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I am an action man | Claudio Grech

Claudio Grech emerges from the shadow of Austin Gatt, proclaiming to be somebody with a vision and not just a yes man.

saviour_balzan
Saviour Balzan
23 September 2012, 12:00am
“I have been to hundreds of homes, and there is no major issue. The issue is about disposable income… this is why I think that the PN is very well positioned to react to these concerns” - Claudio Grech
“I have been to hundreds of homes, and there is no major issue. The issue is about disposable income… this is why I think that the PN is very well positioned to react to these concerns” - Claudio Grech
The very first time I wrote about Claudio Grech, I had described him as one of Austin Gatt's 'Rottweilers'. Yet he was one of the few Rottweilers who had the audacity to phone me and confront me.

Since that first article, Grech has provided the media with some intriguing stories. His heavy-handedness as Gatt's right hand man. His departure from Austin Gatt to Smart City, leading to further accusations of conflict of interest. His appointment at MITA as Chairman raised questions about his suitability for the post.

Yet on the other hand, not many questioned his capability as a doer and IT guru.

His candidature was an open secret, yet he denied his interest until only recently.

I ask him why he chose to enter his candidature - especially considering the fact that he has moved away from his public appointment as a personal assistant to PN heavyweight Austin Gatt?

"Initially I was very reluctant to get back into the political scene. I had spent 11 years in Minister Gatt's secretariat; when I moved out in 2008, I had intended to move out of politics. 

"When the party approached me to be a candidate - once again earlier this year, I believed I could make a contribution to the party and more so to the country in the wider sense."

He does not shy away from saying: "I think as an aside, but obviously no one can say, that there are no internal issues in the party. I would also like to contribute that the party emerges stronger out of this situation."

Still, the perception out there is that most people get involved in politics for their own personal interest. How would he reply to this?

Grech comes out with the usual traditional sound-bite: "Being in politics is indeed a privilege, no one can argue about this. It also provides satisfaction, since it enables you to see your ideas come into reality. As aspiring politicians, both sides have an obligation to change this perception. If politicians are less pretentious, if we get closer to the people and talk in layman's terms... that perception of a different class can gradually change. 

"On a personal level, I am experiencing it at the moment. The reality is that your personal life takes second place and it obviously takes significant time from your professional life and a lot of time from your family. 

"I think that if one had to take these things on balance, this has to be balanced with the privilege of being a politician.

Grech obviously comes with baggage: both positive and negative. He has a reputation for being a doer, someone who gets things done and who can analyse a situation or problem and come up with a solution. Added to this is his IT background. 

On the flipside, there are accusations of conflict of interest, namely regarding the role he played in Smart City, MITA and perhaps also the perception that he bulldozes when he wants to get things done.

"Essentially, my core skill in change management is a result of the mentality of my culture of how to execute projects. 

"Also, the thick skin you acquire over a number of successes and failures. All in all, this gave me the experience of complex public sector issues. Collectively we have a culture of going around the problem rather than solving the problem, rather than pointing fingers. This tends to foment issues with whoever doesn't like the way you do things."

I observe that the main criticism is not reserved for the reforms that took place, but the manner of the reforms which were perceived to be too drastic, and failed to consider the bigger picture...

"I think that when you have a legislature, there is a finite time. People vote you in to implement their electoral manifesto. Ultimately you have a set of projects, which people expect you deliver. Getting to the outcome is a matter of style - most of the reforms involve a lot of consultation. 

"But this does not mean that we should not allow for procrastination. This is when problems arise, and when things get 'actioned' this is interpreted as 'bulldozing'.

"In my experience with Minister Gatt, every project was executed after thorough analysis. When you do things, you are accused of rushing."

But what about the negative issues - such as the fact that he negotiated with Smart City and ended up serving as its CEO? How does he react to the accusation that this was an unacceptable form of conflict of interest?

"First of all, for accuracy's sake, the negotiations were held with a team of people. The team acted on the terms outlined by Cabinet. It was the cabinet that approved the agreement. "Even more relevant was that parliament had approved the negotiated agreement in a unanimous manner.

Was he approached? "Yes, I was approached. The people knew that I was about to leave my position in government to join a private equity company out of the country. I said if both shareholders agreed, I would also agree.

"I also talked to a number of constituted bodies, from whom I received a significant support."

I ask the last question on Smart City: what went wrong with his position and how did he interpret the fact that things did not develop as planned?

"My resignation a year and a half later had primarily to do with divergent views on the strategy of the project. I had a particular strategy, I had particular way of seeing the project grow. In the majority shareholder, there was a different approach. These things happen. I had explained my views internally. Since this divergence, the right thing to do was to leave and to allow the company to evolve.

