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‘Confrontation isn’t my style... I will not change’

Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

One year after his election as Nationalist Party leader, Simon Busuttil talks to Herman Grech about the importance of keeping conservatives and liberals together with a view to winning the 2018 election.

One year on as leader, what has been your biggest impact on the PN?

The biggest impact is that we’re seriously rebuilding a party that came out of a historic defeat.

My starting point was not zero, it was minus 36,000.

The impact of Simon Busuttil was to seriously address the reorganisation, regrouping and rebuilding of a party that started from a historic low. We’re building on strong foundations, but I’m still one year in to the project.

Some are criticising you by saying we’ve yet to see Simon Busuttil the leader. How do you react to these statements?

People know me as a former member of the European Parliament.

They know my style is European and I would like to bring that style to Maltese politics. If people expect confrontation from me, that’s not part of my style. That’s not to say there is weakness or no determination to get there. It’s a question of style.

And yes, I’m not willing to change myself or metamorphose into something I’m not. My style worked in the EP and I’m trying to make it work here.

You have stated publicly that your calm, political style should not be mistaken for weakness. Why did you feel the need to make such a statement? Is it because you receive this criticism yourself?

Well, I do read it from time to time in Times of Malta.

You say your calm style reflects a more European style of leadership. Does it mean your predecessors - Eddie Fenech Adami and Lawrence Gonzi - lacked it?

No. I’m referring to the polarised style adopted by the Prime Minister, which is a pity because he spent four years in the European Parliament.

He knows what I’m talking about. It’s about sowing unity instead of division, it’s about a consensual approach rather than a dismembering style of politics.

You’ve also been criticised for failing to be specific on certain subjects. For example, on the citizenship issue you first said you rejected it because it was an issue of principle and then demanded a five-year residency [to grant a Maltese passport].

Not at all. We made it clear we were against the very idea of selling our citizenship.

We didn’t stop with a no because people would have accused us of being destructive. We put forward our idea of how an investment scheme could work where you only grant citizenship after a proven track record to our society, after at least five years of such commitment.

We went one step further  we offered a constructive approach by spelling exactly how we would have done it better.

The European Commission went two steps further and approved the scheme under a one-year residency requirement. This must have been a sweet victory for the government.

It’s a pity that the European Commission accepted this... I would have preferred a five-year residency requirement. But were it not for the European Parliament resolution we wouldn’t have had one day of residency in this scheme.

We’re a few days away from the EP elections. Do you agree that the feeling out there is one of political fatigue?

Yes, I can feel it. However, I did not set this electoral timeframe.

If I had a choice I would have preferred this election to be held after two or three years [from last year’s general election] to enable us to climb halfway up the mountain.

I’m determined to do my best to get the best result for my party, which, in the circumstances, is to elect a third PN seat for the first time...

...which is almost a foregone conclusion this time.

It’s not.

Of course it is.

Am I happy that we abstained [on the Civil Unions Bill]? I would have preferred to have done it differently but there was
no option

It’s a mistake to say that.

In 2009, the PN just missed out on a third seat despite the 36,000-vote deficit.

If the result of last year’s general election had to repeated, the third seat for the PN would be far from a foregone conclusion.

Would you be happy with a 30,000 deficit? Is that good enough?

I’m not focusing on the votes, I’m focusing on seats, to elect a third seat for the first time in 10 years.

If the PN manages that, it would be huge. For me that would be an achievement, considering where I started from.

But we have the benefit of hindsight. In the past 10 years Labour managed to overturn a deficit in spectacular fashion. So why isn’t it achievable for the PN?

It’s not achievable because the circumstances are completely different. We used to have a government that was there for almost a quarter of a century.

We now have a new government that has been in honeymoon period for a long period, with a Prime Minister who is still largely popular in the surveys. Not enough time has passed for people to reach the judgment that I can see very clearly.

Using the same argument, in 2004 the PN was still in honeymoon period  EP elections were held just weeks after joining the EU, yet Labour won them.

My focus is on this election. I’ve been leader of this party for one year. My focus is to rebuild this party and elect three seats for the first time.

Have you set a vote deficit target?

No.

What happens if you fail to elect a third MEP?

We have to see about that. Let me first have a good shot at it.

Many are saying we have been running an electoral campaign for way too long.

And they’re right. We have a government that has been campaigning and not governing.

Look at the Budget, it was an election Budget; we have a Prime Minister who acts like a salesman, not a statesman. We have a marketing campaign with illegal billboards all over the place.

After a year as leader, what are the party’s biggest deficiencies?

The position brought with it enormous difficulties. It’s been difficult to rebuild. Am I satisfied with the stage we’ve reached? No.

It’s a work in progress. I want to turn this party back into a professional, electoral machine that’s effective and in touch with the people.

What kind of demands are party supporters making?

They want to win, of course. It’s a clear and legitimate demand. My task is to work as hard as I can and achieve what’s realistic.

There seems to be no humility in the way the PN pitches its arguments. Why is criticism towards your party constantly being reflected towards the government?

In a democracy it’s important to have an effective Opposition and that’s what I’ve delivered.

We focused on the things that matter, things the government got seriously wrong, like the citizenship scheme, the gas tanker in Marsaxlokk, the legal notice on data protection, the Prime Minister’s judgment on the Cyrus Engerer case...

