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Winning the obstacle race

Newly-elected Nationalist Party deputy leader Simon Busuttil tells Herman Grech the party is offering new blood, energy and ideas.

We were given the impression that the deputy’s election was very close. The result was anything but. Was it a strategy by your team to misguide the councillors into voting for you?

The result was a complete surprise

Far from it. It was a complete surprise, even for me. Of course, I hoped for this kind of result but I never thought it would be the case. It was a clear decision from the councillors of what they want from this party.

Were the Prime Minister and his team campaigning for you behind the scenes?

Not at all. The Prime Minister and (former deputy leader) Tonio Borg kept out of this campaign. It was the correct thing to do on their part.

There were rumours that officials from the Office of the Prime Minister were helping out Tonio Fenech. It seems like they could have been working for you.

A lot of different things were being said about the same people. I read about them in The Sunday Times but I can’t confirm them.

Was it a dirty campaign?

No. I think by and large it was a hard-fought campaign among friends. In the end that sense of friendship has prevailed. Of course, there were certain things that were thrown around and were hurtful. But I think these things come up in all campaigns and in politics you have to put up with them.

What kind of hurtful things were said?

There were certain accusations levelled at me which were nothing other than misrepresentations of what I said about reconciliation, for instance. There were other things, like personal attacks. But I must stress that at the end of the day I absolutely bear no hard feelings. I think the spirit of friendship prevailed.

I think the friendship between you and Tonio Fenech was evident but there are claims people from your own party behind the scenes did their utmost to trip you up.

It’s clear there were a number of formidable obstacles for me. There were 10 ministers lined up behind Tonio. There was a Budget presented just two days before the election. And there was also my long absence from Malta to help Tonio Borg in Brussels. Yet I worked very hard to recover and meet as many councillors as possible and to convey to them the message that this is about whether we can win the general election. And I think the councillors got that message and delivered with their vote.

Cabinet members supported Tonio Fenech and did not even attend the vote counting and speeches. Was this a boycott?

I would definitely not describe it as a boycott. I did see some ministers around. I fully respect the choice and the right of the ministers who nominated and supported Tonio. I would have been surprised if they didn’t do that because they’re his colleagues in Cabinet.

They didn’t just support him. Some campaigned for him.

Yes, perhaps it might have been better if they held back in some respect. But as far as the nomination and support goes I have no problem with it. It’s important for me to create a bridge with all MPs, including ministers, and win their trust.

And how will you do that?

By working closely with them and in full loyalty.

What if there’s animosity from their end?

There’s no animosity from my end. Anyone who wants to work with me will find me reciprocating.

Will you enter Parliament before the next election?

That is the Prime Minister’s decision. I would like to meet him and then he will decide how to use me in the party’s best electoral interests.

One of Tonio Borg’s potential replacements in Parliament already said he’s prepared to offer you his seat. Would you take it?

If the Prime Minister asks me to do it I will do it for the party.

Will you try to reconcile with MPs like Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, Jesmond Mugliett and Franco Debono? Or have you been convinced this is not possible?

When I talk about reconciliation and unity within diversity I’m thinking first and foremost about the thousands of lost votes. We need to reach out to people who no longer feel comfortable with the PN. From the first reactions I received last night and this morning, it’s precisely those kind of people, those who are suddenly feeling the party has turned a page through my election. As for Franco Debono and the other two MPs, the position on them is clear. I support the executive’s decision that they will not be candidates and I have no intention of asking for that decision to be changed or revoked. However, once it’s clear they will not be candidates I really see no point in blood-letting or humiliating them in any manner.

It’s unfortunate that when you go through this deeply personal trouble, some people will try to hit even harder by spreading false rumours

Is this a means of convincing Franco Debono to vote for the Budget?

I don’t need to convince Franco Debono to vote. He is a member of the PN parliamentary group and has a responsibility to vote for the Budget.

How would you describe your relations with Austin Gatt, who openly supported Tonio Fenech and who is normally the one taking care of electoral campaigns?

I’ve always worked well with Austin Gatt, though I tend to end up disagreeing with him after spending five minutes in the same room. But we respect each other and I’m prepared to work with him if he’s prepared to work with me.

How do you overturn a 10 per cent deficit with Labour?

Simple: by regaining people’s trust. Unfortunately this trust has been eroded over the past years. We need to regain it by showing we deserve the trust of people one more time. There’s also the issue of change. People wanted change and they were turning to the Labour Party, not because they like its policies – the PL has no policies – but because of the change factor. Now the PN is suddenly in a position to guarantee the policies, substance and results, and at the same time offer new blood, new energy, new ideas.

How do you convince people who are saying the PN has been in power for way too long and any change must be positive?

The PN has been in government for a long time but that is to its credit. I would ask everyone from now on to do their own bit for the country. The country needs everyone to shoulder the responsibility to keep it on a steady course. I want to carry my responsibility and I appeal to everyone to play their part.

The PN’s former deputy leader, Tonio Borg, once said the party is not liberal. Do you agree?

I’ve often said the PN brings together a majority of conservatives and a minority of liberal-minded people. I don’t like labels. I’m not conservative and nor do I feel a liberal. I’m a centrist – I reach out to different sides to get the best ideas and keep people together.

Would you describe the PN’s campaigning against divorce last year as one of its biggest strategic mistakes?

Let’s say it was an unfortunate episode for the party, and we should be thankful it’s behind us because at least it’s not on the electoral agenda.

I’d like to ask a personal question. You’ve had a tough couple of years, you’re separated from your wife and you’re a father of two. The image of a PN leader is normally one of a happy family man with a staunch Catholic background. How do you feel about it?

Yes, it’s true I’m separated. This is very unfortunate for me. I’ve been through a very difficult time and all I can say is now I know what it means to go through a marriage breakdown. Now I know what it means to suffer in silence. I still have a family, I have two great children. I’m a single father and I’m moving on in life.

What about the rumours about your private life which filtered through the deputy leadership contest?

It’s even more unfortunate that when you go through this deeply personal trouble, some people will try to hit even harder by creating and spreading false rumours. I think this is part of what one has to face in politics – they are false and I solely rely on the truth.

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