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I’m a believer… | Simon Busuttil

MEP Simon Busuttil acknowledges that the dice appear loaded against a PN victory at the next election. But he still believes the Nationalist Party can still pull it off in the end, and hopes his enthusiasm might be contagious.

raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo
8 October 2012, 12:00am
Nationalist MEP and general elections candidate Simon Busuttil.
Nationalist MEP and general elections candidate Simon Busuttil.
Optimism is not exactly in over-abundant supply at the Nationalist Party headquarters at the moment. For this reason alone, my visit to the Valletta offices of Dr Simon Busuttil - lawyer, established PN euro-parliamentarian, and arguably the party's great white hope for the next election - made a welcome change from the otherwise drudge through doom and gloom one would expect from a PN candidate these days.

Busuttil greets me with a warm smile, and somehow manages to follow this through with an upbeat performance throughout. Is there something I'm missing, I almost ask? Are there polls I don't know about, that suggest that the political landscape may have changed beyond recognition while I wasn't looking?

Not exactly: Busuttil, it seems, is not oblivious to the electoral difficulties ahead. He just hasn't thrown in the towel just yet.

"I understand this election is an uphill struggle for the PN. But I still believe it's winnable, because at the end of the day this is not just an ordinary decision: it's more of a reckoning..."

True enough: though that can be interpreted in several ways. Could it also be a day of reckoning for the Nationalist government? After all, the PN has been in power for 25 years...

"Yes, and it has a track record to show for it. I still believe that, despite its shortcomings, the government's track record is a good one. The Opposition, on the other hand, remains a question mark. I believe that voters who are discerning will choose the PN when push comes to shove..."

I can't help but point out his insistence on 'belief' -as though support for the PN has now become an article of faith. Busuttil however acknowledges that in many cases, the very opposite is true.

"Unfortunately a lot of people seem to have stopped believing," he admits, in direct reference to a 12-point gap between the two parties, according to the latest polls. "I hope that my candidacy brings about some positive change in this respect, too..."

Speaking of his candidacy: Simon Busuttil announced his intention to stand for election fairly recently, after what seems to have been a very long gestation period. What made him ultimately take the plunge?

"It wasn't an easy decision, true. A lot of factors militated against a career in the national parliament, to tell you the truth. In fact I had every reason to say 'No'. But I chose to say 'Yes', because I felt I couldn't just sit back and watch my party lose, without at least trying to do something to prevent it."

What about his seat in the European Parliament? Will he retain that if elected?

He shakes his head. "Until recently it was possible to be represented in both parliaments, but that's no longer the case. There is a time limit - a few days, I can't remember exactly how many - in which to decide which seat to retain. I have already decided: if elected, I will keep my seat in the national parliament."

Coming back to his decision to contest, he sums up the whole thing as a case of "one positive, and one negative."

The 'positive'? "With all its faults, I still think the PN is in a better position to lead this country." Perhaps unsurprisingly, the 'negative' is just the same concept in reverse: "The PL is not ready to govern," he asserts, again with what seems to be the same reliance on faith.

But isn't this a contradiction in terms? If Labour is so hopeless, and if the PN has done such a splendid job of governing the country - surely the PN should be miles ahead at the polls by now?

"Let me put it this way. There is no doubt government has delivered on the economic front. Its record on job creation and economic management is not really in doubt: even the Opposition admits this in its own way..."

Does it? And yet the Opposition questions government's job creation figures all the time. It also points towards mismatches between government's financial projections, and those of the European Commission... which even forced the Finance Ministry to revise its own projections this year...

Busuttil however insists (echoing the official government line) that the deficit will fall back to below the required 3% threshold by the end of the fiscal year... as in fact it already did last year, despite earlier fluctuations. Time will obviously tell, but let us (for the sake of moving forwards) agree for the moment that the PN's problems are not exactly the product of economic mismanagement. What then?

"The party did not go wrong in managing the economy, but there were other issues which perhaps could have been handled better... issues which perhaps we didn't think would impact people, but did."

No prizes for guessing which issue tops that particular list: "The honoraria issue undermined public trust in government," he freely concedes. "Another issue concerns the open bickering among the parliamentary group. The moment people see bickering, trust will automatically be undermined."

