The University Political Leaders’ debate is being held today at the Temi Zammit Hall at the University of Malta.
Six podiums were initially set on stage. Patrijotti Maltin’s Henry Battistino is included in the debate for the first time; another four were assigned to Prime Minister and Labour Party (PL) leader Joseph Muscat, Nationalist Party (PN) leader Simon Busuttil, Alternattiva Demokratika (AD) leader Arnold Cassola and Democratic Party (PD) leader Marlene Farrugia. Organisers announced that they had to remove one of the podiums as Alleanza Bidla chose not to participate in the event.
The debate is moderated by Luke Hili, a final year university student.
Marlene Farrugia and Simon Busuttil were given the warmest welcome, but there were cheers for Prime Minister Joseph Muscat too.
Opening the debate, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said that the discussion needed to be a battle of ideas and not a shouting match.
He said that it was important that students vote. “We are living in a world where young people have lost faith in their government.”
The Labour Government, he said, was able to provide students with gainful employment as soon as they leave university.
He also said that his government championed civil rights and a number of controversial liberal policies, pointing to his party’s proposals on recreational marijuana, and the regulation of prostitution.
Leader of Alternattiva Demokratika Arnold Cassola thanked the University of Malta for providing the opportunity for the party to share their ideas in front of the Prime Minister and Labour Party leader Joseph Muscat and Opposition Leader Simon Busuttil, “unlike the broadcasting authority,” Dr Cassola said.
Speaking about proposals linked with University, he said that AD are pledging that elections for university representatives are democratic, while the rector of University should be elected by students, and not by the government.
He also said that UOM should have a science laboratory to be able to test things such as pesticides in food, rather than being sent abroad. “This is our health!” he stated.
Leader of Partit Demokratiku Marlene Farrugia said she is here today because she believes there is a need for Malta to change direction. Democracy should not just be exercised on election day, but Malta deserves to be governed by a fully democratic government year-round.
Moviment Patrijotti Maltin Leader Henry Battistino began by apologising for not being the skinhead the media portrayed him to be.
“You thought I would have swastika tattoos, but I am a grandfather of five, a businessman who believes in Christian values.”
He said that Malta needed to be built on students, with traditional families. Liberalism is producing a society where no one is happy.
“That is the truth,” he said. “We no longer have traditional Christian values,” he said, “let us save the families.”
Leader of the Nationalist Party Simon Busuttil said that it is a shame that in the middle of elections, the students find themselves In the middle of election. “This shows there is a fundamental problem,” he said.
“All the country is going to vote and the world is going to decide whether to keep working with us,” he continued. “Investments from outside means investment in education, it means our jobs, your jobs, jobs in financial sectors, science, gaming,” he continued to a sound of applause. “If this investment stops, because those outside see we are not up to it, everything will stop,” he said.
He said that the problem is that those who have the power to stop corruption is closing its eyes to it.. “We are voting about that this election,” he said, “the results will affect everything.”
In later rounds of the debate, Dr Muscat ssaid he had confidence in the people. “The public will always choose right,” he said.
Dr Muscat said he ordered an investigation on the Egrant allegations and reiterated the challenge to Dr Busuttil to step down if the allegations made are proven to be false.
Prof. Cassola told students that they should be delighted in electing PN or PL because they are promising tax cuts for everyone, “just like father Christmas,” he said while the crowd laughed.
It was Marlene Farrugia’s turn to milk the crowd. “The first step towards good education is a good example,” she said while referring to the Panama Papers.
Mr Battistino said he hates corruption, but to claim that this election is about corruption is wrong. He said that despite all these allegations, corruption will always be present because it is institutionalised. “The only way to solve this is to have the President elected by the public together with a senate.”
PN leader Dr Busuttil said Joseph Muscat only called for an investigation into the Egrant saga after the evidence was removed from Pilatus Bank. “I do not have a company in Panama, and none of the members in my party do.” He said the public should ask Labour Party if it has any members with a secret company in Panama and Muscat would not be able to reply. He said Dr Muscat appears convinced but he is failing to convince the public and said that it seems that he already knows that the evidence has vanished.
At one point a student was heard shouting “you’re wasting time Simon, get your proposals out,” which led Dr Busuttil to speak about what the PN is offering in the education sector.
Asked about measures to eliminate corruption, Dr Muscat said this government already implemented a number of measures in this regard, but the crowd booed in disapproval.
He told Dr Busuttil that there are candidates of the PN who have offshore accounts and told him to go look up who is he talking about. “Even your party president offers to open companies in Panama,” he said.
Prof Cassola said that the only real mistake was done by the students’ parents for always voting for the two main parties. He held a photo of Keith Schembri in his hand and said “this is the real prime minister.” He later also showed a photo of PN MP Toni Bezzina, who withdrew an application for a development on ODZ land only after public outcry.