...You’re not mentioning the Civil Unions Bill that brought about a great divide in your party. To what extent was the PN damaged by its decision to abstain on the vote?

I’m not willing to change myself or metamorphose into something I’m not

The Prime Minister got it wrong on that one as well. The government lumped two things into one, when they are completely separate, with the intention to use it as a political ploy against the Opposition.

We wanted to support civil unions but were not prepared to support gay adoptions at this stage. Instead of trying to unify and reach unanimity in Parliament, the Prime Minister preferred to sow division.

Meanwhile, the government’s champion for civil rights and gay rights (Cyrus Engerer) has now been found guilty and sentenced for the most heinous act of homophobia. I really think someone, somewhere, should carry political responsibility.

On the Civil Unions Bill, to keep your party united you had to abstain. Why didn’t you vote against it then?

We were not against the full package. We were in favour of civil unions. Why should I vote against something when I only agree with part of it?

This is why I told the Prime Minister to separate the two things rather than lump them together to provoke us into voting against the Bill.

We didn’t fall into the Prime Minister’s trap. Am I happy that we abstained? I would have preferred to have done it differently, but in the circumstances there was no option but to abstain.

With the benefit of hindsight, would you say your decision to abstain caused you more damage?

With the benefit of hindsight, I think I did the right thing in terms of the vote and the best thing for the party.

Of course, our party is a coalition of sorts between a conservative faction and a more liberal faction.

But the beauty of this party is its ability to keep these two groups together because they both have one common goal – we can do better than Labour to move the country forward. I want to keep this party together and this vote kept us together.

I know people with a liberal background who vowed they would never vote PN again after the way the party acted on the Civil Unions Bill. How do you plan to get them back?

We will fight as hard as possible to try to bring them back, to explain to them that what we did was done because of the populism and the political ploy of a Prime Minister who tried to use the gay community for political gain.

I understand some people felt disappointed and we need to work hard to bridge the gap with them.

We have a Prime Minister who acts like a salesman, not a statesman

Your objection is on gay adoptions but you know very well that gay people in Malta at the moment can still adopt?

Precisely. Why did the Prime Minister insist on lumping the two issues together?

Because the government argued that the law would enable better control over who is adopting.

Society was not prepared for it. All we asked is to ensure society is prepared for it.

What we’re talking are the rights and interests of children. Wouldn’t it have been more reasonable to unanimously adopt a law on civil unions and then get back to gay adoptions one or two years down the line after society adapts to the new reality.

Is it so unreasonable?

Do you fear that when more ethical issues come up for a vote in Parliament your party will once again come across as divided?

We will tackle them one by one. We’re not afraid.

On the Civil Unions Bill we did take a position, contrary to the spin bandied about by the government.

In the next year, we will probably have a referendum on spring hunting. You said your party favours a limited spring hunting season provided it’s controlled, but you said you had no objection to the referendum. Does it mean you’re ruling out that your party will take a stand on spring hunting?

My party has taken a stand for years. It has worked in government and delivered a short, controlled and disciplined spring hunting season.

Of course, it didn’t make the hunters happy...

...it didn’t make the environmentalists happy either.

And the Labour Party enticed the hunters to vote for it by giving them the impression that a Labour government would give a free-for-all.

It’s the government’s ploy with the hunters that actually triggered off the signatures for the referendum.

Because we’re consistent, we were not part of this exercise of collecting signatures. We are not part of it.

But will you take a stand once the campaign starts?

I will respect what the coalition has asked of political parties – not to politicise it. Now it’s time for people to decide on hunting.

You were involved in the EU negotiations before membership. Seeing the issues that crop up because of spring hunting every year, is it worth pursuing the issue any further?

We delivered the spring hunt-ing season.

Is it worth it when you consider the illegalities and the bad publicity that come with spring hunting?

For me it’s a question of living up to your commitments.

Before we joined the EU, we promised hunters that we would do our best to keep their spring hunting season whether we liked it or not.

We won’t renege on commitments even though we’re in opposition.

You might have negotiated that agreement but with the benefit of hindsight, can’t you as a politician say that it’s not working?

I know you would like me to say I’m against spring hunting.

I’m asking a question.

This is not the party’s position. We have had our chance in government.

We delivered. Now people have asked for a referendum.

The government is promising to deliver on the issue of finch trapping. What is the PN’s position on this matter?

The government is once again trying to fool people. It knows it cannot deliver on this promise because it is illegal under EU law.

But the Prime Minister is once again making such pledges simply to secure their vote on May 24.

The PN has always been clear: we have helped hunters to the point where it was possible, despite not to the extent they wanted.

That’s the difference between the two parties.

If we had to meet in a year’s time where would you like to see the PN  in a better financial position, having elected three MEPs, maybe having made inroads into the Labour majority?

By mid-term I want everyone to feel that or country has an effective Opposition, that our country has an Opposition they can rely on, one that can give them a voice when things go wrong.

In the second half of the term I want to switch tack, and shift it from being an Opposition to an alternative government, dishing out new ideas as to what we plan to do post-2018.

I’m very clear in my mind where I want this party to go. I want to first get it back on its feet and for people to feel that in our democracy we have an effective Opposition.

Can your supporters be rest assured that Simon Busuttil is not just aiming to rebuild a party and reduce its deficit but to be Prime Minister by 2018?

Rest assured, that is my objective.

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