Bird Hunting
INTERVIEW | Sunday, 02 September 2007

Don’t rock my boat

His Mediterranean cruise with a construction magnate brought out into the open the incestuous relationship of politics and business. Will PN secretary general Joe Saliba’s cost him a bout of sea sickness in the next election?
Interview by James Debono

As you walk past the building site of the new Nationalist Party’s headquarters, you cannot but notice the sign ‘Vassallo Builders’ hanging above, the company owned by building contractor Zaren Vassallo, who last week turned out to be PN Secretary general Joe Saliba’s travelling companion in five consecutive boat trips.
In a country with no clear rules on party financing and where controversy on building permits and tenders for major projects animates political discussion, a high-ranking politician spending his holiday on a building contractor’s boat naturally arouses suspicion. But Saliba puts on a very brave face as he faces the storm brewed up by his impolitic vacation – insisting that he never tries to hide anything and that his friendship with Vassallo goes back to his days in the building industry when he was a political nobody.
Surely Saliba cannot be rebuked for trying to hide his tracks. “I used the normal channels. I left through customs and arrived through customs. They even knew which boat I was in. I could have easily left by the catamaran to meet Vassallo elsewhere.”
He insists he has every right to spending time with a lifelong friend. “I’ve known Zaren for a long time. My origins are in the building industry. Zaren works in construction. I was never his employee, but people in the building sector know each other.”
For Saliba, the media saga which was presented in serialised format by the Labour media, is nothing but sensationalism. But even newly elected French President Nicolas Sarkozy had to take the media flak for cruising the Mediterranean on the Paloma, a yacht belonging to French billionaire tycoon Vincent Bollore. The same happened when he spent a holiday at an estate owned by former Microsoft executive Michael Appe. Why should the PN secretary general not get the same treatment from the Maltese media?
“Sarkozy is a president. He is in the heart of politics. He takes all political decisions. I am not part of the government. I have no say in awarding tenders or contracts.”
So following this episode, can Labour’s secretary general Jason Micallef rest assured he won’t have the PN media hounding him if he spends his holidays on a boat with a building contractor of his choice?
“Had Jason Micallef gone on holiday with a contractor I would have said nothing. I have been on vacations with Zaren Vassallo for a very long time. This is the fifth or sixth time that I went with him. Have we come at a stage in this country where a secretary-general cannot spend time with a friend whom he knew before he entered the political fray?”
But just a few months ago the PN media was in a frenzy when it emerged that Labour leaning contractors had accompanied a Labour party delegation in Dubai. The PN daily went as far as revealing the lodging arrangements to show how close the contractors were to the Labour MPs.
Saliba makes a clear distinction between the two episodes. “The contractors who went to Dubai were part of an official MLP delegation which went there with the specific intention of bringing over work to Malta. They went there together without telling anyone. There is a clear distinction. They went there to bring work for contractors who are also their friends.”
Still, Labour leaning contractors should not worry about Saliba’s friendship with Vassallo, the secretary general says. “Both Nationalist and Labour contractors have work. This is the way things should go. Is any Labour contactor deprived of work? Is (Labour MP) Helena Dalli’s husband, who happens to be a contractor, deprived of work? He is not because he has every right to work.”
But didn’t the thought of a potential political embarrassment cross Saliba’s mind when he repeatedly embarked on boat trips with Vassallo?
“It was such a normal thing that this thought did not even pass from my mind. I would be worried if I was doing something wrong. But I was doing nothing wrong.”
Surely the grotesque serialisation of the episode by the MLP media has helped Saliba by putting him in the position of a victim. “The worst thing One News did was when they said that on the boat there were five people: three men and two women. They did not even have the decency to say that the two women were our wives. They are behaving like the paparazzi.”
