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Will the real PN please stand up? | Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando

In yet another ‘bolt from the blue’ the MP who introduced divorce has now rocked government to its foundation. Principled action, or personal vendetta? Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando defends his patch.

raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo
25 June 2012, 12:00am
“I have had to hire personal security. And it’s in response to a very specific threat” - Pullicino Orlando.
“I have had to hire personal security. And it’s in response to a very specific threat” - Pullicino Orlando.
"I am surprised only that the Prime Minister was surprised. I have been speaking along the same lines as last Monday for some time now... and on a number of occasions I have said exactly the same things in the presence of the prime minister, too. So how can he claim to be surprised?"

We are in the board room here at MaltaToday's San Gwann offices, and for the second time in just under a year I find myself sitting across the table from Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando: Nationalist MP, and (depending how you look at things) either a rebel out to safeguard Parliamentary democracy... or a traitor motivated by a purely personal agenda.

Once again, the topic of discussion is his own allegiance to the Nationalist government: first called to question by his unilateral actions to introduce divorce against his Prime Minister's express wishes... now for his vote against Richard Cachia Caruana last Monday: for which he has been 'condemned', alongside fellow rebels Jesmond Mugliett and Franco Debono, by the same party he ostensibly represents.

But if Pullicino Orlando is concerned about this new development, he doesn't show it. Nor is he particularly impressed by the fact that all Nationalist MPs except himself and Mugliett have signed a declaration regarding their voting intentions.

"In Parliament I named the people who have obvious connections to Richard Cachia Caruana. It is obvious to anyone who knows anything that RCC is the man who pushes some people forward while ostracising others - or worse. He is the main protagonist of what has recently been described as an 'oligarchy'..."

Pullicino Orlando once again outlines what has been a hallmark of both his own criticism, and that of others within the PN parliamentary group. "MPs who are not perceived as part of the clique of Richard Cachia Caruana - who stand up to be counted where it matters, who do not bow their heads to whatever the clique says - these are invariably sidelined or targeted for attack by a concerted media pack. I am not the type to simply bow my head to an unelected clique; nor have I never been."

As for Cachia Caruana, Pullicino Orlando insists that "he has definitely been given a free hand in the past eight years; and he has used that free hand to crush others he perceived to be a threat... starting with the frame-up of the main contender for the post of party leader in 2004: John Dalli."

Dalli resigned in 2004, following a series of allegations that were fanned relentlessly by the PN-friendly media.

"It was nothing short of shameful that a colleague would be treated that way. And the smoking gun pointed towards certain people who were afterwards promoted for their efforts..."

Again, Pullicino Orlando doesn't hesitate to name names - singling out Ivan Camilleri, a former PBS journalist, now The Times's correspondent in Brussels, as Cachia Caruana's "hatchet man".

"The fabricated report at the heart of the allegations against Dalli had been presented by an associate of Lou Bondi - another of RCC's hatchet men. And yet Bondi still has two programmes on prime time national TV. I can't understand it myself..."

Inevitably he turns to Daphne Caruana Galizia: "another mouthpiece" of the RCC faction.

"Do I need to remind you of the ways in which Daphne Caruana Galizia attacks people within the PN? This is the same Daphne who described the funeral of Guido de Marco - a Nationalist party icon, no less - as 'a reason to party'. It is in my eyes unacceptable that Richard Cachia Cachia and Gordon Pisani (head of communications, OPM) would associate with someone like that. Naturally they have every right to associate with whoever they like... but if I were Prime Minister I would not accept that they continue to cavort with someone who, in the same breath, is also attacking PN icons in such a vile manner. Let alone to continue feeding her information to be used against people within the same party..."

Here he rattles off a barrage of Nationalist MPs who have felt the sharp nib of Caruana Galizia's pen in recent years: Robert Arrigo, Jesmond Mugliett, Jean Pierre Farrugia...

I chip in at this point to remind Pullicino Orlando that all these people are by definition public figures. They are therefore fair game for any journalist to "attack"; and while we can argue until the cows come home whether the line of attack is acceptable or otherwise... surely, politicians must be made of sterner stuff than to baulk at a mention on a blog?

"But it's not just a case of being attacked personally," he immediately rebuts. "It's a clear case of sidelining and conditioning elected representatives."

All this, he adds, is a reflection of "the utter disdain with which Richard Cachia Caruana and his entourage hold parliament."

Turning briefly to the Opposition motion that ultimately precipitated this whole affair: I point out that Pullicino Orlando had prefaced his entire speech last Monday claiming that he would not resort to 'the personal'. Yet what followed was practically 90% personal, and only 10% related to the motion at hand. So did Pullicino Orlando use the Partnership for Peace issue as a pretext to exact revenge on Cachia Caruana, for trying to force him out of parliament in 2008?

