Interview | Sunday, 15 March 2009

The cure for disgruntlement

From a hard-line critic of the Nationalist administration, to an MEP candidate for the Nationalist Party, FRANK PORTELLI is the voice of the disgruntled PN supporter. Now, he also voices populist misgivings on immigration, in a campaign built on combating human trafficking

Had Frank Portelli not existed, it would have been necessary for PN strategists to invent him. He stands out as a role model for the disgruntled Nationalist voter, who spends four years criticising the government, but then is always ready to stand up and be counted when a general election crops up.
But will the disgruntled desert the party in next June’s European elections, as they did back in 2004?
Frank Portelli’s reputation for integrity, combined with his populist streak on immigration, relations with Libya and electricity tariffs, could well be the party’s answer to this abstentionist threat.
Certainly the Prime Minister’s invitation to contest next June’s elections for the European parliament came as a big surprise for Portelli.
“On Tuesday 3 March I received a phone call from party general secretary Paul Borg Olivier that he would like to speak to me that same day.”
Portelli met Paul Borg Olivier on that same evening.
“He told me that the Prime Minister wanted to speak to me the very next day. I asked: what’s up? Paul replied: ‘I think I had better prepare you. The Prime Minister wants you to contest the MEP election...’
“I had a sleepless night. I discussed it with my wife and our young son George. I explained what it entailed, especially the hardest part – being away from home. We all agreed that I should accept.”
Portelli considers the Prime Minister’s invitation as a “big compliment” and felt he could not refuse. He will now be contesting on the same ticket as GRTU director general Vince Farrugia, who had called for a general strike against the introduction of VAT in 1996: an issue which arguably cost the party the election that year. Does the PN risk disorienting its grass roots by fielding Farrugia as a candidate?
“The Nationalist Party contains a broad spectrum of opinions. Vince Farrugia may appeal to a certain sector of the population. I think that Frank Portelli will appeal to the core values of the party.”
What are these core values?
“My core values are integrity, I put this above everything else in life, a social conscience to defend the underdog, that you are fair with everybody and that you support the weak and that you seek social justice for everybody.”
In the 1980s, the Nationalist Party’s battlecry was democracy. In the 1990s the rallying cry was membership in the European Union. Is the PN now suffering from the absence of a battlecry?
Portelli is proud of his party’s historical role in “restoring democracy” in 1987.
“I remember distinctly in 1986 when Raymond Caruana was killed. In parliament they were about to discuss the budget and Eddie Fenech Adami stood up addressing the Speaker saying ‘this is irrelevant. What we should be talking about is bringing democracy to this country. What was the point of discussing the budget when there was no democracy and no rule of law?’”
For Portelli the next big issue his party must address is illegal immigration.
“I will say the same thing as Eddie Fenech Adami said in 1986: everything else is irrelevant. Illegal immigration is the major problem facing our country.”
For Portelli the “root of the problem” is organised human trafficking from Libya.
“These illegal immigrants are leaving from Libyan shores in an organised manner. It is not the odd boat of someone trying to escape from Libya to Malta. This is organized human trafficking and must be dealt with in that contest – the illegal immigrants themselves are victims of this crime”
He condemns unscrupulous human traffickers who exploit illegal migrants and expresses his satisfaction that Ahmed Turab Sheik – a Pakistani resident in Malta – was earlier this week sentenced to 30 years in prison for his part in the Yioham tragedy, in which 283 people lost their lives in 1996.
“For that trip it is calculated that Ahmed Turab Sheik got $1.2 million from his victims. There were 400 persons on that boat. Would you believe that Turab was a resident in Malta? Has he got assets in Malta? Does Turab own property in Malta? Does he have a bank account? Have his assets been impounded?”
Portelli insists that Malta and the European Union should send a strong message to these criminals.
“At the moment they look at Malta as having a soft underbelly and they get away with murder – literally.”
He quotes statistics showing that the market for human trafficking per year is in the region of $40 billion per annum.
According to Portelli, Libya is “closing both eyes” to this human tragedy.
