Leaving an Impact: Interview with Owen Bonnici


Politics was always a serious matter for Owen Bonnici, Minister for Education and Employment. From a very young age, he considered politics as that perfect platform where he could express and share his beliefs. Above all, it was that medium through which he could offer his service for a better society and for a better Malta. Yet Minister Bonnici has more to tell other than politics. Apart from being a minister and a politician, he is a successful lawyer, a father and also is a partner to Remenda Grech with whom he lives in Żurrieq. Minister Bonnici shared with us what attracted him into politics, his experience as a minister spearheading two key portfolios and his life behind the scenes.

At what stage in your life did you feel the urge to be involved in politics?

I was always patiently impatient.

I was always patient, because I was always very cool headed and I don’t lose my calm very easily.

I was always impatient, because I always wanted to see change around me, I always expected the best out of people and I always believed that Malta has never achieved its full potential.

Since I was a young boy, I was always fascinated with decision making processes. I used to observe how decisions were taken in my small microcosm, at home, or in class at school. I always loved to decipher the actions of people and to understand why people act the way they do and, perhaps, more importantly, react the way that they do.

The fact that I had a very inquisitive and very intelligent older brother helped as well and I used to patiently ask him a lot of questions, waiting impatiently for the answers.

I remember that our conversations around the dinner table at home invariably centered about politics all the time. Whether it was local or foreign, whether it was about something that Mintoff or Karmenu or Eddie did, or whether it was something about what Reagan or Gorbachev said or did, it was politics everyday all the time.

You have to understand that my brother and I grew up reading a lot, totally immersed in learning. My father – another very patient man – used to work for a newspaper and brought us free newspapersand magazines every day. I used to race for them as soon as I heard my father insert the key in the lock and open the door at roundabout 4 p.m. We used to spend our weekends watching all sorts of videos and audiovisual material which my father used to obtain for us from libraries such as the one which the ones found at the American Embassy used to have. On lucky days, I used accompany with him to Floriana just to be able to see US soldiers in uniform performing security checks on us upon entering the embassy like they do on TV. That was amazing!

My dad also invested some good money in an encyclopaedia – a large, red collection called Everyman’s Encyclopaedia – and with it a series of classics from the world of literature. They were our toys. So I used to watch on the videotapes obtained from the American Embassy that documented about Ronald Reagan was doing, about the cold war, the need of bringing down that wall in Berlin. I was still a kid and I probably understood less than half of a quarter of what was being said.

But then my father taught me how to write the difficult words down on a piece paper, patiently search them in the encyclopaedia and impatiently ask my older brother for an explanation if I still could not get the gist of what was being said.

I was fascinated by NASA, space travel, cartoons, languages, the art. I loved Ronald Reagan in particular because he used to speak in a way which I kind of understood, and used to laugh a lot at his jokes.

My mother, on the other hand, adored Dom Mintoff. Funnily enough Mintoff reminded me of my grandfather and I thought – as a kid – that they looked very similar. I did not like Mintoff that much because, unlike Reagan, he never cracked any jokes. For a lot of time, I thought that JFK and Reagan were related, like me and my brother. They were both so nice, there was no other way!

I also wanted to learn about what is around us, how we can change what is around us.

I remember searching up the encyclopaedia for “Glasnost” and “Perestroika” and “the Berlin Wall” and then asking my brother to tell me again in his own words what they meant.

When I was asked at school what I wanted to do when I grew up, I immediately answered: politics.

Why do politics matter?

Politics is essentially about how to turn a territory, population and jurisdiction into a social nucleus which creates wealth and distributes that wealth in a just manner.

Left to their own devices, a man or a woman is ego-centered. Placed in an educated society with laws and rules, that same man or woman can do an extraordinary amount of good.

History shows us that the best system with which this social nucleus is run is through the democratic method and by means of constitutionalism.

Through politics, we can take decisions using the best method and means that history gave us and do an incredible amount of good.

Even a tiny decision can alter the quality of life of many.

What makes a good politician?

There are qualities of a good politician which are applicable to every society and others which are applicable in particular societies more than others.

For me a good politician should always have the following qualities:

  • Humility. One has to be humble enough to learn from mistakes and humble enough to realise that with great responsibilities comes the need to keep the feet firmly rooted to the ground;
  • Self-confidence. A good politician must be sure of himself / herself.
  • Vision. A good politician must stand for something and must be able to see what others do not, must be able to foresee what the future will be before others. Must be he/she lead the way and inspire people;
  • Honesty. Politics is not a business venture. It is a mission of making society a better place.
  • Excellent social skills. A good politician must be an excellent communicator, a gentleman / lady in the way he / she carries himself / herself and be able to connect with all strata of society. One must deliver and keep his / her promises.
  • Smart. A good politician must be a smart. He / she must plot an end game prior to every move, and be at least two steps ahead of others. A part of being smart is being able to form a team of very good people who work for you. In Malta, a good politician must also be very close to the people he / she represents. One must be seen and felt, and more importantly provide solutions.

