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A vision that is ahead of its time | Chris Said

PN leadership hopeful Chris Said on the importance of an innovative forward-looking vision... that ‘reaffirms the party’s core principles’

raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo
1 September 2017, 8:28am
PN leadership hopeful Chris Said
PN leadership hopeful Chris Said
Dr Said, this is to all appearances an unusual PN leadership race. So far, two of your three competitors have had to contend with a separate, private campaign aimed at discrediting their candidature. Portelli now claims the election is ‘rigged’; Delia talks of a ‘hidden hand’ working against him. You do not have the same problem. Doesn’t this place you at an automatic, unfair advantage? 

But it is important that I don’t have that problem, when I’ve been involved in politics for 30 years. It is not normal for someone to be in politics for so long without incurring that kind of problem. The fact is that, at every level I was involved  – as mayor [of Nadur], as parliamentary secretary, minister, secretary-general, an MP... all important positions within politics – I was only motivated by one interest: to serve. Not to say I didn’t make mistakes... I did. But when I made mistakes, they were genuine mistakes. Not ‘mistakes’ aimed at favouring certain people.

So it is a big satisfaction for me, that when I entered the leadership race – which naturally means exposing myself to more scrutiny – there was nothing I could be criticised for in my political past. Not to say I am not being criticised over certain things... but I have no serious political baggage of that nature. If I win the leadership, the Labour Party will not be able to fire heavy artillery against me: they already used that artillery when I occupied those positions. So I can put everyone’s mind at rest, that I won’t have to defend myself for my past actions... but instead can look to the future.

But it also means that, if you do win, it will not be on your own merits, but because of the shortcomings of others?

I disagree.  In these last 33 years, there was not one day when I was not a politician, during which time I was constantly under scrutiny. So I think I do have some merit, in the sense I’ve worked hard all these years and there still isn’t anything in my record to attack me over.

Nonetheless, the impact of those attacks was to clear the way for you to have a clear, unopposed path to victory. It’s becoming a trial by elimination; and as the old Latin saying goes: ‘Cui bono’? Who benefits from that, if not you?

I am pushing forward my own campaign, and from the outset I wanted to focus mainly on my ideas for the party and country. At the moment, the party is the higher priority, because whoever wins will be leader of the PN. But he will also occupy the important Constitutional post of Opposition leader; so it is important for voters to know what vision the new leader has for the country. I have a lot of respect for the other three candidates, my colleagues, who like me, were not afraid to step forward at one of the worst moments in the PN’s political history. In so doing, they created a choice. The party councillors and members have a choice between four candidates, with all their advantages and defects. Because I have defects, too. Some people say they don’t like the way I talk, or how I relate to people...

... or that (like me) you wear spectacles...

[Laughs] That, too. Who doesn’t have defects? That is why it is important that four people stepped forward at such a difficult time. It is not an adventure to go out for the party leadership, you know. It’s not a case of getting fed up of what you’re doing, and deciding to go for something more adventurous. No, the post of party leader is no adventure. It’s a great responsibility. This is true at all times, let alone the times the PN is facing right now, after a second large defeat.

There are organisational problems, financial problems, problems of internal tension arising from various issues... so at the moment, the responsibility that will have to be shouldered by whoever wins this race is enormous. I have never been afraid of challenges: four years ago, I took on the position of secretary-general. Nobody wanted that position. I ran for it uncontested. I knew what I would find, like I know what I will find if I am elected leader. I gave two years of my life to that position, without any self-interest: I didn’t take a cent for the job, and I don’t regret that at all. I wanted to be of service to the party... and not just to the party. When I worked to put the PN on more stable foundations, and to ensure that the PN could survive – because that was the threat: that the PN would not continue to exist – I was trying to be of service also to the country. It is important for the country to have a strong Opposition.

You say the PN faced a threat in the past... but it arguably still faces that threat today. Indeed it is more insidious, as the issues back then were of a financial nature. Today, they are at the level of identity. I was expecting fresh, innovative ideas to emerge from Thursday’s debate. Instead, we heard all the same old platitudes (in the same words): ‘reaffirming our core beliefs’, ‘getting closer to the people’, etc. Where is the ‘vision’ in any of that?

Until a few years ago, the Nationalist party always had a vision that was steps ahead of what was happening within society. In the 1980s, it was the vision of a free and democratic country... later, to have an economy based on the open market...  then the European Union... In that time, the PN won election after election because it had a vision. The PN led on the strength of that vision... the people followed naturally. Eight or 10 years ago, our vision stagnated. Society kept evolving, and overtook us. And the PN ended up reacting instead of leading. Reacting late, and at times ineffectually. I want the PN to once again be the party which has a vision that is steps ahead of its time...

Then how do you explain your unprompted statement – the first you made in this campaign – that you want to change a law that you yourself have only just approved in parliament, and reinstate the words ‘mother’ and ‘father’ to the Marriage Equality Act? Isn’t that a step backwards instead of forward?

I don’t agree it was the first or most important thing I said. I also gave a press conference about security, I spoke about the importance of an economy for everyone... that, when the economy is doing well, it is important that the benefits are felt by all, especially the most vulnerable. I spoke about pensions and the elderly, making various proposals... about local councils, about the environment. And I also spoke about the use of the words ‘mother’ and ‘father’ in legal terminology. There is nothing to be ashamed of in repeating that, yes, if I am Prime Minister, I will reintroduce ‘mother’ and ‘father’, ‘man’ and ‘woman’, ‘husband’ and ‘wife’... along with ‘parent’ and ‘spouse’... to the law.

So you want to turn the clock back...

