn from its mistakes.
Her advice is for every decision to be taken after things are weighed carefully. “The government must not fear consultation and transparent decision-making.”
As the warmth of the afternoon sun ebbs, Dr Farrugia stands up and offers coffee.
In rapid succession she goes over the main arguments again.
This is one MP the Prime Minister will not be able to ignore.
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