‘I want to bring back lost votes’
MEP Simon Busuttil tells Christian Peregin he can bring a change in substance, style and performance.
Did the Prime Minister ask you to contest for this post?
He asked me to contest the general election. He did not ask me directly to contest the deputy leadership election. But I discussed it with him and he certainly didn’t tell me not to contest.
You entered the contest as a frontrunner. Now all the other potential candidates have got behind Finance Minister Tonio Fenech. Have the tables turned? Are you now the underdog?
I leave words like underdog for people like (Labour leader) Joseph Muscat. I always thought this would be a difficult contest for me because I’m an outsider coming from the European Parliament. In that sense I’m at a little bit of a disadvantage.
Add to that the fact that seven colleagues of Tonio (Fenech) in Cabinet have decided to nominate him. But I’m not for giving up. I’m determined to go through with this challenge because I believe there is something I can contribute.
Besides Health Minister Joe Cassar, did you ask any Cabinet members to endorse you?
No, because I felt I should not put them in an embarrassing situation. With Joe Cassar I have a much more direct relationship, based on friendship, so it was easier for me with him. But I have to say that the PN parliamentary group is not just composed of the Cabinet. It is composed of other people.
In fact, you have some MPs backing you.
There are at least 15 MPs who have pledged their support for me. Six of them have signed my nomination.
There is an impression that Cabinet members have turned against you. They’ve practically all signed Mr Fenech’s nomination. Is there any animosity between you?
Well, first of all, this is not the entire Cabinet. The Prime Minister and (deputy Prime Minister) Tonio Borg have been correct not to sign or get engaged in this in any manner...
Are you saying the others were incorrect to get involved?
No I’m not saying that, because they were asked and they signed. But the positions of the Prime Minister and deputy Prime Minister are completely different. I’m not saying anyone was incorrect. This was a natural advantage for Tonio and good luck to him for using it. If I were in that position, I would be the one getting their signatures.
Do you think your role of special delegate backfired? Do you think people saw you as the teacher’s pet?
I was never a teacher’s pet. I’ve always spoken my mind. The PN gave me the liberty to do so and in return I have given it eight-and-a-half years of uncontested loyalty.
What do you think is the single biggest problem facing PN? Why has it floundered every time it faced the electorate since 2008?
The real election is this one (the general election). All the others were different. In Malta we have this tradition of giving protest votes in non-general elections.
But we know how people are planning to vote. What is the party’s problem?
The party is trailing so badly at the polls because despite all the work the Government did, it was detached from the people. It did not communicate sufficiently and this is precisely the reason the Prime Minister selected me as his special delegate to conduct his outreach to civil society organisations.
Has that worked? The surveys are saying that between July and October, after this exercise was under way, the distance between the parties continued to widen. Clearly, it hasn’t worked.
Well, the exercise was not mine. I was doing it to help the Prime Minister.
But is listening really the problem? Or does the Government have a problem with delivery, such as with the Arriva issue?
It is about listening and communicating with people. The party and the Government are perceived to be detached. That needs to be bridged. I have helped the Prime Minister in that process.
I think the Government has delivered especially on the economy, not least thanks to people like Tonio Fenech. But yes, it doesn’t mean everything has been perfect.
You said you want to stand on a platform for change. What exactly do you want to change?
First of all, the change I want to bring is for the country. But I also want to bring renewal in the party itself. We have this unexpected opportunity to change as a party before going to the election rather than wait to be defeated and then change.
How should it change?
By bringing in new blood.
Wouldn’t that just be a cosmetic change?
If you want to call me a cosmetic change that’s for you to decide but I do not think I will bring a cosmetic change. I will bring a change in substance, in style and in performance. And this is not to say what has been done so far is bad. It is to say that I want to make it better.
Why do you think Joseph Muscat is managing to attract so many people to Labour? According to a survey by The Sunday Times, there has been a swing of 11 per cent. Isn’t he doing something right?
The fact that the Labour Party has itself changed after the last election has drawn new attention and potential voters to it. I want to appeal to those PN disgruntled voters who are now saying they don’t know how they are going to vote, but also to level-headed Labour voters, ex-PN voters who have swung to Labour, and bring them back to the fold.
We are in time to try and change things before it is too late. This is the last card we can play. It was completely unexpected but it is an opportunity for the party to renew itself and put alongside Lawrence Gonzi a new person who can help turn the tables on the election.
You recently met with rebel MPs Jesmond Mugliett, Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando and Franco Debono. Do you think this was a wise move?
I tried to meet all members of the parliamentary group plus the 35th member who is now an independent on whose vote my party in Government still relies. So I feel I did absolutely nothing wrong. As for Franco, I didn’t even meet him. I just bumped into him in the street.
Wasn’t it a bit disrespectful to the PN executive which has taken quite a harsh stand against these MPs?
Not at all. I was in that PN executive meeting and I voted in favour of its decision... If we decided to remove them from our list of candidates but kept them in our parliamentary group, kept them in our party and kept relying on them for the vote, it means by definition that we need to speak to them. And therefore I refuse to accept anyone telling me it is wrong to speak to people in my own parliamentary group.
Franco Debono recently compared Lawrence Gonzi to Hitler, and Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando is almost openly hoping for a Labour victory at the polls. Is there really any room for reconciliation?
There is always room for reconciliation with everyone. The PN lost thousands of votes and I want to bring them back.
When the divorce debate arose, you remained silent. Why?
I didn’t have a vote in the national Parliament.
You’re a very influential member of the Nationalist Party. You could have had your say.
Yes, on that occasion I stayed out of that debate because I did not want to project the idea that the divorce issue is something driven by the EU.
There was no such argument. No one ever thought it was being imposed by the European Union.
There were times when it was indeed perceived in that manner.
How did you vote?
The divorce issue is behind us, we have legislation. It is irrelevant how you or I voted on divorce.
It is not irrelevant because this was a crucial issue for the party.
If I was in Parliament I would have voted in favour of divorce legislation.
But you didn’t feel you needed to urge your party to take a stand in favour.
No. I did not participate in that debate because it was not my duty as a member of the European Parliament to get engaged in that local debate.
Do you rule out contesting for leadership after the election, for instance, if you lose?
If I achieve what I am working for, I have to rule it out because my leader will remain Prime Minister. If I wanted to think in terms of where you are heading in your thoughts, I would have simply stayed out of this, waited for my party to lose and then make my bid for the top job. I preferred to do it the other way round. I preferred to come to my party’s help when my party needed help most and not wait for it to be defeated before I put my name forward.
Is that a critique on other potential candidates who stayed out of the contest?
Well, it was their decision. What we know is that there is Tonio Fenech and myself who have contested this election and I have no doubt in my mind that both Tonio and myself are doing this out of loyalty to the party.
What’s your message to the PN councillors?
If you think with Tonio Fenech the party has a better chance of winning the election, please vote for Tonio Fenech. But if you think that, with me as deputy leader of the Nationalist Party, the party has a better chance of winning then you have the responsibility and duty to choose me.