Interview | Sunday, 21 February 2010

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The personal and the political

For the past month, ROBERT MUSUMECI has been the butt of a virulent online attack which may have cost him his future in the Nationalist Party. He talks about divorce, ballistic bloggers, MEPA policies and the importance of forgiveness

Nationalist mayor Robert Musumeci has been the subject of virulent personal attacks and a disclosure of intimate details of his private life on Daphne Caruana Galizia’s blog. He is visibly hurt by these attacks but keeps his cool.
“I think that anyone’s personal life should always remain personal… I have a private life like everyone else and I expect this to be respected. But I have no hard feelings towards anyone who chose to delve into my personal life for the sake of sensationalism or any other motive unknown to me, and even though many statements were incorrect… life goes on.”
As an elected mayor representing the Nationalist Party, did he expect his party to condemn the contents of Caruana Galizia’s blog?
“Everyone is free to give his or her interpretation or opinion. Everyone looks at things from his or her perspective. All I can say is that I really appreciate those who stood by me. There were many people who stood by me in the past weeks. I will remain grateful to these persons all my life.”
Did the Prime Minister exert any pressure on him not to contest the by-election for John Dalli’s seat in parliament? Musumeci replies by giving a full account of his meeting with the Prime Minister.
He makes it clear that he had asked for the meeting himself in the light of the bye-election and what was being said on Caruana Galizia’s blog.
“I wanted to clear the air and put the record straight by rebutting what was being said.”
What did the Prime Minister tell him?
“He kept listening to me and attentively took note of what I was saying.”
But what was Gonzi’s advice on his candidature in the forthcoming bye-election?
“He did not give any advice of this sort, insisting that it was for me to decide whether to contest or not. He simply told me not decide for now… to take my time to decide”.
But he does not contest MaltaToday’s interpretation that this amounted to pressure on him not to contest the bye-election.
“If you interpret this as pressure you are entitled to do so. That was your interpretation and does not discredit your paper in any way...”
Did the Prime Minister express any opinion on the allegations made in Daphne’s blog during the meeting?
“The Prime Minister told me to fight against anything which was not true.”
A few days ago Musumeci described Lawrence Gonzi as a “genuine” person in a post on Facebook. Why did he feel the need to say so?
“This is my opinion. I am also convinced that if there are attacks being orchestrated from other quarters, these do not have his blessing. I am morally convinced of this.”
But don’t you expect the Prime Minister to distance himself or condemn what was written on the blog?
“He did not make any public statement on this. I believe that he did not want to get involved in this controversy. But he had given me advice to fight tooth and nail all that was untruthful.”
I consider Musumeci’s relationship with Scerri Herrera as a private matter, except when this could be perceived to impinge on public life. One legitimate query is: has Musumeci been appointed as a paid court expert by his partner Magistrate Scerri Herrera since the relationship started?
“We have been friends for the past years. Once our friendship turned into a relationship, she took a decision not to give me any such work… This was months before we even started living together.”
But did she appoint him when they were still ‘friends’?
“She used to appoint me like other magistrates and judges.”
Two years ago, Robert Musumeci publicly defended a controversial permit for a block of apartments next to the Lija Belvedere tower. While Musumeci was earnestly defending the permit in his capacity as architect of the project, Magistrate Consuelo Scerri Herrera – an owner of a third floor apartment in the proposed block – paid a visit to the council to demand a council permit for ongoing works after these were stopped due to the absence of a warden.
I ask Robert Musumeci whether he took an extraordinary interest in defending this project because of his friendship with the magistrate?
“Certainly not. As you are aware, I put my utmost in defending all my applications irrespective of the client. I fight for every client of mine. I always make sure that I do the utmost for my client. My history attests to this.”
One case where Musumeci fought tooth and nail for a client was the controversial permit for former PN president Victor Scerri. In this particular case, the permit was approved with a series of conditions attached; and then Musumeci applied first to change one of these conditions and then to do away with the condition altogether. Does this not justify criticism that he uses his professional expertise to find loopholes in the planning system?
“What happened in this case is that MEPA had imposed a condition, the client was unhappy with this condition and he wanted it removed. This is a normal procedure… I defend any application in the spirit of the law which is comforted by case law.”
Although a practicing architect himself, Musumeci was one of the first to suggest that DCC boards should be composed of full-timers. He is satisfied with this aspect of MEPA reform, but expresses reservations on other aspects of the bill.
“What I am mostly concerned about is the transition period between the status quo and the new regime.”
But he is satisfied that Mario de Marco, the newly appointed parliamentary secretary responsible for MEPA, has assured him that the transition will be a smooth one.
Another concern raised by Musumeci is that MEPA has too many conflicting policies. He notes with satisfaction that de Marco has announced that MEPA is adjourning its policies to do away with outdated plans, and to ensure that its policies are clear.