Well, we've certainly seen a lot of that recently... but still, Busuttil does not consider the PN's chances to be a totally lost cause. Trust, he adds, can be recovered...

Here I am sorely tempted to echo Gimli the Dwarf from a rather well-known recent film, and retort: And I suppose you think you're the one to do it, aye?

"I hope I can build on the trust and goodwill I have accumulated over the past eight years, and contribute to the party at least in this way..."

All well and good, but news that Simon Busuttil threw his hat into the ring may also have raised expectations of a rather different kind. It's hardly a secret that there is already talk about the 'post-Gonzi' era within the PN. Some may even have interpreted his foray into national politics to signify a possible future leadership bid. Does he harbour that kind of ambition himself?

"I think leadership is not something you consider for yourself," he answers rather slowly, "Ultimately, party leaders are chosen by the party, you don't choose yourself..."

True, but you still have to put yourself forward to be chosen. "Only when there is a vacancy," he promptly returns. "There is no vacancy at present."

OK, but does he at least see himself as a potential future leader? "Not at this particular point in time. In fact, if I did it would have made more sense for me not to contest at all... to do nothing, to sit back and simply wait for the PN to lose... as Joseph Muscat did, come to think of it..."

Busuttil seems to imply that his very decision to contest is a mark of loyalty towards Gonzi, not the other way round. "I want the PN to win with Gonzi as leader and Prime Minister... nothing else is on the cards at the moment."

On the subject of Gonzi, I ask Busuttil whether he thinks the PN had invested too heavily in its leader back in 2008. Take the 'GonziPN' motif, for instance. Was it wise for the party to place all its eggs in one basket like that?

He insists that the slogan was justified in the context of its time. "Without Gonzi we wouldn't have won the 2008 election," he begins...

That's funny (I interrupt): I've heard the same thing said about Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando...

Nonetheless he sticks to his guns. "I disagree, but that's not what I meant really. Your own polls at the time suggested that Lawrence Gonzi was the Nationalist Party's greatest asset. I also feel there is a misconception about that slogan - as if it meant that Gonzi was somehow above or more important than the party..."

Well, to many people it certainly seemed that way. Especially when they saw how all the other candidates were practically hidden from view throughout the campaign...

"Yes, it is unfortunate that the slogan was distorted by Labour to that effect - though ironically, Labour itself seems to be using the same tactic today. But we did not anticipate this distortion. We never intended the slogan in the sense that it was afterwards interpreted and twisted..."

Yes, but isn't that also a political mistake? Surely, anticipating how one's own campaign slogan will be used by the Opposition is part and parcel of electioneering...

"I am not saying it wasn't a mistake. It was... but the reality of the situation is different. You might see Gonzi as an autocrat, as someone who doesn't listen. The Gonzi I know, however, is a listener... a team player. Personally, I would like to think that we will go into this next election as a team."

Meanwhile, on the subject of campaign slogans and the misinterpretation thereof, I draw Busuttil's attention to the undeniable fact that the campaign so far has been rather negative. This is true of Labour, too... in fact it seems to be true of Maltese politics as a whole. Have we been reduced to a situation whereby political parties now expect to win elections by default... not because of their own strengths, but rather on the strength of each other's weaknesses?

For the first time in this interview a shadow of gloom appears on his face. "I find the campaign disappointing so far," he admits. "I would have preferred the PN to come up with a more positive message, based on fresh ideas..."

I draw his attention to an impression of mine that the PN has been rather lazy so far in this respect. It's as though they're just pouncing on every crumb that falls off the PL's propaganda table, hoping against hope to find something they can use as ammunition...

Busuttil admits that this perception is difficult to refute: but reminds me that these are still early days, and there is plenty of campaigning ahead. "I hope that in weeks and months to come we will see more positive campaigning. On the other hand I do understand that the time had come for the PN to stand up to Labour, to call their bluff..."

Besides, he adds: Muscat often opens himself up to criticism of this sort through his own "unfortunate choices of words".

"He is not careful about what he says. Take the minimum wage issue, for instance..."