"It has to be seen as a long-term project. The very fact that they - the shareholders - have put in €80 million of their own money in itself shows that there is a very strong commitment.

Does he not understand the public's disappointment at the project?

"I would say yes, if the investment did not materialise. I reiterate these are not borrowed funds, they are investing in high tech office space. This is a clear sign of the potential of the project.

"Smart City is a business park that I am strongly confident that will attract leading technology companies which will attract a number of smaller players."

I turn to the present situation. It is clear that the pre-campaign strategy led by the PM is to emphasise achievements in health and education and underline the fact that Malta is far ahead when compared to the dire monetary status in neighbouring EU countries: at the same time attacking Labour for its pre-1987 (or 22-month stint) ways.

Will this campaign strategy will work? Especially this constant reference to what happened quarter of a century ago?

"I think that the main platforms of the PM's campaigning are two: one, the country's achievements despite the international meltdown, and; two, the fact that the Nationalist Party has been the prime driver of change. I believe the pre-1987 references are made for comparative reasons."

But does he not agree that this fails have an impact on a large segment of voters?

"I believe that a segment of the voters can immediately compare, but first-time voters were not even born in 1987. That is why the main drivers of the message are employment, health and education.

"I have been to hundreds of homes, and there is no major issue. The issue is about disposable income... this is why I think that the PN is very well positioned to react to these concerns. The key driver should be how competitive this country will be. To ensure that this country will continue to climb the ladder of value added. I think that we tend to focus on the petty issues: these make no difference to how people live."

Okay, I tell him, but these internal issues have led the PM and his government to lose focus and use up much of its energies on looking inwards. Is this not a concern?

"I believe that in today's world, political organisation and it applies to all nations, every party is bound to have internal issues."

I interject - but can you deny that the past four years were exceptional when it came to dissent?

"Absolutely. Government has a slim majority and it has effectively had a larger impact on the day to day administration. One cannot avoid conflict, but to an extent, notwithstanding, the government has delivered... needless to say, the internal fallout shows us that we need to improve on internal communications."

I put to him: is this dissent not a reflection on weak leadership?

"I think this is the cumulative effect of a number of issues which at some time came to a head. What happened this time around was that these issues added up.

"But I'm sure that everyone who values the wellbeing of the party would have preferred that things did not happen in this way."

Would Grech have nipped the problem in the bud? Would he have confronted the dissidents and not allowed the wound to fester?

"I think that it's very easy to speak with the benefit of hindsight. I think what the prime minister wanted to do is to maintain the country's direction within the context of the international situation and any immature political decisions could have led to a political crisis. If that had happened, we would be in a significantly different position."

Despite the fact that the Labour Party has not really outlined its political roadmap - at least on the major economic issues - polls indicate that the PN is trailing like never before. For the first time, this swing is being registered publicly by both parties. Did he believe the PN would be able to reverse this trend, and if so, how?

"The fact that Labour is leading is a fact and also, there is no doubt that it will be tough job. We need to connect with the people, we need to communicate in layman's terms and we really portray the way we delivered and even more than be forward-looking and clearly stating what this party means for the next generation. 

"Let me give one example. I believe that Malta could become one of the top 10 digital nations, we could use that to address the fiscal situation. It would create wealth and that would mean things like not requiring to take more footprint from the land. If we show that,  the PN can be there when it is most needed. We cannot expect to create economic growth areas by returning to the traditional areas. We need to look at the knowledge economy as our future. I believe that the only party that can deliver this is the PN."

Is he not taking the PL for granted? Labour also attracted a set of new faces who perhaps also share his own thoughts and vision. Is he aware that the ideology barrier between the two parties seems to have disappeared?

"To date, what I can say is that the Labour Party has not expressed its agenda on the digital economy. I agree the digital economy has no ideological divide. I can tell you, I have not read anything from the PL about this subject."

I point out that beyond the message that the PN can deliver, people may simply vote against the PN because they want a change or a new face. This trend is not endemic to Malta...

"I think people tend to want change at some point in time and want change to happen. There could be a bad perception that change can only happen if you change a party. But I'm certain that people want change not simply for the sake of it."

I underline that the PN has been accused of not being inclusive enough, and this has been stated by people within the party: Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, Franco Debono, Jesmond Mugliett, Robert Arrigo, John Dalli and others.

How could Joe Citizen expect to have his voice heard when the party does not even listen to its top brass?

"Ultimately there is a huge gap in how the internal communication in the party works and how it works with the public. You cannot take the internal issues as a reflection of how the government treats the public's concerns. I believe that the party is addressing the communication issues. The PM has acknowledged this.