 "Absolutely not. This was definitely not a case of revenge. The fact is that I do feel very strongly about how parliament was bypassed on the PfP issue... and on other things, too."

How, then, does he account for the fact that so much of his speech was dedicated to his own personal experiences of having been 'targeted' (along with colleagues) by Richard Cachia Caruana... and so little about Partnership for Peace ?

"But the cases I mentioned are all connected. They're not personal at all. I was referring to a concerted effort to remove me from parliament after the 2008 election. This wasn't directed only at me... after all I represent 5,000 constituents. To try and force an MP out of parliament is not an attack on the individual occupying that seat. It's an attack on representative democracy. That's the sort of thing we used to expect from other parties, not the PN. I for one certainly didn't subscribe to the PN to be part of a Mintoffian party..."

As for the rest of the grievances he aired against Cachia Caruana on Monday, Pullicino Orlando stands vigorously by his claim that they all illustrate the same basic point: what Martin Scicluna (defence adviser to government) described as RCC's 'utter disdain' for democratically elected MPs, and hence parliament, which is composed of the same MPs.

"It makes it utterly believable that he would bypass parliament on the PfP issue as well."

He also dismisses the argument - twice expostulated by Attorney General Peter Grech - that no parliamentary approval was required to reactivate PfP.

"As I recall, Malta's participation in Partnership for Peace had been suspended in 1996, after the Labour government came into power with a clear popular mandate against it. This means there were only two legitimate ways it could be reactivated; either by the PN winning an election with an equally clear mandate, or via a parliamentary resolution..."

What happened, however, was that an excuse was found to simply short-circuit the system, and cut parliament out of picture completely. "It is unacceptable to have PfP reactivated without the consent of parliament. Otherwise, what's parliament even there for?"

In the meantime, Pullicino Orlando's one-man revolt has clearly provoked the ire of the party he has so often defied in the past. The Nationalist Party executive responded by issuing a 'condemnation' of the three 'rebel' MPs (paradoxically including also Franco Debono, who voted against the Labour motion on Monday): a fact which now opens Gonzi's government to the possible charge that it has now officially lost its parliamentary majority.

Pullicino Orlando is less than impressed by the PN's 'hysterical' over-reaction. "Last I looked, it was not up to the party to interfere with how members of parliament vote. As an MP, my allegiance is to my constituents, and not to the party executive at all. This is not the People's Republic of China, you know..."

Here he reminds me that this is the same party executive which - at the instigation of "whoever shouts and stamps his feet the loudest" - had also tied the PN to an anti-divorce platform that went on to be rejected by the electorate in last year's referendum.

"The only occasion when someone could be judged to have voted incorrectly was when a number of MPs - including the Prime Minister - defied the express wishes of the electorate, and voted against divorce."

Even here, however, he insists it is not up to the party to judge those MPs. "The only time MPs can be judged is by our constituents; and that happens only at a general election."

Pullicino Orlando has already pre-emptively bowed out of the next election - something he tells me he did "with a heavy heart", after the attempts to oust him from parliament - but, given the clear line of resistance to everything the PN now seems to represent... does he still feel part of the PN at all?

He shrugs. "It depends which PN you mean. The PN I joined and have been militating in these past 30 years was once known by its battlecry of 'Xoghol, Gustizzja, Liberta' (Work, Justice, Liberty). I won't comment on the 'xoghol' part, other than to say we're doing well there... probably the best we've ever done, in fact. But Gustizzja? Liberta'?"

One simple example concerns the selfsame PN 'condemnation'.

"We weren't even informed that our actions were going to be discussed, much less given the chance to defend ourselves, as demanded by the norms of democracy. So how can they talk about 'justice' when they disregard its basic principles? This is definitely not the same PN I originally subscribed to. Will the real Nationalist Party stand up, please?"

At the same time, would Pullicino Orlando have shown up to defend himself had he known about the executive's intentions? I draw to his attention to rumours that he has not been attending PN parliamentary group meetings for some time now. When was the last time he did so... and does he still consider himself as part of this group?

"It's been a while," he admits. "But there's no doubt I am still a parliamentary group member. My party leader knows why I'm not attending parliamentary group meetings. I told him so directly, in a meeting we had at Castille."

Here he takes the opportunity to set this newspaper right on how this meeting was reported. "The headline said 'secret meeting at Castille'. I fail to see what was so 'secret' about it, seeing as I walked into Castille through the main entrance in full view of everyone, and came out the same way..."

Pressed for the reason he gave Gonzi at that meeting, Pullicino Orlando limits himself only to admitting that "it was directly related to points made in my speech on Monday."

"And at no point did I give any indication that I would vote against the Opposition motion, as the party is now claiming. On the contrary I told the Prime Minister that I needed convincing on the PfP issue; and on his part the Prime Minister told me that RCC would testify before the Foreign Affairs committee. I agreed with him that that was the right thing to do. However, RCC did not convince me at those hearings..."

