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‘The country has changed, grown up’

Former President, Prime Minister and Nationalist icon Eddie Fenech Adami speaks to Herman Grech about the election campaign, internal dissent and shifting ideologies.

We’re three weeks into the election campaign. What do you think of it so far?

I am completely out of politics. I hardly speak to anyone. And no, I’m not consulted by anyone, and I’m not complaining

It’s a reflection that the country has come a long way. I don’t think we’re expecting anything extraordinary to happen. It’s one of the best campaigns in any election I can remember – in the sense that it’s quiet and orderly. It’s talked about, but no great shakes.

What led to this feeling?

The country has normalised perfectly. There are no great issues which divide the people any more. And that’s to the credit of the people themselves and even politicians.

Do you think the election was called too late in the day?

If you had to ask me what I would have done, I would have not let things go till the very end. If you look at my terms (as Prime Minister), I called elections months before they were due. This doesn’t mean one system is better than the other.

Do you think the fact the election was dragged out could have ultimately harmed the PN?

Not really. It’s a question of a character (of the leader to decide). What I have to do, I do. I don’t put it off till tomorrow.

In the first days of the campaign, the PN seems to be in reactive mode and its tone is rather negative. There’s still scaremongering about the 1980s.

The country won’t return to the 1980s. I can’t see that happening again. We’ve come a long way. I attribute that principally to the education system. If we go back 30 years there was a big social divide in terms of how people reacted. The culture has changed and the big social differences are gone.

Could it be that many of the traditional Socialist supporters have moved on, grown up?

I think so. We’ve managed to eliminate confrontation. It is a much more civil debate than ever before.

Do you attribute this sense of calm to the new Labour Party leader?

As well... but I think the country has changed, the mood has changed. People in general have grown up.

Do you think EU membership has somewhat helped...

...Not somewhat. It helped a lot. That was the last point of discord in this country before the EU referendum in 2003. The political divide has changed since. The two parties are saying we know what the way is, and we’ll continue along that way, whoever wins the election.

Does the Labour Party today scare you?

Scare me? No. I wouldn’t prefer it though. I think the PN is more trustworthy.

Is it because the two main parties today appear very similar in their ideologies?

Similar in the sense that we know the way forward. Nobody disputes the way forward for the country’s economics. Everyone agrees there’s no going back to the old system where governments controlled most of the economic activities. There are differences in terms of degrees of emphasis but I see no great differences between the objectives of the two parties.

So there are no ‘leftist’ and ‘rightist’ parties any more.

No. I think everyone’s gathering around the centre.

Is that a good idea?

I think it is, yes.

Do you think the parties are promising too much in this election?

I wouldn’t say so. Acknowledging that the country has gained economic stability, the parties’ objective is to keep along that path and not sway away from the stability we’ve gained. I can’t see any of the parties change from the core, or change the basic elements of current policies. That is credit to the Nationalist Party, which has brought about this change and not to a small degree.

Don’t you fear that politics nowadays is being relegated to parties dishing out handouts rather than ideologies?

I don’t agree people really expect the Government to give out handouts. No Government, no party is promising that to my mind. I would say the country has matured a lot.

In an interview with The Sunday Times last weekend, Joseph Muscat said Malta needed you in 1987 the same way Dom Mintoff was needed in 1971. This came from a leader who in 2003 fought tooth and nail against your quest for EU membership. What went through your mind when you read it?

I don’t think the issue is that I was “needed”. The fact is in 1987 we needed a change mostly to give a very definite sense of direction to the country. I think the biggest achievement then was to redirect the country towards the EU. It wasn’t just the simple fact of joining the EU, but adopting what the EU stands for. Initially, it wasn’t accepted by the Labour Party. But as we moved on, particularly after the EU referendum, the way forward was clear to all, even to those who voted against EU membership.

Do you feel a sense of satisfaction that the now Labour leader is acknowledging your achievements?

Of course. That gives me satisfaction and the important thing that comes out of that is there’s no longer that division, that confrontation we were used to when I was leader of the party.

Isn’t it ironic that the person who is leading the Labour Party and could be Prime Minister in March is...

...It is. Even the Labour leader then (Alfred Sant) was against EU membership and now wants to become a Member of the European Parliament. Things have changed positively.

Do you think it’s good for the PN propaganda machine to keep bringing up the division of the 1980s?

It would be a mistake to take everything for granted. Although my own strong belief is there’s no going back. When harping on the past, I don’t think people care about it... Youngsters today are not interested about the 1980s or earlier. So I think what’s been achieved, has been achieved for everyone. People are conscious the country has moved forward and there’s no going back.

Has the PN become too liberal?

