United by a common resolve | Peter Agius

Never mind misleading impressions of an internecine civil war within the Nationalist Party. MEP candidate Peter Agius is confident that the Opposition will emerge more united than ever before, by becoming a ‘mouthpiece for the common person’s concerns’

(Photo: James Bianchi / MaltaToday)
(Photo: James Bianchi / MaltaToday)

The PN is gearing up for next year’s elections, at a time when – from the outside – it looks irreparably divided. In fact there seem to be two PNs, not one: the faction led by Adrian Delia, and an uprising spearheaded by Simon Busuttil, David Casa, Jason Azzopardi and others. You are contesting this election as a PN candidate. So… whose side are you on?

First of all, I don’t believe there are ‘two PNs’, as you put it. There are issues, there are battles that we have fought in the past; battles that we will be fighting in the future; and there are candidates who represent these different battles. The skill of the candidate has to be to represent the Maltese electorate in its entirety. You cannot disregard these realities. So from the outside, when you see the picture you’re describing, you rely on little elements, little externalisations of how people express disagreements: in a Facebook post, in an interview, in a remark here and there. The reality is that the Nationalist Party is united behind a common resolve. I wouldn’t distinguish between one camp and another…

Yet at the last Daphne Caruana Galizia vigil in September, the name of Adrian Delia was greeted by jeers and boos by a largely Nationalist audience. How, then, can you deny the existence of a split within the party?

The Nationalist Party electorate has been always been discerning; it has always screened and scrutinised what its leaders and its candidates do and say. This is a process: we are conquering trust. We cannot assume that people will trust us just because we are the Nationalist Party… or by default, because ‘we need an Opposition’. We have to convince them to trust us. But trust is building in the Nationalist party, I can feel it…

Are you suggesting that the Nationalist Party is, in fact, united behind Adrian Delia?

I think it is. It’s a process. After all, Delia has been party leader only for a year…

But a year is a very, very long time in politics. And Delia hasn’t closed the gap at all in one year…

Don’t forget that we have also been through two historically massive, gruelling electoral defeats.  What do you think? That the followers of the PN will rally behind a new leader, just like that? The people are putting us to the test. The question is: are we passing the test? Are we ready to respond to the call of society? I’ve been in the PN for one month, essentially… as an insider, so to speak. The perception on the inside is that there are no two camps. There is a common resolve…

What is this ‘common resolve’?

To be a credible, pro-positive and committed Opposition party: ready to propose alternative solutions to society’s issues today. The reality is that we are an oversized population, living in an undersized infrastructure. We have designed this country according to 1990s figures, when our population was 70,000 less than it is now. My task within the Nationalist Party – and I am committed to it 24 hours a day – is to try and make the party once again a proponent of solutions for this country. First of all, we have been an EU member state for the past 14 years. The EU has brought untold benefits and opportunities for many sectors. It gave an upgrade to this country on many levels: from our heritage, to our schools, to healthcare, etc. But there are sectors that have been neglected. Farming is one such area…

I intend to ask you about agriculture later. But on the subject of the EU: hasn’t membership also had other effects? What if I put it to you that the EU’s involvement in local politics has actually exacerbated the local partisan divide, and encouraged more tribalism than before?

That is partly true. But the reality is that the EU cannot save us from ourselves. If we have problems which we need to solve, the EU will not solve them for us. If we see politics as an exercise in tribal warfare, the EU will not change that. In some regards, the EU may have actually exacerbated this issue. But it is up to us to do something about it. I will be proposing a different kind of politics, however: a politics whereby, if the Labour government does something praiseworthy, something which is in a direction we need to go… I will be one of the first to mention it. Why not? Just last week, I congratulated Health Minister Fearne on Facebook for the initiative of promoting robotics in Mater Dei. This is the way to go.

I’ll do the same for others. Wherever there are areas where we need to support or encourage government, my narrative will not be: ‘Oh look, government is a crook’. On EFSI [European Fund for Strategic Investment], for example, we saw that Malta is at the bottom of the graph – per capita, not in absolute numbers – in the use of the Juncker Plan. As I said, this is an undersize infrastructure, for an oversized population: we badly need long-term, large-scale investment… in transport, education, healthcare, and all our public services. This is what we need to discuss. We need a vision of politics which solves the problems of this country, and takes a long-term view: planning ahead for 10, 20 years down the line…

But that’s the one thing we don’t seem to be getting from the PN right now. And it also explains why, as you said, that party suffered so heavily in the last two elections. People did not see this vision back then. Are you suggesting that they are seeing it more now?

Yes. Like I said, trust is building. With this battle-cry, ‘Socjeta Li Jimpurtah’ [A Society that Cares], we are bringing out realities which the people hold dear to their heart. Like the job market, for instance. There is now a huge risk of precarious work: not only in the private sector, but even in the public sector. Last week’s strike at Gozo Channel, for instance. Why did it happen? Because government gave out a huge number of precarious, short-term contracts, offering the illusion of ‘joining the public service’… when in reality, those people were put on the payroll of a private contractor, working side by side with people who do have a public service contract. This is not ‘equal pay for equal work’… and there is no dignity at work, either; because your colleagues will enjoy better conditions of work, and more security of tenure. As for the private sector: last week I had a meeting with UHM. They told me that their collective bargaining power is fizzling out... Why?