Joe Saliba even denies that he interrupted his holiday by coming before the intended arrival date. “It’s not true. The holiday was meant to end on Sunday. Even One News knew that as they were waiting for me.”
Saliba was fully aware of the serialised reports on One News and Maltastar as he was kept informed by PN information secretary Gordon Pisani. But he denies receiving instructions from the party administration to come back to Malta. Even Lawrence Gonzi knew that he was on the same boat with Vassallo.
“Of course he knew. Half the party must have known. It’s normal that upon returning we talk about our holidays and this was not the first time.”
Saliba insists that he has not crossed any line which should keep the political and the economic realm separate. According to Saliba these lines can be crossed anywhere and at any time. “Do we possibly believe that Joe Saliba is bribed simply because someone takes him on his yacht? Let’s put it in another way: is it necessary for Joe Saliba to go on a yacht to be bribed? Does one have to go abroad for these things?”
Yet the very insinuation that he was bribed infuriates Saliba.
“Had they stuck to the facts I would have said nothing. They had every right to report my trip. What I found objectionable was their statement that the people now know why contracts are awarded to certain people. That is why I sued them for libel.”
Saliba points out that just a year ago the Labour media was criticising the government for not awarding a tender to Zaren Vassallo and giving it to Polidano.
“Last year I went on the same boat with Vassallo. Still he did not get his tender.”
The Nationalist Party is currently reconstructing its headquarters. Zaren Vassallo is the contractor chosen for these works. Does this not make Saliba’s closeness to Vassallo even more suspicious?
“And what if another contractor was building the Stamperija? Are you saying that nobody should build the PN headquarters?” he replies, adding that he is willing to present the invoices for the reconstruction of the party headquarters, “but only if Labour does the same thing.”
So does Zaren Vassallo finance the PN? “I cannot tell you who finances the PN. I have no authority to divulge this information. I can tell you very openly that political parties in Malta like many other parties in the world rely on donations. They are not commercial companies and companies like Euro Tours [the party’s travel company] do not generate enough money to finance an electoral campaign.”
Saliba agrees that political parties should publish the source of donations over Lm5,000, but he is not willing to do this unilaterally. But still, he says he would have no problem with such legislation.
Jean Pierre Farrugia, President of the Nationalist Party’s executive, also expressed reservations on Saliba’s visit. While decrying Labour antics and finding nothing wrong in Saliba’s visit he questioned its timing. “Frankly speaking with an election on the way I would have expected him to stay in Malta,” Farrugia told sister newspaper Illum.
But Saliba replies to Farrugia with the incredulous revelation that his work on the campaign is already completed. “But if my work on the campaign is ready, why shouldn’t I take a holiday? Our strategy is ready. Whenever the Prime Minister calls an election we are ready.”
So why depart on holiday when Labour’s propaganda machine was in full gear hitting out at three different ministers over allegations of corruption? “The Labour Party never goes to sleep in summer. Only last year they orchestrated a campaign that Minister George Pullicino was in cahoots with Caqnu. Don’t you remember the slogan: Vote Gonzi Get Caqnu. The Labour Party never sleeps when it comes to mudslinging. Unfortunately, the MLP is always asleep when it comes to political vision.”
Saliba has one major task in front of him, that of convincing the electorate that after nearly 20 years in power the PN is not past its expiry date. In 2003 the PN could prolong its stay in power riding high on the EU issue, which for many was a life or death issue. But is there any fundamental issue at stake this time round?
Saliba insists the party still has “great dreams and visions for the country”, referring to Gonzi’s vision of ‘excellence’ he has set for 2015. “We want to turn Malta into a hub of excellence in the Mediterranean. A hub of excellence in health, education, financial services and information technology.”
He draws several historical parallels to drive his point home, namely that “people should be wary of change”. He recalls the economic boom under George Borg Olivier’s government following independence in 1964. “When Labour was elected in 1971… we spent 16 years living in stagnation. We lost the momentum and we were overtaken by other countries.”