I think there are elements one would call “too liberal” in the PN, and that’s nothing new. The PN has always had within itself people of different outlooks; some were more liberal than others. The basic foundation of the PN, if I could go back to the motto of the 1880s, is Religio et Patria. Religio meant principles, it meant what the Christians’ faith stands for. On the whole the PN has kept true to its foundations.

A year-and-a-half ago, the PN was fighting against the introduction of divorce. Now, on the eve of an election, it is proposing civil partnerships for gay couples and imposing a constitution ban on sexual orientation discrimination. Isn’t this a significant shift in its ideology?

Yes, it would be a significant shift in its ideology but there isn’t that shift. There are people advocating that shift but I don’t think it will come about because the roots of the PN will remain faithful to its origins. I think the words Religio et Patria have to be interpreted in quite a different context now, but they’re still there. They’re still the inspiring force of the PN.

Have you spoken to the higher echelons of the PN to discuss where the party is heading?

No. I’m completely out of politics. I hardly speak to anyone. And no, I’m not consulted by anyone, and I’m not complaining.

Are you out of it because you disagree with the party line...

No. It’s simply because I’m no longer a young man. I’ve done my part and that’s it.

We’re at the end of this legislature, which was rife with backbench unrest. You’ve led a government with a one-seat majority but you had nothing of the sort of unrest Lawrence Gonzi faced. What was the difference?

“Nothing of the sort” is not the right description. There were problems then. You can’t have a political party without any people within it who at times disagree with policies. Initially, people within my party disagreed with the issue of EU membership when it was first discussed in the early 1990s.

But the problems remained within.

Yes. What happened recently, when people went their own way, was not in the best interest of the party.

Was it a case of weak leadership or was it because backbenchers nowadays find no problem speaking the way they do?

It is positive that people speak out more than they used to in my day. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as they pull the official rope when it comes to the fundamentals.

Do you think there was a problem with the way Dr Gonzi handled the backbenchers?

Lawrence Gonzi is in control of the party but that doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be individuals who speak out differently from the party’s general line.

Would you describe the internal dissent as one of the biggest problems of this administration?

I think Lawrence Gonzi mastered it. In his own way, he knew how to deal with the issue and the party has remained whole.

But some would say it’s also been broken into pieces.

Well, that a person or two take their own line and move away from the party is quite natural in politics.

What’s the best thing Dr Gonzi has achieved in the past five years?

The country has moved on. Economically, it’s doing very well and people appreciate it and are aware of it.

And the worst thing?

I have difficulty describing the worst thing, though having dissidents who actually left the party isn’t something one should be happy about. But one shouldn’t worry too much.

Youngsters today are not interested about the 1980s or earlier

The choice of party candidates has become important more than ever. Yet, only recently we saw Hermann Schiavone being told he can’t stand for election on the PN ticket. Do you agree with this line of thinking?

I know Hermann Schiavone very well and I don’t see why he’s being excluded as a candidate. He’s been working very hard and can be trusted. He subscribes to the principles of the PN so frankly I can’t see why. In the past there was a reason. There was another candidate (Franco Debono who was at loggerheads with Mr Schiavone) and the party didn’t want to upset the situation. And that’s been resolved because (Dr Debono is) no longer a candidate.

Do you think parties are being populist?

They were more populist in the past. People now use their heads, are critical, and they express dissent publicly.

The PN has just unveiled its electoral programme and it recommends some changes to the electoral process. What changes, according to you, need to be carried out?

We have been quite critical all along of the electoral process but in substance our system has worked and yielded good results. So I’m very wary of talking of change in the electoral system. I wouldn’t mind some changes but the system has worked well even in difficult times.

But the small parties are going to find it very difficult to make inroads with our system.

We’re getting used to the two-party system and I can’t see it change in the near future. There are two established parties with a good following. I don’t see that changing – and we won’t be the only country where two parties dominate the electoral scene.

Do you think the time has come to start considering technocrats to form part of the Government?

Yes, I think it would be a blessing if we find a way to do it.

Is it because we can’t find enough quality politicians?

No. People contesting elections and obtaining a seat in Parliament doesn’t mean they’re the best technical people around within the parties. The system in Malta is based on personalities and how close they are to the electorate. It doesn’t help that the technical people aren’t close to the people.

How would you go about choosing a technocrat government?

If I interpret the constitution correctly ministers can only be appointed from elected Members of Parliament so changes would be needed. One way of doing it is to have technocrats consulting or helping ministers.

Do you think the next government should start paving the way for technocrats?

I don’t think it’s really needed. If there are technocrats who contest the election, then the Prime Minister can give them the job. But with the smallness of our island and electorate, it’s good that ministers are appointed from elected members.

We’re five weeks from the election. We could have the first Labour government in 15 years. What’s your appeal to the electorate?

My appeal is to be true to oneself and to vote in whoever wants the best things for the country.

And who is the best for you?

Well, I’m the former leader of the Nationalist Party. I won’t disown my party.

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