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‘Populism is not part of my political dictionary’

Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Seven months into the job, Nationalist Party leader Simon Busuttil tells Herman Grech that the Opposition is already a powerful force to be reckoned with.

You were elected leader in May. Do you feel totally in control of the PN?

Indeed. Why not? I’m very aware I have big shoes to fill and that’s why I’m fully committed to getting there.

When I was elected leader I managed to bring on board all those who ran in the leadership contest.

That came with risks but it’s certainly paying off and everyone feels part of this party.

Do you feel you run the risk of becoming too populist to get everyone on board?

Not at all. Populism does not form part of my political dictionary.

Considering you need to overcome a 36,000 vote deficit, don’t you think you have no choice but to try to appease everybody?

I would rather take a little bit longer to get there than try to get there using the short cut of populism.

You’re been accused of constantly adopting a negative attitude and leading a PN acting as though it was the eleventh hour of an election campaign.

That’s absolutely incorrect. The truth is there has never been, in the past 25 years, an Opposition that has come up with so many proposals of its own and with so many repeated calls for consensus.

The Labour Party says there’s never been an Opposition that has such destructive attitudes.

I ask you to pass judgement yourself.

Let me cite one example – in your immediate reaction to the Budget you claimed each taxpayer would have to pay €400 a head in additional taxes. We never heard the figure mentioned again.

That’s part of the story. The first thing I said was that it was a good Budget because it had a lot of measures that people wanted.

But I asked, who was going to pay? The measures are going to come at a price – higher taxes, deficit and debt.

You have to see both sides of the coin. But it’s been a long time since an Opposition said the Budget was good.

Your first reaction to the Budget was very different to the official speech a week later.

Bear with me – the first reaction came three minutes after a two-and-a-half hour Budget speech.

When we analysed it we came out with a proper reaction. But even in the very first reaction I pointed out it would come at a cost.

I said the Budget lacks a proper plan for job creation.

Do you still believe it will still cost €400 a year for taxpayers?

This is not a question of me believing it. It’s a question of looking at the financial estimate figures published by the government.

If you had to focus only on the new taxation that didn’t exist last year, you’re still looking at a €72 million hike in taxes. That is significant.

The PN has already registered a moral victory

That’s because, according to the government, the economy is going to grow and therefore rake in more taxes.

If you take that into account, you see a €170 million increase. The new taxes alone will rake in €72 million.

So you don’t think the Nationalist Party is unnecessarily upping the political tempo?

Not at all. This Opposition has come up with a series of positive proposals – two Private Member’s Bills in six months, constant calls for consensus on sensitive subjects such as the citizenship scheme and health.

Do you ever recall the Labour Party in Opposition doing the same? This is how I want to redefine the very role of the Opposition.

The PN health spokesman Claudio Grech is winning applause for the way he’s dealing with the government. Wouldn’t it be better for you as leader to sometimes adopt this attitude because ultimately you’re going to come out stronger when there’s a big issue to fight?

I can assure you that Claudio and myself are of the same mind. I was the first to speak out on the need for consensus on the health area.

We’re talking about one, single parliamentary group.

We’re on the eve of another fundraising marathon for the party. How is the cost-cutting exercise going?

It’s clear that the financial situation was extremely difficult when I was elected party leader and it remains a big challenge.

A party that is starved of finances would find difficulties performing its role and it would be a problem for our democracy.

This is why along with (general secretary) Chris Said we’re paying a great deal of attention to put the party back on its feet financially. We’ve come a long way.

Today we can keep up with our bills and financial commitments every month but of course there are debts we need to tackle.

This came at the cost of a culling exercise where party employees were concerned.

Indeed, because I wanted to face reality. If I cannot pay your salary at the end of the month, the time will have to come where I tell you I cannot afford your services.

Ultimately, isn’t it compromising the quality offered by the PN?

Yes, it affects quality at well. But you need to do it to get back on your feet and once we do that we can start rebuilding.

The biggest victim has been the media of your party. In your first interview you said you can’t have media that speak to the converted alone. Do you think the message is coming across differently now?

Not sufficiently. I’m not completely satisfied where the media is concerned. Bear in mind we’re still in transition.