“Europe must put pressure on Libya... initially it should exercise diplomatic pressure. But let us not forget that Libya depends on selling its oil. They produce 1.8 million barrels of oil every day. Libya clearly needs Europe. If necessary Europe should apply economic sanctions.”
Portelli promises that if elected as MEP, he will not approve anything benefiting Libya before Libya fulfils its obligations to solve the problem of illegal immigration.
“Libya got €20 million in aid for not responding to distress calls when people are drowning in the sea. While our Armed Forces, who actually risk their lives to save these people, receive criticism from the EU and the United Nations. Libya gets cash from the EU – Malta gets criticism.”
Portelli claims that he has reliable information that the Libyan authorities know who these human traffickers are, and the sites from which they are operating.
“I am reliably informed that these organisations possess Rigid Inflatable Boats equipped with fast motors ready to launch from Libya – these RIBs have been imported into Libya through normal channels.”
Is the Maltese government doing enough in its contacts with the Libyan authorities to resolve this issue?
“We will be doing enough when the human trafficking stops. At the moment we are not doing enough. We need to apply more pressure on Libya to do its duty. We are a tiny country but we are also members of a big club, the EU, and we can provide enough pressure as EU members. If elected you can rest assured I will put my foot down and state in no uncertain terms: illegal immigration is not a Maltese problem it is an EU problem, and the EU must put pressure on Libya to fulfil its obligations.”
Portelli is disappointed by Europe’s response to Malta’s constant pleas for assistance.
“I see Europe as a family and we are the youngest member of that family. We are just four years old. Some of the members are 50 years old. Older members of a family have an obligation to look after their youngest member.”
Nor was he satisfied by the agreement through which, on the Maltese government’s insistence, the EU accepted the principle of voluntary responsibility sharing.
“In these things it can’t be on a voluntary basis. The EU is governed by treaties – we all have our obligations, and obligations are not on a voluntary basis. EU membership is not A La Carte – you can’t choose what you like from a menu.”
And what if the other countries refuse to accede to Malta’s demands?
“We than have to put our foot down. They need our vote in many instances...”
Is this not reminiscent of Mintoff’s way of dealing with the outside world?
“We have been talking about this for at least six years. The time for discussion is now over – talking is not enough. The EU must now put pressure on Libya.”
The Prime Minister’s invitation to contest in next June’s election may well have been a surprise for Portelli. But his candidature comes in the wake of his strategic role in the PN’s electoral campaign, last year where he was assigned the task of addressing disgruntlement among Nationalist voters.
“I accompanied Dr Lawrence Gonzi in meetings with individuals who for one reason or another were unhappy or disgruntled with the PN in Government. We met them in groups and many even on an individual basis over a period of two months. We looked at each individual case and the cause of their complaint.”
One thing which struck Portelli in these meetings was Lawrence Gonzi’s “warm personality.”
“Meeting disgruntled people is a difficult task. And I agree that some of them had good reason to be disgruntled – Dr Gonzi was never ruffled even under considerable duress.”
What was the profile of the disgruntled Nationalist voter before the election?
“I would say that some 60% to 70% were disgruntled on the way they were dealt with by MEPA (Malta Environment and Planning Authority). Certainly no one complained about the Schengen agreement...”
According to Portelli what really irked these people was MEPA’s inconsistency. Portelli identified easily with these people because he felt he was one of them.
“I gave my own experience with MEPA – my next door neighbour had built a house in his garden. I needed to build a room adjacent to this – and I was refused permission. So I personally took photographs of the house next door and went to MEPA to expose this gross inconsistency.”
“In a meeting, open to the public, I told the DCC officials that all I wanted to know was why my next door neighbour was granted permission while I was being denied permission for an identical request.”
“At first they told me this can’t be true. So I asked them to bring the files and when they checked the case files they confirmed that they had issued a permit to my neighbour – and refused mine. They were embarrassed and one member of the DCC raised his hand and voted in favour – and the rest agreed, bar one. I wonder why!”
