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Failure is not an option | Antoine Borg

Antoine Borg is the Nationalist Party’s group financial controller, and also a candidate contesting the 6th and 7th districts. He talks of his confidence that, despite mistakes made in the past, the PN still merits the nation’s trust

raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo
21 January 2013, 12:00am
Antoine Borg
Antoine Borg


With all the campaign limelight so far hogged by established party heavyweights on both sides of the divide, it is altogether too easy to forget that this election will also mark the emergence of a whole new generation of politicians... many of whom are as yet untainted by any of the (real or perceived) scandals to have rocked both parties in their recent histories. 

At 29 years of age, accountant Antoine Borg arguably represents the future of a party whose immediate present might not (let's face it) be particularly rosy.

I meet him at the PN headquarters in Pieta' - currently a hive of campaign activity (in fact it takes time to find a free room where we can talk in relative peace) - just a few days after the latest polls suggest an electoral gap of anywhere between six and 11 percentage points between the parties.

But while he acknowledges the extent of the uphill struggle faced by his party, he nonetheless manages to project a surprisingly upbeat mood.

I start out with a question that could just as easily be asked to the party as a whole. The emphasis of the PN's campaign to date has been on 'change' - and yet it is the PN that currently occupies the seat government. From this perspective: isn't the same party's cry for 'change' also an acknowledgement that its own policies over the past few years may have been flawed?

Borg however contends that the word 'change', in this context, does not refer only to a change in government.

"Politics itself is a continuous process of change... of renewal... not just of parties and people occupying government positions; but also of policies, of practices, of outlook, of mentality. Throughout the PN's time in government, things have changed radically in the country. We have witnessed a far-reaching economic change: from an economy based mostly on manufacturing and textiles, to one based on IT, research and value-added... and even here, there are differences in the way one implements certain changes to economic practices..."

Even when it comes to changes of a far more basic, everyday nature, he argues that the PN has not been static... far from it.

"The party is now facing an election, and if you look at its list of candidates you will see that a lot of the people who form part of the present government - and I won't single anyone out, or mention names, because I have the maximum respect for all these people - many of them are not even contesting..."

This, he adds, attests to a party that constantly feels the need to update itself... and predictably he draws my attention to the recent change in deputy leadership, whereby Simon Busuttil replaced Tonio Borg.

"Love it or hate it, the fact remains that even at the very top levels, the PN has always managed to renew itself."

But it is not (he stresses) change merely for the sake of it. He likens the process of change to that of a man who decides to change job or career. "It's not a decision you take lightly. Nobody changes job just for the sake of changing job..."

Though he doesn't spell it out in as many words, the implication of his last point are fairly clear. By the same token, nobody should change government just for the sake of the change, either. 

Still, it remains a fact that many people are less than impressed by the Nationalist Party's record. Without enumerating their many grievances, I ask Antoine Borg if he himself feels that there are any areas the PN got wrong, and which it should concentrate on changing...

He pauses before answering.

"Perhaps the PN should have been more selective in choosing its candidates," he begins, in a clear reference (though no names are mentioned) to the same party's backbencher headaches throughout the past five years.

Interestingly enough, this raises the issue of the approval of his own candidacy. Borg is in many ways a 'natural' candidate, in the sense that he both looks and acts the part - but at the same time he is also the same party's financial controller, and while the two roles may not necessarily directly conflict, it remains rather unusual for someone involved in the purely administrative side of a party to also run for parliament. Is he concerned about a possible conflict of interest?

Borg is however convinced that his double role, though unusual, is neither suspicious or unprecedented. "I stand to be corrected but as far as I know, John Dalli was both financial controller of the party, and also a candidate contesting elections. Off-hand, however, I'm not sure if he did both at the same time..."

Either way, he plays down any hint of impropriety.

"First of all my job as financial controller is limited only to the commercial arm of the PN: I handle the accounts of things like Informa, the party library, as well the commercial side of entities like NET TV, Radio 101, Eurotours etc..."

What about party donations? He shakes his head. "Nothing like that, no."

Meanwhile, just to make sure that no potential conflicts arise from his 'other' role - i.e., his professional capacity as an accountant - Borg explains how his decision to enter politics up to a point forced him to redefine his career.

"I took a conscious decision, on grounds of integrity, to play safe and stay away from certain areas associated with my profession... like helping clients with tax avoidance issues..."

Here Antoine Borg stresses that there is nothing illegal about tax avoidance, which is a necessary part of any accountant's job. He also takes pains to distinguish the practice from 'tax evasion' - the former being concerned only with making sure people don't pay more tax than they should... while the latter (illegal) practice is concerned with enabling businessmen to pay less tax than they actually owe.

"But although tax avoidance is perfectly legal, it may raise awkward issues on a moral plane. I felt it would be safer to steer clear of these issues altogether."

Still, having raised the issue of party financing, I draw his attention to a curious anomaly whereby the Prime Minister has repeatedly hinted at a mismatch in party funding between the two parties' respective campaigns.

This week, Gonzi yet again raised questions about the source of Labour's financing... and only a few months ago, yet PN secretary general sent out an email in which he described the PN as 'poor', and Labour as 'rich'.

Isn't this is a bit odd, when you consider that the PN has been in power almost uninterruptedly since 1987... yet passed up repeated opportunities to enact a party financing law that would have directly addressed the concerns raised by both Gonzi and Borg Olivier?

As it happens, Borg also shares in Gonzi's suspicions regarding Labour's well-heeled campaign.

