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The time of absolutism is over | Claudio Grech

The PN must rekindle the grassroots activists' sense of belonging, says Austin Gatt's former right-hand man.

james
James Debono
18 March 2013, 12:00am
Nationalist MP Claudio Grech.
Nationalist MP Claudio Grech.


I meet Claudio Grech at the Westin Hotel's lobby on Thursday.  He is still visibly tired having being elected from the first district on Monday at 2 am, after two days at the counting hall.

But the 38-year-old PN candidate who spearheaded Malta's ICT revolution while working in former minister Austin Gatt's secretariat for 11 years has very clear ideas on why his party has lost the election.

According to the newly elected MP, it was the loss of the human touch, and not its policies, which cost the PN this election. 

It comes across as a curious observation from someone who worked closely with Austin Gatt, a minister not exactly known for his human touch.

Towards the end of the interview, when our discussion focuses on the future of the Nationalist Party, Grech recalls with a sense of nostalgia the time when activists referred to the "Stamperija" (literally, the printing press) not the headquarters.

"I grew up in a party where everyone was following a vision and a mission, not an ideology or iconic figures who earned their place by winning the heart of the people...but the heart of the party was not the leader but was always the Stamperija."

He recalls the time when local committees did not regard themselves as the remote outposts of a centralised party, but saw themselves as "a physical extension of the Stamperija".

"We must do everything to get these people back and make them feel part of the party...it is these genuine people who give their contribution without any sense of obligation, who are the heart of the party."

Still, this yearning for the good old times is accompanied by another realisation that voters in general are less fixed in their party loyalties. 

Grech hints that the party now has an important task ahead: that of strengthening its structures to enable it to communicate its message to a new critical mass of floating voters. 

The major change in this election is the emergence of a critical mass of floating voters.

"While these previously represented 20,000-25,000 voters, the number has grown to more than 70,000 and will continue to increase in all elections."

One of the lessons of this election, according to Grech, is that parties can no longer rely on a solid block of Nationalist and Labour voters to win elections.

"The result is a disappointing one, especially considering the government's performance on the macro level...in this sense it was not a fair result..."

Does this mean that Bill Clinton's maxim that "it's the economy, stupid" does not apply to Maltese politics?

Claudio Grech immediately points out that the macro picture is composed of 150,000 households.

"These constituted 150,000 micro pictures..."

He acknowledges that one of the problems was that while the country was experiencing economic growth this wealth was not trickling down to all the 150,000 households.

Grech recalls house visits in which he was told; "If the country is doing as well as you say, have I been struck by some bout of bad luck? Am I the only one to feel abandoned perhaps because I do not know any minister? Why have I been ignored?" 

But the primary reason for the PN's defeat was the deficient customer care function of government.

"I am not talking about favours but about the way government was treating complaints, requests for information and delivering things which should have been granted by right, was deficient".

According to Grech people had started perceiving this government as one which lacked a human face... "a government which treated people as files or numbers".

He describes the Nationalist government as one which was deluded into thinking that simply because the macro picture was doing well it did not feel the need of taking a frontline role to interact with people in their every day difficulties.

"This created disgruntlement which could have been nipped in the bud."

He singles out the way certain authorities treated people. What the government should have done in these circumstances was to position itself as an intermediary between people and the authorities.  

"If that were the case, people would have looked to the government as their defence. Instead, people felt abandoned". 

Unfortunately, the customer care departments in the various ministries failed to take up this role.

"This created pockets of disgruntlement composed of people who were demanding small things but who felt abandoned especially in cases where the entities involved failed the timeframes or sent people running around from one department to another."

The realisation might have come too late in the day to save the PN's fortunes.

He recalls that in the last two weeks of the campaign Lawrence Gonzi was making a lot of emphasis that "people are not file numbers".

But the party had already been forewarned by its disastrous performance in the 2009 MEP election and the 2012 local elections. Each time Lawrence Gonzi had promised to "listen". Where did all this "listening" go?

Grech insists that the PN's major problem was its structural weaknesses.

"There is a wide gap between setting a task for yourself, and actually implementing and delivering this task."

Could it be that Lawrence Gonzi was so focused on the global economic crisis that he ended thinking that the world revolved around his participation in EU summits, thus losing the feel for normal realities?

Grech concurs.

"As prime minister Lawrence Gonzi was so focused on ensuring that the country kept moving forward, and we have to recognise that the country did well. The fact that for Maltese households the micro issues took precedence over the bigger picture is in itself an indication that the bigger picture was well taken care of."

For Grech, the 2013 election is a lesson that focus on the bigger picture should not come about at the exclusion of everyday life issues.

"It is irrelevant to have the creation of jobs and a health and education system which were delivering, while ignoring how people were actually living in their own household."

