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‘Labour is governing with lies, spin and perceptions’

A week after the Nationalist Party’s first convention, Opposition leader Simon Busuttil tells Herman Grech he’ll always stick to his word.

Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Last Sunday, you said the party has learnt from the mistakes of the past. What mistakes were you referring to?

I’m not here to defend past mistakes. I’m here to learn from them.

Last Sunday, I said the PN has a lot more to be proud of. But, of course, everyone makes mistakes, especially after 25 years in government.

You promised to adopt a different style of doing politics. What did you mean?

Joseph Muscat can’t speak about honesty then whenever he feels cornered, choose to throw mud at his opponents

My style is to keep my word. And that’s in stark contrast to the politics of Joseph Muscat, who built his way up to the Prime Minister’s post based on a lie.

It’s a government of lies, spin and perceptions. You can’t have a Prime Minister who promises to resign should he fail to deliver a power station within two years – and then doesn’t stick to his word.

He can’t speak about honesty then whenever he feels cornered, choose to throw mud at his opponents.

We cannot have a government which promises everything to everyone, a government built on clientelism and nepotism.

You said that this government’s system of “clientelism” would eventually boomerang. If people are happy with it, why should it backfire?

When you say some people are getting whatever they want, it is at the expense of others. When you’re giving someone a job because of nepotism, you’re leaving others out. My style is not to be populist.

Before the PN was elected [in 1987] you had to go to the minister to change a street lamp bulb. We changed that system.

When you say the PN wants to be close to the people, doesn’t it eventually mean awarding jobs and favouring your supporters when in government?

I believe we need to be close to people, but let’s not mix it with clientelism.

You said the power station was one of the main issues that propelled Joseph Muscat...

It was the main issue.

But ultimately do you think people are really bothered about the power station completion or the fact that their bills have been slashed by 25 per cent?

The people care about the truth. The Prime Minister lied. He knew he couldn’t build a power station in two years.

He also said he’d resign if he failed to deliver it in two years, and he failed to keep his word on that.

He kept his word that he would slash the electricity tariffs.

He promised to slash the bills by building a power station. The government has entrapped itself. So far he’s financing the cuts through the projects we set in motion.

The BWSC plant he used to describe as a “cancer factory” is saving him money.

Do you think Joseph Muscat should resign?

Undoubtedly! It was Joseph Muscat who gave his word. There are recordings as evidence. I never told him that he should promise to resign if he fails to deliver.

All I’m asking is that he keeps his word. No wonder people say they have no faith in politicians. If he lied on this, what guarantee do we have he’s not lying on other matters?

The convention proposed a discussion on tax on fast food, extending obligatory education to 18, euthanasia and abortion. Do you agree they should be discussed?

The idea is to take the discussion beyond our doors. We need to evaluate them and that’s why I set up 10 policy forums.

We should discuss sensitive issues to make sure we’re prepared by the time they’re raised.

Nobody is saying the PN should change its stand on issues like abortion and euthanasia.

What’s the point of the think-tank exercise when 24 hours later the PN issued a press release saying it is opposed to abortion, effectively blocking any discussion on the subject?

Absolutely not. We want to discuss everything. We are a party of dialogue, unlike the Labour Party, where the leader dictates matters.

Are you managing to reconcile the liberals and conservatives in your party?

The PN is united in diversity. I respect the fact people have different views. I will not shut anyone up.

Your speech clearly shifted towards the need to open up, especially to gays. Are you trying to ‘out-liberal’ Labour?

The PN was never a homophobic party and introduced many gay rights. We didn’t vote against the Civil Unions Bill.

While we were in favour of civil unions, we had reservations about gay adoptions. LGBTI people should feel comfortable in our party.

The decision to abstain from the Civil Unions Bill will remain a noose around the PN’s neck...

I can assure it’s no noose around our neck.