No, I want to give a choice. Today’s government removed that choice. Let me be clear: I will remove nothing from the rights and obligations that were given to LGBTIQ people through these laws. None of those rights or obligations will be touched. All I will be doing is reinstating a choice that was removed by the present government...

... upon consultation with various experts and members of civil society. The government was acting on professional advice when drawing up that law.

The government was given a lot of conflicting opinions by NGOs and civil society, and it chose to ignore most of them. But the thing that hurts me most is that, when legislating on such sensitive issues, the government never consults the Opposition. When I passed sensitive legislation as justice minister – for instance, the Embryo Protection Act – I spent six months consulting the Opposition before publishing the draft bill. Before there was broad consensus over that bill, I didn’t publish it.  This government, on all sensitive issues – because it is not acting out of conviction, but out of political convenience – just publishes the bill, and tells us: ‘we will be discussing this in three days’ time’. I don’t think this is the way politics should be done in our country. If the government consults the LGBTIQ community – as it should – I think it should also consult other entities, as well as the Opposition...

But the legal terminology in the bill will have no effect on anything outside strictly legal matters. You seem to be making a big issue out of what is ultimately a minor technicality. Why is this such a major priority?

No, it isn’t. You are prioritising it... I was talking about a broader vision for the party and country, and you homed in only on that one issue. Which I have no problem with at all. But earlier, I said the PN needs to be a party which leads by means of a vision. Easier said than done. How do we achieve this? First of all, by reaffirming what we believe in. What does the PN believe in? What is its identity? What makes it the party that it is? We cannot become a photocopy of Labour, as some people argue.

Some people within the party say that, to win an election, we have to become like Labour. We need to find a Joseph Muscat. We need to adopt the ‘me, today’ attitude: ‘what I can get, for myself, today’. God forbid we go down that path. It would be the beginning of the end of the Nationalist Party. So we must reaffirm our beliefs. Our beliefs are in the dignity of all people, whoever they are, wherever they come from. We need to work for the common good. Today’s government is working only for ‘me, today’. ‘Me, and my pocket’. Another belief is the principle of solidarity – you can build an entire political platform on that one word...

On the subject of solidarity: how much of that did you show immigrants, when you held a press conference in St Paul’s Bay, and gave the impression that all that locality’s security issues arise from multiculturalism?

No, I didn’t say that. You are misquoting me. I was clear that immigrants who are among us, and who have a right to be here, have the right to stay and work... but they need to observe the law. You cannot have groups who create a [disturbance]... and they can be Maltese groups, too... without proper action or law enforcement by the authorities.

So why single out immigrants? The law should be observed by everybody, it goes without saying. And such disturbances are not a new phenomenon...  there were similar security issues in Paceville long before the arrival of any immigrants...

But today you have situations where residents in places like Bugibba, Qawra, Swieqi, Paceville...

... in other words, where there are immigrant communities.

But that’s where the problem is being felt. Shouldn’t a politician go where the problem is being felt, and talk to residents, and address the issue?

You seem to see security as an issue only when it involves foreigners...

That’s not true. Didn’t we make public statements about security when there were life-threatening situations in Paceville? Of course we did. The point is we need to put people’s mind at ease...

In the interest of not getting side-tracked, let us return to the vision question. You talk of ‘solidarity’, ‘dignity of the individual’, ‘the right to life’, etc. None of that is in any way new. Those are all the motifs and slogans of the Eddie Fenech Adami era. ‘Solidarnosch’ was a Polish political slogan back in 1989...

So should we discard them because they’re too old? Solidarity was important 30 years ago, and it’s just as important today. In today’s society, there are people who are suffering. They’re not keeping up with the cost of living. So we need to show solidarity with those people. We need to build a political platform based on solidarity with those people. There are concepts which remain important no matter how much time goes by...

All the same, that platform will not be yours. I didn’t ask you to describe the structures and slogans created by Fenech Adami 40 years ago. I asked what you intend to build on those foundations yourself...

Part of the reason old principles remain valid is that their importance is rediscovered by changing circumstances. Let me give an example of part of my vision: space. Not as in ‘outer space’, of course, but the space around us. This is a small country: we have spatial limitations. Especially now, thanks largely to the free-for-all mentality this government is introducing...

Wasn’t that mentality already there? Beach concessions, projects eating up into open space, ODZ extensions... those were all Nationalist introductions, too...

And yet people say we lost the [2013] election because, for example, MEPA wasn’t giving out any permits. I think you might have heard that a few times. But this is part of the past... you criticise me for looking backwards, but now you’re the one looking at the past...

Fair enough, I’ll take the criticism.

The reality is that what we have in the country today: the economy, industry, tourism, health, education, infrastructure... it all has the stamp of the Nationalist Party on it. But that’s the past. What of the future? What are the people feeling? People are now feeling that they’re living in a claustrophobic environment. Go to the beach, everyone is piled up on each other. Walk along the coast, you have to pick your way through tables and chairs. Drive your car, and you have to work out how to get from one place to the other in as short a time as possible. Almost wherever you live, you have to go round in circles to find a parking space. You live in an apartment block; suddenly a permit comes out for two or three additional storeys... without added garages. You feel suffocated. This is what is emerging from all the meetings I’ve had with people, and also throughout my recent political life. How do we address this? We need to have a clear vision of how to solve these problems...

OK, but again: you’re not telling what your own vision is...

My vision is to create space, not eliminate it. I want to lead the Nationalist Party to ensure that public spaces are well-managed. Not just public spaces, but even private spaces. How can we issue permits for new apartments, in a residential area, if we know there isn’t enough parking space for the new residents? This is the result of bad planning. It lowers the quality of life for everyone in the area. So as a party, we mustn’t be afraid of coming out with innovative policies and ideas on how to solve these problems.

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