Interview | Sunday, 04 October 2009

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I, father confessor

As unhappiness brews among Lawrence Gonzi’s backbench, senior minister JOHN DALLI says that he has become a ‘father confessor’ to disgruntled MPs. The former leadership rival speaks about the PN’s troubles.

John Dalli, minister for social policy and the health portfolio, is celebrating his 61st birthday tomorrow. The veteran minister, a mainstay of the Nationalist government of the past 20 years, is unique in that he is no alien to the disgruntled backbench. Having served in every Nationalist Cabinet between 1987 and 2004, he suddenly found himself in the backbench after an acrimonious leadership contest in which he lost out to Lawrence Gonzi.
In the ensuing turn of events, Dalli found himself at the receiving end of a false private investigator’s report into a hospital tender, and soon enough having no choice but to step down as minister. He would spend three years in the political wilderness before being rehabilitated by Gonzi himself, and then finally return to the Gonzi II administration as super-minister for social policy, health and care for the elderly.
But now he admits to finding himself in a new role, and by his own description, something akin to a father figure for some MPs. Indeed, he calls himself the “father confessor” to the disgruntled elements on the government’s backbench. He says it not without some solemnity. Dalli is not playing on his age: he is saying he has the confidence of the PN’s unhappy MPs.
“I act as a father confessor to most of them… They come to me and I try to explain to them what the situation is at the present… These are good people who need to be fostered and not hit on the head,” Dalli says, outlining his new paternal role as a senior minister who is trusted by a select group of MPs. MPs whose concerns seem to have not been received by the PN leadership.
But doesn’t this dissent – the grumbling of MPs such as Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, or Robert Arrigo, and even Jesmond Mugliett – undermine the government’s stability?
“All disgruntlement undermines governments. If one put his head in the sand and pretends that these things are not happening, one is a complete idiot. And if one can do something and fails to do it, he is not acting properly.”
So what is to be done then to reverse the disgruntlement?
“There has to be the capability of putting all this energy together and direct it in one direction and put everyone in synch. It requires skills to put things together.”
But when I ask Dalli about what his assessment of the Prime Minister’s handling of the situation is, he prefers not to pass judgement, perhaps a silence that speaks volumes. “I prefer to keep that to myself,” he replies.
I ask Dalli whether his work as minister could be interrupted abruptly if he is appointed as Malta’s EU Commissioner, as touted in other sections of the press. Some observers would be ready to say Dalli’s name is being floated by the party spin doctors as a way of getting him out of the Cabinet. But is he interested in the €200,000 a year salary to be Commissioner?
“Naturally I have to see what this entails. I have always been of service to country since I was elected to parliament in 1987. I have to consider all the options through which I can be of best service to the country.”
He also makes it clear that he is “enjoying” his role as health minister and that he is no rush to leave. “This is a Ministry with lots of challenges.”
But could one interpret his appointment as Commissioner as a kick upstairs and out of the Cabinet and Nationalist group?
Dalli insists that being appointed EU Commissioner is not like being promoted to a ceremonial post, as this role entails a vaster constituency than the Maltese one and the role dictates that one has to achieve certain objectives. “Whether it’s a kick or not,” he wryly observes, “I do not know. But surely it is not a question of being given an unimportant position under the pretext that you are being honoured. An EU Commissioner has an assiduous task and our lives are dependent on those people up there. It is not like going there for a long holiday.”
Surely his views on Marisa Micallef’s defection to Labour are different from those expressed by PN’s secretary-general Paul Borg Olivier, who said the former Housing Authority chairman was desperately looking for a job that government could not give her. Dalli makes it clear that he does not relish in seeing her cross over to the other side, but he defends her right to change her opinion. “This is a free country where everyone is free to make assessments and take decisions of his own.”
Borg Olivier questioned the motives of her defection to Labour by describing her as a “victim of the financial crisis”, alleging that she was unhappy the government was not able to provide her with a job. Going by Dalli’s bold statements so far, it is with little surprise that he expresses his disagreement with Borg Olivier.
“I am John Dalli, not Paul Borg Olivier… and I make different assessments. I may also have different values of democracy,” is his stinging barb at his party’s bungling secretary-general. He goes on, saying that democracy demands that people should be left free to make their own decisions. “We cannot expect that the country remains static… People and situations change, and if you are an intelligent person you make different assessments at different points in life on whether something is good or bad… Until five years ago I used to eat tuna with radish, now I’ve become allergic to tuna. If you ask me why I don’t eat tuna anymore I’ll tell you that I’ve made a decision based on new circumstances.”
Beyond his metaphor on the natural process of change, Dalli says Micallef’s legacy in his ministry was that she followed the government’s policy to assist people in the purchasing of housing and other policies developed in this regard. “When I came in I immediately started to redirect policies in this sector, in view of the fact that circumstances have changed with rent reform. Our priority will be to provide assistance to people who are renting rather than buying houses… There is a stratum in society which we need to assist in that regard today.”
As social policy minister John Dalli is responsible for administrating 42% of public expenditure. How realistic is it to expect the government to cut down on its expenditure, in this particular economic climate?
Dalli makes it clear that a large portion of this expenditure is conditioned by what he calls “the political expenditure” which is tied to “the political promises and commitments which were made in the past.”