It’s an open secret that individuals like you, Mario de Marco and Claudette Buttigieg would have rather voted in favour of the Bill. Meanwhile, it was said that MPs like Claudio Grech and Beppe Fenech Adami threatened to resign from Parliament if the party voted in favour.

Unlike Labour, there was a six-month discussion on this subject in our party. We had individuals in favour, others against, others tried to find a compromise.

The point is that we respect the law and we have no intention of repealing it when we’re in government.

Did the majority of your MPs favour the law?

The chapter is closed and we need to look ahead. The PN wasn’t against the law. But I’m conscious of the fact our abstention upset the gay lobby and I intend to bridge the gap with this community.

How will the party vote on the Gender Identity Bill?

We’ve already contributed to this law, and I hope our position will be in favour of it. But it still has to be discussed internally.

Photo: Chris Sant FournierPhoto: Chris Sant Fournier

The PN is often criticised for claiming the moral high ground and then sitting on the fence on issues such as spring hunting and Armier. Isn’t it better to take a determined strong stand on certain matters, irrespective of the votes at stake?

It’s a perception. Did we sit on the fence with the citizenship issue? We managed to change the law radically.

Giving Armier’s boathouses smart meters is far worse than the mistakes we made

Did we sit on the fence on the proposed cancellation of local elections? We forced the government to do a U-turn.

Did we sit on the fence on the power station issue? In the past 18 months we made more proposals than Labour did in 25 years!

On Armier, I disagree that illegal boathouses should be given a smart meter. The issue today is not whether we should demolish them or not...

The possibility of demolishing them is at the core of the issue.

The government is regularising these structures by giving them smart meters.

It goes against both the rule of law and the environment.

Many are saying the illegal structures should be demolished. Why are you reluctant to enter into that discussion?

The issue isn’t that today.

It’s very relevant though.

Today we have a government that wants to equip these structures with a smart meter.

You will tell me that the Nationalist government did nothing about them.

I want to learn from the mistakes we made in the past. In future, our position is to implement what we failed to do in the past.

Which is?

We had a plan that those who had no right should have their position regularised. We could map out a plan for boathouses to be built in an appropriate manner and that would be available to all, not to those who stole land.

This is the problem. Why is the PN afraid to say that once elected to govern, it would demolish these structures because they are illegal?

Because that’s a simplistic solution! Some of them have rights. The PN had a plan, and the problem is that it never implemented it. We wanted to rehabilitate the area and create units which were open to all.

The decision to give them a smart meter is far worse than the mistakes we made in the past.

Maybe people are criticising you because they want you to take a clear stand, irrespective of how tough it is.

It’s not fair to say I won’t take a clear stand. I don’t think I earned any votes from boathouse owners when I said they shouldn’t be given a smart meter.

Why won’t you take a clear stand on spring hunting?

We have a government that doesn’t abide by the rule of law – it promised hunters and trappers things it can’t deliver. We were honest. We worked to obtain a short and disciplined spring hunting season. We lost votes because of that but we were balanced and moderate.

We’re not a party that promises one thing to environmentalists and another to hunters.

But environmentalists are still accusing you of failing to take a tough stand against spring hunting.

They should be more disappointed with Joseph Muscat, who went to the other extreme. Do the environmentalists prefer a limited season or a party which ignores the rule of law?

One issue you can’t dispute is the economy. The deficit is under control and credit rating agencies have once again given us a clean bill of health. In September 2012, you had said: “I’m convinced that should Labour be elected we’d be knocking on Europe’s doors for a bailout within a year or two if Joseph Muscat lives up to his promises.” Don’t you think you were wide of the mark?

There are a lot of economic indicators which aren’t very rosy.

Let’s start with the good things – the economy is still growing, especially because our efforts in the financial services and tourism sectors are still delivering the goods.

But there are worrying red alerts. The country’s debt is increasing by €3 million a day...

As long as there’s a deficit there will be mounting debt.

But it’s increasing. It’s becoming unsustainable. Factories’ production is down, we’re bottom of the list in the EU’s industrial production...

