The Nationalist Party has had problems in the recent past engaging with the business community. If you're elected leader of the Nationalist Party, how would you engage with business?
AD The Labour Party has for the last four years been the pro-business party, but unfortunately it seems to see cosying up to business people as the way to do things. I disagree with this – what we need to do is to open up the economy with a sense of passion and opportunity. Businesses want certainty and opportunity, so government’s clear agenda is not to cosy up but rather to create opportunities and have a vision to open new areas of businesses.
CS I would reengage through continuous contact with the business sector, from big business to small business. We need to show businesses their importance, we need to understand them and their aspirations, and let them know that with the Nationalist Party in government we will reach a solution to any problem, as long as this is within the parameters of the law.
APC The Nationalist Party was the party which made Malta pro-business – through its political vision over the years, it managed to act on plans to deliver economic growth. In fact, the Labour Party became pro-business by learning from the Nationalist Party. Our challenge now is to know what business wants, to know what the economy is like and to propose measures which are better, more interesting and more long-term.
FP If I’m elected leader of the Nationalist Party it will be a different ball game. I believe that business creates wealth and employment, increasing the size of the ‘national cake’. Without business, there is no employment or social benefits such as free health care, free education, social assistance and so on. It's in everybody's interest that business does well. We must drastically reduce regulations that hamper good and fair business, but it must be truly fair. Nobody should be allowed to take advantage of others when it comes to any business where the Government is involved. I mean that!
Do you agree with the proposed tower developments in Sliema, Mriehel, Gzira and St Julian's?
AD I have not yet had opportunity to look into or understand these developments one by one, or see any reports which evaluate their impact. My instinct is that we cannot judge proposals ad-hoc, one by one. We need a long-term plan, and then we can see whether individual projects fit into that plan. I want to look at the country and have a plan for the next sixty years.
CS I have nothing against high-rise buildings as long as studies have been done, and I fear many of these projects have not been done after careful consideration. It is important that development happens within a serious, studied, general plan when we know the impact on the local and national infrastructure, as well as neighbourhood.
APC These developments worry me if this is where the country is going – do we want a country where all one can see is tower blocks? Should we designate areas specifically for tower blocks? My fear is that we may be heading towards a vision of Malta as a Dubai, which I disagree with completely.
FP I see no great difficulty in having towers in areas like Mriehel. I think areas like Sliema and St Julian's already face enormous environmental issues, and I need to be convinced that high-rise buildings are a good idea. At the moment, I am not convinced.
Do you agree that the rules of the game as far as SmartCity is concerned should change to allow for residential blocks?
AD Originally the compromising of such a large tract of land next to the sea was already a balancing act between sustainability and the common good, and the creation of 8,500 jobs with SmartCity as a commercial project gave it lot of weight. To change the idea of SmartCity from a commercial project to a residential one is outrageous.
CS The aim of SmartCity was to be an investment hub in IT and financial services. If it becomes residential, the aim has changed radically, and SmartCity should truly become a commercial hub before we even think of residential use.
APC One needs serious reasons to change the reason for which SmartCity was built. As Opposition Leader, Joseph Muscat had said that the Labour Party would agree with SmartCity as long as it was not a residential development. One needs to see the reasons for changing the rules of the game completely, before one can say whether they agree or not.
FP Absolutely not! Anybody could have bought that land at 75c per square metre when it was offered by the Government to set up Smart City. It is now being turned into real estate speculation and land is being sold for thousands of euro per square metre – I am personally against this kind of speculation. These speculators are making large amounts of money from a rare primary resource, our land.
If you were elected Prime Minister tomorrow would you retain, scrap or improve the Individual Investor Programme (IIP)?
AD From an investment scheme which is good and positive, it has sadly been warped into a sale of citizenship, which is completely different. My position is no to the sale of citizenship, yes to the creation of more quality jobs and opportunities, increasing a financial services niche, by developing a state of the art investment programme which sees real investment and residencies coming to Malta. If these are allowed to develop further, that would be a successful programme.
CS We can improve the IIP by seeing that those who buy citizenship are obliged to have certain genuine investment in the country; not something like secure government bonds which can be sold after a certain period of time, but investment which creates quality jobs in the country. I have no doubt that if we direct towards this line of action, this can create places of work in Malta.
APC I disagree with selling citizenship as a product, plain and simple, but I am not against the concept of schemes, which have always existed, where someone who has genuine ties to the country can acquire citizenship. The IIP needs to change. Through the involvement of the Opposition, what the government originally proposed – the sale of citizenship, pure and simple – has already changed, thanks to the introduction of residency requirements, for instance. Unfortunately, this programme seems to be shrouded in mystery, with the government refusing to publish the list of those who acquired citizenship – and this is not right.
FP Four weeks ago I was in the UK, and I happened to meet a Russian lady. As soon as she learned I was Maltese she said to me "You are giving Maltese passports to the Russian Mafia.” That's the reputation Malta has acquired. I have no problem with a serious IIP program if we can attract people such as Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Mark Zuckerberg, individuals who can invest in our country and enhance our reputation, but these people are not investing in Malta at the moment.
