Prime Ministerial candidates Lawrence Gonzi, Joseph Muscat and Michael Briguglio went head-to-head at the Intercontinental Malta this evening, in a debate organised by The Times.

Prime Minister and PN leader Lawrence Gonzi said he would not step down immediately if the PN lost the election but said the people had made the right decision in voting for divorce.

PL leader Joseph Muscat said he was in favour of qualified migrant pushbacks to Libya and against a referendum on spring hunting. He revealed that he has handed the police commissioner information about a minister who pressured the police to release a suspect.

Both leaders said they would be willing to govern in an eventual coalition with Alternattiva Demokratika, whose chairman Michael Briguglio argued that second pillar pensions were necessary. Dr Briguglio also called for voters to give AD a shot at airing – and forcing parliament to vote on – its proposals in parliament.

Who do you think fared the best in the debate? Vote in The Times’ poll at let us know. 

Some key points from the debate:

  • Gonzi indicates he won’t resign immediately if PN loses the election;
  • Muscat favours migrant pushbacks to a “stable Libya”, opposes spring hunting referendum;
  • Both parties willing to form coalition with AD;
  • Briguglio argues second-pillar pensions “a necessity”;
  • Arriva “still hasn’t reached standard we expect”, Gonzi admits .

Live coverage:

The event has now ended, here is a transcript of the live coverage.
  1. 20:34 pmBertrand Borg

    The Intercontinenal Malta's Cettina Decesare hall is gradually filling up, cameramen have their headphones on and the press pack have started whipping out ipads. But there are still some minutes to go before tonight's big debate gets underway.

  2. 20:40 pm

    Party dignitaries are sifting in, and we've been told the three leaders are backstage getting ready.

    The debate's first half will see Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi, Labour leader Joseph Muscat and Alternattiva chairman Michael Briguglio battle it out. The PN and PL leaders will then face off directly in the debate's second part.

    The Times' head of media, Herman Grech, is moderating tonight. He's just reminded the audience that BA rules mean no boos or cheers. Let's keep it civilised, folks.

  3. 20:44 pm

    The three leaders have taken their place on their respective podiums. All three looked fairly excited backstage. Dr Briguglio was sipping a cup of chamomile tea while Dr Gonzi chewed on some mints. Dr Muscat's calming technique is some deep breaths.

  4. 20:48 pmBertrand Borg

    The debate opens with a brief clip of key moments from the campaign so far - there's Konrad Mizzi and Tonio Fenech arguing energy prices, party flags at mass meetings, Anglu Fenech talking of "political murder" and Austin Gatt claiming a frame-up, among others.

  5. 20:50 pmBertrand Borg

    Why vote Labour? For a clean break with the past, Muscat says. For a new style of politics, for investment in teachers and not just schools, to end waiting lists once and for all.

  6. 20:51 pmBertrand Borg

    Briguglio on now: we're not a gimmicky party, we've already influenced Malta from the outside - let alone if we got a seat. The AD leader is pitching his party as the "bridge" between the PL-PN axis. "We're the voice of reason"

  7. 20:52 pmBertrand Borg

    What about the PN? To increase manufacturing, financial services, aviation, education, and lifelong training, Gonzi says.

  8. 20:55 pmBertrand Borg

    Dr Briguglio is making a clear distinction between himself and the other two leaders here. “We don’t think parties should be acting like Father Christmas”. AD's the only truly constructive party, he adds.

  9. 20:57 pmBertrand Borg

    Herman Grech's calling Dr Muscat up on the PL's financial numbers. But he's slipping away, and meandering into a criticism of the PN's own figures.

  10. 20:58 pmBertrand Borg

    Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando and Kevin Drake are sitting alongside each other, our floor reporter Kristina Chetcuti tells me. The De Cesare's are in front row seats.

  11. 21:00 pmBertrand Borg

    Dr Gonzi playing the 'old hand' card: "I'm the only one of us three who can speak facts in hand," he says.

    Edward Mifsud has just noted on Twitter that it's been a very civilised debate so far. Very true, the setting probably helps.

