14 NOVEMBER 2001

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A safe destination crying out for investment

IF A MAJOR INVESTOR IS SETTING HIS SIGHTS ON MALTA, ARE WE DOING EVERYTHING POSSIBLE TO ENCOURAGE HIM, OR ARE WE SIMPLY PUTTING UP HURDLES THAT ACT AS A DISINCENTIVE? SHADOW MINISTER FOR INDUSTRY JOHN ATTARD MONTALTO TALKS TO RAY ABDILLA ON THIS AND OTHER ISSUES


Was it difficult being Industry Minister under a Labour government?
I cannot say I found it difficult, rather I think it is a question of organisation, management and communication. If one has these abilities one makes a good minister.

In what way do you think the Nationalists are failing to deliver when it comes to industry and public investment?
I think it was a mistake for the Nationalists to raise everyone’s hopes on the basis of Malta’s application for European Union membership. Evidently this was just a perception.

Do you think the only difference in policies between the two parties is European Union membership?
No. Although foreign policy appears to be the main difference, in reality the social perspective is the fundamental difference.

During the seventies and early eighties the Labour governments were heavily criticised for adopting policies that encouraged cheap Labour investment. Do you think that the present government is working hard enough to bring foreign investment to Malta?
I believe that this criticism was unjustified since today’s major industries were born in that period. On the second issue, I always believe that you have to judge effort by results. The latter has been dismal.

Do you think that the current Nationalist administration is adopting any of the same policies as the last Labour administration?
It would have been wise if the Nationalists had done just that. Certainly it is much more difficult to fathom than the changes made.

Most of our industry comes from Germany and specific European countries, such as England and Italy. Should we be trying to get further investment from more diverse markets and have we lost some opportunities because we no longer offer cheap labour anymore?
I don’t think that Malta has discarded these opportunities, rather vice-versa. I believe that the lack of investment from particular countries is not due to lack of cheap labour.

Do you believe that Gozo should be marketed as a separate destination or as part of Malta?
Gozo has its particular assets and liabilities. Obviously it is a good idea to capitalise on Gozo’s assets and not try to treat the small island as a smaller version of Malta.

Foreign investment has declined during the past years in Malta. Although we still house some giants, like ST Microelectronics, new companies of the same weight are simply not coming here. Why?
None of us should be satisfied with the amount of foreign direct investment which we have attracted during the past years. On the other hand when a major investor sets his eyes on Malta, we have to ask whether we have done everything possible to encourage him, or whether we have instead put up hurdles.

This is going to be a difficult and challenging year, with ripple effects from 11 September being felt everywhere. Do you think that there is something which needs to be done in Malta to curb this uncertainty?
The world changed on 11 September. Malta can gain from this tragedy by being marketed as a safe location/destination. Perhaps the sceptics will ultimately learn to value the farsighted policy of neutrality.

Have you always been involved in industry? Was it a surprise to you that you were given such a ministry?
I was marginally involved in industry although my mother’s family were once Malta’s leading entrepreneurs involved in shipping, wine-making, milling and a host of other things. I was surprised to have been chosen for industry but when Alfred Sant called me to the Castille, I had a feeling that he was not going to give me the Ministry of Justice – perhaps for my own good - as I had so many criminal cases pending.

There were rumours that you might not contest with the Malta Labour Party at the next polls. Is this true?
They are pure rumours.

What are your views about the EU? Will it have an effect on our industry?
In a nutshell, membership would mean the loss of purchasing raw materials at the best price. I think that this will have a negative impact. On the other hand one advantage will be that Malta’s industry will gain accessibility to those non-EU countries which have entered into a trade agreement with the EU.

What does Malta need to do to improve its industry sector?
We need a complete new law relating to foreign investment and an overhaul of our industrial infrastructure. Marketing must be changed from blanket bombing to precise targeting and finally we must mean what we say when we refer to industry.

As a former minister and a long-serving Labour deputy have you ever considered running for leadership or deputy leadership?
I have been approached but always declined.

Is it true that at the districts you contest there are certain divisions between the Labour party candidates?
Yes and no. No because the competition is no different from any other district and yes because our political system demands that you always have to be more aware of your colleague than your political adversaries.

What is your present relationship with Dom Mintoff? And has his relationship hampered your strength in the party?
Since 1987, I have been his friend and lawyer. This relationship continues to this very day. I do not think that this had an adverse effect on my strength within the party but then I am optimistic by nature.

What about the Busietta Garden's case? Dr Sant did not agree with you about buying property there…
This was a personal investment. I have always believed that to succeed in politics I should refrain from allowing these two aspects to overlap. But today this is history as Busietta has been disposed of.

What is your position on Europe?
I am proud to be a Mediterranean European. Neutral Malta forms part of my Europe in the centre of the Mediterranean. My position is that these three cardinal aspects- neutrality, the European dimension and a Mediterranean identity are untouchable.

Do you agree with a referendum on the EU?
Yes.

Do you think that there is a conflict of interest between politics and being a criminal lawyer?
As long as I keep these two areas distinct and separate the answer is no.

Is the MLP still in crisis having lost so many valid people and suffering from internal conflict?
I do not think that the MLP has a crisis. Like all political parties there’s some differences of opinion. But this is healthy.
Regarding the loss of valid people in the MLP like Lino Spiteri, George Abela and Toni Abela, this is, admittedly, a minus.
As for criticising the leadership, one has to draw a fine line between party democracy and party discipline. With less than two years to the general election everyone should back the party leadership. Doing the opposite will have an adverse effect on the outcome of the general election.

What are the MLP’s strengths?
The Labour party is a party of refuge for the less fortunate. It has been able to project itself as a party with a place for all sections of society.

Can Malta still attract foreign investment with everyone demanding higher and higher wages?
Yes. Given that Malta is no longer a cheap labour location, we must admit that it is a democratic destination with a skilled labour force, technically able to compete with its peers; a safe and secure country yearning for foreign investment.



The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07
Tel: (356) 382741-3, 382745-6 | Fax: (356) 385075 | e-mail: editorial@networkpublications.com.mt