He recalls Eddie Fenech Adami restoring “economic and political freedom in 1987”. “Suddenly the people decided to elect Alfred Sant. Unemployment, inflation and the deficit spiralled upwards and the economy stagnated.”
Saliba warns that the same thing would happen if Sant is trusted again. “Now we have joined the EU after making all the necessary reforms. We have reduced the deficit. The economy is going well and investment in health and education is on the rise. Unemployment has reached an ebb and tourism is recovering. But if Labour gets elected again Malta will stagnate again. All those who think that there is nothing crucial at stake in the next election are wrong. The country is at the crossroads. We cannot afford to go wrong. Otherwise the country will stagnate again.”
So will the PN present the next election as a choice between life and death?
“Yes, it’s a life or death election. I do not have the slightest doubt,” says Saliba.
But is the PN playing the same old trick of demonising Labour by forecasting doomsday if Labour gets elected? “It’s true that the past is not a guarantee for the future when it comes to successes. If you were successful in the past you can never be sure that you will be successful in the future. But when it comes to past failures, the opposite is true. If you failed in the past, nobody will trust you in the future. The MLP has a track record. For two consecutive times the MLP has jammed the progress of our country.”
Speaking of demonising the enemy, was it ethical for Saliba to refer to the MLP as the party of facelifts a few days after the Opposition leader had a surgical operation?
“I do not regret passing this comment. I was being metaphorical. I was referring to the MLP as a whole and not to individuals. A week before a Labour candidate had written that the MLP cannot win simply through facelifts. I never attack persons.”
Just before Saliba’s boat trip the PN media went in to a frenzy over a comment passed by Jason Micallef during a function, in which he declared that an MLP government “will be the government of Maltese and Gozitans.” But Micallef also added a surreptitious and chummy “between us, we will also be a government of Labourites.”
Why was the PN scandalised by Jason Micallef’s statement when so many Nationalist candidates were appointed in top positions? Is this not a case of pot calling the kettle black?
“We never said that we won’t appoint PN candidates in positions of trust. It was the MLP which used to say that if elected it would not change the chairmen of public corporations – except those who are staunch Nationalists. This was not true. They lied. When elected the MLP did not do so.”
But didn’t the MLP keep Marin Hili at the Freeport? Saliba replies by presenting a list of 23 public officials who were changed when Labour was elected in 1996. Among those appointed by Labour one finds former Labour ministers like Reno Calleja who was appointed Chairman of the Transport Authority, Freddie Micallef who was appointed chairman of Medigrain. But the same list also shows that Sant had appointed neutral figures like Marlene Mizzi and Edward Scicluna.
Labour also retained police commissioner George Grech in his position. “We not only kept a police commissioner; we made a new commissioner,” insists Saliba with a certain emphasis. Asked whether he was alluding that the present Police Commissioner John Rizzo was not a Nationalist, Saliba nodded and confirmed. “Yes. But he is a trustworthy person. We thought that he was the best person for the country.”
Saliba sees nothing wrong with the practice of appointing candidates and activists in top positions. “One should not be chosen for being a candidate. One should be chosen for one’s ability to perform a good job. But that does not exclude candidates. It’s the same when they object when Nationalist leaning contractors win a contract. Are they saying that they should be excluded because they lean in favour of the PN? The same applies to Nationalist candidates.”

Any comments?
If you wish your comments to be published in our Letters pages please click here



NEWS | Sunday, 02 September 2007

One migrant dead, three still missing off Sicilian coast

Nature Trust appeals against Danish Village bungalows

Gatt unveils 20 projects for Grand Harbour facelift

Throw away the remote – PBS is sure to keep us watching

Pharmacists warn against ‘demotion’ of medicines watchdog

Property proposals: pretty vacant?

Copyright © MediaToday Co. Ltd, Vjal ir-Rihan, San Gwann SGN 9016, Malta, Europe
Managing editor Saviour Balzan | Tel. ++356 21382741 | Fax: ++356 21385075 | Email