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‘We can win next election’

Finance Minister Tonio Fenech tells Christian Peregin it was his excellent relationship with every minister that encouraged him to contest.

Did the Prime Minister ask you to contest for this post?

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The Prime Minister invited a number of people to contest because the party wants a genuine contest among friends.

But did he ask you directly or are you referring to his public statements?

He told me directly that I should seriously consider contesting. I’ve been close to the Prime Minister for the past 10 years, working side by side in possibly the most difficult ministry: the Finance and Economic Ministry.

Simon Busuttil announced his candidature very quickly. You waited until you had secured the backing of all the others being named for the role. Did you want to make sure it would only be just you against Dr Busuttil?

No, I’m not contesting Simon. I’m contesting the deputy leadership post. Others would have been welcome to participate. As I told the Prime Minister when he asked me to contest, I had a Budget precisely within the same timeframes the party was proposing for the contest. I could only take my decision after the European Commission said Malta was going to be taken out of the excessive deficit procedure, having reviewed our proposals for next year in terms of expenditure and revenue.

Did you speak to other potential contenders like ministers Mario de Marco and Chris Said and Parliamentary Assistant Beppe Fenech Adami to see if you could count on their support?

Yes. I did not only speak to ministers but a number of individual councillors because this is not just an issue of me wanting to be a deputy leader or whether the Prime Minister invites me to be, but it is also whether my colleagues see me as a deputy leader... In fact, my nomination list was quite strong.

Yes, you had 138 signatories when the statute requires only 10. Wasn’t it a bit over the top to opt for such a large number when Simon Busuttil had only 26?

To be quite frank, it wasn’t us trying to reach a number. People were just asked whether they...

Were you sending a message?

I think we are in a campaign and messages need to be sent.

Are you now the frontrunner?

I would not say I am a frontrunner. I would say I am contesting.

Would you say that you’re the underdog?

I think publicly there was a perception that I was the underdog when I started and there were even rumours that I was only contesting to have a contest, which is clearly not the case.

Things changed when all the potential other candidates rallied behind you. Whose idea was that?

It was actually the idea of the potential candidates.

How did it happen? Did you have a meeting?

We were constantly discussing the issue. Mario and Chris both encouraged me to contest and actually came themselves and said: “If you contest, we will support you. We believe you have the potential and credentials for the post.” I spoke to practically all the ministers to see their opinion and they all said they believed (in me)...

Even Austin Gatt?

I have been working with these people for 10 years. They know how I work, in a team.

But are you ganging up against Simon Busuttil?

No, and it’s wrong if it is being perceived in that way. People make choices. Simon and I talked privately before I decided to contest. We’re very good friends. We want to continue working together and it is clearly not a contest between me and Simon but a contest for the post in the best interests of the party.

Do you also have the support of Transport Minister Austin Gatt and Resources Minister George Pullicino, who did not make their allegiances public?

Yes, I feel I also have Austin Gatt’s support and that of George Pullicino, who was one of those who really encouraged me to contest... I have an excellent relationship with every minister and that is precisely what encouraged me to contest.

What do you think is the single biggest problem facing the Nationalist Party at the moment? Why has it floundered every time it faced the electorate since 2008?

Before 2008, we were labelled by Labour as being serial losers because we had lost, even then, the European Parliament elections and local council elections. But we won the (general) election of 2008. It’s not much different this time around. We still believe we have the potential to win the forthcoming election.

Simon Busuttil is saying the party needs to change. By comparison, are you the candidate of continuity or status quo?

No, not status quo. We are the party that has continued to change this country and we want to continue changing it for the better, to build on our achievements to ensure we have the right message to win the election.

US President Barack Obama won on the basic things: jobs and the economy. And I think that is how I can strengthen the party leadership. When they see the Prime Minister and Tonio Fenech, as deputy leader of the party, they will say: we have a safe pair of hands that will continue ensuring jobs are protected.

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 to Labour. Isn’t he doing something right?

I think the PN’s biggest challenge is to win over the perception that we have been there for too long. The Nationalist Party has been there for 25 years, but it has changed Cabinet three times and the leader has changed too. Whereas Labour has only changed the leader but the people around him have been there since Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici and Dom Mintoff...

Yet Labour is still beating PN at the polls.

Because people are still not seeing this. And I think part of the election campaign is to show there is a newer generation within the party that can support this continuous renewal process.

So wouldn’t it make sense for people to vote for a newer face rather than someone who has been in Cabinet for the past four years?

I can’t see myself or Simon being newer than each other. We’re both 43. When I started as parliamentary secretary, he started as an MEP. So I think, at such high level posts, we’ve been there for the same time. I’m as new as Simon.

The PN has had a problem with party dissent in the last four years. How do you think the party should deal with dissent?

I always believed that you cannot have a party unless you have loyalty.

Do you think it was a mistake for Simon Busuttil to speak about reconciliation?

I’m not here to contest Simon and I will not respond to that question. But I will tell you what I believe: the party executive had the responsibility to take the important decision it took.

You said you’re just as new as Dr Busuttil. But you come with more baggage. Do you think your input as deputy leader will really make the PN more electable?

I believe I have been encouraged so much by so many people within the party precisely because they believe I do.

Don’t you represent issues like the honoraria debacle, for instance?

No because the honoraria was not my decision.

But you were part of it. You were part of the Cabinet.

The whole Cabinet took that decision.

And in a way, you represent the whole Cabinet.

The whole Cabinet also took the decision to suspend it and refund part of it.

But this issue will stick with the PN.

It will stick with the PN for the whole election, irrespective. But I don’t think it is fair that you actually put the situation on me like that. Yes, a Finance Minister takes the flak for a lot of decisions. It is the most difficult ministry.

But even when it comes to party matters, you were staunchly against divorce, another issue the PN might find difficult to outlive.

I have my values and I will hold on to my values. I have Christian-democrat values.

You were almost ridiculed for these values when you wrote an article which said: “I’m sure Our Lady is very sorrowful that Malta is considering divorce.”

It’s not a problem... Yes, but that...

Do you stand by such statements?

No, no, that is because you precisely just pull it out of the context of the message.

You also said: “The secular world wants to put God in a closet.”

Well that is a case in point.

Is this the message PN needs to be sending?

The message PN needs to send is that we have values. And we will ensure our values are in our policies.

On the issue of divorce, yes, I was against it. I was speaking about a particular procession and arguing that as a Catholic you cannot expect to be surprised when the Church sends a message that it is against divorce.

If I happen not to be chosen as deputy leader or next finance minister or not be voted in Parliament because of my values, I will be proud of that, because those are my values.

Hadn’t you later voted in favour of divorce in Parliament?

I will not allow my values to come in the way of democracy. And when the decision of divorce was taken, although I was vociferously against, I abstained in Parliament precisely because I respect democracy. And that is why I am a politician. If I just wanted to become a priest, I should have become a priest. But a politician cannot impose his values.

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