Musumeci has always argued that MEPA should give weight to past decisions to ensure consistency. But does this not risk perpetuating bad decisions taken in the past?
“This is not the case because if a decision was mistaken it will not stand because if something a decision was illegal, it can be revoked (through Article 39A) because of an error on the face of record. Therefore these cannot be used as precedent. One should then assume that any other applications, which are valid, were taken in respect of the law.
MEPA auditor Joe Falzon has recently declared that “architects should not be looking for loopholes in the law in order to work around them and accommodate their client’s egotistical requirements”, and that “architects are bound by the oath they take and an architect’s allegiance is not to his clients, but to the state.”
Does Musumeci agree?
“I always work within the remit of the law. I do not invent laws for myself.”
Musumeci is one of the most sought after architects on the island. To what does he owe his popularity?
“I try to give the best service according to the knowledge I have. That said, I have a great respect for the role of environmentalists.”
Musumeci is the PN’s elected mayor of Siggiewi and he clearly intends to serve his full term even if he does not commit himself on contesting again.
“I want to continue giving my part to make Siggiewi better. I see my role in politics as one in which I work with everyone.”
Musumeci has been accused of socialising with many exponents of the PL at a party which became public knowledge after photos of the guests were first disseminated on Facebook and then on Caruana Galizia’s blog.
“There were also at least six PN deputies at that party. I have no problems having friends in both parties.”
But is there any possibility that he will switch to the Labour Party?
“If you see my record as a mayor you will find that any decision I took was in line with Nationalist Party policy.”
I draw Musumeci’s attention to an exception: he found himself at odds with the deputy mayor Karol Aquilina, when the former proposed a motion to retain a system of employing wardens for just two hours a week – and only in the locality’s rural areas.
Musumeci points out that both parties were split on this issue. In fact, while two Labour councillors abstained, Musumeci rallied the support of a Labour councillor and a PN councillor.
“There was a free vote on this, and both parties were split on the issue.”
Siggiewi is one of the localities where the least number of warden fines are issued.
One of the reasons for this is that Siggiewi is geographically cut off from major arterial roads. But can’t this lead to a situation of anarchy?
“This is not the case, as we have a very orderly situation in the locality.”
I confront Musumeci with a number of photos of vegetable hawkers parked on bus stops and right in the middle of the Siggiewi square.
Musumeci replies that the police are firmly in control of the situation and that it is not up to him to do their work.
Despite the lack of income from the warden system, the Siggiewi council has found money to invest in the improvement of its roads.
“In the past 12 years the council has practically done all the roads in Siggiewi. We are now doing the peripheral roads leading to the rural zones. Next week we are commencing works on the road between Siggiewi and Mqabba.”
But how does the council find the money?
“All money we have is directed to tangible projects. We do not waste money in parties or travel. We use money in a very rational way.”
On Facebook, Robert Musumeci has posted his thoughts on the need to recognise different types of families. Does he favour the introduction of divorce?
“I feel that the country should cater for different forms of families including those who do not conform to traditional forms. We need to have order in society. Therefore one cannot ignore these families.”
He does not categorically express agreement with divorce but hints that it could be a solution: “I am not one of those saying no to divorce,” he says, adding that “if divorce is a solution for those who decide to go separate ways and freely decide to form a new cell… if divorce brings more order for children born in these new families, one cannot exclude it.”
Musumeci believes that while the state should strive to strengthen the family in situations where individuals go their separate ways, “we must minimise the unhappiness and burdens on individuals.”
What is Musumeci’s political future after his failure to get elected in the bye-election?
“I have two years left in the council and I will continue forming part of the PN.”
The government is facing criticism from a number of backbenchers. But Musumeci considers this as a strength rather than a weakness.
“Everyone has a contribution to give to the country and to the party. There is nothing wrong in expressing oneself. All those who have spoken so far have done so to improve things. They are not doing this out of spite. Having a debate is healthy both for the country and the party.”
Musumeci still identifies himself with moderate Christian democratic principles adding that forgiveness is one of the principles he treasures most.
Does this also apply to Daphne Caruana Galizia?
“She is entitled not to endorse me... yet I believe that she crossed the line. I surely do not enjoy reading her blog, especially when the facts are wrong and perceptions go sour. But what would I get by hating her? I still respect her even if she keeps attacking me. I am considered to be liberal on many issues, but if there is one Christian Democratic principle I treasure, it is forgiveness… And therefore I forgive her. I sincerely wish her well and I will never attack her back. After all, each one of us is human and everyone can err!”

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