  12. 21:03 pmBertrand Borg

    Remember - any questions or comments, send us a post or get onto twitter - #malta2013

  13. 21:05 pmBertrand Borg

    Dr Briguglio is calling the other parties up on their civil rights records - from gay marriage to drug decriminalisation.

    The Times' Mark Micallef wonders how an AD seat would affect parliament: "If we're in parliament, the other parties will have to listen to our proposals and queries - whether they like it or not"

  14. 21:07 pmBertrand Borg

    Dr Muscat insists the PL is sticking to its power station time frame, despite the party's electoral manifesto not being all that clear on the matter

  15. 21:11 pmBertrand Borg

    Why bother waiting all this time for EU funds before switching to gas, when "all" we've now been promised is 60 million, Mark Micallef asks - "Because we needed an interconnector first. The PL's plan is madness," the Prime Minister argues. He's also noting that while a gas pipeline will qualify for EU funds, the PL gas power station, won't.

    Daniel Buhagiar notes Dr Briguglio said the parties would vote, not listen, to their proposals if they were in power. he's right - my bad, hit enter a bit too quickly there.

  16. 21:12 pmBertrand Borg

    Dr Briguglio is clear here: we need second pillar pensions. Good to see a politician speak honestly about pensions - we keep being told we're facing a pensions breakdown, but neither big party seems willing to take bold (read: costly) decisions

  17. 21:16 pmBertrand Borg

    Dr Muscat is saying second pillar pensions - mandatory private pensions, for those not au currant with the lingo - would be too much of a burden on employers.

    Dr Gonzi refutes the suggestion that the PN has done nothing for pensions - the pensions reform sticks clearly in mind here.

  18. 21:20 pmBertrand Borg

    "Write history and get us into parliament, so we can have the democracy we deserve" . Dr Briguglio hits an aspirational note there.

    Dr Muscat says the PL will be "humane" with migrants but "forceful" in international fora on migration matters. Think that's the most the PL has said about migrant minorities all campaign...

    Dr Gonzi's asked if Arriva was the government's biggest failure - "It still hasn't reached the standards we expect," he admits.

  19. 21:22 pmBertrand Borg

    Halfway through guys. The audience gets a breather, and so do we.

    Or so I thought - just turned around and noticed three uniformed police officers standing behind me. At least we're safe.

  20. 21:24 pmBertrand Borg

    Byron Abela wants to know who of the leaders was sweating the most. A bit hard to tell, and not the fairest of tests, given the huge spotlights shining on all three of them.

  21. 21:26 pmBertrand Borg

    Just a reminder: the second half will see messrs Gonzi and Muscat head-to-head, and besides standard debate questions they'll also be answering a series of snap yes/no questions.

  22. 21:30 pmBertrand Borg

    Gonzi and Muscat sharing a quiet chat away from the microphones now. Kristina Chetcuti noticed earlier how all three party leaders are uncannily similar in height. What DO they put in the partisan water?

  23. 21:33 pmBertrand Borg

    The second half of the debate starts with clips of Gonzi and Muscat in 'A day in the life of...' style. The Times' head of news Ariadne Massa had spent an entire day with each of the party leaders.

  24. 21:35 pmBertrand Borg

    Dr Gonzi is saying the campaign hasn't degenerated into mud-slinging - "If there are things that bear saying, we must say them," he says. "Sweeping things under the carpet doesn't help".

    We're on to Toni Abela here - "Not reporting it is unacceptable to me," he says.

    The Prime Minister is getting slightly hoarse. Those mints would come in handy now...

  25. 21:37 pmBertrand Borg

    Dr Muscat's turn now. He's saying the line between criticism and character assassination has been crossed several times now.

  26. 21:37 pmBertrand Borg

    News here - Muscat has passed information related to his allegation that a minister pushed for a person to be released from police lock-up to the police commissioner.

  27. 21:41 pmBertrand Borg

    Mark Micallef is pushing Muscat on his "I made a mistake" admission and contrasting it to Muscat's regular calls for ministers to shoulder political responsibility. But the PL leader is insisting there's no relation between the two cases.

