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In a special position to respond

The Prime Minister’s ‘special delegate’ and MEP Simon Busuttil tells Herman Grech his surprise appointment is no gimmick.

Why did the Prime Minister specifically appoint you as his ‘special delegate’?

We now need to focus on what we haven’t done so well: communicating

That’s a question you need to ask the Prime Minister. What I can say is he’s asked me to do a job, it’s not an easy one, but I’m committed to deliver.

But you have to ask yourself ‘why me’?

Perhaps it’s because I’m also president of AŻAD, which is currently embarking on a process of policy renewal. It will hopefully feed into the PN policy renewal and therefore its electoral programme. This exercise had to include a communications exercise, which could rope in the public and social partners.

But if AŻAD was already doing this exercise, and you’re heading it, why did you need to be appointed special delegate?

Again you have to ask the Prime Minister. But I suppose the Prime Minister wants to highlight the importance of this initiative. Perhaps that’s why he used that phrase.

This initiative has been welcomed by some but greeted with cynicism by others. Do you blame them for thinking it’s all a pre-election charade?

I don’t blame people for thinking it may be a bit late. But I can assure everyone it’s not a gimmick and that I will give all I can to make sure it’s a success.

With just a year to go to a general election, is that possible?

If you think about it, if you deploy all ministers, all Nationalist MPs and candidates to meet the people, one year is quite a long time.

You’re pretty busy with your day job in Brussels. How can you do this assignment?

As an MEP I spend half my time in Brussels and the other half in Malta, so I’m used to having constituency clinics every week. I will just have to increase those. But this is not about me. I’m going to be coordinating something that will include the Prime Minister at the lead, as well as others.

Your job will be to listen to people’s laments and relay them to the Prime Minister. What happens then?

My job will be to coordinate this. I hope to listen and relay, but to also ensure there’s a good follow-up to issues that need to be addressed.

The PN had embarked on a similar exercise in 2008 through Frank Portelli and yet, once the election was over, it was back to square one. People are asking whether it’s once again a pre-election gimmick with Simon Busuttil heading it.

Fair enough. But this time round it’s not taking place three weeks before the election. It’s taking place a year before the election, assuming the election is held in its normal schedule. That would give us enough time to prove ourselves before the election.

Why wasn’t such an exercise carried out four years ago? One thing this administration is being criticised for is that it hasn’t listened since day one.

Yes. This is something the Prime Minister himself admitted in what was a very honest speech (last Sunday). I believe this didn’t happen before because over the past years the government has been busy governing and it didn’t pay enough attention to the other part of its task – to communicate its governance to the people, and more importantly, to listen to the people.

Is the government going to listen to people’s concerns or relay what it’s been doing for the past four years?

It has to do both. Listening to people’s concerns already goes a long way in understanding and reassuring people, even if ultimately you might not be able to deliver on what they need. We now need to focus on what we haven’t done so well: communicating.

Last weekend, Dr Gonzi underlined the importance for a Prime Minister to understand the impact of the increased price of gas cylinders on families. But just three days later the price of fuel went up again. Isn’t the government saying one thing and doing the opposite?

Not quite. Prices are going up be­cause international prices are up and we have to purchase fuel and gas. You have to be realistic – this is what happened with water and electricity bills.

But then there’s the question of how you do it, how you handle it, and how you communicate it to people. If there’s a special category of needy people, they have to be given special treatment.

But actions speak louder than words – in this case, just three days later...

...Not quite. It’s being honest. If prices go up someone has to pay for them. That doesn’t mean you don’t acknowledge people are making a sacrifice. You do your best to help those people in need. And there have been a number of social measures intended to help people. The price of oil today tops $125 a barrel – even if the opposition tries to ignore this reality.

According to you, what has been the biggest success and failure of this administration?

The biggest success was the way the government managed the economy in a very difficult environment. We almost take it for granted that things go well on the economic front. The fact we did well economically is no coincidence.

The worst thing about our government is something we have identified: it was bad at communicating. It was bad at spelling out and explaining, perhaps it didn’t have the time and the humility to explain to the people where things could be changed or fine-tuned.

This sounds like a broken record because we’ve heard previous Nationalist administrations saying they would be listening more to the people. What can you do differently this time round?

I can point you to my track record on communications. I was responsible for the public communications campaign on the EU, which included meeting thousands of people and explaining complex issues until people understood them. I suppose the Prime Minister relied on this track record.

I fully take on your point that the Nationalist government has been saying this and not doing much about it but I ask you to look at my track record.

Are you convinced the whole party is on board?

I will make sure it is.

We don’t know exactly when the next election will be held because of the internal issues facing government, but we do know that the PN is lagging behind in the polls, disgruntlement has reach record levels and many seem to have taken it for granted that Labour will soon be in government. Where did it all go wrong?

That’s a difficult one. On policy there are some things that truly went wrong. Though the water and electricity tariffs had to be increased through sheer necessity they were not handled that well. If you look at the honoraria issue that really went wrong.

I’m an MEP and I’m paid well by the European Parliament, but I don’t think people begrudge the pay I get – and at least the pay I get is public knowledge. The honoraria issue wasn’t good because people felt it was handled in a secretive manner. Thankfully, the government withdrew it and that’s a clear acknowledgement of the mistake.

If I had to suggest a way forward, I think the opposition leader’s proposal to put this issue to an independent commission and let that come up with recommendations would be a reasonable one.

It also seems the PN lost a good number of its liberal faction because of its tough stand on divorce. Do you acknowledge this was one of the biggest mistakes?

