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‘I planted trees that will bear fruit’

Nationalist Party leader Simon Busuttil has achieved his three-seat target in the MEP election but the PN still lost heavily. He tells Kurt Sansone it is still too early to pass judgement on his leadership.

Photo: Jason BorgPhoto: Jason Borg

You said this was not the time to abandon the party, but some argue that as a result you did not admit failure and refused to shoulder political responsibility.

We have to start with the result: the Nationalist Party took three seats, as did the Labour Party.

This means the PN won a seat and Labour lost a seat. This is the point of departure and we would be wrong to forget that.

But there is also the electoral result in terms of votes. This was bad and disappointing.

I am the first to admit this but my aim was to elect the third seat for the PN for the first time in 10 years and I achieved this target.

Is this any consolation for the hundreds and thousands of PN activists?

The target I set myself was to elect the third seat. We did not get the third seat in 2004, just a month after Malta joined the EU, and in 2009, a year after winning the general election.

But we elected the third seat now, a year after the biggest and historical electoral defeat for the PN.

It would be a mistake to ignore the point of departure, which was the only target we set for ourselves in this year.

Beyond this point, I will be the first one to admit that the result was not good and we have to deal with it.

In 1998 and 2003 Alfred Sant was criticised for not resigning the party leadership after suffering defeat at the polls. Why is your position today different from his?

The situation is completely different. Is it possible that you are comparing Alfred Sant, who had been campaigning against the EU for 10 years and lost two general elections and a referendum, with me when I have only been at the helm of the party for a year?

I am the glue that keeps the conservative and liberal wings together

I leave it up to people to judge whether my situation is the same as Alfred Sant’s.

You admitted that part of the problem the PN had throughout this year was related to the message it delivered. Can you give concrete examples?

More than a problem with the message, it is a problem of a party that has been trying to rebuild itself.

One cannot expect a party to bridge a gap of 36,000 votes in just one year.

Last year the party was laying the foundations, which included addressing the financial situation of the party, the internal organisation and structure and also our political message.

But it is not just a question of having a political message but of delivering it to people.

The PN media has to be reformed. One of the biggest problems our party has is to communicate its message because the media landscape is dominated by the government...

Isn’t blaming the media an excuse used by all parties in Opposition? Isn’t this a reflection of the siege mentality the PN is in?

I am not blaming the media or yourself. I am blaming us, our media, which is not yet strong enough to deliver the message we want.

The level of the PN media is not good enough. What worries me, more than the substance of the message, is how it will be delivered.

Today our tools are weak and this has to change.

But bolstering the party media will ensure you can communicate better with the grassroots of the party.

I want the PN media to communicate with everyone and not just the grassroots. Today we have the defect of communicating only with the party grassroots.

Do you believe there were problems with the quality of the message?

Over the past year we focused on a limited number of issues: the citizenship scheme – I think we had a logical and strong argument...

Was the PN’s criticism in the European Parliament of the citizenship scheme a mistake?

Allow me to continue... the criticism on the gas tanker [inside Marsaxlokk Bay] – we made a strong argument but it is open for debate whether we did it well, went too far or held back too much.

The Legal Notice 76 concerning the data protection of our children – I believe this was an important point.

We did not criticise everything and I do not believe we criticised badly those things we felt had to be criticised.

The gas tanker issue was a central issue for the PN and yet the party vote in the four southern districts continued its decline. Just more than a quarter of voters chose the PN. There must be something wrong.

You cannot expect to harvest the fruit from a tree when all you have done in this year is plant the seeds and grow them into saplings.

I ask people to appreciate this. In my first year as leader I planted the seeds that have developed into saplings, which will eventually grow into strong trees that bear fruit.

I am not satisfied with the [election] result but I cannot expect to see results after just a year.

Are we on the right track to see the seeds develop into healthy trees? I believe we are and so let’s stay the course. We should carry out the necessary changes and this is my target now that the election is over.

The next chapter for the PN is an exciting one that ensures all internal changes are enacted.

This result will not dishearten me but strengthen my will to make the changes that are necessary.