"The issues people at large are facing have nothing to do with internal party matters. Their main concerns are their children and their wellbeing, though I do agree that internal issues need to be managed."

Grech is offering his candidature in a difficult district. I ask him how he rates his own chances.

"My key objective is to assist the party on the first district to communicate its message to the people. The result is up to the people."

That is rather nice way of putting it, but what will happen if he is not elected?

"I will try my very best to get elected but also to deliver the message of the party - to win the first district and to clearly portray that we can deliver the goods. As you say, there are some reputable old timers, as well as newcomers. Nonetheless, the most effective strategy is to portray the element of teamwork. It is unfortunate that in Malta, this is difficult to achieve."

If Austin Gatt had decided to stand, would he have considered standing?

"Definitely not. If Austin had decided to contest again, I would have worked in his campaign team. As an aside, I would have preferred if he had continued contributing to the country."

His view of Austin Gatt is not shared by MPs, such as Franco Debono and JPO. Does Grech not see any justification in their harsh criticism?

"What I can say is this. I worked close to Austin for 11 years. I think Austin Gatt has been an exceptional politician. He has a clear mind and says it as it is, even if some may disagree with him. He clearly knew where he wanted to get, while always remaining within the bigger picture of government. A prime politician is there because he has been entrusted in a role to deliver goods. I will always remember the lessons I learnt throughout my tenure with him."

Is he interested in a senior role within the party structures?

"At this point in time, my role in the party is that of a candidate on the first district. I started my company a number of years ago, and I want to sustain this. I am definitely not after a full time job with the party.

If elected as an MP, what does he have to offer? "If I am given that privilege, my primary areas of contribution of serving as a lever of the evolving knowledge economy.  I also like to be a catalyst for change. I want to see every child with access to ICT. To have knowledgeable workers...

"This can have a great impact on our economy, which could change the face of this country and address the budgetary and deficit issues."

saviour_balzan
Saviour Balzan is the founder and co-owner of MaltaToday. He has reported on Maltese poli...
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Winston John Sawyer
The action man,might solve the housing problems.does he not live in a garage with six other people ,no water,electricity,sanitary facilities in valletta city!
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Brian De Bono
Warbu minn nofs ghax gel l action man
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Miriam Rizzo
Piss off Claudio. I am sure there is some spermatozoa in some fetid pool which could use your invaluable skills - but not my country!
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Miriam Rizzo
As duke Nukem nicely put it .... Claudio is an 'inspiration for birth control'.
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john spiteri
L-action man ghandna bzonhom ghal fuq it-TV bhal moghdija taz-zmien! Anqas Obama l-ikbar President mimli poter fid-dinja ma isejjah lilu innifsu ACTION MAN, ahseb u ara Cludio: Who?
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Anton Camilleri
HEMM PROVERBJU LI JIGHD
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Anton Camilleri
austin gatt ARROGANTI, jekk taghmila maz zopp wara sena issir zopp bhalu ahseb u ara wara 11 il sena
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Adrian Zerafa
This golden blue eyed boy is a doer because he never had doors closed in his face like us mortal beings who are not part of the GonziPN clique, just ask Franco Debono, Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, and Jesmond Mugliette among others.
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Joseph M. Formosa
Action man...my foot! Dan jaghmel hoss (biex ma nghidx kelma ohra) bis-sahha ta' haddiehor. Issa naraw kemm hu action man ladarba jispicca l-art bhall-parrinu tieghu..Austinu Gatt! Qal illi AG ta contribution...iva qassata wahda wara l-ohra. U btw...dan minn meta sar IT guru...staqsuh x'expertise ghandu fl-IT??? NIL!
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Rita Grioli
Jekk int Action Man ehlisna minn 90% tal-PN attwali.
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I am an action man, verrissimo ghax ma kienx hawn pozijoni li ma htaftix taht gonzipn.
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albert leone
Jekk ghandhu il-vizjoni dan l'action man meta ha jibda jiehu l'ordnijiet ghal ID CARDS IL-GODDA, JEW GHALIH BISS JAGHMEL?
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Monique Vella
Dan 'karrozza lussuza' ohra! Hekk jonqos issa.. jispicca fil-parlament. Ivvutawlu halli jkompli jithanzer aktar milli jghidu li thanzer. Ivvutawlu!
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George Muscat
......“I have been to hundreds of homes, and there is no major issue. The issue is about disposable income… Isn't disposable income a major issue Action Man ??? I hope the next Goverment will put to a referendum "the abolistion of parliamentary Immunity", no one should be above the LAW.