Manufacturing production has been going down for years.

The rate of reduction since this government assumed power is alarming. Imports and exports, which always increased under a PN administration, is down to the extent that we now rank bottom of the EU list.

Sales are down, unemployment figures are concealing the fact the government engaged 3,700 workers on its books in a year.

The PN will unmask Joseph Muscat, including the facts about the economy.

Credit agencies are simply confirming the ratings we had during the worst international recessions we had. I expect our ratings to improve and not remain the same.

Whatever Daphne Caruana Galizia says is her business. I don’t interfere in what she does; whatever I do or the Nationalist Party does is my business, not her business

That doesn’t mean we’re asking for a bailout after two years of Labour government.

Whoever asked for a bailout went through similar experiences. You can reach your conclusions whether we’re on the right track.

You’ve been party leader for 18 months. How do you feel when you’re criticised that you’re failing to inspire? Where are these rumblings coming from and why?

Last Sunday I didn’t get that kind of feedback. I took over a party which lost an election by 36,000 votes.

My job is to rebuild a force to be reckoned with. I’m committed to do my utmost. I leave it up to the public to decide whether I’m inspiring. I engaged new election candidates, I roped in 10 people to lead our policy forums to generate new ideas.

If these people weren’t inspired I don’t think they would have joined the party.

Do you think they would like to see a more forceful leader rather than the calm-natured Simon Busuttil?

People want politicians who tell the truth.

Last Sunday, AŻAD chairman David Griscti said the party should not ‘resort’ to ‘personal attacks’. Who was he referring to?

I can assure you that under my watch, the party is not resorting to personal attacks.

What I’m seeing is government exponents carrying out vicious attacks on our people whenever the government has its back against the wall. Why is the government unearthing now what it deems to be scandals dating back two years?

This has happened in the past.

I can assure you it’s not my style of politics. I will attack nobody personally.

Was David Griscti referring to certain prominent bloggers, like Daphne Caruana Galizia?

The last time I checked Daphne Caruana Galizia was not a party official and does not form part of the party. Whatever she says is her business. I don’t interfere in what she does; whatever I do or the Nationalist Party does is my business, and it is none of her business.

Daphne Caruana Galizia represents many traditional PN supporters.

You’re mistaken. Daphne Caruana Galizia does not represent the PN. She wasn’t elected. She is a media person who has every right to express herself.

I will not shut anybody up. Likewise, I won’t let the PN’s agenda be dictated by anybody.

Do you approve of her style of writing?

I don’t need to approve or condemn whoever isn’t part of the party. I can assure you Daphne Caruana Galizia is not the official or unofficial voice of the PN.

Last Sunday, you said if there was a case against MP George Pullicino then the police should investigate.

It’s not exactly what I said.

Daphne Caruana Galizia reflected the views of some when she said you’re feeding one of your own men to the lions on the Prime Minister’s instructions? Does George Pullicino enjoy your full support?

What I said is that politics should be built on honesty. It’s unacceptable that when a government has its back to the wall, it starts throwing mud.

There’s no doubt that honesty is essential. In my view, that’s what it’s doing with George.

Whoever wants to twist my words then it’s up to them. But check my full text.

Are you ready to defend George Pullicino?

I’m already doing it. I give everyone the chance to defend his position, and no less with George.

We’re three years away from a general election. Will your initiatives make inroads into the 36,000 deficit?

This is a marathon, it’s not a 100-metre race. In a marathon, the athletes will sometimes wonder whether they have the energy to complete the race.

I’m convinced we will get there. You should never give up and I’m not prepared to give up. Yes, I believe we’re on the right track.

We’re rebuilding this party’s ideas, finances, the media. Maybe not everything is visible today. Last Sunday was the first time when things started being visible.

Do you think the PN can do the impossible and win the next election?

It’s clear for everybody that it is a difficult route. What is also clear is that Simon Busuttil is determined to do it.

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