I point out to Grech Simon Busuttil has argued that the PN had already lost the election before his election as the party's deputy leader. 

Grech insists that the PN cannot be associated with a single person.

"Whoever gives the impression that the PN can be reduced to a single person is mistaken. This applied before the election and still applies today. The PN's leadership has to be seen as a team. We cannot afford to have anyone who is seen as some sort of messiah, someone who can make the party the election simply because of his personal qualities.  If in the future we try to position someone as the saviour of the Nationalist Party we would be committing a fundamental mistake."

Still is this not contradicted by the result of an election, which has rewarded Joseph Muscat's highly personalised style of politics?

But Grech is quick to note that Labour faced different circumstances than the PN.

"The PN did not lose the election because of the Nationalist Party and its policies...we lost the election because of our attitude in government, not because of our values or policies."

He notes that with the exception of energy, the PL's own electoral programme confirms how much the PN's policies were making sense.

"In certain instances, if one removes Labour's logo one starts to wonder whether its manifesto is that of the PN."

He therefore disagrees with those who are saying that the party should be rebuilt from scratch.

Still, wasn't the party wrong on the divorce issue?

Grech describes the PN as a party composed of a mass of conservatives and various liberal groupings.

Grech, describes himself as someone hailing from a conservative background, insists that the party needs to find a way for internal co-existence.

"Conservatives who do not even want to discuss issues like gay rights are fossilised... their time is up. The time of absolutism is over...if we define ourselves solely as a conservative party we are doomed to remain perpetually in opposition."

Did the PN underestimate Joseph Muscat?

He acknowledges that certain factions of the PN mistakenly perceived Muscat as "more of the same", someone who would end up making the same mistakes as his predecessors during the campaign.

"In reality Muscat managed to project the Labour Party as an alternative to the PN, while his predecessors remained entrenched in the socialist frame of mind. On the other hand, Muscat managed to keep the loyalties of hardcore Labour voters while wrapping and branding Labour as an alternative to the PN."

In this way, according to Grech, Muscat presented himself as a "credible alternative" to voters who were disgruntled by the PN and who might have been inclined not to vote in this election. Instead, they voted Labour.

Mario de Marco has criticised the PN's negative campaigning in the past week.

Grech points out that towards the middle of the campaign both parties were engaged in negative campaigning, with Labour targeting particular ministers by linking them to the oil procurement scandal and the PN replicating with its 'blokka l-bajda' saga, which he describes as "retaliation".

I quickly point out that the PN had been in possession of the recordings for years and had only deployed its arsenal in the campaign.

"These were tactical decisions which were taken as the campaign went along."

But according to Grech towards the end of the campaign both parties realised that "negative campaigning does not work".

Grech believes that while negative campaigning can have an impact when it comes to demolishing the other party's policies, negative campaigning with an element of character assassination only serves to strengthen your opponent and galvanise his supporters.

"I completely disagree with personalisation of politics as it devalues the entire process."

The PN's manifesto included various innovative proposals like the night tariff, introducing a personal account for each child to encourage a culture of saving, and strengthening the IT aspect in education. Yet instead of generating discussion on these issues, these proposals were perceived as an electoral auction. On the other hand, Labour's energy proposal left a greater impact on the electorate. Why did this happen?

Grech takes ownership of the PN's tablet proposal.

"For the past three years I had been lobbying internally in favour of strengthening the IT dimension in education."

What irks Grech is that the proposal came across as device-driven.

"Our proposal was not to dish out tablets, but to introduce the concept of one-to-one computing...through which children would be given a device through which they could engage with their own education. That was our original aim."

Grech insists that the proposal was presented in the context of a holistic educational and economic model.

Grech had conducted research in 18 countries where similar projects have been undertaken.

"The model was least successful when it was introduced as some sort of political gimmick to appeal to the Internet savvy but politically disconnected electorate. But the model was successful in France where the emphasis was on the educational content installed on the device and not the device itself."

He contrasts the way the PN presented its proposal in detail to Labour's more superficial proposal.

"Everyone realised that while we had a detailed proposal, Labour was focusing on the device aspect going to the extreme of mentioning brands which are not even suitable for educational purposes as they are commercially driven not education driven resources..."

I point out that at the end of the day, by preceding the PN Labour created the perception of a tablet auction, thus undermining the PN's attempt to generate interest in its own issue.

But Grech considers the PL's strategy as fair game. "These are tactics which happen in any election."

But he defends the PN's campaign, insisting that the PN was the first party to cost its proposals. But he recognises that the electoral programme was not a game changer.

"It could not have been a game changer, because persons who were negatively affected in their day-to-day interactions with government, their personal experience of not being treated with respect, would have over ruled any other factor."

Another widespread perception which has taken root in the electorate is that the country has been hijacked by a clique.

