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‘I am a very black or white person’

Video: Chris Sant Fournier

In Ann Fenech’s world everything is black or white. She is confident and career-focused but her family comes first. She is happy the divorce referendum passed, but she voted against. Ariadne Massa meets the new president of the Nationalist Party’s executive.

Ann Fenech’s appearance on a handful of television programmes during the electoral campaign left such a lasting impression that two days after the general election she was being urged to run for PN leader.

Whenever Simon Busuttil was mentioned it was positively

The 50-year-old, who has made a name for herself in the male-dominated world of maritime law, was never involved in party politics, but suddenly she was catapulted to the forefront by those drawn to her charm.

Smarting from the brutal blow at the polls, Nationalist supporters were desperate to make a clean sweep and rope in new faces to help the PN rise from the ashes – Dr Fenech seemed to tick all the right boxes.

A Facebook page urging her to take an active part in the PN was created and within 24 hours it had more than 1,000 likes. A Facebook virgin, she was initially upset to see her personal life unfold on the page, but realising it was well-intentioned she was bowled over by the enthusiasm.

“I thought all this would soon die down, but it didn’t. It just took off. Then more and more people in prominent positions were calling me up asking me to consider taking a leadership role,” she says, still incredulous by how it all started.

“I like to describe it as an out-of-body experience. I would start thinking about this idea and it starts to build up – you do get carried away; there’s an element of ‘gee, are these people serious’? So my excitement levels would start rising and when they were halfway up, I’d get out of myself and tell myself: ‘what are you thinking of’?” she adds.

The idea took on such a life of its own Dr Fenech had to make an announcement on national TV to kill it.

Much as she was flattered, her family came first. She was not prepared to disrupt the serenity and structure of her family, which she so delicately juggled with her husband, ophthalmologist Thomas Fenech, for the sake of their sons – Matthew, 22, and Tom, 18.

“Organising our lives comes at a huge cost and the last thing I could possibly do to the people I live with is add another element that would have turned everything upside down,” she says in a resolved tone.

However, the public’s belief that she had a role to play within the party was so powerful she felt guilty and gave her word she would become more involved.

The daughter of Alfred Bonnici, who served as Speaker at the House of Representatives from 1966 to 1971, Dr Fenech believes politics has stayed dormant inside her until now.

The PN was quick to ride on the public’s wave of enthusiasm and immediately appointed Dr Fenech to chair the committee tasked with drafting the report on the PN’s defeat.

The biggest challenge was to complete the report within two months from the defeat of the March 9 election, but she acknowledges the tight deadline also meant the party would be able to find closure and start on its path to recovery.

“You have to be finite. In this sort of thing you can go on for years examining the loss so it was important to close this chapter,” she says.

A 38-page summary of the report was released last Tuesday after the committee sifted through thousands of e-mails, letters and interviews – a process Dr Fenech believes proved to be therapeutic for those who felt distant from the party.

The report is a long list of reasons of what the PN government could have done better. It includes everything from disgruntled hunters, to the inefficiency of public entities, the government’s anti-racist stand, and annoyed developers, among many “excuses” or “justifications” given to not vote PN.

It seems everything the government did was to blame. During Thursday’s general council, Dr Fenech said even if the party was “gilded in gold”, nothing was going to alter the fact that people wanted change.

But is there one determining factor that led to the PN resounding defeat?

“Hand on heart, the answer is no. If the loss was a difference of 5,000 votes, it would have been easier to identify a few key issues. But with Labour winning a majority of 36,000 votes it’s clear people voted on matters that affected them personally,” she says.

“Whatever the PN did, people had already decided to vote against irrespective of what happened on a national level, which is a shame,” she says, highlighting the previous government’s track record in the economy.

Having said this, she does acknowledge that the way the PN gave an honoraria to MPs was “a big howler”, while the divorce issue was completely “mishandled”.

“I personally don’t believe the party should have come out against divorce,” she says.

