Sail with me
Nationalist Party general secretary Joe Saliba inadvertently found himself in the line of fire when he packed his bags for a holiday on a contractor's yacht. He has no regrets. In an interview with Herman Grech, he speaks about the upcoming election and claims that his party has a slim advantage at the polls.
A gust of wind whips up a cloud of dust across the PN headquarters, under construction.
Mr Saliba makes himself comfortable at his makeshift office across the street. His face is tanned, and it's not the result of the grilling he has just received at the hands of the Labour Party media after spending a few days out at sea with his friend and developer Zaren Vassallo.
As his Labour counterpart clogged the PN's airwaves following a controversial comment, the MLP rubbed its hands in glee as Mr Saliba and his wife boarded Mr Vassallo's private yacht.
Mr Saliba says he is surprised, even baffled that he found himself in the political boiling pot:
"I've known Zaren for decades, especially since my background is in the construction industry. Zaren is also an active member of the PN, a former mayor and a councillor in the general council.
"I never accept lies that I tried to go abroad in a clandestine manner and that I was on board a luxurious yacht with 15 people. What's wrong with two close families going on holiday together?"
He is especially perplexed with Labour's reaction when he recalls that a year ago it was the same MLP which was harping on the fact that Mr Vassallo had lost out on a major contract at the Sant'Antnin plant. Despite filing a Lm25,000 appeal, Mr Vassallo still failed to secure the contract.
While underlining the fact that as general secretary he has no power to dish out contracts for the government, he does not believe the incident damaged his party, especially when the contractor was identified.
On the contrary, he says he was surprised with the messages of solidarity.
He says the controversy was merely the MLP's knee-jerk reaction to the Jason Micallef saga.
The Nationalist media has been hammering the MLP general secretary over a speech he made at a private party activity, where he promised that a new Labour government will do justice with Labourites in the first few months.
The fact that Mr Micallef explained that his party would firstly be a government for all the Maltese fails to exonerate him, Mr Saliba says.
By saying that he was speaking "among friends", Mr Micallef indicated he would not have made such a statement in public. Even the fact that he later described the person who put the video on the internet as naïve has negative connotations.
"Jason knows no better. This is how he got his first job (at Xandir Malta in March 1987) when his uncle (former minister) Freddie Micallef recommended him for employment," Mr Saliba says, providing a copy of the letter.
Branding the MLP as control freaks, he says a Labour government has a track record of appointing Labour chairmen who will serve Labourites. The fact that a good number of existing chairmen are known for their allegiance to the PN is different for Mr Saliba.
"Yes, we believe a change in government should bring about a change in chairmen but it's not right to have an Opposition Leader who claims he is fair and that he never changed anybody when facts show otherwise."
He provides another document, showing that the last Labour government had replaced the chairmen of all its entities, with the exception of two.
He warns that a Labour government will turn the clock back, and fuel the deficit and uncertainty. Alfred Sant is playing the same tune he did before the 1996 election with his mud-slinging tactics, promising inquiries and reports.
Mr Saliba says it is no secret that, while contractors like Mr Vassallo are openly in favour of the PN, others like Penza Construction are close to the MLP. The reality is that contractors are not coping with the sheer volume of tenders and Penza is rightly awarded its fair share of the cake.
There will, however, always be the perceived connection between political parties and contractors' pockets.
Mr Saliba openly admits that the PN receives donations from contractors but that does not translate into contracts.
"No political party can survive without donations and I have no doubt that Labour receives donations from contractors as well."
Somewhat surprisingly, the PN general secretary says he has no objection for political parties to start publishing their accounts.
"In fact, contrary to Labour, the PN does publish the accounts of its affiliated companies, like Euro tours. As far as I know, Labour's companies went bankrupt, and, of course, it's generating its money from somewhere."
Are the recent smear campaigns and veiled attacks the beginning of the electoral campaign?
"Certainly not from our side," Mr Saliba says, amid beliefs that an early campaign will bring a slowdown in the economy. The PN will kick off its campaign "gradually" after the Independence Day celebrations.
He is reluctant, though, to commit himself on the ideal election date. He insists the election date has not yet been established, despite the constant discussions with the Prime Minister.
Nevertheless, the PN is fully prepared, even for a snap election.
While keeping his cards to his chest, he says his party has mapped out a clear, effective strategy, which could win it a third successive term.
"What I can tell you is that the MLP's campaign is one of mud-slinging to steer the electorate away from the real issues of the country."
A pregnant pause ensues as Mr Saliba is asked whether the PN is trailing at the polls, as Mr Micallef has charged.
"All I can tell you is that the PN is ahead by a slim majority of one per cent. We've retained this figure for the past year. I admit that there are a large number of people, mainly traditional Nationalists, who say they will not vote. After nearly 20 years in opposition, the Labour Party should be thrashing us at the polls."
Mr Saliba's claim contrasts sharply with a story in Illum last Sunday, which claimed that Labour's polls showed it steaming ahead with a 14,000-vote majority.
"Political parties hardly ever unveil their polls - and when they do - it is probably prompted by fear. Such surveys are only available to a few people," he says, insinuating that the story was leaked by top Labour officials.
"The surveys between the two parties normally derive similar results and, therefore, I can't believe the MLP's figures. I've contested two general elections and an EU referendum and I maintained we would win them - and we did. Today, the PN is one per cent ahead. You can bank on my words."
Surveys are a matter of interpretation - the PN surveys show that 30 per cent of the electorate said they would refrain from giving their views or are undecided. The undecided sector is mainly the middle class, which has big aspirations, especially for their children, he says.
"The PN has provided the openness in this country... and people want us to be even more avant-garde."
Mr Saliba believes his party can still entice back the lost sheep - and it's not the upcoming budget which holds the key. Contrary to the MLP, which continues lacking vision after 20 years, it is policies which will secure another PN victory, he insists.
He admits there are a lot of Nationalists who remain reluctant to vote, the same way many would refrain from voting Labour for as long as Dr Sant remains at the helm.
"We speak to these people and explain to them that by refraining from voting PN, it will be a vote for Labour. The worst thing we can do is to take things for granted. We need to convince them it will make a difference if we have a change in government."
He resorts to history to prove his point: The Socialists brought doom and gloom for 16 years after George Borg Olivier won independence for Malta; the Labour Party brought the country to its knees with two years of uncertainty after Eddie Fenech Adami overturned the economy; the electorate cannot afford to stop the way Lawrence Gonzi has propelled the country to a new peak.
"We will go to people's homes and embark on a campaign to convince them that the PN still has a lot to offer in sectors like health, education, investment and tourism."
He dismisses suggestions that the euro might dent the PN's electoral chances and says that the Labour leader himself now realises that the currency will not prompt the inflation he wishes for.
Mr Saliba denies that the PN has embarked on a smear campaign but was merely stating the truth.
"What Jason said is a fact and is recorded on a website; it's also a fact that a Labour delegation went to Dubai accompanied by contractors. It's also a fact that I went overseas with Zaren - but the insinuations and exaggerations are not. The PN is expecting a smear campaign. This week it's me, I wonder who's next? Labour's campaign has always been dirty."