Funnily enough I was just coming to that. There seems to have been an odd reversal of roles, hasn't there? Traditionally, the Nationalist Party has always been perceived as being 'closer' to the business classes than Labour. Yet here we have a situation where the Labour Party seems to be singing to the employers associations' tune, while the PN criticizes it for not promising to impose more financial burdens on employers. Excuse me, but... have the two parties switched sides?

Busuttil seems surprised by the question. "I see no reversal of roles. Our answer to the wage issue is not to raise the minimum wage - we aspire to achieve the same result by shifting people from low-wage to higher value jobs..."

So why criticise Labour, when ultimately neither of you wants to raise minimum wage anyway? Busuttil explains that the difference concerns the approach to the issue. "Let's face it: people know the PN's economic policy. It's Labour's economic policy they have no idea about..."

So while the PN has explained how it intends to go about addressing the plight of people of minimum wage, Labour hasn't... "other than to say it won't raise wages. The logical conclusion can only be a wage freeze... and that's why I think Muscat is careless in what he says..."

Meanwhile it seems Simon Busuttil has assumed part of the responsibility of 'standing up to Labour' himself... not least, with an article claiming that a PL government would result in 'Malta knocking on Europe's door for a bailout' within just a few years.

Seriously, now: isn't this just slightly on the speculative side, considering that Busuttil himself also accuses Labour of making vague promises? If it is so unclear what they actually plan to do: how can Busuttil be so certain that they will also rack up a mountain of debt?

"It's not speculation," he asserts with unexpected energy. "It's the conclusion you automatically reach when you examine and try to cost what the Labour Party is actively proposing..."

Busuttil outlines the difficulty of keeping within the 3% deficit limit under the present circumstances. "Just imagine how much more difficult it would be if the PL's electoral promises were to be implemented. As things stand, it costs the government €30 million just to keep utility bills at their present rate. Labour promises to reduce those bills, but they never told us by how much. Assuming it's not going to be a purely cosmetic reduction - say, a few cents here and there - you will be looking at massive expenditure: possibly tens of millions..."

Another area where Labour may cost Malta dearly (he argues) concerns pension reform. I find it strange that he would allude to this, of all possible examples - seeing as how international credit ratings agencies have cited precisely 'pension reform' as one of the economic question marks hovering over the PN's current economic performance.

But Busuttil argues that the present government has taken visible action to address the pensions time-bomb. "We have raised the pensionable age to 65, and we were criticized for doing this by Labour. This fact alone suggests that that Labour disagrees with raising the pensionable age. So how will they address the pension problem themselves? Failure to do so will cost money..."

We don't have time to go into the specifics, but Busuttil is adamant that the cost of implementing Labour's promises will translate directly into an inability to meet financial targets in future.

If I may end with an allusion to the past: Busuttil has also been the European Parliament's special rapporteur on immigration. How does he feel regarding his government's (and his own) support for Italy's controversial push-back policy, now that it has been declared illegal by the EHCR?

"I refuse to take responsibility for another country's policy," comes the swift reply. But that is hardly satisfactory, seeing as Simon Busuttil had no hesitation in defending that same policy in 2010.

"The fact of the matter is that is difficult to criticize a policy when your country is a net beneficiary of that policy. You can say that this is a utilitarian argument, I know: but at the same time you can't deny that immigrant arrivals to Malta dropped from over a thousand to around 15 in total for the whole year..."

What about the human rights charges? Surely you can't defend a policy only on the basis that it reduces arrivals... otherwise I shudder to think what we might end up justifying in future...

Busuttil here rebuts the implication that immigrants were being sent back to 'certain death' as a result of that policy... and as an EU rapporteur, he had visited Libya's detention centres in person, and can therefore couch for the precise conditions.

However, it is evident that he is uncomfortable with the entire episode. "I accept your criticism, you know," he says at length. "But I would add one thing. We have always lived up to the highest standards when it came to rescuing people at sea. Of the 15,000 asylum seekers to have landed in Malta over the years, very few got here on their own steam. The vast majority were rescued at the sea by the Armed Forces. This fact should put our conscience to rest."

