‘Most of us know what went wrong’
Former minister Francis Zammit Dimech tells Herman Grech he has the experience and drive to make him a contender for the Nationalist Party’s top post.
We’re three weeks from your party’s crushing defeat at the polls. Can you name some factors which led to this loss?
The major factor is that the party, unfortunately, found itself out of sync with people in general. It was a party in government, and we were focused on giving the country the deliverables it needed – making sure the economy performs, making sure jobs are created. We wanted to make sure that all the country’s requirements were in place. That happened at a cost – losing contact with the people, not reaching out.
When you say the party wasn’t reaching out, don’t you think that a government sometimes cannot provide what people demand?
It wasn’t a question of people expecting more from government. It was a question of us not staying in contact with the people enough. I will never blame the people for any decision they make at any stage of the political game. In politics it is the people who decide, and they are right. We have to question what went wrong with our behaviour, our communication skills... the pace of our own implementation programmes.
Loyalty will remain the hallmark of my political life
During the campaign did you ever try to intervene to show your disapproval at the way things were going?
During the campaign it was already too late. I offered to do whatever I could to reach out, do home visits and go on television programmes. I wasn’t involved in any way in the actual momentum of the campaign or the way it evolved. It’s easier with hindsight to say certain decisions shouldn’t have been taken...
We were coming across as too negative and emphasising the fear of Labour too much. The emphasis should have been much more on our achievements, what we had delivered, the new jobs, the way we kept the health sector going, sailing the ship through turbulent waters. We were not communicating that message enough. The party message was also to a certain extent hijacked by the oil scandal.
Throughout the past five years, you served as a backbencher before being promoted to minister just weeks before the election. Contrary to some of your colleagues, you were seen as one who would toe the party line. Does it mean you were totally in agreement with what was going on?
No, but I would always make the necessary comments within party structures. Loyalty is a very important value in its own right. The three values I cherish most, and which I deduce in my own campaign, are honesty, loyalty and looking towards the future.
During the past five years, the PN has been accused of taking a number of wrong decisions, like the honoraria issue.
That was totally mishandled. I had actually spoken about that in the party structures.
The party also took a stand against divorce, which you adopted. Do you still believe it was the right thing to do?
From a sociological point of view I would have preferred it if divorce had not been introduced. Having said that, the moment we decided to subject that decision to the will of the people, it had to be reflected.
At committee stage, I had offered, and it was accepted, to become my party’s coordinator to ensure the Bill would be an effective one which reflects the outcome of the referendum. Together with Owen Bonnici we produced a law totally in line with what people wanted in the referendum.
At that stage I had suggested within my own party, and I spoke directly with the party leader, that we could all unanimously vote for the Bill, which I personally did at the third reading. Unfortunately the suggestion wasn’t taken up.
The PN didn’t take too lightly to constructive criticism and we’re still seeing it after the defeat. Do you think this is one of the party’s biggest problems?
I would say some of us tended to be oversensitive. That could have happened for a number of reasons... people were working under strenuous pressure. Our role is to be positively responsive to criticism and not take offence. Of course, certain criticism could be unfair and our role is to explain.
As we speak, party exponents are levelling out attacks against this very institution and accusing it of ‘contributing’ to the PN’s defeat.
I’ve always been supportive of The Times as an independent institution, which represents in the most effective manner the fourth estate in this country. The Times will always have a great job to carry out and I respect that. Of course, there will be occasions when I’m in disagreement, but my role is not to take offence but make my counter-arguments and convince.
Looking ahead, the race is on for the post of PN leader. Nominations open on Tuesday and your name has been cited in several quarters. Will you contest?
I’ve reflected very strongly on this issue over the past days, and of course there are pros and cons and issues I have to consider from a personal perspective. But ultimately it’s a question of fulfilling one’s duty. And at this stage my duty is to contest. So yes, my name will be in the hat.
And what makes you so optimistic that you have a chance?
I’m not basing my decision on that kind of optimism. I’m basing it on a question of duty, after being approached by various party councillors. They are telling me we shouldn’t put aside all the experience I represent. Let’s not put aside the way I communicate with people, which is now considered as essential as the substance of politics itself. Of course, the decision is theirs, and whichever decision they take, it will have my utmost respect. I will have the utmost loyalty to the party leader because loyalty will remain the hallmark of my political life.
Can you name two heavyweights who are urging you to stand?
Over the past days I tended to be more in consultation with the party grassroots as opposed to discussing the matter with heavyweights, who will always give advice in a confidential manner. It wouldn’t be correct to name names. But I have done quite a bit of soul searching with the grassroots...
And what are they telling you?
Well, they’re not all telling me to run, but I’m getting encouraging signals and it’s on the basis of that feedback that I’ve decided to contest.
You’re 58. Do you think age will work against you?
