Lawrence Gonzi deflected questions on how he would deal with Franco Debono's open rebellion.
Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi steered clear of committing himself to a political position in the face of an open rebellion by Franco Debono, the Nationalist MP who is threatening not to support Gonzi's hamstrung government when parliament is convened in October.
Addressing his audience at the Floriana granaries, Gonzi said he would stay at the helm of the country for as long as he enjoyed support when asked whether he was planning to announce he plans to resign two years into a new legislature, if elected.
"I will stay at the helm of this country for as long as I will enjoy full support. Last February, my party confirmed me as its leader," Gonzi said. "I have the courage to appear before the Maltese asking once again for their trust because we believe in you. The PN always brought the change this country needed. We made a pledge to serve our country. We are not here to serve our ambitions but to serve you. This is what gives us the justification to once again ask the Maltese and Gozitans to elect us in government."
The Nationalist leader admitted that his party had faced one internal dispute after another, costing him a minister and EU ambassador Richard Cachia Caruana in the process, as well as now-independent MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando.
But as is his wont, Gonzi always fielded questions from the journalists present for the evening's proceedings by looking at the other side of the coin.
"Despite our internal troubles, we weathered it all, we achieved results such as a deficit below 3% of GDP, we got economic growth and opportunities for work increased, and tourism records were made."
But how could he face the next Budget and his legislative programme without the support of Debono, Gonzi was asked. "I understand your question but I insist that we have to look at our results. We hope that after the coming election we will look forward to continue achieving these good results."
Gonzi played to his head-nodding audience at the Granaries' tent, where the PN is celebrating its annual Independence commemoration: the prime minister was a veritable depository of government success stories and irrefutably positive statistics, but on politics he was cagey. Would he back health minister Joe Cassar by putting his government at stake if Franco Debono faced the government with a no-confidence motion as he is threatening to do?
"When we come to that moment, I'll tell you," was Gonzi's answer.
The prime minister promoted his own spirit of bipartisanship when asked whether his governance record, refusing to have ministers resign despite their administrative shortcomings, had not been the 'new way of doing politics' he promised when he became PM in 2004.
"A clear example of this new way was appointing a President from the Labour camp. Nobody in history ever dreamt of doing it. I also proposed to have the Speaker appointed by the Opposition. And last week we published a White Paper for a parliamentary code of ethics."
This was his cue to hark back to the 1980s of the Labour administrations, a common thread in some of his answers especially when quizzed by One News journalist Charlon Gouder.
"The PN's track record was that of introducing an Ombudsman, and fighting injustice... we never threw tear gas at anybody," he said to rapturous applause. "Nobody ever walked out dead from the police depot... the PN has been a true catalyst of change."
Gonzi also boasted his education statistics, citing the greater number of students in university and investment in new schools.
He steered away from commenting on a direct question as to whether he will reduce income tax any further, when asked about his 2008 electoral promise that only last year saw the government create a 25% tax band for parents.
"We widened the tax bands for low-income earners three times, gave incentives to working mothers, and offered social security reductions to farmers and self-employed. NSO statistics show that take-home pay has increased by a thousand euros and that our VAT revenues are as targeted last year," Gonzi said when faced with NSO statistics showing dips in domestic consumption.
There was a bizarre moment when a pointed question to Gonzi over whether he was ready to recognise gay couples as families, after incurring the wrath of the gay community over the cohabitation bill. The crowd almost booed, perhaps at the incredulous proposition of a gay family.
Here Gonzi came out the most unequivocal he had been on policy, after telling his supporters to respect "other people's personal aspirations... everybody has their dignity."
"I am going to be clear about this. Marriage is for a man and a woman," Gonzi said to his audience's applause. "But this doesn't mean we shouldn't recognise other forms of families."
The prime minister here did not betray his conservative outlook on such social issues, saying the cohabitation bill was inspired by unmarried couples with children, whose relationships broke down leaving the weaker party - often the mother - bereft of any claims on her partner for support or any legal rights whatsoever.
"The cohabitation bill is there to defend the weaker party, and gives justice to those who did not have any protection because the courts deemed their relationship to be immoral. Our goal is to show that our values stand with those need help."