Marlene Farrugia started her intervention with a simple “the falsity of the Labour Party.” She said the government failed to implement the bill on standards in public life simply because the party does not want to subject itself to it. She said that the government implemented the whistleblowers’ act, but it was only those whistleblowers who favour the Labour government that were protected.
It was Battistino’s turn again, with a voice so hoarse, the public fell silent to try and understand what his right-winged party was proposing. “At no point, despite all of this corruption, did anyone go to jail,” he said.
Simon Busuttil said that while Joseph Muscat removed the time-barring on cases concerning corruption by politicians, the PM is simply not allowing the police to investigate. “The PN is proposing that the most important posts in public life are chosen by a two-thirds majority.” He replied to the accuations made by Prof Cassola, about Toni Bezzina’s application on ODZ land, Dr Busuttil said that he had told Bezzina “you either drop the permit or you’re out.” He pledged that a PN government will not develop the White Rocks complex.
It was time to read out the questions sent by the public. First question was regarding how will the PN and PL see that Malta’s future is safeguarded. Dr Muscat said that students are the success of our country. He then mentioned how this government managed to create more jobs than in the previous 25 years. “This can be the best time for our country, by being clear with our proposals.”
Asked whether he will keep up the momentum in civil liberties, Dr Busuttil promised that the rights introduced by this government will be retained completely. He said a PN government will introduce gay marriage. “I want to build on the good things which were done.”
Dr Farrugia said that civil liberties are not only about one’s sexuality, they are also about freedom of speech. She accused the Labour Party of being sexist in its comments and also its billboards. She said this should be a time to celebrate and educate students on the choice they need to make on the future of our country.
Prof Cassola thanked Dr Busuttil for promising that he will never built on White Rocks. He said the biggest factory in Malta is practicing modern day slavery. He told Dr Muscat should tell the Commissioner to investigate, “well it depends, because he might be eating some rabbiot.”
Dr Muscat said that he has no problem in being in a “four against one confronation”, and the crowd cheered. PN supporters, on the other hand, tried to shout “shame on you.” He called on politicians to keep calm, and that no one should attack personally.
Simon Busuttil told Joseph Muscat that he started with a majority of 36,000 votes so he should not feel so intimidated. He said Labour won with a nine-seat majority, but among other things lost Marlene Farrugia midway through. The PN also won two extra seats via court procedures and Labour’s whip Godfrey Farrugia also left the party to join the PD.
The leaders were asked a specific question on mental health.
Dr Muscat said that this is no laughing matter and the government should take it very seriously. He said PL is pledging the shutting down of Mount Carmel Hospital and set up a new hospital to treat people with mental conditions..
Marlene Farrugia said the government should work more on prevention. “Cure is important, but we need to deal with issues which affect mental wellbeing, like proper environment.”
Dr Busuttil avoided giving a clear answer whether he would resign if the allegations on the Egrant company belonging to the PM’s wife prove to be false. “I did not come up with allegations, it was a whistle blower. My job is to address such accusations.”
Dr Muscat said that what Dr Busuttil said implied that he would not resign. “I am not tied to the chair of power. If the public decides not to elect the Labour Party, I will not be a Leader of the Opposition. I will resign immediately should the investigation link me directly.”
For a moment, the Prime Minister was interrupted when a security officer approached a student for shouting “shame on you.”
Marlene Farrugia said that Egrant inquiry should not serve as the basis for this election, “you have to look at these last four years.”
Simon Busuttil said that if it is very serious matter to have a company in Panama and the PM intends to resign if allegations are proven, “then why didn’t you have Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi expelled?”
The next question was about how will the leaders clean up Malta’s reputation in the wake of the scandal related to the Panama Papers. “It’s the message, not the messanger,” Dr Busuttil said while insisting that he should not be blamed for what is happening in Malta.
Prime Minister Muscat was asked about the multi-storey car park that was promised for the university. Dr Muscat said a tender was issued and won by Vassallo Group to build parking and residence.
A question for the leader of the Opposition on the economy. “If the economy is doing so well now, how much better can it be if we remove corruption,” Dr Busuttil said.
Dr Muscat said that the proposal for self employed by PN did not make sense. He said the PN will put in danger the rights of the workers.
At this point, Prof. Cassola answered the phone and Dr Muscat told him “you look like Franco Debono.” In response, the AD leader said, “I used it once, you have been using it throughout all of the debate, reading texts from Kurt Farrugia.”
Taking students’ questions, Dr Busuttil said that Beppe Fenech Adami was investigated by three magistrates and nothing was found about him. Asked about his pre-electoral statement that a Labour government would crash the economy into a wall, Dr Muscat said that Muscat crashed the whole country into a wall.