The media is one area that needs most financial resources.

We still need to do a lot there and need to wait a little bit before we get to where I want it to go.

And where do you want it to go?

I want it to be the best competition to State broadcasting.

Do you think the time has come for the parties to give up their TV stations?

I had broached the subject with the Prime Minister in my first meeting with him. Unfortunately it hasn’t been followed up.

I’m open-minded on the subject. Until then, the PN will not only preserve but strengthen its media.

Spring hunting has turned out to be a major issue with a petition in progress to try to force a referendum. The PN has been sitting on the fence. Why?

The PN is in Opposition.

Don’t you think a party in Opposition should take a stand?

We took a stand over the past nine years, since we joined the EU.

Our stand cost us a lot politically from hunters and environmentalists. It was a middle of the road stand where we recognised spring hunting was practised in Malta for centuries and yet it’s illegal under EU law.

We tried to go for a reduced hunting season, which is strictly monitored and with limited bag quotas.

The hunters weren’t satisfied and we know what happened in the last election. We cannot suddenly change what we’ve said in the past nine years and for this reason we cannot join the coalition to gather signatures.

I expect our Prime Minister who was been elected on the famous Malta Tagħna Lkoll platform to nominate a candidate from the PN camp for President

If, however, signatures are collected and a referendum is held, the PN will call its executive committee to discuss the matter and take a decision about the referendum.

Isn’t it sometimes wise for a party to take a strong stand?

When we were in government and there were killing sprees during the spring, we closed the season.

That elicited anger from the hunting community. We tried to keep a balanced approach.

Why does it always have to be black or white in this country?

Because we’re members of an EU where spring hunting is illegal...

...and it’s the European Court of Justice that gave us the right to keep a short and strictly controlled spring hunting season...

... based on disputed figures.

Between those environmentalists who say stop spring hunting and hunters who want to do whatever they wish there’s a middle road.

Why did the PN choose to take part in a protest against Mepa?

The government today is being held hostage by its own promises, especially where Mepa permits are concerned. We have seen a permit granting spree over the past months.

Mepa is under the direct responsibility of the Prime Minister. This is very telling and is of great concern.

Isn’t it a bit hypocritical that the party often accused of paving the way for ruthless construction in the last 20 years is taking part in this protest?

We’ve made our mistakes where the environment is concerned. I admit it freely.

But we’ve also been the party that took this country into the EU, brought on board 200 pieces of legislation on the environment, and led to the greatest environmental improvements over the past nine years.

Do you think the contractors once associated with the Nationalist Party have now switched to Labour?

I think this is obvious from the result of the last election.

Do you mean they financed them as well?

That’s what people like (Speaker) Anġlu Farrugia suggested.

Do you believe it’s the case?

Yes.

Do you think contractors will be given a free hand?

It’s clear that Mepa is already giving them a free hand.

Let me make it clear. I have nothing against the business community. I’m the leader of a pro-business party.

But even in business, things should be done according to the law according to high standards of the rule of law and high environmental standards.

Mepa is all about putting in place those standards and that’s why it’s a controversial authority.

The moment the government splits Mepa it will be throwing environment standards down the drain.

The PN has been at the forefront to object to the citizenship scheme the government is proposing. You’re now in negotiations with the government. Do you see a solution?

Unfortunately, from where I’m standing today I’m not optimistic that a positive outcome will emerge.

We’ve been engaged in negotiations over the past 10 days and we’ve committed ourselves not to disclose the details of the negotiations, but what I can say is we’re still far off from reaching an agreement.

In the European Parliament, Edward Scicluna indicated the issue will be resolved.

Single-handedly, Edward Scicluna in Brussels demolished the cash-for-citizenship scheme by actually repeating word for word all the Opposition’s objections.

The irony is that Prof. Scicluna didn’t have the courage to say the same things in his own country.

Thankfully, he was caught on camera saying those things.

If the government truly wants to come to an agreement then fine, let Prof. Scicluna come back with those ideas, put them on the table and I’m sure we would reach agreement.

If that happens, will the PN scream out victory or say we have a government that does listen after all?

The PN has already registered a moral victory.

We have an Opposition with a nine-seat minority that has managed to bring the government back to the negotiating table after it had passed the legislation.

