The man in the blue corner
Even the most ardent PN supporters will tell you Mr Saliba is a love or hate kind of person. There are clearly those who have admired his ability to steer the party comfortably through the 1998 and 2003 general elections, with the small matter of an EU referendum sandwiched between; as well as those who have criticised, harshly at times, the manner in which he runs the party machinery and its media.
That the Pietà headquarters is a construction site at the moment - one phase is complete and another is underway - has a ring of poetic irony about it, which will not be lost on disgruntled PN voters in Sliema. But it also bears more than a modicum of significance for the general secretary, since the party has other exterior alterations to carry out if it is to win the next general election.
Success in the electoral department has certainly been thin on the ground since the euphoric scenes four years ago. The PN suffered an early knock-down when it embarrassingly lost the fifth seat to the Labour Party in the 2004 European Parliament elections and has been battered in each round of local council elections, taking another pounding two weeks ago.
His nose may be bloody - "without doubt, a number of councils were lost by the Nationalist Party and were won Labour Party," Mr Saliba admits - but the man in the blue corner is coming out fighting.
"There's a lot to think about. But the worst thing we can do is carry out the wrong analysis. The argument should be put in this way: Will a person voting in the local council elections vote the same way in a general election? No, he won't. And we have enough experience to be able to say this since in the past both elections have been held on the same day and the results have been different."
A major factor in this month's local council elections was, of course, the turnout, which, at 68 per cent, is extremely low by Maltese standards. Yet, although Mr Saliba believes that the bigger message to the PN was delivered by those who did not vote, he does not take long to point out the silver lining: "This time 35,000 could have voted and didn't... Let's take the 17,000 Nationalists who didn't vote. I understand why they're protesting; because we're a party that's been in government for 20 years and because some people want something back. But there's another 17,000 who normally vote Labour. Now if they wanted to protest against the government, logic tells me they would have voted Labour. But they didn't. Nor did these people vote for Alternattiva Demokratika".
That does not change one simple fact. If the voting pattern remains the same, the PN will lose the next general election, and the general secretary is aware of it. "One of our tasks is to analyse why those people didn't vote and to encourage them to do so by the time an election comes. In every election the main principle is to get the vote out. Then the second step is to get them to vote Nationalist. That's something the PN has to work on."
He is not wrong there. Although Mr Saliba is eager to point out that a recent survey by the Malta Chamber for Small and Medium Enterprise - GRTU has been positive in terms of economic outlook and spending patterns, similar surveys indicate that the voters the PN will need to win an election are dissatisfied in a host of other areas, such as cost of living rises, the controversy surrounding the extension of development boundaries, when even he admits that Malta is already an over-developed country, and most recently the spring hunting issue that caused uproar on both sides.
"It's harder to accommodate people when you're in government," he counters, "but what we have to do is go to the people and explain what we're doing."
The problem, it is put to him, is not so much a lack of explanation as a lack of active consultation with the people that elected them. In short, the government is pushing through policies that people do not want. "On a local level I don't agree with that," Mr Saliba says, "while on a national level people have so far voted for the PN so they have agreed with the party's policies. According to our surveys, we win on almost all the big issues, including the environment, which is quite surprising since I would have imagined that AD would win there."
So where do these surveys place the party if a general election were held tomorrow? "We are virtually neck and neck with the Labour Party, actually slightly ahead. One per cent does not make a difference as it's within the margin of error. But after 20 years in opposition, the Labour Party should have a tidal wave of support by now that puts it firmly ahead. This does not mean we can put our minds at rest. The government's job is to try and strike a balance though this isn't always easy and can cost you on both sides."
Of course, the general election will not be held tomorrow. In fact, both Mr Saliba and Prime Minster Lawrence Gonzi have said it will not happen until 2008. Yet, when invited to do so, the general secretary declines the opportunity to rule out that the country will go to the polls this year: "In politics you never rule out anything. If the surveys suddenly start indicating - I'm obviously exaggerating - that the PN is 10 points ahead, I will advise him to hold an election immediately, which isn't the case. But if the circumstances remain as they are at the moment, common sense dictates that the election will be next year".
Loosely translated, common sense means getting virtually all the difficult decisions out of the way - though the hunting issue remains for the time being at least a potential banana skin - and buying time for the feel-good effects of EU-funded projects, the new Mater Dei Hospital, economic recovery, as well as another budget, to take their course.
Mr Saliba is initially reticent when asked when the general election should take place, emphasising that the decision is the Prime Minister's prerogative and his alone. But since he is one of his closest advisers and will, in all likelihood, again be the campaign manager, what will his advice be to Dr Gonzi? "The best period is May (2008). For me that would be the best time and the time that makes most sense... both logistically and from a common sense point of view."
Whatever the result, Mr Saliba plans to step down when it is over. "I don't think a general secretary should serve more than two legislatures irrespective of whether you win or lose. Going back in our history, Austin Gatt did that, Louis Galea as well, and Lawrence Gonzi served two years." It will not be lost on anyone that the three of them all became ministers, and that the latter went one better. So if the result goes the PN's way, will Mr Saliba seek to go the same way? "No way," is his emphatic reply. "I don't even want to be in Parliament. I had the opportunity in 2004, but it's not for me."
Nor does he express any willingness to work within a ministry or beside the Prime Minister. "I have different aspirations. Would I continue to help the Nationalist Party and would I continue to help the government? Yes, because I have worked my whole life for my country and my party. And I'm proud of this. So, yes, I will continue to help." But he will not say how.
In the meantime, Mr Saliba says he still has a lot of things to do, like completing the reconstruction of the party headquarters and working hard to win the general election. Added to that list is dealing with comments from dissenters like former minister John Dalli, who at an event organised by the MLP last Sunday accused the party - and effectively Mr Saliba himself - of throwing filth in his direction to cause his resignation as Foreign Minister in 2004.
Mr Saliba refutes the accusation - saying, "I don't think that was the case and I don't believe the PN works in that way" - before countering with a measured but pointed response: "Everyone has the right to express himself and then the people can decide".
That is not to say Mr Saliba approves of his party's MPs speaking out openly against the party - in another measured reply he says: "I approve of our MPs speaking freely unhindered"- but the general secretary rules out the possibility of disciplinary action, arguing that it would be wrong for the party to praise members who agree with it and chastise those who do not.
"That's the great thing about our party and I can't imagine someone from the Labour Party doing the same and staying there. We are a popular party. We are not just for the workers, or just for the middle class. We have a coalition of people from all walks of life. We will fail, and lose the election, when this coalition breaks up. And to have this coalition, you have to have conflicts."
Precisely how many his party and government can survive will become apparent next year. Or this year if the PN are 10 points ahead.