‘Lawrence gives me space’
The Prime Minister’s wife Kate Gonzi speaks about affection, her dabbling with politics, and moving on in life. Interview by Kristina Chetcuti
Kate Gonzi’s bracelet unclasps at her wrist as we shake hands. She laughs softly and says: “I can’t keep count of all the items of jewellery I’ve lost over the years.”
He gives me a lot of space, he believes in me and he appreciates that I help a lot by talking to people
Rings, she says, simply seem “to fly off” her fingers: She lost her engagement ring after a few months and she’s on her third wedding ring.
Only one ring has never left her finger: “If I lose this ‘eternity ring’, I’d be very upset – Lawrence gave it to me just after our wedding before we left on our honeymoon and he made a real sacrifice to save up for it.”
Her husband had then just graduated as a lawyer and had only started working. She had been working as a teacher for about nine years, so with her savings they could live in a small flat in Safi.
Over these odd 30-years, several things have changed: they moved to Marsascala, had three children, Dr Gonzi was roped into politics and eventually became PN party leader and Prime Minister.
Their living room is testimony to all this: framed photos of the Gonzis with several dignitaries who visited the island over the years, lay next to photos of the couple with their children and four grandchildren.
The room – a corner of which is Dr Gonzi’s desk area – is mostly strewn with books. The Prime Minister is in the next room with his team preparing for the leaders’ University debate.
She says her second electoral campaign is more intensive – due to a new Opposition leader and people’s expectations being higher. “But that’s a good sign.”
Mrs Gonzi, 64, is very much aware that wives of party leaders now have a key role in politics. “It’s a constantly changing culture. I remember Mrs (Mary) Fenech Adami being criticised for going abroad with her husband. But now it’s different.”
She observes that this is the first time in years that the leader of the Labour Party has been married. [Dom Mintoff’s wife was absent from Malta for long stretches]. “Mrs Muscat is still young and she has worked in PR, so she’s good.”
On her part Mrs Gonzi is very conscious of her role and the fact that she is not a party official. “There is a fine line, so I always hold back unless asked.”
The couple hold hands sometimes at public events, and she says that this comes natural to them. “If we go for a walk – which we haven’t done in ages and I am always very happy when we manage – we hold hands, or if we’re going up the steep Marsascala church steps, I hold on to his arm,” she says. “But I think there is a limit to public affection which you have to respect.”
She is Dr Gonzi’s prop behind the scenes. The minute she steps out of her home in the morning, she finds people waiting to talk to her about their problems. She always welcomes them into the very sitting room where we carry out the interview.
Knowing that Dr Gonzi is always out all day, they are very happy to talk to her. It is mostly people asking for jobs or about housing problems. For this reason she keeps herself updated about all the government schemes available and reads the DOI bulletin on a daily basis.
“I know what incentives and specialised services there are and I can guide them to the right channels on the spot,” she says. “People just need to believe in their abilities – even often says that in speeches.”
She follows up their progress and most take up the advice she gives out in her gentle-but-firm voice: her lightness of spirit is balanced by a no-nonsense aura very typical of her generation’s college-trained teachers.
Does Dr Gonzi ever discuss political issues with her? “Yes, but I am very careful about my input. Mostly I give him feedback about what is the feeling of people out there.” She cites as an example the recent energy discussions. “I told that in his speeches he needed to explain the difference between a ‘connector’ and a ‘cable’ because it was all very unclear.”
She does not feel she is in her husband’s shadow. “He gives me a lot of space, he believes in me and he appreciates that I help a lot by talking to people.”
Mrs Gonzi is very involved in the sphere of mental health, having cared for her brother – together with her siblings – for about 40 years and is today the president of the Mental Health Association.
Did she find it frustrating that the mental health policy was long in the making? “Yes and we really struggled to get here... but now it’s been radically changed,” she says.
She knows the policy by heart and would gladly take up the rest of the interview time talking about it. Even if PN does not win election, she says she would want to stay involved: “I won’t impose but if they want me to, I will still help out very willingly.”
She admires mothers who have an aura of warmth around them. “When I meet these mothers or grandmothers, I always say to myself ‘I hope I’ve got a bit of that,” she says, laughing.
Mrs Gonzi was a stay-at-home mother while she raised her children. Now women are all the time being encouraged to join the workforce. Does she feel they will miss out on being present in their children’s lives? “Initially I was worried – but then I understood that society changes and we have to adapt and prepare.”
Now that all her children have settled down, how does it feel?
“My daughter Michaela asked me the other day if I was missing them. I told her: don’t take offence, but no. Now Lawrence and I get to spend more time together. We raised them, and we held their hands, now life is theirs.”
Still, their children tease them these days when they see their parents “having a tete-a-tete”.
How do her grandchildren feel having nannu and nanna in the limelight? “They are not really aware of the political world and we’d like to keep it that way as much as possible,” she says.
Sometimes this leads to a few funny moments. Recently her four-year old grandson was driven past a mass meeting. “He was told it was a party. But then he heard people chanting ‘Gonzi’ and he was baffled. He turned to his father and asked: ‘Papa why is everyone calling me?’”
She also embraces her age. “We always talk about inclusion – but in practice this is not always the case,” and says that even most adverts these days feature young people.
“Every stage of life has its own beauty. I am happy that I am a senior citizen. When I see young couples I tell them that to grow old is a blessing. You mature, you soften up,” she says.
Mrs Gonzi chuckles when asked her if she thinks her husband is perfect. “No”, she says. Then more laughter as she quips: “I hope he hasn’t heard that.” In fact a positive aspect of maturing she says, is that they understand each other much more.
Most of their arguments were because she felt he never realised when she needed a helping hand. “Eventually, he’d say: ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ But I could never understand how he could not figure out by himself that I could do with some help.”
These days she has changed tact. “I go up to him and tell him ‘I am upset with you – I already forgave you but am still angry, so hear me out for five minutes while I tell you why’,” she says. “It works better.”
His lack of interest in the kitchen used to bother her in their early years together because at home all her siblings, including her brothers, loved cooking.
“Lawrence would never even ask what’s cooking and in the beginning I really found it odd.” However, she has since reconciled the fact that food is not his passion – unlike computers.
When their children were young he spent four weekends working on re-creating the board game ‘Sorry’ as a software for the PC. “By the end I jokingly told him, it would have been better if he’d created a ‘Software Man’ for me to keep me company,” she laughs.
On the plus side he always pulled his weight when it came to house maintenance. “He’s good at woodwork, so he’s built quite a few of these shelves,” she says.
These days she has help at home on the weekends. And with the campaign she even had to up her grooming: “I don’t go out of my way – but I have the hairdresser come here before I’m due to appear on a television programme.”
She chooses her own outfits from three of her favourite shops. “Or else, I buy the cloth and then it’s in the hands of the dressmaker. I mostly tend to go for classic cuts – to hide my sins.”
What about her favourite accessories? Those would be the three gold chains which her husband gave her on the birth of each of their children. “And of course, my eternity ring.”