‘I won’t judge those before or after me’
Outgoing Nationalist general secretary Paul Borg Olivier says he worked in silence during an immensely difficult five years for the party. He tells Christian Peregin he would do it all again but believes it is his duty to shoulder responsibility for decisions.
You have been PN’s general secretary since 2008. How do you think you fared and how will your legacy be remembered?
Franco Debono would speak about meritocracy but then send me an SMS saying that while someone from his class was an Opposition leader, he was left on the backbench
I will leave it up to people to judge but I think I should be remembered as a general secretary who took on a difficult role at a difficult time.
The PN had just won the election by a whisker and we knew the difficulties we faced to win a fourth consecutive election.
I got into this with the mission to give my all without any personal interest.
In fact, I chose not to be a general election candidate, even when a heavyweight in my district decided not to contest the election.
What type of party did you find in 2008 and what type of party will you leave behind?
I found a party that was strong organisationally but was facing big challenges.
I will leave a party that remains strong – the second biggest political party – but that must face the realities.
The party must now be a sincere Opposition that looks out for the national interest, while restructuring itself.
How much debt does the party have?
That is a commercial issue and I don’t think I should divulge the information here.
Don’t you think members and donors have a right to know?
Political parties in Malta operate differently from overseas because of their commercial structures. The shareholder of the commercial entities is the party, which is where the companies must respond. To reveal the assets or debt of the party does not do any good commercially.
Do you accept that the Nationalist Party has a lot of debt and the salaries of employees are in the balance?
I accept there is debt but the PN still has a very strong asset base. We have started to pay salaries in a structured manner.
We have a temporary cash flow problem, which we did not hide during the campaign.
Is this the first time you are out of pocket?
No... look, it is no secret that newspaper and television advertising is down.
Should you respond by shutting down Net TV or your daily newspaper In-Nazzjon?
No, no. This was mentioned in the media, but the proposal to shut down In-Nazzjon is not yet on the cards...
What about Net TV?
These are political decisions that have to be taken by the new administration of the party in terms of how best to transmit the message.
We have to look at online, although advertising revenues from online are different.
How many people does PN employ?
I wouldn’t like to say because from that you might reach other conclusions but there is a large number in the commercial entities.
The party itself only employs about 10 people but then there are all the companies. I can’t give a direct figure.
Shouldn’t this be public information?
No, it is available at the Employment and Training Centre but it is not public because it is data protected. There are many though, and that includes a number of part-timers.
I was told it was a monthly struggle to secure money for salaries. Is this an exaggeration?
It is a struggle because you need to chase sales and revenue. For instance, we have a travel company and just like the internet affected print media, it also affected travel.
Is it true the party is planning to sell off some of its political clubs?
We sold one around two years ago.
Do you plan to sell more?
We sold the Xewkija club because we had an asset we felt could have been utilised better at that time.
One needs to make the best use of one’s assets for the good of the commercial and political leadership of the party.
There are claims that suppliers have not been paid for years.
Media.link has its creditors like other companies. Some credit terms are respected but in some cases we have fallen behind. This is the nature of business.
However, if there is a silver lining around all this, it is that it breaks the perception that we are somehow dependent or taken over by contractors because that would mean we would have no debt, people would be paid on time and we would have no creditors.
But unlike Labour, which took over public and private properties, we invested in our properties diligently along the years and although we have a temporary cash flow problem we have a strong asset base of our political clubs.
Was it fair to your employees to admit this problem after the election? Weren’t you fooling them?
No, we did not fool the employees. They were aware of the situation.
There were other times when salaries were issued late but since we knew we had to take a bit longer than usual this time, I felt the responsibility to inform them officially.
So you’re saying it wasn’t a question of waiting for the election to pass.
The problem was there. Look, this is not something new. Political parties always had financial problems because they are not commercial operations.
They have commercial entities but they also have an obligation to transmit their message. And commercial entities are subject to market fluctuations.
Weren’t there also problems of mismanagement? For instance, you have two newscasters on Net TV every night when all others had one.
You could also have a newsroom operating with fewer journalists. It was not a question of management.
How did the construction of new headquarters impact the party’s finances?
The building gave a strong dimension to the party.
Was it not too extravagant?
I will not get into whether it is extravagant or not. We have headquarters that must meet today’s realities.
An electoral campaign involves many hundreds of people and space is necessary.
Many believe you found a wealthy party with enough money to splash out on a new building but everything went downhill when you took over. Are people right to look at Joe Saliba’s time with nostalgia?
I got involved when we won the election by a whisker and I shoulder my responsibilities, as did Lawrence Gonzi.
I will let others judge. I will not judge those who came before me or those who will come after. Whoever is in the role has a tough job.
So the party’s financial problems were not created by Mr Saliba?
The financial problems of the party are always there because parties are not money-making organisations. And this is important.
The general secretary’s role should be first and foremost political, not administrative.
I feel the commercial structures sometimes encroached on the political structures. The two should work together.
What was your role in the campaign for the general election?
I played a central role, which is why I shouldered responsibility.
Were you in charge?
Of course I was.
So what role did people like Austin Gatt and Joe Saliba play?
A big and productive one. A campaign is not won or lost by a general secretary even though he takes responsibility for it.
Were you sidelined?
Not at all. I was at the centre. In fact, I invited Dr Gatt and Mr Saliba to help out because this is like Beckenbauer or Pele.