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Paul Sammut
WELL DONE SIMON. INTI MA ABBADUNAJTX IL VAPUR ANZI HIEREG GHAL ELEZZJONI BIEX IKOLLNA MOQDIEF IEHOR BIEX NAQDFU. JOSEPH MUSCAT MHUX BHALEK GHAMEL FIL 1998 IMMA HAJJAR LIL SANT IMUR GHAL ELEZZJONI GHAX KIEN JAF LI SE JITLIFA U QAGHAD JISTENNIH IGARRAB UMILJAZZJONI BIEX WARA HADLU POSTU. DIK IRGULIJA.
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Michael Lanfranco
Ta Xejn tipprova tbezza lil votanti Dt. Busutill. Il-PN is doomed. Hadd ma ghadu javdakhom u bill kliem tieghek hsara kbira lin negozju qed taghmel. Veru hadt false Start Simon. Ex Nazzjonalist
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Sagrificju ta xejn............. jekk dejjem hemm is-salvauomo tal-parlament Europew!!!!!!!!!!! Bniedem wiehed ma jirbahx elezjoni.
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Franco Attard Trevisan
Taqbel jew ma taqbilx mieghu, m'hemm l-ebda dubju li Simon Busuttil huwa bniedem genwin li jahdem ghall-gid tal-Maltin.
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Franco Attard Trevisan
Taqbel jew ma taqbilx mieghu, m'hemm l-ebda dubju li Simon Busuttil huwa bniedem genwin li jahdem ghall-gid tal-Maltin.
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Franco Attard Trevisan
Taqbel jew ma taqbilx mieghu, m'hemm l-ebda dubju li Simon Busuttil huwa bniedem genwin li jahdem ghall-gid tal-Maltin.
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Franco Attard Trevisan
Taqbel jew ma taqbilx mieghu, m'hemm l-ebda dubju li Simon Busuttil huwa bniedem genwin li jahdem ghall-gid tal-Maltin.
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Joseph M. Formosa
The guy can dream as much as he wants...but the people have long woke up mate!
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Monique Vella
Dan Superman jew? Teatrini u paroli fil-voit ghandu biex ib ibigh. Ma qalilniex x'sar minnhom il-visti filkcejjen tan-nies - id-DELEGAT SPECJALI ta' Gonzi. Jilaghba dan li jikfhem f'kollox. Ejja ma ninsewx li dan kien wiehed milli mill-klikka li kien ghadda z-zmien bil-kaccaturi u n-nassaba. U issa jippretendi l-vot taghhom. Hallina Simon. Kien ikun ahjar tibqa fejn int fejn ma jisimghek u ma jarak hadd!
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Joseph M. Formosa
The guy can dream as much as he wants...but the people have long woke up mate!
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emmanuel grech
Simon, jigifieri l-enuzjazmu tieghek qisu pixxikalda? Ommi ma!
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Yanika Chetcuti
How do these guys, especially this one, expect the electorate to believe him? After all the EU fairy tales he related to the Maltese unsophisticated, naive voters. I agree the PN's followers would have to believe blindly in their party to vote for its candidates again. So many voters have been disillusioned with the over the top hype dished out in the 2008 elections. A lot of time will have to pass before even gullible citizens are taken in again with this snake oil salesman's false charm and fallacious promises. You see burned their bridges in these last 4.5 years.
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Janet Chircop Bray
The only thing which is contagious at the moment is to run away from GonziPN. Dream on Dr Busuttil.
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M Saliba
Mr Busuttil said I have already decided: if elected, I will keep my seat in the national parliament." and if you dont , you go back to the EU parliament? Come on Simon if you loose you win and if you win you win, talking about power hungry !
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It s nice to dream anyway..........
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It s nice to dream anyway..........
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Excuse me, but who this bussutil thinks he is, a superman that know it all, if you are so sure why don't you take the ship in your hands and for the PN to stand up to Labour, to call their bluff...", yes tell gonzi to call a general election ASAP, so you get ride of FRANCO DEBONO< JPO AND MULIETT, not to mention others and show PL you can do better, u halina saimon, you are just an other big mouth like the rest.