Dr Fenech, however, has absolutely no problem with the way then Prime Minister Lawrence voted against the Bill in Parliament after the divorce referendum was won.

“So as far as democracy goes the duty of the government was to ensure the referendum result was reflected in Parliament... MPs are there to represent the people. Would it have been correct for every MP to vote in favour? I don’t think so.”

Throughout the referendum campaign, Dr Fenech personally felt the introduction of divorce was important to legalise the unions of hundreds of separated couples having children in an unregulated set-up.

However, on D-Day, when she went to the polling booth, she could not get herself to vote in favour of divorce, a decision she struggles to explain.

“I don’t know if it was my St Dorothy’s Convent background or what, but I just couldn’t get myself to vote yes... Having said this I was happy when the result came out,” she says.

The report, which will not be released in full to the public, is also interesting in its omissions – there is no section dedicated to water and electricity rates in the extensive list.

This issue was hotly debated at the start of the campaign when Labour first unveiled plans to build a gas-fired power station to save consumers 25 per cent on their electricity bills from next year.

Dr Fenech accepts the criticism but insists that although “stupidly we did not give it a title”, water and electricity rates were at the forefront of people’s minds and were constantly mentioned among the reasons behind the party’s defeat.

“True, there isn’t a title but it’s so prevalent it’s peppered throughout the report under different headings, such as the power station and cost of living,” she says, insisting the committee had no intention of leaving out this issue, which kept “staring them in the face” throughout their investigations.

Some also feel the report fails to address the role that then deputy leader Simon Busuttil played in the campaign, but Dr Fenech defends this, saying the report focused on why the PN lost and Dr Busuttil was not one of the reasons.

“When we investigated the issue we found, even through PN surveys, that statistically the moment Simon Busuttil came on the scene the party started to bridge the gap,” she points out.

“So the Simon Busuttil factor could never be interpreted as being a reason behind the loss. Whenever he was mentioned, it was positively,” she adds, highlighting how appreciative people were that he effectively gave up a life he enjoyed in Europe to come to the rescue of the party.

At the same time the report was being drawn up, Dr Fenech was being encouraged to become a member of the PN’s executive committee. She faced the situation where if Dr Busuttil, now PN leader, was criticised, she risked rocking her future relationship with her ‘boss’.

Was this not an awkward position?

“Not at all, I’m a very black or white person. I’ve never had any problems working with anybody because of what I say or think... if I feel an individual is right, I’ll say so, and if he has erred, I’ll say that straight up,” she insists.

This is very much the way Dr Fenech has always operated in her family and professional life. She is passionate and loyal, so when supporters pushed her to join the PN’s ranks, it had to be on her own terms – there was no way she was going to vie for the post of president without incumbent Marthese Portelli’s full backing.

“I’m not used to stepping over people’s political toes... so it was a huge source of concern for me,” she says.

Dr Portelli, who is now an MP, got wind of this and gave Dr Fenech her full support, assuring her she was now too heavily engaged with her new duties shadowing European affairs to remain in the role.

Another matter she had to sort out before this was the issue of female quotas. It was only on the day she submitted her nomination to become a member of the executive that she learnt the full details of this “shocking” process.

She immediately made it clear there was no way she was going to contest for one of the executive’s 13 seats if this meant she only made it through with a female quota.

“I’m totally against positive discrimination if that means discriminating against men,” she says firmly.

“Having achieved what I achieved professionally, where being a female never entered the equation and where I believe I reached the various positions purely based on what I have done – good, bad or indifferent – there was no way I was going to submit my nomination and actually consider accepting on the strength I was a female.

“In this case 13 people are voted in by councillors through a democratic process... you cannot tell any one of them to step aside to make way for a woman. There was no way I could look a man in the eye knowing I took his position.”

She need not have worried. Councillors had such faith in her abilities she surpassed party veterans to achieve the third highest number of votes.