Because you get people coming from abroad… OK, they are entitled to compete with us for the same jobs. If they are EU nationals there is no doubt about it. If they are third country nationals, they may be needed in the short term. But if we are talking about single people, with no family, coming here for two or three years, and ready to work for 5 euros an hour… that is going to have an immediate impact on the collective bargaining power of the Maltese worker. There’s no denying this. And this is what we mean by a ‘A Society that Cares’: we are interested in the life of people… not in economic figures that register a 3%, 4%, 5% growth, which is effectively the result of an expanding job market. The job market is, in fact, expanding, in terms of absolute numbers. But the salaries, the working conditions, are not expanding. They are actually diminishing…

Another way of describing this rhetoric is the ‘scapegoating  of foreigners’ as the source of all our problems: echoing Delia’s recent ‘warning’ about how Maltese schoolchildren might end up being taught by ‘Pakistanis’ and ‘Bangladeshis’. Is this the new direction of the Nationalist Party?

It is evident that you didn’t follow all of Adrian Delia’s speech in Rahal Gdid. What he said was that there has been a lowering of conditions for Maltese workers; that government is attempting to lay its hands on teachers’ conditions… and he gave an example comparing what happened with the buses, to what might one day happen in schools.

When you say ‘what happened with the buses’… do you mean that some of the drivers are foreign?

Yes.

Why is that such a bad thing?

It is absolutely a bad practice. OK, we needed more drivers. This much is true. We couldn’t find enough Maltese bus drivers to meet the demand. Also true. But we didn’t ask the question, ‘How much are we offering them per hour, and what kind of conditions do they need to work’? What the union is telling us is that there has been an erosion of their collective bargaining power, because you’ve got 180 Pakistanis, with no other expectation because the wages in their own country are so low…

But isn’t that also a case of directing hostility and ill-feeling towards Pakistanis – not to mention other minorities?

This is not a question of ill-feeling. I would have absolutely no problem employing a Pakistani myself. This is a question of safeguarding the bargaining power of the Maltese worker. We do need more workers in Malta; but why do we need to resort to foreign workers? Is it simply a question that there is no [local] availability? Or is it that we are not offering the right conditions? This is the main question to be asked. If the conditions are better and the pay is higher, would a Maltese apply for that job?

Do you realise how right-wing that sounds?

I am right-wing about this. I have no problems saying it. We have to ensure that our job market is functioning well also for the Maltese worker. It’s all very good that we’re offering work to foreigners… but if in Pakistan, you can live on 5 euros a day… and in Malta, you need 30 euros a day… then there’s a shortfall of 25 euros a day. This is not xenophobia. This is a pragmatic issue…

It could just as easily be argued that the PN is simply trying to ride the crest of a populist xenophobic sentiment that already exists. That is generally called ‘populism’, and it is a strategy associated with the far right…

No, you are absolutely mistaken. I can vouch for it. That is not the strategy of the PN. Our strategy is to be the mouthpiece, the flagbearers, the representatives of the people’s concerns. And the people are concerned that the conditions of Maltese workers are going down, because of a loss of bargaining power due to the readily-available foreigner who is willing to work for much less pay and much worse conditions. How complicated is that?

Then why not just demand an improvement to working conditions across the board, affecting Maltese and foreigners alike? Why drag ‘the foreigner’ into it at all?

That is precisely what we are demanding. That the conditions of work improve for everyone. But you’re not being fair: as you well know, political narrative only works with examples. You have to mention examples if you’re going to get your message across. And if we mentioned Pakistanis, it is not because they’re from Pakistan. It’s because Maltese companies are advertising jobs in Pakistan, offering wages that are higher than average for Pakistanis, but much lower than the Maltese average. This is why people are concerned about dwindling work conditions…

Fair enough. Meanwhile, turning to your own campaign: you recently voiced concerns about Malta’s agricultural sector. In what way has it been ‘neglected’, as you said earlier?

When you speak to farmers, you realise that these people feel they have been abandoned. And they have been abandoned on multiple fronts: not just on one issue or another. Let’s take just a few of them. When we joined the EU, we knew it would be a challenge to the farming sector. We knew that the liberalisation of the market could negatively impact local produce. In the milk sector, for example, it would – and did – result in foreign dairy products sold locally. But what happened? The Maltese consumer remained loyal to the local product; and local producers banded together, worked well, invested more than 40 million (85% of it in EU funding)… and they stood up to the competition. Unfortunately, however, we didn’t do the same thing with fruit and vegetables.

On the contrary, there is a total breakdown on the organisation side. Most of the farmers you talk to these days are seriously considering giving up altogether; and this resignation stems partly from the fact that they’re not finding any assistance at all from government, and partly because of the farmers’ own failure to organise themselves better. In fact, by the time this interview comes out, there may well be an announcement of a new farmers’ co-operative [Note: there was, on Friday].

This side of the equation may therefore solve itself. The other side, however, concerns EU funding. As part of the Common Agricultural Policy, the EU makes a lot of funding available to strategic areas. What is happening, however? We’re not making good use of that funding. We are tapping into it, yes; but in a very complicated way, which is very time-consuming for the farmer: who sometimes has to wait up to two years for a reply to his application.

This is an area that can easily be improved, if it is given enough attention. But it isn’t at the moment. Ultimately, though, this is not just about farmers. It’s also about us: about the food we eat… and above all else, it’s about food security. Issues such as the E-coli outbreak, that occurred when John Dalli was Commissioner for Health, can always happen again. Today, about 80% of what we eat comes from abroad: a percentage which increases each year. This is not on. That is also why we need to work together to safeguard the local agricultural sector.

 

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