They have retired from football for a long time, but they are still ambassadors for their national teams.
You brought them on board?
Yes, I believed this would be a difficult campaign. And it was my first one so we had to have a good team taking care of strategy.
Including (deputy leader) Simon Busuttil.
And others too.
Like Richard Cachia Caruana?
Yes, why not? Everyone gave a helping hand.
But who had the final say?
The leader remains the leader and the general secretary remains the general secretary.
Whose idea was it to have billboard depicting Dr Gonzi in blue face paint and Joseph Muscat in red?
It was a collective decision. I had some original reservations but I accepted it and hold responsibility. It was a billboard that sparked a discussion. Did it have a positive or negative impact? We’ll let people judge, but it sparked a discussion and that is what a billboard is for, not to influence the final vote.
What we were saying was that when it boiled down to the ballot paper your choice was between red and blue and this did not mean going against national unity.
What effect do you think the electoral campaign had on the result? Did the numbers change according to your surveys?
We had been hovering between eight and 12 points’ difference for the past few years.
The result of the MEP election in 2009 was the same as the general election in 2013.
So the numbers didn’t change.
It was difficult. There were movements but that only shows a trend.
We focused on the large percentage of people who kept their cards to their chest.
You and Dr Gonzi are the only ones shouldering responsibility. What about other party officials like your assistant Jean Pierre Debono? Should they keep their place if they were part of the same loss?
Everyone must make their own judgement. I concluded that I should shoulder responsibility.
But I think if the party felt the need to renew all its structures and officials when it won in 2008, it should do so also after a defeat of this proportion. Still, it is up to every individual.
I took my decision and I don’t want to impose it on anyone else.
I felt the need to do this not just because of a sense of honour towards the party officials, members and supporters but also to those who used to believe in PN and found hope in Labour because maybe I was not capable enough of winning or keeping their faith.
What type of person should replace you?
First of all, I will be taking a step back. I will not abandon politics.
But as my seven-year-old daughter put it when we went for a short weekend break: “I’m very happy to get my life back.”
That sort of comment puts you in a certain frame of mind.
Regarding the new general secretary, I think we need someone who looks at the political aspect first, and then the administrative side, which also has its urgent needs.
Do you think the party needs a CEO?
Yes, I don’t rule it out. There were times I looked for one in these five years but it was not easy to find someone who understands the party. If someone is purely technical they would tell you to shut down the station and the newspaper.
I also totally don’t think we should remove the general secretary role like Labour did.
What are you planning for the future? Do you think you have enough support to contest an election again?
Whatever people think of me, I have full respect for those who I worked with as well as my adversaries. I tried to work with everyone.
Sincerely, I worked in silence during five immensely difficult years. I feel my contribution was valid.
Although I am retiring at 43, I am yet to evaluate whether to contest another election.
Today we have candidates contesting elections at 61. I’m not saying I will do that but for the time being I will take a step back. So far I do not see an open door to contesting in five years, but I’m not saying I won’t.
If you could turn back time, would you become general secretary again?
Yes, I would do it all over again even if I have to go through the same things because the level of satisfaction is not just measured on success but the fact that you are providing a service.
My satisfaction comes from working with a person who placed the country before all else.
Were there times you wanted to do certain things but couldn’t?
No, there were times I did things but did not say I did them.
Like handling the internal dissent. I worked tirelessly to allow the party to keep following its mandate.
How did you handle people like Franco Debono, who ultimately brought down the Government?
There were difficult and delicate moments. If the party threw in the towel, it would have been chickening out. Out of responsibility, we tried to keep the dissent within the party.
There were times I was successful and there were times I was not.
Sometimes I developed friendships, sometimes I was totally discarded.
Who discarded you?
Unfortunately Franco Debono used issues of popular sentiment to seek personal gain.
He would speak about meritocracy but then send me an SMS saying that while someone from his class was an Opposition leader, he was left on the backbench – while “an idiot from birth” was made a parliamentary secretary.
When you see that, you realise that the intention and fight for meritocracy was motivated by egoism.
We did not fool our employees. They were aware of the situation
What do you think about Labour’s performance in Government so far?
Labour’s decision to put Dr Debono responsible for Constitutional reform does not augur well.
How can you put such a divisive person in a position where they must seek consensus and unite?
A person’s character does not change with a change in Government. The way he was a problem in past five years and his style will probably continue to be problematic now.
Besides the divisiveness, there is also his part-time salary, which is more than that of an MP. He is receiving €500 a week for part-time work.
There are other Labour decisions that must be criticised, such as putting a businessman as the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, a partisan man as the Principal Permanent Secretary, putting John Bencini as head of MCESD and not consulting with the Opposition on the appointment of the Speaker.
There is also the composition of Cabinet. I was internally critical of having a small Cabinet but you cannot go to the other extreme.
Dr Muscat has so far taken extreme decisions. I’m not saying he is an extremist but his decisions have been extreme.
His election result was also extreme. Do you think PN underestimated Dr Muscat?
I don’t think it was a question of underestimating the opponent.
What I am saying is that just because the result was extreme, that does not mean his decisions should be extreme.
Who should be PN’s new leader?
Someone who follows in the steps of the previous leaders and looks after the PN’s values within the context of a society that is growing, renewing and changing in a European reality.