This shows the PN in Opposition is a force to be reckoned with.

You say you’re not optimistic about reaching agreement though. Say you’re Prime Minister in four years’ time, will you still forge ahead with your pledge to withdraw the passports of those who have qualified for the scheme?

There’s one step before that.

If the Prime Minister decides to go ahead with the scheme as it stands, then we will need to consider something else before: whether we join a national coalition of people against this law who would be willing to collect signatures for an abrogative referendum.

It’s been a long time since an Opposition said the Budget was good

We will gauge sentiments and act accordingly. If, however, the scheme remains in place, we will consider withdrawing the passports if we’re in government.

Of course the referendum result would need to be factored in. We will bow our heads to it.

At which point would you decide on the referendum?

Even after the law was enacted, instead of precipitating things and going immediately for the referendum I called for consensus at the eleventh hour.

Thankfully, the Prime Minister took on that call and we’re in talks.

After 10 days we’re still very far away from reaching an agreement.

I would like to think that we’re able to sit around a table and reach an agreement in the national interest. If not, we will consider the referendum.

Did you consider the cost to the government if you do decide to withdraw the passports? What if they sue you?

Not necessarily. If people buy into the scheme as it is today they know in advance they’re buying a precarious passport.

They’re in line with the law.

They’re renting citizenship for five years because the Opposition is telling them today that it objects strongly.

But with all due respect, you’re in Opposition. They are merely taking up a scheme approved by the government.

They are following the law of the country as it stands today but this is something that goes to the very heart of what makes us a nation, our identity, something that is strongly objectionable to the Opposition.

Let us take things one step at a time. Let us see first rather than precipitate things and see what can happen in five years’ time.

Let’s see what can happen in five days’ time.

If we don’t reach agreement then the next step would be to discuss an abrogative referendum.

You said you’re not optimistic.

As things stand today, I’m not.

A new President will be appointed in April. Will the PN nominate someone?

It’s up to the Prime Minister to identify someone and I will consider it, if and when the Prime Minister calls me in for consultation.

I’ve already gone on record saying that the George Abela presidency has worked well, he is a person who comes from a different political camp to the government of the day.

I now expect our Prime Minister who was been elected on the infamous Malta Tagħna Lkoll (Malta For All) platform to continue this experiment that has proven to be successful and therefore nominate a candidate from the PN camp.

The PN won the 2008 election with a 1,500 majority. This is a government that won a massive majority. Why should it appoint someone from the PN?

Because it was elected on Malta Tagħna Lkoll.

With the exception of the current President, traditionally the party in government has appointed one of its own.

If the government thinks the experiment united us, it should continue with this experiment and turn it into a tradition.

If it wants to throw it away because it reckons it has a big enough majority to bulldoze over the people, then so be it, but it will carry the political consequences.

Who would you like to see in the role of president?

I would like to see someone from the PN camp, clearly. I’m not in a position today to disclose the person I have in mind.

Do you have a person in mind?

Yes.

Have you relayed his name to the Prime Minister?

No.

When will you do so?

I haven’t been called in for consultation on the subject.

Is it Lawrence Gonzi?

I’m not in a position to disclose the name.

We’re a few months from the European Parliament elections, your first electoral test. What would be a good result for the PN this time?

The timing is not of my choice. After suffering a big defeat in March, my party would have preferred to have some more time.

Having said that, over the past 10 years, we’ve only had two members representing the PN.

My objective is to increase it to three. If we manage to elect three MEPs, it would be a good result.

You can still get three MEPs by having a 20,000-vote deficit. Would that be acceptable for you?

A 20,000 vote deficit means we would have bridged the deficit by 16,000 votes in less than a year.

That would already be a satisfactory march ahead.

Is 20,000 a target?

No it’s not. My target is to elect a third seat. It’s not a given – we need to work very hard.

If we manage, the PN would be satisfied with the result.

Traditionally parties in opposition do well in such elections. Do you think you could even manage a majority?

Traditionally, opposition parties do well when sufficient time has passed for the government of the day to prove its worth.

As it happens, this current government is doing well with mistakes but it is too short a time to be able to bridge the gap.

Any reasonable person would accept that.

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