But one can still cut expenditure by improving efficiency, he says. “In this way we will still be able to do what we are doing today at a lower cost.”
According to Dalli, his ministry has already reduced the monthly expenditure on medicines from €7 million to €4.5 million. This was accomplished by cutting on the over-stocking of medicines and finding more cost-effective ways of purchasing medicines and negotiating better prices.
But would it not make more sense if the government buys the medicines directly from foreign sources, instead of relying on local medicine importers and middle-men (often dubbed ‘cartels’ by some members of the medical profession)? Dalli is sceptical about the government buying directly from big pharmaceutical companies, because its small market does not give it the leverage to exercise pressure on the few giants that dominate the sector. “The clout which Malta can exercise is small and you would face big difficulties if you try to purchase all medicines directly from the companies.”
But according to Dalli, costs have been reduced after the government started buying directly from foreign wholesalers. “When we came to buying expensive cancer medicines, we went directly to wholesalers abroad and we managed to bring medicines at half the price that was being quoted locally.”
But to further strengthen the government’s hand in this sector, the government needs more human resources. “We need pharmacists who are trained to conduct these negotiations and I believe that we can introduce much more competitiveness than we have at present in the purchasing of pharmaceuticals.”
Finance Minister Tonio Fenech has singled out single mothers as a category prone to welfare abuse. Statistics presented in parliament last year showed that there are only 2,250 individuals receiving social assistance, sharing between them just over €8 million in single parent benefits (a figure far less than the €21 million spent on university stipends) – is the government hitting out at the wrong target?
Dalli concurs with Fenech that abuse in this sector has to be controlled. “These social assistance programmes have been initiated with the best of intentions but the road to hell is often paved with good intentions,” he notes, adding that he is irked by bogus single parents wrongfully claiming welfare. “I do not mind assisting single parents because they really need special assistance but I do not like single parenthood to planned.”
He claims that the system has been warped in a way that some people are seeing single parenthood as a source of income. He refers to the large number of children registered as having an ‘unknown father’, which number about 10% of all children born in Malta. According to Dalli this either means that fathers are abdicating their responsibilities on the taxpayer, or that some parents are making informal arrangements in which the father provides undeclared subsistence while the mother receives state benefits. “This is wrong. And if it’s wrong it has to be corrected.”
But Dalli also adds a dose of conservative moralism as he insists that “bearing children in a single-parent environment is not socially correct,” and that “our ideal is not that of raising children in a single-parent environment.”
Still, he insists that single parents are just one category among many and that he disagrees with making them “martyrs”. “We have families in which unemployment is hereditary and multi-generational… Our principle should be that all vulnerable categories should be assisted but we should not tolerate abuse by anyone.”
One of John Dalli’s first commitments as health minister was to strengthen the primary health sector. But recently the opening times of several health centres have been reduced. Is this the government’s misguided way of strengthening this sector?
Dalli admits that this is not the right way forward. He points out that the opening hours of health centres were only reduced after a dispute with the Medical Association of Malta (MAM) when the government tried to change work practices. “This would have reduced the working time of nurses and doctors at night when the demand is very low and increased their workload during the day. In this way we would have been able to keep the same opening hours during the day.”
Discussions with unions on this issue are still underway. For Dalli, “insisting on working when your services are not needed” is another form of abuse, adding that should be the employer – who represents the taxpayer – who should determine working conditions. “We cannot design systems to suit the needs of employees who are providing the service. We have to design system which suits the patient.”
But despite these obstacles, the government still has ambitious plans for strengthening primary healthcare, promising that by the end of November the government will be issuing a blueprint for this sector for public consultation. “We are seeing health centres as robust clinics located in different areas of Malta that can give much more service than today.”
He laments that, over the years, Malta’s healthcare system ignored the patient, whom he considers to be the main stakeholder. “I want to put the patient back at the centre of health policies… when I became health minister I made it very clear that I am representing the patients… I am not a doctor or a nurse and I am making sure that systems are reformed in a way that take the patient in to account.”
Upon his appointment, Dalli promised to do his utmost to reduce the waiting lists. Has anything changed since then? So far the government has conducted an exercise to see what was going on. “During this exercise we found dead people on the waiting lists, we found people counted three times because they were seeing three consultants,” he says.
What the government plans to do next is to centralize the management of these waiting lists instead of leaving them in the hands of individual consultants. But the bottom line in reducing waiting lists is financial. “We have quantified what it takes to start cutting these waiting lists and we have made our request of resources from the Ministry of Finance.”
Dalli promises that if the resources arrive, within a three-year period he will bring the waiting lists to a reasonable timeframe, but his promise comes with a disclaimer: “we are not going to abolish waiting lists.”
Asked about his hopes for his party, Dalli says that blind loyalty is no solution to the current problems facing the PN, and he suddenly elicits yet another description of the way he perceives himself – a free thinker: “The PN is a party of free thinkers. We were never a herd of goats. If we become a herd my place will not be in the party anymore. I am not a goat that follows the shepherd.”

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