Winston Churchill once noted; “Politics is not a game. It is an earnest business.” To what extent do you agree?

Indeed, it is a very serious business. It is a very serious business for the people who are affected by the decisions politicians take, and it is a very serious business for the politicians themselves because it can very well take up the whole of your life.

How would you sum up your experience as Minister for Justice, Culture and Local Government?

It was a fantastic experience. It gave me a unique opportunity to deliver on a lot of changes which improved our country, our democracy and the people’s standard of living.

I will give some examples: the whistleblowers’ act, the party financing law, the law on prescription in cases of corruption, the reform in the drugs legislation which led to a much more sensible situation, the reform in the Office of the Attorney General (which led to the creation of the State Attorney), the setting up of a Parliamentary committee for the scrutiny of public offices, the right to legal assistance during arrest, the introduction of the right of disclosure, the bolstering of the witness protection programme, the increase in efficiency in the clearance rate in the civil courts, the plethora of IT tools which were given freely to law practitioners, the reform (agreed unanimously in Parliament) in the method of appointment of the Judiciary, the increase of a Judge in the ECJ, the setting up of new halls in the law courts, a new judiciary’s building, the whole Presidency of the European Union and the number of files we closed in our six months, the setting up of EPPO on an EU-level, the improved conditions for members of the Judiciary, the setting up of Court Attorneys to assist the Judiciary in the drafting of judgments, Valletta 2018, the cultural program for the presidency, the IFAACA summit in Malta, the creation of Żfin Malta, Teatru Malta and Festivals Malta, the Heritage Passport which gave free access to all residents to all Heritage Malta sites, the reopening of St Angelo, the reopening of St Elmo, the reopening of Rabat Catacombs, the ambitious restoration program in various historical sites, the strengthening of the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage, the opening of MUŻA, the financial assistance which started to be given to firework enthusiasts and other traditional cultural expressions, the laws protecting band clubs from eviction, the participation in the Venice Biennale … I can keep going on forever.

These are all changes that I am very proud to have implemented. This is a very strong legacy which I have left behind.

You have now been entrusted with the Ministry for Education and Employment. What are the challenges of this new portfolio?

I like to call it the Ministry of the Future because in essence it is allivates the wealth-creators of tomorrow.

One of the most positive things in the Ministry is that Education and Employment are brought together under one roof, meaning that education is not perceived in isolation but as part and parcel with the skills needed in the world of today and tomorrow. This is a very wise decision which is very beneficial to our country.

I am really enjoying the work that I am doing at the Ministry. I love kids, and I absolutely want to have the best education possible to give them the best future possible.
The number one challenge in this portfolio is to make sure that no kids are left behind, that everyone gets a fair chance at making it, that the guy or girl
who comes from the most humble house in Malta
can study, work hard and become the most successful person in our country. This means that the rate of school leavers must drop, that we must provide opportunities for students to take the educational journey of their liking and that inclusion must be at the centre of everything we do.
Our educators are our front liners. Every child deserves a champion, and they are our children’s champions.

Way back in January, you broke down your plan for the education sector into four aims. Can you tell us more about your strategy?

Essentially throughout the months and years to come I will focus on these four principles: improving

the quality of the school experience, tackling gaps in the education system to ensure that nobody is left out, improving post-secondary education as well as making sure that people continue to learn after they left school.

These four aims are the hall marks of everything that we will accomplish and I am really excited about the extraordinary amount of positive initiatives we will be doing in the next months and years.

There is absolutely no reason why Malta should not be a trail blazer in the field of education and educational achievement. We will keep going from strength to strength; we will keep giving our best to our children.

What major challenges has COVID-19 brought to the table for both education and employment? 

COVID-19 brought a lot of challenges since it effectively created a physical barrier between the people at home and the classroom or the place of work for about three months.

Together we have managed to overcome those challenges and we are fully focused on turning these challenges into opportunities.

I am sure that everyone will agree that good things came out of what we as a country have done through: we are more united than ever before, we have uncovered the beauty of the ordinary in life and it was an opportunity for us all to reset our priorities.

How does your personal life look like?

I am a father to Ema, who is 12 years of age. I am 40 years old.

I live in Żurrieq with Remenda, who is a social worker by profession and heads Government entities in the field of social protection. Remenda has a daughter too and the girls go very well together and know how to have good fun!

I love reading, watching documentaries. I support Southampton FC and I used to play the electric guitar.

Whats next for Owen Bonnici?

I intend to give my 100 percent to the fields of Education and Employment and make another success out of the experience.

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