Gender quotas were always something the Nationalist Party in government resisted, even though it changed tack during the election campaign and pledged to have 40 per cent of all publicly listed companies’ board of directors composed of women by 2020.

What does Dr Fenech think of positive discrimination on boards? Should quotas be introduced at least temporarily?

“This is Ann Fenech speaking – I hate the idea. I would be lying through my teeth if I told you it’s a good idea. Just because I hate it doesn’t mean it may not be necessary,” she says, while conceding that she remains confused in her mind about this issue.

“To be perfectly honest, I see it as a retrograde step. I don’t see quotas as enhancing the advan­ce­ment of women. It’s an admission of failure.

“I feel it’s a huge slap in the face to be sitting here in 2013 and to say we’ve reached a stage that we need to start introducing quotas so that men can get used to having women on boards,” she hastens to add.

Instead, Dr Fenech would rather be discussing how to instil women with the confidence they need to believe in what they can achieve, and give them the exposure to succeed.

Dr Fenech – a partner of the firm Fenech & Fenech Advocates, a marine litigation expert with 26 years’ experience and an impressively long CV of awards, publications and board memberships – firmly believes if a person makes it a mission to be the very best in what they do, then success is theirs.

“I really wish we don’t go down the route of quotas. It’s so unfair on the women chosen... Do competent women want that? I for one most certainly do not. I would feel very insulted,” she says

Dr Fenech, who serves on two publicly listed boards – Bank of Valletta and Premier Capital – is a firm believer in the potential of the individual and does her bit to help women achieve a balance between their career and family life.

She recognised that more women were having children later in life, which tended to put a spoke in the career wheel, so changed her firm’s way of operating by introducing in-house childcare facilities for newborns and children aged up to three.

“The female human resource is first class. Companies are losing out when they don’t appreciate how much the work can improve if they introduce these types of measures,” she says.

Fenech & Fenech fully backed her decision, acknowledging it could ill-afford a mass exodus of people – 66 of the company’s 96 employees are women – when they decided to have a family.

“When you’ve just had a baby it can give you a sense of guilt leaving him behind to return to work... There’s nothing better than taking your newborn with you wherever you go, even if it’s at the office. Even on a psychological level that woman doesn’t feel like she’s abandoning her child.

“This is where society can help and where we need a change in practices and mentality at the places of work. To deliver professionally you have to be as content with your lot in life as possible,” she adds.

For Dr Fenech, much as she was passionate about her career having a family was one of the “most precious” things in the world.

As a young girl she was influenced by the way her mother backed her husband every step of the way, following him from Floriana to Qrendi where he worked as a GP and supporting him throughout his political life.

I don’t see quotas as enhancing the advancement of women. It’s an admission of failure

The same way her parents met at the age of 15, she too went on to meet the “love of my life”, Thomas, at 15.

“I had the benefit of being raised by my mother so although I’m very career-minded I have to tell you, my husband and my children have always come first – it’s a message I pass on to other women,” she says.

So after she finished her legal studies in Malta in 1986 she joined her husband Thomas in London. She soon landed a job with shipping firm Holman Fenwick and Willan, which served to stoke her undying passion for the maritime sector.

Five years later, her husband decided he wanted to specialise in diseases of the retina in a hospital in New Orleans, and sure enough she relinquished the huge opportunities she had in London to follow him, with their first son in tow.

“If he told me we had to go to the moon, I’d have equally packed my bags and joined him,” she says.

“But God works in mysterious ways and that’s the beauty of life. New Orleans is the second largest port in the US, so I was seconded to a law firm in New Orleans,” she says, laughing as she recounts how the woman who cared for her son while she was at work had a pet crocodile.

It is this ability to face every challenge with enthusiasm that she hopes she can impart to the party in her new position as executive president to get people excited about the PN again.

“I get very passionate about what I do. I try to encourage a sense of ownership and belonging in whatever I do. I believe, through my experience in life, that one of the key issues in making people feel happy is giving them a sense of belonging... We need to reignite their enthusiasm.”

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