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‘Time to stop looking back’

Simon Busuttil during the Times of Malta interview last Friday. Photo: Jason Borg

Simon Busuttil during the Times of Malta interview last Friday. Photo: Jason Borg

New Nationalist leader Simon Busuttil tells Herman Grech he wants to turn the PN into a winning party as soon as possible.

You’ve been in the job for two days. What’s going through your head?

I learnt how hard it is to campaign and win an election

It is a very big and exciting challenge. I’m enthused by the possibility of having a good shot at rebuilding the party, regrouping people and taking it to the public out there. I want to make it a winning party.

In what way are you different to Lawrence Gonzi?

I will be more different in style than content. I come from the same political family and I endorse his policies, especially his economic ones.

If you had to mention Dr Gonzi’s positive and negative attributes, what would you cite?

I think it’s time to stop looking back and pointing fingers at the positives and negatives of our predecessors. It’s time to draw the line and look forward to working as close as possible with the people around me. We need to try project an energy that moves forward and heals the wounds we’ve had over the recent months.

In the last interview we had with Dr Gonzi in this room he said he could consider stepping aside because he wants the next leader to feel free to criticise his legacy.

But I already did that when he was around. I have absolutely no difficulty saying where I might change or where I’m not in complete agreement. But I think instead of looking back on what we disagree with we should learn from the mistakes and move forward. The time for pointing fingers is now over.

There were some media reports which claimed the higher echelons of Labour were relieved to see you voted in as leader. What’s your interpretation?

If they’re happy it means everyone’s happy all round, because people on our side are happy too. I think it’s a good start.

Is it because they see you as an easy target?

It’s up to them to determine it. What I can say is I will give this a very good shot and I’m determined that the PN becomes a winning party as soon as possible.

Do you think your stint as deputy leader harmed your credibility and this is why the PL is happy to see you as leader?

The fact we lost the election and I was deputy leader at that time might have harmed me politically in some ways. But of course I didn’t do it for my personal gain. I did it out of loyalty for a party which needed help. I learnt a lot.

What did you learn?

I learnt how hard it is to campaign and win an election. There was a big disconnection between my party and the people and that was the real reason we lost the election.

But what did it teach you personally, about your public speaking, for example?

Everyone in politics goes through a process where it comes to public speaking. I’ve been around for 15 years. The only thing I did for the first time during this campaign was address mass meetings and I perhaps need to improve. But where it comes to TV debates I think it wasn’t bad at all. I suppose you need to ask that question to some people I faced.

During the deputy leader campaign, you sold yourself as the only chance for the party to win the election. You were elected, and the PN got a major thumping. Didn’t you mislead supporters into thinking you could save the party?

At a time when the party was staring defeat in the face it needed help. It needed so much help that I was perhaps seen as a possibility to save the party from the jaws of defeat.

You weren’t just ‘seen’. You said you were.

I said I will come in here to do my very best to win the election and I repeat it now. The fact it didn’t happen doesn’t mean I didn’t do my best. It means the defeat had been in the making for years, not three months. I played in injury time and now I have been given the mandate to play for the full five years.

We now have two former MEPs leading the main parties. How different are you to Joseph Muscat?

I’m certainly different in terms of policies. I’ve always been clearer than Joseph Muscat, who remains an unknown quantity. He’s now Prime Minister and when you ask about his government’s political project I can bet my last euro I won’t be able to get an answer. He’s still unclear. I want to lead a party where people know where they stand. I’ve been in the European Parliament for nine years, I learnt a lot, but I’m very keen to give a wider European dimension to local politics.

The PN lost the election by 36,000 votes. Will your party need to resort to populist policies to bring so many people back?

No, I think primarily you need to win back respect and after that you need to win back trust. You do that with one very simple thing: sheer, hard, determined work. I want to ask the people to listen to me, and I have to listen to them. That’s how you earn respect.

People sometimes will make demands you can’t execute. The party needs to listen but it needs to take tough decisions, so how will you draw these tens of thousands back?

I’m used to doing it already. I’m used to meeting people and telling them where I disagreed. I did it within my own party. I might have people disagreeing within my party now but I’m open to be convinced.

You said the door is open for everybody. Does it mean it was locked to sectors of society?

Unfortunately, that was the perception, even if was not our intention.

Was it perception or reality?

It’s a bit of both. I think some people felt disconnected and left out of the party and even if it wasn’t intended this is the way it is. We need to reach out.

What kinds of sectors of society are you referring to?

A deficit of 36,000 votes means specific interest groups have been affected as well as the wider population. We need an outreach programme that reached out to all society. With the shadow Cabinet I will nominate I want to send a clear message that we want to reach out to different sectors of society.

Will you be clearing out the PN offices and starting afresh?

I want to leave the appointments of new officials to the people who have to take such decisions. The general council needs to decide on the deputy leader, the executive committee needs to appoint the other officials. I want to transmit the message that these elections should be open to anyone who wants to contest. Ideally we find a good and comfortable conclusion. Once we go through these elections, I will respect the decisions and work fully with the people elected.

