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Watch: Chris Said: ‘I am in it to win it’

'Having been a mayor, an MP, a minister and a general secretary, I feel confident of going a step further.'

Gozitan MP Chris Said was the second person to declare himself a contestant in the PN leadership race. Keith Micallef asked the former party general secretary about his credentials, his handling of the DB Group agreement, the PN’s failure in Gozo and gay marriage, where he says he would have considered allowing a free vote.

Is it a lifetime ambition of yours to become PN leader?

I always sought to serve party and country in the best manner. Having been a mayor, an MP, a minister and a general secretary, I feel confident of going a step further to lead the party and country.

Would you have foreseen your leadership candidature 10 years ago?

Certainly not. Not even being a parliamentary secretary or minister. However, in the circumstances that the party has found itself in, I feel I can contribute to revamping the PN and making it an alternative government.

Your abrupt departure as general secretary had fuelled speculation of a clash with party leader Simon Busuttil on various matters.

This is false speculation as I always had a good relationship with Dr Busuttil. In 2013 I was approached to run for the leadership but at that stage I thought it would best to serve as general secretary. When my two-year term was up I was asked by Dr Busuttil to focus on Gozo as both Giovanna Debono and Fredrick Azzopardi were not going to contest the general election. I ended my stint on a high as the PN halved the gap with the PL in the 2015 local council elections.

Are you saying there was no clash whatsoever?

There were occasions when we disagreed or had divergent opinions but I would not say we clashed. Ultimately I always bowed to the leadership decision. May I point out that before throwing my name into the hat I consulted Dr Busuttil to ensure his decision to resign was final. However, if in due course he reconsidered his position, I would drop out.

A few months ago the PN was taken to task over the DB ‘commercial relationship’ with the party media. I am informed this happened when you were still general secretary. What is your reaction to this?

As general secretary I insisted that each donation or advert on the party media would not influence the party’s stance or decisions. My personal opinion on the sale of the ITS site to the DB Group was that this deal was unfair and I gave my full backing for the Auditor Gene­ral to look into it. The law on party financing was introduced after the PN’s commercial agreement with the DB Group was signed. Once this law came into force there was a clearer framework on how to handle such issues. I am proud that I was involved in the first draft of the Bill when I was still justice minister and later as Opposition representative at committee stage in Parliament.

Chris Said: His door would be open to all those who want to place the party’s and the country’s interests before their own. Photo: Jonathan BorgChris Said: His door would be open to all those who want to place the party’s and the country’s interests before their own. Photo: Jonathan Borg

But fingers have been pointed towards you for mishandling this issue.

I have nothing to be ashamed of. I repeat that no advertising campaign or donation affected the party’s decisions on major pro­jects or issues. The fact that the PN requested an investigation by the National Audit Office is testament to this.

No advertising campaign or donation affected the party’s decisions on major pro­jects or issues.

Do you think that with hindsight you would have handled the issue better, and was the PN leadership aware of the deal with the DB Group?

The law on party financing makes it clear what can and cannot be done. Before, both parties, including Labour, had their own system to keep financially afloat. The crucial aspect of this issue, I reiterate, is that no deal or donation hindered the PN from taking certain positions.

Would the DB deal now fit within the existing parameters of the law on party financing?

It could be the case that such an agreement would have to be drafted in a different manner. However, it is still possible within the existing criteria which oblige parties to make declarations in full transparency with the Electoral Commission, which is the regulating body.

Do you think the PN should have published the invoices of the DB deal to prove it has nothing to hide on the matter?

Commercial issues should not be made public, especially in the wake of the cutthroat competition in advertising. Yet, I am fully committed to abide by the law on party financing.

Following your departure as general secretary you were tasked with regaining lost ground in Gozo. However, the PN suffered a loss of 1,000 votes. This does not bode well for bridging the 36,000 vote gap.

This is a question that I also ask myself. Considering that the government awarded about 1,000 jobs in Gozo to buy votes, that the PN was missing a strong MP from its list of candidates, and the limited time I had since being assigned to this mission, there was little more I could have done. On a posi­tive note, I increased my personal vote tally for the fourth election in a row despite the huge number of candidates vying to be elected from this district.

But the alleged ‘vote buying’ might happen again in the next election. How would you address this issue?

First, we must be more in touch with the people to match their aspirations with the party’s proposals. Secondly, in the coming months the party has to look into the measures resorted to by the Labour government, which verged on the illegal, so that we can take steps. One possible solution is to ask the authorities to investigate such cases, and lobby for the introduction of a law to prevent such situations from happening again.

Past PN governments had adopted a policy of freezing appointments and promotions during an election campaign. We must push to turn such a practice into law.

