The choice of Joe Debono Grech for MEP may baffle some, but he could be the instrumental candidate who will get the Labour vote out after the EU debacle.
There is a sense of disciplined submission and unbridled faith in the Malta Labour Party for Joe Debono Grech, who at 64 is the eldest of Labour candidates for the European Parliament, and certainly one candidate whose idiosyncrasy in this election may well see him elected to Brussels.
After thirty years in Parliament, maybe this is an indication that Joe Debono Grech is calling it a day. But, he quells, this is not to be. For only if the Party, that ultimate beacon of wisdom for Debono Grech, should ask him to take his place amongst the revered elderly, will he budge from that parliamentary seat.
“Politics is a drug. I felt I had to nominate myself for an MEP candidature because I feel I can give an important contribution to the party. If the Labour Party tomorrow tells me to retire, I can say that the Party has always been close to my heart and has been first and foremost in my life, I would retire. If I’m not elected to the European Parliament, I will stay as MP. At the end of the day it is the party that decides.”
Few politicians retain the selfless dedication Debono Grech has had for the MLP in his thirty years of political activism for the MLP and in Parliament. Even in the way he talks about the leadership of the party, the “sacredness” of the leadership. This is talk of the disciplined party acolyte.
“There are those who say if the Labour does not get a majority in these elections there will be a move for a change in leadership. It won’t mean anything. This is no referendum. It won’t be an electoral loss. Saying that changing the leader will bring success is like saying we should change a goalkeeper in the football team to win the league: whoever is pushing these rumours is not being realistic.
“For me the leadership is a sacred thing. Today I pledge allegiance to Dr Sant. The same goes for Mintoff when he was leader, and for Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici. My loyalty today is towards Dr Sant. It is up to the MLP Conference to change the leadership, but nobody is coming to tell me to overturn the party leader tomorrow. This is the way I see it. Maybe it is not the way the ‘moderns’ view it, but otherwise there would be anarchy in the party.”
Maybe it is his reputation for being the gruff-voiced Labour MP who doesn’t mince his words, that makes him quite unlike the other aspirants to the European Parliament. Having spent close to thirty years in Parliament, he hails from the Old Labour stable and is one of the last vestiges of the MLP line-up from the eighties:
“There is no change needed,” he says about the party. “The Nationalists won the election because of the EU. The MLP lost the election in 1998 due to the reforms it was executing. Many did not understand these reforms. If the party won 48 per cent of the vote, I can assure you that 7,000 votes are easily obtained.”
Debono Grech started off in the Labour youths in 1958, creating the Brigata Laburista. In the early 60s he became member of the national executive committee and was later chosen as propaganda secretary of the MLP. He also worked in the General Workers’ Union and for many years represented the union in Gozo.
He first contested the elections in 1976, and was elected thereafter. In 1983 he was appointed minister of parastatal and people’s investments, and later held the agriculture and fisheries portfolio for four years until 1987. When Labour was re-elected in 1996, he served as minister of transport and ports.
And this makes him one of Labour’s safest bets in this race to the European Parliament. Debono Grech will be instrumental in putting the disorientated Labour electorate in line with the MLP’s change in direction on the EU, and get the Labour vote out.
With an electorate fazed by the failure of ‘partnership’ to capture the nation’s imagination, Sant’s claim of triumph after the referendum, and yet another drubbing at the elections, Labour will have to try its best at getting out its electorate to vote in June for the European Parliament elections.
“I don’t think there will be any difficulty really,” Debono Grech says confidently, “I think it is easy. Most of the grassroots trust my word. Many speak to me and call me to ask me if they should vote in the elections or not. I still have a close relationship with the grassroots. I think the Labour vote will come out. The sceptics were many, but now everyone is coming into line. Many Labourites are turning back into the fold, many of them having voted for the EU and the Nationalists. They are coming back.”
Debono Grech admits that, whilst not feeling uncomfortable at contesting the elections which Labour’s ‘partnership’ would have never given us access too, he still believes Labour’s route was better for the people.
“The people has decided, and true to the decision of the general conference, the party has bound itself to work in tandem with the will of the majority. The motion in the general conference was to mitigate any damage that might result from the accession treaty negotiated with the Nationalist Government, especially in respect of workers. We are the workers’ party after all.
“I believe what Labour was offering as an alternative to EU membership was better than what the Nationalists were offering. I still believe that our road was better, but in the light of the will of the majority, we have to stay in line with that majority.
“The Labour Party believed Malta was not prepared well enough for the EU. We are seeing those disadvantages of membership already happening before us. We could mention the factory closures. Unemployment is rising, and the cost of living has increased as well.
“An example is the prices we pay for imported products. Before we could look for the best markets for our products. Today we practically have to buy everything from the EU at higher, internal market prices. Before the departure of the British forces, Malta was bound to import products only through the Crown Agency, which was a deal reached by then Prime Minister Gorg Borg Olivier. Now instead of the Crown Agency we have the EU. Before we used to buy beef and other meat cheaply because the EU used to subsidise their exports to non-EU countries. Today we cannot buy New Zealand beef cheaply because of the tariffs and duty we have to pay on non-EU beef.
“I don’t think the EU as a whole is all bad or all good. I just think the Maltese people would have fared better taking Labour’s road. Maybe we didn’t communicate the idea properly. As time passes, the people understand these disadvantages even more.”
Whilst Debono Grech will be moving in tandem with the party line on the political direction for the European Parliament, it can be expected that his experience within the Council of Europe will also be informing much of his interests if elected to Brussels.
“Despite the difference in ideology, there already is a working relationship with other members from the Maltese side in working in favour of Malta’s interests. A case in point was the Erika disaster: both myself and Dr John Vella upheld the Maltese interest in defending its case in the Erika disaster, which we felt was not the fault of the Maltese government. The front has to be united, as in the case of the European Parliament.”
Joe Debono Grech is a member of the socialists’ bureau within the Council of Europe and is present on four committees: illegal immigration, agriculture and environment, welfare and gender equality.
“Right now, the United Kingdom is facing the Council of Europe on whether detaining immigrants goes against their human rights. On my part, I understand these immigrants come here on humanitarian grounds. I am divided on whether they should be detained however. Malta cannot sustain the influx of immigrants at this rate. Contractors employ immigrants at cheap rates, and likewise all immigrants, European and North African, are enjoying this employment. One of the things we have to face is how the Maltese will be losing their jobs in the face of immigration.”
I ask him whether he believes the MLP did not act democratically in not introducing a quota for female candidates to the European Parliament. Unsurprisingly, and strangely much like Lawrence Gonzi, Debono Grech disagrees with quotas:
“I don’t agree with quotas. It is the people who decide in elections. My daughter contests the local council elections. There are no quotas involved. You get elected because you work for votes.
“We have a statute through which motions pass through the general conference by a simple majority. Nobody opposed the motion for the nomination process because everybody thought it was alright. This is the position now. I am sorry there are no women contesting the elections but I cannot say there should be quotas. Back in time Mabel Strickland and Agatha Barbara and other women used to be elected without quotas.”
Assuring his electorate that he is not about to step down if not elected to the European Parliament, Debono Grech has this to say about seeing Eddie Fenech Adami appointed as President of the Republic:
“I don’t think he should be President. I have nothing against him personally. But the President should be able to represent everybody. You cannot stop from politics one day and the next become President saying you are representing everybody. It is like saying Debono Grech has stopped supporting Birkirkara and is now representing everyone.”