I wouldn’t describe the divorce stand as a big mistake. I think politically it’s actually very good for the PN that the issue is behind us. If it wasn’t, we would be facing it ahead of an election and such a sensitive issue would have been completely distorted during a campaign. I would perhaps have done things a bit differently on the divorce issue. I would have preferred a position whereby I would give MPs the liberty to vote according to their conscience. But that’s now behind us...

...did you speak up at the time? Did you go to the party leader and tell him he was getting it all wrong?

I can assure you my opinions were transmitted.

Why didn’t you speak out publicly about this issue as some others in your party did?

I’m very focused on my competence and my job. Divorce wasn’t in my competence as an MEP. I’m not a Maltese MP. We all have our personal views.

Considering the polls, are you confident you can transmit people’s concerns to the party and turn it around?

Yes, I’m confident. I believe in the competence and the reasonableness of the Nationalist Party. It would be an uphill struggle. The polls make it clear we’re the underdogs but I’m confident that if we do this exercise well we’re still in with a good chance.

Who does the PN represent nowadays?

The PN was always made up of a pretty wide coalition of people – the Christian conservatives, the Christian liberals, and the liberals who aren’t interested in a religious label. The PN always managed to gather these people with different views, under the same umbrella on big issues like independence, democracy, human rights, Europe...The PN still acts as an umbrella even though perhaps in the past few years it gave the impression it was no longer the case. But I can assure you it still is.

So why do the liberals increasingly feel more comfortable with the Labour Party nowadays?

I think if the liberals had to look closely at the Labour Party they would find out it is actually much less liberal than the Nationalist Party.

In what way?

Take immigration, for instance. The PL’s position was far from liberal or socialist – it was completely far-right. True liberals wouldn’t feel comfortable with it.

Is the PN in full election campaign mode?

No. But it must start thinking about gearing up. I can assure you when the whistle is blown it will be ready.

But in the media, the social networks, the campaign seems to have subtly started.

I think if there’s one clear positive out of this Franco Debono issue it’s that it managed to kick the entire party into action.

That’s what Franco Debono would probably like to hear. Is the party still trying to appease him by pretending the party is acting?

It’s not pretending. This has kicked the party into action, into preparing itself for an election.

Do you think Dr Debono’s many concerns might be justified?

Yes.

Like what?

Like his concerns on constitutional reforms, on the right to access to a lawyer (during interrogation). I disagree with Dr Debono not so much on the merits of what he says but on the manner in which he did it.

Have you made any contact with Dr Debono since the Prime Minister appointed you as his delegate?

Yes, I have, but not personally.

What do you intend telling him when you meet?

I’m trying to communicate with all MPs the same way I communicate with other people.

But Dr Debono is hardly one of the loyalists; he needs to be dealt with in a different manner. How do you intend doing it?

I don’t know Franco Debono much as I’m an MEP. I’m going to try work with him if he’s prepared to work me.

You have denied you have been chosen as Lawrence Gonzi’s successor but for many it’s clear you are at least, so far, the anointed one.

Well I can say that... let’s put it this way... I never said I had an ambition to be Prime Minister at 42.

You’re still an MEP. Do you rule out standing as a candidate at the next general election?

I’m not a candidate so far because I think politics is not a game of chess. In politics you have to do the job you have today and not think about the job you might have tomorrow. If it has to come, I’ll cross the bridge when I get to it.

It’s just a year to go to the election. You must have an inclination one way or another.

Politics is a very precarious job. You’re only there for a limited time until people trust you. If I’m asked (to contest) once an election is called I will take a decision. But I have certainly not decided so far.

Do you rule it out?

I’d rather insist on saying I’ll cross the bridge when I get to it.

You must be aware there’s a lot of talk that Simon Busuttil contesting on the PN ticket at the next election could actually help the party win.

I’m not aware of it. It would have to be put to a test. What I do know is when my name was put on the MEP elections’ list I got an overwhelming response. It’s the responsibility I felt given by the number of people that trusted me that I take my job so seriously. This is something that still needs to be decided. Let me focus on doing my job now.

Is there pressure from within to stand for the next election?

So far, no.

From anybody?

So far, no.

Now that the GonziPN motto is clearly being dispensed with, do you think the PN should take a leaf out of Alfred Sant’s book and approach the next election with a triumvirate of Lawrence Gonzi, Simon Busuttil and a high-flyer like Mario de Marco?

I think that the party will need to draw up its strategy and this could be an option. The party is made up of so many competent people that I don’t think it’s going to be a difficulty choosing people. You mentioned myself and Mario (de Marco), but there are many others.

What’s clear is that once we get to the election we would have a clear strategy. The Prime Minister clearly said this is the Nationalist Party and not the party of one person – Lawrence Gonzi.

Do you think the fact the party was morphed into GonziPN was a mistake?

I never said I had an ambition to be Prime Minister at 42

No. It was actually our election winner in 2008. However, this GonziPN image was then hijacked by the opposition to attack the government at every twist and turn for the past four years. They created the image that Lawrence Gonzi hijacked the party.

But anyone who knows him knows he’s a team player.

Once you complete your job as the Prime Minister’s delegate, you could be the ideal candidate for the next election.

You know I never asked to be in politics and I never thought I was particularly good in politics because I have a different outlook from the politics we see in Malta. I still ended up being an MEP and my concern is to do the job well.

You said the same thing when you headed the Malta-EU Information Centre.

Yes. And it’s the truth. I never asked to be an MEP. I was pushed to do that and here I am focusing on trying to do that to the best of my abilities. I will let the people judge.

Making the jump to local politics is a little bit more difficult...

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