Still, he could not have given any clear indication of his voting intentions, seeing as he so clearly took government by surprise...

Here Pullicino Orlando gives vent to a little impatience. "But why should we be surprised, anyway? It is normal in modern democracies for MPs to vote against party lines. It happens all the time, in the UK, in Italy..."

By the same reasoning, was he himself surprised by the backlash? He shakes his head. "No, of course not. As you well know, to every action there is an opposite - but not necessarily equal - reaction..."

Speaking of reactions... what sort of feedback has he received from his constituents since Monday?

"Mixed: I have had messages asking me to explain my actions... and I have had two meetings with constituents to do so. I have also had a number of telephone calls to congratulate me..."

What about negative reactions? He insists these have been few and far between. And yet, Pullicino Orlando was seen accompanied by what appears to be private security. I ask him if this is in fact the case; and if so, what prompted the decision.

"Yes, it's true. I have had to hire personal security. And it's in response to a very specific threat. Without meaning to be dramatic, I do distinguish between the occasional obscene phone-call, and what I consider to be a credible threat. In this case, the threat was directed not just at myself, but also at my family. So I have security at home now, too..."

Isn't it ironic, I ask, that a PN member of parliament feels he has to employ security because of threats emanating from supporters of his own party... when in the past the threats came from a very different direction?

"I think it's a pity that it's come to this, yes. And all I needed, under the circumstances, was a 'condemnation' issued by the PN executive... just to inflame sentiments, and add to the tension. Very irresponsible, if you ask me..."

Meanwhile, there is talk (or so we hear) in the corridors of the Stamperija that the PN executive is being pressured to 'expel' Pullicino Orlando, and possibly the other two rebels also. How does he react to this?

"They can go ahead," he replies simply. "It's their prerogative after all. And it's well within their rights... though not necessarily their democratic rights... to do so. BUT" - he places considerable emphasis on that word - "the next thing the Prime Minister will have to do is inform the President, dissolve parliament and call an election..."

He says all this with such an air of finality that I feel compelled to ask him why he doesn't precipitate that situation himself, by simply resigning from the party. But Pullicino Orlando seems to still see the present climate within the PN as something temporary... as if to leave himself enough room to be able to 'return' in a future when things may be 'different'.

"If the situation is rectified I would love to re-contest with the PN. But not under the present circumstances. In the past eight years the party has encouraged an apartheid system which does not reflect the capabilities of valid people who have been excluded, sidelined and emasculated. I can't understand why some people feel they have to consolidate their own position by eliminating others..."

I can't help but note the constant allusion the 'the past eight years', which almost exactly coincides with Lawrence Gonzi's term as both party leader and Prime Minister. Does he consider this 'situation' to be a by-product of the party's present leadership?

"Obviously, yes," he replies after a short pause. "If I said otherwise, I would be lying."

 

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Narcy Calamatta
Ta min jistaqsi....Issa lis Sur Richard Cachia Caruana, irrezenja min Ambaxxatur,u gie cittadin Komuni bhali, ser jibqa ikollu il privileg li ikollu pulizija fixed point mad dar tieghu l-Imdina ? ghax jekk fil kas, nixtieq li ikolli wiehed jien ukoll.
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U s-sahhara tal-bidnija ghandha l-ghassa maghha mit-taxxi taghna ghall-vomtu li tivvomta kontra kull min ma jaqbilx ma Gonzipn jew RCC.
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KARL IZZO
@ antoine Vella: Mhux bizzejed hawn ma nafx kemm il-pulizija (ghexieren)mohlija fixed point ma ministri,Imhalfin, Magistrati u x'naf jien. Ma kull wiehed li jkollu fixed point trid 4 pulizja u dawk ikunu mohlija hemmhekk. U inti qed tahseb li JPO qed jigdeb li gie imhedded, ma taslus intom in-Nazzjonalista nahseb jiena biex theddu lil dak u lil iehor, ara lil Dr. Debono ghamlulu ghassa ma daru biex jpproteguh min Nazzjonalisti stess hu hekk Antoine Vella. U Rock Stars u Sicilian Dons ghandkom kemm tridu ma djulkom ghax intom dejjem hekk imxejtu bhihom u bil-knisja.
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Stuart Micallef
JPO, issa qed tiddefendi lil John Dalli? Veru pulcinell u bla valuri ta' xejn.
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Karl Cremona
Pullicino Orlando did not go to the police and ask for police protection. He would have had to show them the "threats" he was receiving and persuade them that they were authentic. Unfortunately for him the police are not easily fooled and do not take kindly to have someone waste their time. So, all in all, it made sense for Pullicino Orlando to get a private personal bodyguard. Like a rock star. Or like a Sicilian don.
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Narcy Calamatta
Sa biex nifmek ahjar tal PN iqumu jew ta GonziPN ? Ghax it tnejn P.N.