"It is evident that the PL's campaign is very lavish. You can see this at a glance -not just in the sheer number of billboards but also the fact that is spread out across so many different media..."

As financial controller Borg has a very clear idea of the costs involved in such initiatives. Without citing specific figures he estimates that Labour's campaign spending has exceeded that of the PN by an order of magnitude at least.

All well and good, but isn't this just a reflection of greater financial diligence by the Labour Party? How does it boost the PN's campaign to constantly draw attention to the fact that Labour has been more successful in fund-raising?

Borg however reasons that the Prime Minister's concern is itself an "echo of the sentiment of people", and that he himself encounters similar sentiments on his own home visits.

"People are commenting on how much money the Labour Party is spending. And this sort of lavish expenditure is also counter-productive - although of course this is a matter of opinion really. Personally I don't like the idea that Labour is affixing stickers to traffic barricades, for instance. I find it invasive... if you ask me Labour's campaign is too in your face."

Besides, he adds: electoral campaigns are not measured merely by how many billboards you erect, but what you actually use them to say.

Antoine Borg explains that he has so far been unimpressed by Labour's campaign, because it says nothing particularly new. Even the proposed reduction of utility bills (upon which so much of the campaign actually hinges) cannot really be described as a Joseph Muscat proposal at all.

"After more than four years as Opposition leader, Muscat is still stuck with promises made by his predecessor Alfred Sant. Sant, too used to talk about reducing the surcharge before the 2008 election...."

Borg concedes that Muscat has perhaps been more successful in taking advantage of the utilities issue, but argues that he has yet to produce any tangible method to achieve his target.

"Muscat has made it a more marketable electoral strategy by tying it to a project that sounds realistic, I'll give him that much. But when you take a closer look at what he's actually proposing, you will realise that the underlying figures, calculations, workings and assumptions are all still vague."

Borg is also openly sceptical about whether Muscat has considered the implications of his own declared aim to implement the PN's budget.

"I see a conflict here. When the PN produced Budget 2013 Muscat had yet to come out with his own energy plan. At the time he said he will implement the framework (qafas) of the budget, but how can he do this when the budget was drawn up with a different energy policy in mind?"

Borg pauses to correct himself on a small detail. "I said he committed himself to implementing the budget. But what he actually said was that he would keep the good in this budget, but not necessarily all of it. And this only shows how superficial his attitude towards politics really is. Budgets are not only 'good' or only 'bad'. They are based on a balance. How can you propose to keep only the good things - the raises, the increased expenditure on social services, etc - but not the 'bad' things like fiscal measures? Surely this is just populist opportunism..."

For all this, Borg claims that his biggest reservation is Muscat's declaration that he would resign if he failed to reach his self-inflicted targets (described as 'highly ambitious' by a number of experts in the field) within the specified timeframes.

Here Antoine Borg seems to be echoing the Prime Minister's reaction, which was to accuse Muscat of taking the coward's way out. But doesn't this tell us more about Gonzi's way of doing politics than Muscat's, I ask?

Apply that observation to the government's own record, and what Gonzi is effectively saying is that shouldering responsibility for one's mistakes is now a cowardly thing to do. And sure enough, Gonzi has defended ministers who would (in other countries, perhaps) have been expected to resign...

Borg however rejects the line of reasoning that 'no one has shouldered responsibility' in the present government.

"You're forgetting John Dalli... no, not his recent resignation as Commisioner, but the 2004 resignation from Cabinet. And Chris Said, when facing criminal prosecution over perjury, also temporarily resigned..."

OK, but then why is Muscat's commitment to resign such a bad thing, when Nationalists have done it too?

"Because if Muscat's energy plan fails, it will be no consolation to me that he has resigned his post. In fact, it will be no consolation to anybody..."

Here he produces a rather effective little analogy to illustrate this point. "Imagine we were talking about the captain of a ship instead of a political party leader. What Muscat, as ship captain, is actually telling us here is: 'I'm not sure exactly where I'm going, or how, exactly, I am going to get there. But don't worry: if I don't manage, I'll just jump overboard'. Excuse me, but how does that help the passengers? What good would it do them for the captain to abandon ship? They'd just be stuck on a ship that has lost direction and is heading for disaster..."

Borg insists that the price to pay for failure in the energy sector is too enormous to even contemplate. Rather than wait and see if Muscat is forced by his own failure to abandon ship, it would be wiser (he argues) to stick with a captain who does, at least, know where he is going.

Ah, but does he, I ask? So far we have heard a lot of criticism directed at Labour's energy plan, but what is the PN actually proposing? Where are the  calculations, workings, assumptions, and so on, in the PN plan?

Borg deflects this by pointing out that unlike Labour, the details of the PN's energy plan are well enough known. "The pipeline is ... in the pipeline, if you'll excuse the pun. And ironically even the consultants Labour engaged for its own plan have confirmed that the pipeline option is better than what they are proposing themselves..."

Besides, Borg contends that while energy has been the flavour of the campaign so far, there are other issues of greater concern to citizens. "I do a lot of house visits, because that is what I really believe in. You have to be in contact with people all the time, to have a clear idea of what issues really affect them.

"On my visits I ask people how they're doing... and some say they're doing fine, others say they're doing less fine... but what emerges from these visits is that a person's standard of living [bonvivenza] arises mainly out of three factors: having a secure job, having good access to quality education and good health services.

"And these are the three areas the PN recognizes to be major issues of national concern."