For Portelli, the root of MEPA’s problems lies in the fact that DCC board members are practicing architects. In his own words, “they have a clear conflict of interest.”
Did any of these disgruntled voters ask for favours in return for his or her vote?
“Very few people asked for favours. They simply wanted someone to have a look at their problem and see whether it could be solved in a fair and legal way.”
Portelli makes it clear that in every meeting the Prime Minister went to great lengths to say that he was not promising anything except to look at each particular complaint.
In May 2007 Portelli himself had denounced corruption in the building of the Mater Dei hospital and wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister urging him to present a Whistleblower Act.
The Prime Minister called Portelli for a meeting in which he promised that he would act on this suggestion.
Portelli admits he felt the need for protection when he denounced corruption at Mater Dei: “I felt I needed protection, especially for my family… The people who are corrupt have the power and the money to hurt you and your family, even physically. They stand to lose a lot. When I first mentioned this issue on Bondiplus in May 2007, I hesitated for a second only because I felt that members of my family could be exposed to violence.”
Portelli still insists that such a law is necessary.
“Unless you have a proper whistleblower act, acts of corruption will remain unexposed, because people are afraid.”
Before the election the Prime Minister solemnly promised that he would not introduce any health related charges. Is this promise sustainable?
“The state should always support a safety net – especially for unaffordable treatment such as treatment for cancer. But the state should not support you to by supplying you with cotton wool, surgical spirit or aspirin, which are inexpensive. We are spending vast amounts of money on affordable medications and then we do not have enough money to support individuals who really need expensive and essential medical treatment. We need to re-allocate resources to make sure that expensive medical drugs for cancer are given to everybody who needs them, but if you need cotton wool you should pay for it yourself.”
In another apparent irony, Portelli is currently in court with the Government over electricity tariffs, while at the same contesting for the party that occupies government benches in parliament.
Nearly two years ago, Portelli presented a case against the government-owned Enemalta on behalf of Saint Philip’s Hospital in the Office of Fair Competition arguing that the capping system through which the bills of hotels are kept below a certain threshold-is discriminatory.
“One cinema which is attached to a hotel also benefits from capping. But Saint Philip’s, which attracts medical tourist, does not benefit.”
Portelli’s case has been pending for two years – a clear case of “justice delayed, justice denied.”
On Thursday Portelli went a step further by instituting a case against Enemalta after the corporation threatened to cut his electricity supply if he does not pay “these hefty bills which are uncapped.”
“This is not a personal issue – there were no criteria established on which bills should be capped. Reducing the tariffs is not enough. It is only a partial solution. We need a level playing field – why should you as an individual subsidise a millionaire with a 40-metre yacht?
Portelli is steadfast in his opposition to Enemalta’s monopoly on the provision of electricity.
“The Labour Party is not addressing the root of the problem. The solution is not reducing the tariffs, but removing Enemalta’s monopoly. If elected I will take this up in Europe,” Portelli promises.
For Portelli, dismantling Enemalta’s monopoly is his second priority after illegal immigration.
“My second priority is to make sure that the energy supplier has competition. Enemalta has a monopoly and they are in a completely dominant position in the market. See what happened with mobile telephony. When Vodafone started operating a mobile telephony service in Malta, it had a monopoly and you had to pay a Lm100 deposit to get a mobile phone. Today, because there is competition, Vodafone phoned me to give me a free phone. If we had competition in the energy supply Enemalta would have to come off its high horse and all consumers will benefit.”


Occupation: Medical Doctor
Age: 64
Status: Married
Specialization: Accredited Specialist General Surgeon
Qualifications: MD FRCS (Ed)
Previous Posts: President of the PN’s Executive; President of the General Council
Favourite international politician: Currently Barack Obama


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