I don’t think age should be a major factor. If you look at party leaders across Europe and beyond, you’ll see many older than me. At the end of the day, it’s about the energy you bring into it, how you feel emotionally, what you think you can still contribute to the party. Age brings with it the benefit of experience and the kind of strategy to be adopted over a difficult five years coming up. Age shouldn’t be the one and only factor.
Experience and a track record could actually work against you. Do you think you have a good track record?
I have the track record of having had the benefit of being of service in the government in various portfolios, from transport and communications, environment, handling major projects, tourism and culture, and foreign affairs. To my mind, such a track record is a benefit.
We have a duty to hold this government to task over all its commitments, promises and expectations raised
It also means I was there when a number of major decisions were made that shaped the future of our country. It was my decision to put more emphasis on cultural policy, my decision to create a centre for creativity that is St James Cavalier. It was my duty to make sure that a number of major projects in this country take effect, including the cruise liner terminal project. Is that a disadvantage? I’d like to think it’s an advantage. The ultimate judgement lies with party councillors.
A leader needs to be forward-looking. Do you think councillors might fear you’d use 1990s methods for the 21st century?
I always believe we can never rest on the plateau of our successes. We always need to look forward, we always need to have ideas what to do next. I, for one, would never rest on the laurels of our collective past successes. One of the immediate and first commitments to undertake if elected party leader is to make sure we conduct a very thorough and objective survey of the country – a sociological X-ray of Malta 2013 to see how it is evolving.
We need to look at what is known as the politics of micro-trends. I come from a generation where we talk of mass movements, mass meetings, mass appeals. In politics, that remains relevant, but new trends are evolving. We need to remain close to the people and communicate with them, listening rather than dictating. I always stand to learn every day of my life.
PN heavyweights like Simon Busuttil, Mario de Marco and Beppe Fenech Adami are being mentioned among the possible contenders. Why not back one of them instead?
I have utmost admiration for the people you mention and I thank them individually for the great contribution they’ve given to the party and government. I will back any of them who make it to the leadership, but I think it’s my duty to put my name in the hat and let the councillors decide.
Are you confident?
I would say I have reasonable feedback from the councillors but I know it’s a very uphill challenge in my regard. But that doesn’t deter me from your offering my service.
Do you fear a poor result? Some would describe Tonio Fenech’s 28 per cent of the vote for the deputy leadership post as close to humiliation.
When you do it out of a sense of duty, when you look at politics as a lifelong mission, as a service to others, then you don’t give particular weight to the result. Ultimately, the test is to offer to be of service.
Do you fear that somebody from the party is egging you on to take part in the contest to make sure there are two to three candidates for the post?
I promise you that I cannot blame this on anyone. It’s very much my decision. Nobody has egged me on in that way, certainly not in the higher echelons of the party. If there was any encouragement to present my candidature it has come from the basic grassroots of the party.
If you don’t win this election, would you contest the deputy leadership post?
I’d rather take one decision at a time.
Shouldn’t the party have waited for a report on the defeat before holding this election?
No. The party needs to move on. The party simply cannot end up in a situation where it’s examining for far too long what went wrong. Most of us know what went wrong. We need to see how to get it right, how to start reorganising, how to rebuild the enthusiasm.
We stand for 43 per cent of the electorate and we have a duty to all of them, and to all those who traditionally used to belong to the PN, but decided to switch to the Labour Party.
We need to also be in contact with other segments of the population who have abstained, even Labourites – we need to do that as fast as possible.
It shouldn’t stop a proper analysis being carried out, an analysis which would help the new leadership team carry out their job. I emphasise the word ‘team’ because irrespective of who wins, we need to work as one coordinated team.
If elected leader, what’s the first thing you plan to do?
To appeal for utmost unity, reach out to the grassroots, start the rebuilding process at the very roots of the party. That means having the widest possible participation; we need to empower our sectional committee members, our councillors. Too many people have been left out, left to feel they’re not listened to enough.
Don’t you think there should be radical changes in the party structures?
Yes, we need to make sure the partystructures are in line with modern management principles. We need to see how the party functions, that it’s in a state of preparedness to issue its new policies, to take on electoral tests. Let’s remember that in a year’s time the party will be presenting its candidates for the European Parliament.
Can the PN, headed by Francis Zammit Dimech, possibly recover the 36,000-vote deficit in five years?
I can promise that whoever takes on the leadership of the party, it’s going to be a very tough nut to crack.
But when you have a party that wins with a majority of 36,000, it also means that the party doesn’t only represent its own supporters.
In commercial terms, its’ similar to taking out a loan. It’s like an entrepreneur with a project who doesn’t have enough of his own resources and needs a loan. And that loan can be called back. It’s a five-year-term loan which carries conditions.
We have a duty on our part to hold this government to task over all its commitments, promises and expectations it raised throughout the election campaign.
And are you convinced that you can bring back the lost sheep?
I will certainly do my utmost and offer all my energy to communicate with all those people. It’s then up to the people to make their decisions.