Grech is taken aback by the use of this terminology, noting that there is nothing new in this, recalling how Alfred Sant used to refer to "friends of friends" networks.

He challenges everyone who refers to cliques to "present a list of members in the clique".

"For me this is sheer negative politics... we are simply devaluating politics."

To prove his point he gives his approval to Joseph Muscat's choice in appointing his close aide Keith Schembri as chief of staff.

"Every person has a group of people with whom he feels more comfortable working with. Many have criticised Muscat for appointing Keith Schembri as his chief of staff. I disagree. Muscat is perfectly right in saying that he has known Schembri since he was very young and he is someone he feels comfortable working with."

But Grech makes a distinction between "people one can trust" and "yes men who approve of anything as long as they have power".

Grech insists that the PN government did not include the latter, and that people who accuse the government of being dominated by a clique either were unable to work in a team or had personal disagreements.

Grech carries the legacy of Austin Gatt having worked closely to the Nationalist Party stalwart who did not contest the election this time round.

Grech recognises that he "has learned a lot" while working with Gatt.

"I am very proud of my role in Gatt's ministry... especially in creating from nothing an ICT sector which is now praised by everyone, including Labour. This is the positive part of the legacy which I intend to carry forward."

Still, the promised 6,000 jobs at SmartCity of which he was the first chairman, have yet to materialise.

"I invite everyone to go there and see with their own eyes the investment taking place there...we are speaking of €100 million cash injection by a foreign investor."

Grech recognises that the global financial crisis changed the direction of the global knowledge economy.

He also reveals that in 2009 he had resigned from chairman due to "disagreements on strategy" with the major shareholder.

"I chose the honourable way out. I kept my mouth shut not to damage the project. We had two different visions and strategies about the project... that is why I opted to make a short statement and kept things to myself." 

He also recalls explaining the circumstances of his resignation to both Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi and Opposition Leader Joseph Muscat.

Despite his past disagreements with the Dubai shareholders, Grech still firmly believes that the project will grow and prosper in the future.

"In five years' time I am convinced that the project will be a success. I promise to continue supporting this project from the opposition benches."

Grech does not exclude taking a role in the party's new administrative structures. He recalls that it was only in May 2012 that together with his wife he took the decision to take the plunge in to electoral politics.

"When we took this decision we knew that we had to put our other aspirations on the backburner."

From the opposition benches, Grech promises to engage in positive politics through constructive criticism rather than personal attacks.

He is also open to contesting for administrative posts within the party while warning that it would be a mistake if the party thinks of names before determining the terms of reference for these posts.

"It is only after determining the terms of reference that we can identify the names which fit with the job description. It is only at that stage that the party should propose the best persons to fill the posts."

Grech insists that after this process of identifying roles, it is up to the party to identify any role he could fill.

Does he agree with the direct election of the party leader by all party members instead of the current college of party councillors as happened in the past?

Grech is not so keen on this system. "One can only judge whether such a system is good or not with hindsight."

He would prefer if the party focuses on strengthening the present system by giving more importance to local committees.

"What is lacking at the moment is the importance local committees traditionally had in the policy making of the party.  We should not only invoke the grass roots when a new leader or new deputy leader is elected or in a general council. These grass roots must be part of the living structure of the party."

It is at this point that Grech harks back to the party's golden past when the "Stamperija" was close to the grass roots to the extent that local committees saw themselves as a physical extension of the Pieta Headquarters... rather than as remote outposts with little link to the centre of power.

 
james
James Debono is MaltaToday's chief reporter on environment, planning and land use issues, ...
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Janice Sant
'Spearheaded Malta's IT revolution'? Bullocks! Try to pay for a government service through a credit card! 'E' government was nothing but an other fake show put up by the 'sappi tutto, niente bene fare' super 'Arriva' minister!
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Joseph Borg
Lots of talk from pretenders to the helm of PN, but, where are Gatt and RCC ?? Will they still be at the backseat ?? If you really want to change, we want to hear THAT THEY ARE EXPELLED FROM PN, not resigned !!!!!!
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MaltaCross
"the 38-year-old PN candidate who spearheaded Malta's ICT revolution" What ICT revolution ?! Are you perhaps referring to "the promised 6,000 jobs at SmartCity of which he was the first chairman, [which] have yet to materialise" ?
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Mason Lloyd
Despotism perhaps is more apt in describing the klikek... mirror mirror on the wall....
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Sylvana Camilleri
IT guru?? Who?..... Claudio Grech???!!!!!! Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!!!!!!!
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Yanika Chetcuti
U hallina, Claudio! Remember people judge you by what you DO, not what you SAY! Go back to the board and draw out the real scenario outlining all the gross deficiencies of GonziPN! Then present that to the Party faithful on Facebook and other social means. We are all interested.