Roberta Metsola laid out her political vision for Malta on Saturday, emphasising the need to eradicate short-termism, stamping out corruption and exploitation, while underlining the need for tough choices and for people to speak out.
The European Parliament president was particularly scathing about the state of the environment and the lack of building planning in Malta but stressed the country's opportunities to exploit clean energy.
Metsola was delivering the Mabel Strickland Memorial Lecture at the Casino Maltese in Valletta on Saturday morning titled 'Malta in a changing European landscape'.
In her speech, the leader who is often touted as a potential PN leader, uncharacteristically veered away from continental politics and focused almost exclusively on her vision for Malta.
When asked how she replied to the fact that many were looking to her to return to domestic politics to ensure a democratic balance in Malta, she replied: "I'm here, and I'm here to stay".
"I see there are no differences between members of the national parliament or European Parliament. We are a result of our electoral system. I pride myself and my colleagues because we are directly chosen, and we work every day to be accountable for that vote. It's not about whether we return or not."
Metsola said democratic balance can only be achieved when people speak up and are not scared of forming part of a minority.
During her in-depth speech, Metsola said the EU must work to ensure it fulfils its promises to do better and to safeguard the rule of law and standards.
“The crowds we saw in Valletta this week are proof of that. People who want the standards and accountability that we promised Europe would guarantee,” she said.
Metsola was referring to Thursday's protest, which saw crowds gather outside parliament, as the house deliberated on the PN's motion to condemn the hospitals' deal.
Last month, a court annulled the controversial deal that handed the running of the state hospitals, St Luke's, Karin Grech, and the Gozo General Hospital, to a private operator, labelling it "fraudulent".
“Corruption is the antithesis of what politics should be about. Sadly, it is a crime as old as time, but the true measure of the robustness of our systems is how we respond when it happens,” she said.
“Do we help justice take its course or do we do everything we can to try to cover it up?”
She reflected on the scandal which hit the European Parliament back in December when vice president Eva Kaili was removed from her post after being arrested by Belgian police in connection with the Qatar probe.
She said the scandal had hit like a "punch in the stomach", but there was only one course of action for her to do.
"We knew we had to take immediate steps or risk people losing trust in politics, in Europe, in our institutions," she said.
"We've seen what happens when those in position of power try to sweep it under the carpet."
"Corruption cannot pay. That is the message I want citizens to hear. That's the message I want investors to hear."
Malta should top the environment debate
Despite the poor state of the environment, Metsola said Malta was in a position to actually lead the way in Europe on this issue.
"We should be the poster child of a nation able to harness the potential of green vehicles for example. We should have solar panels on every rooftop. Generating cheap, clean - in every sense of the word - energy, lowering bills, cleaning our air."
"We can do that," she adds.
We are in danger of killing the goose that lays the golden egg for a quick injection of cash
She said Malta cannot harness the full potential of solar power if the island's building policy remains the same. If every building remains in the shadows of bigger building blocks, they can never access the sunlight.
"The way we build, the manner in which arbitrary decisions have been taken, the perceived lack of proper process, mean that we are in danger of killing the goose that lays the golden egg for a quick injection of cash," she said.
"Maltese culture and our heritage should be better reflected in how we build, in where we build and in what we build... We can strike that balance."
She revealed she had met with the mother of John Paul Sofia, who was killed in a building collapse in Corradino last December.
“She asked me why she is only getting blank answers,” Metsola said.
Isabelle Bonnici has been calling for a public inquiry into the incident. Last week, the Opposition tabled a parliamentary motion urging the government to launch a public inquiry into the collapse.
“The same thing happened three years ago for Miriam Pace. Where is the accountability and faith to believe in the institutions,” Metsola asked. “No mother should live with a government that tells her they will not open an inquiry. Why should she? I definitely wouldn’t, and no one deserves that, not in Malta or anywhere else.”
Metsola also spoke about Gozo's possibility of becoming Europe's digital hub, and how the answer and possibility of that lies in the regulatory and infrastructure.
"Our laws and the protection and support we give to start-ups are insufficient. There are so many opportunities that are ours for the taking... we only need the courage to go for it."
Improve migrant workers' conditions
Metsola also referred to the working conditions of migrant workers in Malta, and that there needs to be more integration in the workforce and community.
“Conditions of migrant workers in Malta need to be improved. Some of the stories are horrific,” she said.
"A workforce that is integrated deeper within our communities is a win-win situation for all of us."
The realities and exploitation migrant workers face on the island is a growing issue.
Last month alone, a study revealed that migrant workers were made to sleep on construction sites, and the “rent” is deducted from their wages. One construction worker who lost his left leg after falling into a cement mixer was forced to sleep on the streets after he was unable to keep up with his rent.
Metsola also referred to the need to improve the issue of migration in Europe. She said while it is not an issue that can be tackled by a country alone, that should not be an excuse for "inaction".
"When children are dying of thirst on our seas, politics should take a back seat," she said.
Last summer, a four-year-old girl, Loujin, allegedly died of thirst and Malta was accused over the delayed rescue.
More than 700 children have died since 2014 and more than 17,000 people have lost their lives in the cemetery of the Mediterranean, Metsola added.
Said the European Parliament have agreed on a way forward on migration, one that is fair and firm but also humane. It is one that protects borders and ensures that traffickers do not benefit from profiting from human desperation.
Women smash one ceiling to find another
Metsola also spoke about the never-ending challenges girls and women face, both in the past and in the present day.
She said she owes a “great debt of gratitude” to the Maltese women who came before her, like Mabel Strickland, who paved the way in politics and fought passionately for a free and independent press.
Mabel Strickland, the daughter of Lord Strickland, a former governor and prime minister of Malta, co-founded the Times of Malta with her father in 1935 and also served as the newspaper’s editor while embarking on a career in politics.
“(Strickland) Who managed- who thrived- in a world dominated by men. Who changed things in many big and small ways.”
Metsola also mentioned assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who she said, “should have been here today”.
She said no one should have endured what happened to Daphne, and said the quest for justice is one that must unite a country, and not divide it.
“There are gaping differences in how men and women are treated in journalism, in politics, in every sphere I can think of. Mabel Strickland faced it in her field. A generation later, Daphne faced it with a new digital element adding to the constant pressure. Every woman I know has faced it in their career.”
She said progress has been “slow and painful” and after women smash one ceiling, they encounter yet another one. She continued that change can happen once society understands it needs to get rid of the “outdated, ineffective, patriarchal approaches” ingrained within it.
“We cannot be afraid of change. I want Europe and Malta to lead that process of renewal. Nostalgia has no place in politics. We must be future-driven and we must have the foresight to understand the challenges of tomorrow are only able to be properly addressed if we take the tough decisions today.”