You are now leader. Shouldn’t you have every right to indicate who you would prefer to work with? Ultimately you need people you can trust.

I will exercise that right by saying that what I want is not a leader of a party but a leadership team. I want everyone to belong to this party, I want to decentralise, delegate responsibilities, everyone needs to feel on board.

A strong leader is essential for any party to win an election.

It’s precisely this kind of leadership I see as the strongest.

Your first move was to set things in motion to create two deputy leadership posts. Was this done to avoid internal dissent?

A lot of positive energy came out after the first round of the leadership election. I wanted to harness it, and I thought it best harnessed by opening up the notion of leadership at the very top levels of the party. In this way, I think the party will be a bigger winner.

I’m against the idea of small circles and cliques and it’s the last thing I would do

Do you have a favourite for the roles?

No I don’t. I think there are people that are eminently qualified for the job and I invite them to step forward and contest.

Two names keep cropping up – Mario de Marco, who obtained a very respectable result in last week’s leadership election, and Beppe Fenech Adami. Did you speak to them individually to urge them to contest the deputy election?

I’ve held consultations with many people over the past week to try reach an agreement, including individuals like Mario, Beppe and other people.

What kind of ‘agreement’? To stand for the election?

I hope they will. I will not push them to do this and even more clearly I will not hold them back from doing so. I hope they’ll contest.

Beppe Fenech Adami made it clear he will. Mario de Marco has said he’s not interested in contesting a deputy leader election. Did you try to go that extra mile to try to convince him?

I hope Mario will contest. I think he is eminently qualified to do this and if Mario, like myself and so many others, reads the result of last Saturday and the important support he obtained then he will contest.

So you’ve created these two posts to accommodate both Mario de Marco and Beppe Fenech Adami.

That’s one way of seeing it. These two posts are already present in many other European parties, including the Maltese Labour Party. We’re opening up and strengthening the party structure. One of the problems we’ve had in government was that our deputy leader was also always deputy prime minister and away from the party. This has cost us a great deal. From now on, with this new structure we’d have two deputy leaders and even when in government, you still have another deputy running party affairs.

But you know very well that the party deputy role is important. Look what happened to the Labour Party which for several years had two deputies constantly targeted by the PN media. Don’t you fear that by having the wrong person by your side you could be in for a tough five years?

I have full confidence in the wisdom of the general council members.

Would you try to influence them one way or another?

Absolutely not. I’m against the idea of small circles and cliques and it’s the last thing I would do because it would actually reinforce something I disagree with.

The changes in the structures mentioned so far include the possibility of appointing a CEO. Isn’t it becoming something of a cut-and-paste job from Labour?

If the Labour Party did it and it’s good, what’s wrong with doing it ourselves?

The last Gonzi administration will be remembered for its internal dissent. If it had to happen under your watch how would you deal with it?

I’ll try to avoid it in the first place and I will work very, very hard to make sure we have a parliamentary group which is cohesive and satisfied. Bear in mind we’re not in government now and the pressures aren’t the same like a one-seat majority in government where each individual is a king maker. This is different in this respect. But I need to try to prevent it in the first place by building a cohesive, good relationship with each MP. But if despite that I find MPs or party officials who don’t put the interests of the party first and foremost then I would come down very hard and I will intervene to correct it.

How?

By taking all the necessary steps to ensure that any such people who don’t put the interests of the party first are not rewarded whatsoever.

Would you consider introducing measures to expel them from the party?

We will have structures I’m proposing such as a commission to select and strain party candidates. This commission will also have a role in issues such as discipline and the de-selection of people who would not have towed the party line.

Your media is an important arm of the party. Are you happy with the way it’s been projecting the party’s image for the last decade or so?

There are two issues where the media’s concerned. It costs a great deal of money and the financial situation is difficult. There’s also the problem of content. I can’t say I’m happy with the message that has been given by our media. But I have seen a great group of people who are very loyal and dedicated and I want to make sure we bring back their motivation to the fore to help them enrich the media message. There’s a political message we need to give out. We need to study that issue and ensure our image and message is radically improved.

Do you think it’s been preaching to the converted for way too long?

Indeed, I do.

Are you proposing changing the media structure, perhaps closing down In-Nazzjon newspaper?

I won’t get into that at this stage. In the coming days I’ll appoint a commission responsible for the financial and commercial interests of the party and await their recommendations. But I will decide after these recommendations come to me. As to the media message itself, it’s a different story. We should be strong and study how best to present our message beyond our core voters.

You’re now officially the PN’s first separated leader. Was this something which cropped up when you met up with councillors?

I have to say it wasn’t an issue in any manner. It didn’t manifest itself in the vote. I was not asked about it during the campaign and yet everyone knows about my personal status. I’m glad that our party, and indeed society, has reached the level of maturity that can accept someone for what he is.

We’re a year away from the MEP elections. Can the PN get a majority?

That’s a big challenge and I’m not going to take anything for granted. My target is for the PN to win a third seat in the European Parliament for the first time in 10 years. That would be an important victory for us. If we do more than that it’s even better.

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