10 JULY 2002

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Air Malta, beach rooms and Queiroz feature in MIA Parliamentary debate

By Kurt Sansone

Parliament yesterday approved the transfer of land to Malta International Airport as part of the privatisation deal with a vote of 30 in favour and 23 against.

The debate continued at length yesterday with a discussion that had little to do with the MIA privatisation and more to do with Air Malta, Fort St Angelo, beach rooms and drugs.

Speaker after speaker, from both sides of the House, with an imbalance in favour of the Opposition spoke about the deal with so much gusto that most of the speeches were unconnected to the motion under discussion.

In his winding down speech in the evening Finance Minister John Dalli made reference to this situation and expressed his amazement at the lack of discipline shown in Parliament.

In the morning session the cherry on the cake was provided by Labour MP Joe Debono Grech. He kicked off his contribution by tracing back Air Malta’s turbulent beginning in the 1970s.

In his typical style Mr Debono Grech chided the businessmen, who today want to buy a stake in State owned companies earmarked for privatisation, for not showing trust in the creation of these same companies in the 1970s.

Returning to the MIA deal the veteran politician asked what guarantees were in place to ensure that employees will not lose their job because of the privatisation process. Shooting off at a tangent Mr Debono Grech said that he knew what it meant to be without work and ranted on about the time he was expelled from Medserv by a Nationalist government and the subsequent court decisions. With excitement running high in his voice Mr Debono Grech also found time to mention the need to clean up Fort St Angelo.

Other Labour Speakers including Noel Farrugia and Silvio Parnis talked about the history of Air Malta. After all it is Labour’s baby. They emphasised the airline’s success despite intense criticism from the then Nationalist Opposition in the 1970s.

But Air Malta also got a mention from the government side of the House. Economic Services Minister Josef Bonnici started off by stressing the importance of the MIA deal and how this was superior to the privatisation envisaged by the Labour Party on the eve of the 1998 election.

At a tangent Prof. Bonnici then spoke about the excellent deal Air Malta managed to make with Airbus over the leasing of its new fleet of aircraft. He did not fail to mention the agreement reached between Air Malta and Lufthansa on the creation of a joint venture for aeroplane maintenance and repair.

Labour MP Evarist Bartolo tried to put the discussion in a wider context, stressing that the Labour Party was not against privatisation if this was done correctly.

Mr Bartolo said that abroad the privatisation of airports made sense because they had more than one airport. But Malta’s only airport was a strategic asset for the country as a whole. Mr Bartolo insisted that government should never lose control of the airport.

From then onwards Mr Bartolo fell into the same trap as the other MPs. He started speaking about regulatory authorities. "These authorities are made up of people who err as well," Mr Bartolo warned stressing the importance to have a proper system of checks and balances.

The country’s dire financial situation also got a mention, as did the plight of elderly people, who presumably cannot cope with the cost of living.

Finance Minister John Dalli adjourned the morning debate for the evening. But the situation did not change much. After a long winded preamble on land transfers to the private sector, which included an extensive reference to the Armier beach rooms and the Planning Authority, Labour MP Joe Mizzi stressed that the airport was of utmost importance for the country’s security.

He insisted that the issue was not just the transfer of the land but one of security. Pardoned Brazilian drug trafficker Queiroz also featured extensively in Mr Mizzi’s speech.

Finance Minister John Dalli then wound down the debate by pinpointing that the Parliamentary motion concerned the rationalisation of the land occupied by MIA and the airport. He explained that government was taking back the land occupied by MIA, so that it could lease it to the company for an annual fee. Thus privatisation of the airport would not mean privatisation of the land on which the airport is built.

Mr Dalli said that the airport security arrangements were going to remain as they are today and insisted that the runway was to remain in government’s hands. The Finance Minister’s speech was not complete without due reference to the Labour Party’s past opposition to the construction of the new airport terminal.


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