    And what of Anglu Farrugia? "I look forward to working with him." He didn't seem all that happy when he appeared on TV lately...."that's your interpretation"

  28. 21:45 pmBertrand Borg

    And now, black gold.
    Dr Gonzi:

    "Rogue oil trader George Farrugia has a presidential pardon - if he tried to influence a minister, he can tell the police everything he knows" he said. "But Mr Fenech has been categorical in his denials. If there was even half a whiff of corruption on any of my ministers, I would immediately remove them," he says.

  29. 21:48 pmBertrand Borg

    Chris Peregin here, telling the PL their Courage to Vote video has been ridiculed as much as the PN's face-paint billboard.

    "We expected the lampoons, it's part of the fun" - Gonzi
    "The video was aimed at generating debate" - Muscat

    Both leaders denying the satirical egg on their face

  30. 21:51 pmBertrand Borg

    What about the €250,000 loan the PN has received from construction magnate Zaren Vassallo? "It's just a loan!" Dr Gonzi retorts.

    Chris is calling Muscat on immigration and hunting. The PL leader exits stage left the moment migrants are mentioned and turns to hunting - "illegal hunting must be fought and will remain illegal"

  31. 21:54 pmBertrand Borg

    Yes or No time! Many of these questions were sent in by you, our readers.

  32. 21:55 pmBertrand Borg

    Straight 'no' for any health fees or increases in VAT.
    But both say "yes" when asked if they'd be up for an AD coalition

  33. 21:57 pmBertrand Borg

    Was it the right decision to introduce divorce? Yes, Dr Gonzi says. What about closing the dock yard? Dr Muscat says no, Dr Gonzi? "Yes, yes, yes, yes"

  34. 21:58 pmBertrand Borg

    Armier? "Can't say yes cos there will be compensation issues," the PM says.
    "We'll reach an agreement". Cryptic from Muscat

  35. 21:59 pmBertrand Borg

    Muscat agrees with removing criminal libel - "I'm looking at my secretary-general here", Dr Gonzi says. Dr Borg OIivier has just been sued for criminal libel by the PL.

    "He can send us emails from prison" - that was an amusing, if someone mean, retort from Muscat

  36. 22:00 pmBertrand Borg

    Both are "absolutely against" euthanasia, both agree that a gay couple can raise a child

  37. 22:02 pmBertrand Borg

    Will you resign if you lose the election?

    "I won't hang on to power", Muscat says.
    "No", Gonzi says.

    The Prime Minister's reply prompted a collective gasp from the audience members. Or perhaps it was just the journalists around me.

  38. 22:03 pmBertrand Borg

    Biggest mistake of this campaign?

    Muscat - "we fell into the trap of tit-for-tat sometimes"
    Gonzi - "I could say the same"

  39. 22:04 pmBertrand Borg

    Slight correction for that resignation question: it was "Will you resign IMMEDIATELY if you lose the election"

  40. 22:08 pmBertrand Borg

    We'll have a full list of those yes and no questions and answers up later on. But it's a bit hard to keep up with my fat fingers. (watch video)

  41. 22:10 pmBertrand Borg

    A quick look at twitter indicates those short and sweet answers were popular with viewers. Perhaps we should just get political leaders to fill in questionnaires and get it over and done with.

  42. 22:12 pmBertrand Borg

    Muscat said he was against a hunting referendum on whether or not to abolish spring hunting - "There are laws, we will adhere to them..if I wanted to be populist I'd have answered differently"

  43. 22:15 pmBertrand Borg

    What about the polls, which all indicate a PL win? "We have our results to show for our efforts", Gonzi says.
    Muscat - "It's not over till the fat lady sings". A bit of poetic license in my translation there.

  44. 22:16 pmBertrand Borg

    And that's it, the curtain falls on this debate organised by The Times together with Intercontinental Malta. Thanks for contributing, we'll be posting a brief debate summary shortly.



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