Let's talk about Air Malta. There are effectively four options for its survival – let a foreign strategic partner take a strong minority shareholding with the government retaining 51 percent; privatise the airline to a foreign partner; involve Maltese investors; or allow Air Malta to fail. Which would you choose if you were in power today?
AD No to letting Air Malta fail, and certainly not total privatisation. I wouldn’t distinguish between a Maltese and foreign partner; what is important is that government retains control whilst crucially protecting workers. We cannot have our national airline isolated because a private carrier decides that the route is more or less lucrative than before, so we have to make sure that strategic partners are serious, and do everything whilst ensuring transparency.
CS The preferred option is that Maltese investors get involved with Air Malta, so the third option is the best choice – the ideal is that you have a Maltese strategic partner, with the government maintaining a majority shareholding or otherwise control over Air Malta. What’s worrying is that post-election, the government approach seems to have changed completely from that of the past four years, with different messages which show that the government has no clear vision for Air Malta.
APC I can exclude letting Air Malta fail, as well as privatising it. I’m not against in principle letting interested foreign investors participate, but Maltese investors need to be given the opportunity as well to make proposals. The important thing is that we need government control of the national airline. Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi has implied he does not agree with the government’s approach of the past four years – I hope we have not wasted four years in what was already a precarious situation.
FP I would certainly not have chosen Joseph Muscat's proposal to partner with a bankrupt company such as Alitalia, trying to sell this as a good deal when in fact it is madness. Besides, I would certainly not do what Konrad Mizzi is proposing – selling a slot at Heathrow airport, which is priceless and which in my view is vital for Air Malta's survival. Air Malta should not be allowed to fail. So long as the Maltese Government is a majority shareholder, EU rules will continue to strangle the airline which will succumb eventually. Government must therefore shed off its majority holding, retaining the golden share option (as with BOV). This would mean state aid can then be applied. Obviously there is fierce competition in the airline business, but Air Malta plays a vital role in our economy and we cannot let EU rules kill a prize asset. Air Malta will survive if Government can make a capital injection and increase private shareholding, with preference being given to Maltese investors.
If the PN was a private business concern it would have been declared bankrupt. How can you turn the PN's financial fortunes – or misfortunes – if you’re at the helm?
AD I understand there has been a restructuring of finances in the past four years and it would be prudent to make my comments on this after I have been fully informed on the subject.
CS If there’s someone who has worked continuously to bring the Nationalist Party back to its feet, that person was me. I became Secretary General of the Party four years ago, and myself and other people worked to stop the haemorrhage. We put the party structures on a solid foundation, and the work we did has borne fruit. It will take time to make everything right, but there is a clear plan over a number of years to become self-sufficient and make sure that the Nationalist Party has no debts.
APC I have been party treasurer for the past four years. We addressed this issue head on, and we are now following to the letter a 15-year restructuring plan, which we began implementing around two years ago. The party has now restructured its loans, and we worked so that today, the party is registering a profit, whilst it has structural debt which it will repay over time.
FP I disagree, the PN is not bankrupt. It has more assets than liabilities. It has property worth millions of euro at current prices. In recent years, prior to 2013, it was not run on commercial lines, to the extent that Keith Schembri challenged Simon Busuttil to investigate the internal procurement process, implying Keith Schembri had corrupted some individuals in the procurement department of the Nationalist Party. If I am elected leader, I promise all the money in the world will not stop me from getting to the bottom of this story. I will not be signing any secret agreement as happened with Adrian Hillman. It all centres on whether the PN councillors want a change.
You wake up tomorrow as Prime Minister of Malta. Policy-wise, what’s the first thing that you do?
AD I’d say a prayer to remain humble and close to the people. Policy-wise, we need to understand how to create wealth whilst remaining very attentive to people. Boasting about economic figures is useless unless we also understand that it is not the country which needs to be rich, but rather our countrymen and citizens, who must enjoy a better quality of life, and a better life overall.
CS The Prime Minister’s first decision is to appoint a Cabinet, where I guarantee I would give a role to the entire parliamentary group, which would be included in decision-making. If I become Prime Minister tomorrow, my first step would be to rectify the country’s institutions, making sure that they’re independent and reach the goals they were founded for.
APC The first thing is to make sure that you have the best Cabinet and office, with good and motivated people who will tell you what you need to hear rather than what you want to hear. The first step I would take as Prime Minister would be to re-establish the country’s reputation abroad, as this is what every substantial foreign investment in Malta is built on.
FP The first thing I would do would be to go to a quiet chapel in San Martin or l-Ahrax tal-Mellieha to thank God and meditate for a short while. Then I would go on national TV and address all my compatriots, giving everyone the possibility to have a direct phone in and ask the Prime Minister questions or to raise issues even anonymously.
Policy-wise, I would announce that the 'new' poor, the pensioners, the disabled, the unemployed and other deserving cases would receive a minimum pension in the household of €1,000 per month in the first month, not staggered over five years.
A version of this interview featuring the first three candidates to submit their nomination appeared in the July edition of The Business Observer