Are you considering reshuffling the party spokespeople?

I never rule out anything, and will act according to the party’s needs.

I will consider everything but at this point in time I have other priorities to focus on.

The primary problem was our inability to mobilise our own people

I am raising this point because some have questioned whether the choice of George Pullicino and Tonio Fenech as spokesmen for energy and finance respectively were the right one... you had people during the Mepa hearing on the gas power station agreeing with Mr Pullicino’s argument but bringing up the fact that he had formed part of the PN Cabinet that delivered the BWSC plant.

Let us not forget that the parliamentary group is made up of MPs, some of whom were elected from two districts.

I have to give every MP a role. The two people you mentioned are the only ones who are shadowing the areas they were involved in, although George Pullicino’s portfolio was different [he used to be minister for resources not energy, even though resources has now been grouped with energy].

Do you believe the message did not reach voters because the spokesmen who were arguing the case for the party were not the right people?

I was primarily the person who fronted the gas tanker issue. I put forward the argument forcefully.

It still has to be seen if people did not accept the argument, because even the Labour Party reduced its share of the vote in the south.

The primary problem was not our message but our inability to mobilise our own people to go out and vote.

Our organisation is not as strong as the Labour Party’s in this regard.

Who is responsible for this?

We are collectively responsible.

Is it the general secretary or the deputy leader for party affairs?

We are collectively responsible for this.

Do you feel it appropriate to seek a vote of confidence from PN councillors?

I was given a vote of confidence last year and this was not given to me for just a year. I have no doubt that councillors still trust me.

Will there be a scapegoat?

This is not how I work. I want to work to put the party back on a sure footing and not to blame others.

I want the party to move forward and my focus is not to find a scapegoat but to perform the necessary changes.

You have worked over the past year to address the party’s dire financial state but in April Media.Link Communications, the party media company, lost a civil suit against Europrint because it owes the printing company almost €500,000. What is your reaction to this?

If there are debts to be paid, I have to put the party on a sound financial footing [to start paying them off].

If the party in the past had incurred debts and as a result lost a court case under my leadership, should it be me who resigns?

My job is not to run away because that would be the easiest thing to do. My job is to ensure the party is financially viable.

Since last year the party has become financially sustainable and it has paid all its dues, including the MEP election campaign expenses. But there is a legacy of debt.

The financial challenge was and is still big and I want to overcome it.

How?

This is an internal financial matter but my commitment is to do all that is needed to overcome this challenge.

I have no doubt that councillors still trust me

We have taken the first step by laying the foundations – even if they do not show – for financial sustainability in the party’s operations.

The next step will be tackling past debts.

But there is no doubt that the financial difficulties have had an impact on our performance.

We are taking on a propaganda machine that has unlimited finances and possibly has links to Henley & Partners [the agent that is administering the citizenship scheme].

Are you saying the Labour Party is financed by Henley & Partners?

What I am sure of is that there are serious allegations against Henley & Partners that they financed a political party in another country during an election campaign.

It is also a fact that the government does not want to publish the contract with Henley & Partners that involves hundreds of millions of euros.

Why doesn’t the government publish the contract? What is the link between the Labour Party and Henley & Partners?

The decision not to publish the contract is scandalous and raises suspicion.

Beppe Fenech Adami has said the sticker album idea with the faces of people appointed to various government posts was a bad idea. Did you endorse it?

Without doubt it was a mistake we made during the electoral campaign.

What was the mistake?

The mistake was that such a strong argument – the complete denial of the ‘Malta belongs to us all’ slogan and the promise to run a meritocratic government – was overplayed because the album was seen to be in bad taste.

The PN has a problem at this particular juncture on how to reconcile its conservative roots with the more liberal wing. What has happened to the glue that bound these two together in the past?

I am the glue that keeps those two wings together.

My political formation was in the European Parliament that is based on the principle of unity in diversity.

If the PN forgets this fundamental principle it can disband, but the PN should be proud of the diversity within it and despite having people with different opinions on civil unions, the party should be capable of keeping them together...

I cannot allow that diversity to become a destructive force with one side going west and the other side going east.

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