Labour leadership contender Robert Abela has made affordable housing, free medicines to pensioners and limiting foreign workers in order to deter cheap labour among his priorities should he become prime minister.

He told a press conference on Thursday that he will also retain the controversial passport sales scheme.  

Commenting on his proposals he said he main priority as a Labour leader would be social justice.

He was concerned, he said, that despite robust economic growth since 2013, wealth was not trickling down to certain sectors of society.

Dr Abela held his press conference amid criticism that he had refused requests for interviews by various newspapers.  

“I am not dodging from any media,” he said. “I have no problem giving an interview, but I do not believe in excessive engagement with the media. I am open for every kind of media scrutiny, but I do no media sponsorships as this would condition the relationship,” he said.

Asked by Times of Malta if he endorsed the manner in which outgoing Prime Minster Joseph Muscat had handled the cases of Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi, Dr Abela said he would have “acted earlier”. However, he said he agreed with the Prime Minister’s decision to leave in January rather than resign straight away and appoint an interim leader until the election of his successor.

Dr Abela was not very forthcoming when asked to explain his controversial Facebook remark that he was not willing to make a  “diabolical pact” with anyone. The comment was made at a time when talks were underway to have only Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne standing for the leadership.  

“What was said, was said and that was in the past,” Dr Abela said.

Replying to further questions, the Labour MP also indicated he has full confidence in Attorney General Peter Grech.

Opposition leader Adrian Delia on Wednesday demanded the AG's resignation over his handling of the Egrant affair. He said that the fact that he kept the inquiry report hidden for 18 months, and did not act on various issues arising from the inquiry provided grounds for his dismissal, and he therefore asked what the Labour leadership contenders intended to do. 

Dr Abela said that if Dr Delia was not happy with the AG, he should file a no-confidence motion in parliament. 

Asked for his views on the possibility of granting whistleblower status to Maria Efimova and a pardon to Yorgen Fenech, he said such decisions did not rest on the Prime Minister and there were other institutions which had the duty to enter into such merits.

Dr Abela also faced questions on numerous government contracts (for consultancy work) he had received under the Labour government.  He said there were tangible results for his work, and he had paid all due tax.

Manifesto proposals - Affordable Housing

When he spoke about his manifesto, Dr Abela said that although 1,000 social housing units were in the pipeline, they were not enough to cater for the Housing Authority waiting list. Housing was a huge concern to the people, he remarked. 

He said that rather than building on virgin land, a new state entity should invite the owners of vacant, properties to sell them to the government at market prices. The sites would then be converted for social housing. 

The initial target would be to identify 4,000 properties, from which a first group of 500 would be shortlisted. This model would yield  faster results than building properties from scratch. 

A bond issue could be made to fund such projects. The bonds could be recouped from the social rent rates paid by the tenants. 

“Rather than the concept of free social housing what we would have is affordable housing,” he said. He insisted that rents should not exceed 30 per cent of one’s income.

IIP to be retained

Dr Abela said the funds to refurbish the properties could be sourced from the consolidated fund as well as the passport sales scheme. 

In this respect he said the scheme would be retained, but the rules would be tightened if necessary 

While acknowledging that the scheme had been controversial he said it was acceptable as long as it would be transparent.  

“Let us not destroy this source of revenue,” he said.

Pensioners 

Dr Abela pledged that if elected he would, over a period of five years, make all medicines free of charge for pensioners because, he said, these costs were eating a significant chunk of their income. This measure, he said, would cost €40 million per year, which would still pale in comparison to a total budget of about €4.6 billion.

No more cheap labour

Dr Abela expressed concern about low-paid jobs even below the minimum wage. 

“We cannot have a situation of people living on €500 a month,” he said. Cheap labour would no longer be acceptable as it was distorting the labour market.

“We need to better regulate foreign workers and enforce existing laws,” he said.

He explained that the fact that foreign workers were being brought to Malta and paid very low salaries also put downward pressure on the salaries of the Maltese.

On the other hand, however, foreign workers contributed to economic growth. 

Dr Abela warned there would be consequences on employers exploiting foreign workers such as those employed illegally with no basic rights. 

Salaries must be pegged to the respective sectors in which they are working, he remarked. 

Moreover, salaries must be paid by cheque or direct credit in the employee’s bank account to minimize abuses.  

The environment 

Dr Abela said he was strongly in favour of sustainable development. One of the criteria in the planning laws was the visual aspect, he said, and yet this was not being given enough weight. Dr Abela said his vision was to create green spaces in every corner of the island. 

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