The party has to look into the measures resorted to by the Labour government, which verged on the illegal, so that we can take steps
 

Do you consider yourself as a conservative or a liberal?

Labelling like this is very vague. I consider myself as someone who chooses right from wrong, and defends values like freedom and the right of life. In reality, the PN must strive to safeguard the dignity of every individual.

I consider myself as someone who chooses right from wrong, and defends values like freedom and the right of life. In reality, the PN must strive to safeguard the dignity of every individual.

What is your opinion on the gay marriage Bill terminology that has fuelled controversy?

I am in favour of gay marriage as this was part of the PN manifesto. However, the government is wrong to replace the mother/ father, husband/wife terminology with ‘parent’. There would be no discrimination if the law were left as it is and the words ‘parent’ and ‘spouse’ inserted. On the other hand the proposed law discriminates against individuals who will no longer have the right to choose which term to use for themselves.

But the government will not budge on this issue…

The Prime Minister had pledged to work for national unity but on this issue he is doing the opposite. Otherwise he would have accepted the PN’s amendments to widen the terminology, not restrict it. The PN is saying it is up to the individual to choose which term to use, not the government. 

Would you have considered giving a free vote once the proposed amendments have been shot down?

The party leader is bound to try to get the various positions within the parliamentary group to converge to a common one. Politics is also about uniting a rainbow of ideas to reach a decision. My role would be to build bridges to different ideas. I would not mind the idea of giving a free vote in certain circumstances. We saw this happening in Germany where Chancellor Angela Merkel gave a free vote, coincidentally on gay marriage.

Do you subscribe to the view that a free vote would split the party?

Having different ideas does not mean there is a split. Rather, this is a healthy thing. Ideally these ideas should converge to a common position. If this is not achieved, I would consider giving a free vote. But there will be no split in the PN on this issue. There is agreement in principle, but not on the terminology. The government seems intent to drive a wedge between us but it will not succeed.

How will you be voting on this Bill?

I will be adhering to the party line and vote in favour.

Do you believe that the PN made a strategic error in the last election by placing all its eggs in the ‘corruption’ basket?

The PN was right to put up a strong fight against corruption but maybe we did not explain how it affected voters in everyday life. We had very good proposals that we should have harped on much more. On the other hand, the election came a year early and this put us at a disadvantage. Yet Labour’s victory at the polls does not absolve it from any wrongdoing flagged before the election.

Did the PN leave it too late to issue its proposals?

On Gozo, we rolled them out at the start, but they were perhaps eclipsed by the issue of corruption.

The PN was right to put up a strong fight against corruption but maybe we did not explain how it affected voters in everyday life.

Was this also the case for the approval of the PN candidates?

Though some candidates had been approved three years earlier, others were given the go-ahead only weeks before the election was announced. If I am elected leader, candidates will be approved from day one. They are a crucial tool to reach out to the electorate. Once the new PN leader is installed, work has to start immediately to find hundreds of candidates for the 2019 European and council elections.

How will you try to lure back those who left the PN, maybe even the likes of Franco Debono?

It is not ethical to discuss individuals.

My point was that this would convey a strong message that the party is really rebuilding its bridges.

With me as leader, the door would be open to all those of good will who genuinely want to work, place the party’s and the country’s interests before their own, and want to be part of a team while following the party line. Those who fit within these parameters will find my complete backing. 

What will your very first priorities be as PN leader?

We have to take a snapshot of Maltese society, which has changed dramatically in recent years, on the basis of which we would update our policies to reclaim the role as the party at the forefront of new ideas with the best vision for the country.

What is the future of the PN-PD coalition?

It is early days. The coalition made sense in the current circumstances. My role as Opposition leader would be to strengthen the collaboration. However, I hope that in five years’ time the party will not have to rely on the support of other parties.

What is your target for the 2019 European and local elections?

During my stint as general secretary I was responsible for the party’s 2015 local councils campaign, including the selection of candidates. We reached our targets of winning back key localities like St Paul’s Bay and Mosta, increasing the number of councillors and reducing the gap with Labour by half. As leader I would work from day one to find the right candidates, on a clear strategy and targets to start reducing the gap. This will be the first step for the PN to start building up for the next general election.

Will PD candidates be contesting the 2019 election on the PN ticket once again?

Decisions will be taken closer to the election date.

What characteristic should the next PN leader have?

Someone who is assertive, not afraid to take bold decisions and ready to call a spade a spade. The ideal leader must give credit where it is due but at the same time fight against what is bad, regardless who is behind it.

Do you exclude running for deputy leader if your leadership bid fails?

I am only focusing on the leadership race and doing the utmost to convey my message and vision for the party.  I am in it to win it.

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