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‘Power to the people’ | Anthony Buttigieg

Former PD deputy leader (and leadership contestant) Dr Anthony Buttigieg outlines the way forward for a party whose inception has been a little shaky, to say the least

raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo
10 September 2017, 9:00am
The past year has been a strange rollercoaster ride for Malta’s newest political party, the ‘Partit Demokratiku’. On paper, its success has been meteoric: formed less than a year ago, it has already elected two MPs. But the circumstances of their election makes it unclear whether they represent the PD or the Nationalist Party... on whose ticket they actually contested. And to make matters more confusing, its founder and leader, Marlene Farrugia, abruptly announced her resignation, and is even considering a bid for the PN leadership in future. You yourself [Dr Anthony Buttigieg] earlier resigned as deputy leader. Under such circumstances: are people justified in regarding the PD as, at best, a somewhat chaotic flash in the pan?

First of all, any new organisation that is forming its identity tends to have teething problems. Yes, maybe that’s the impression people are getting at the moment. But actually, things aren’t as bad as they seem. My own resignation as deputy leader was pretty public, and so were my reasons. Marlene, Godfrey and I still talk, we still discuss things, and the same goes for other people in the party. We will be having our AGM in October – the exact date hasn’t been set yet. Then we will form a new executive, and move on.

But yes, the perception may be that, at the moment, we are not functioning properly. Yet if you look at the papers, the media... with all due respect to the PN, the only functioning opposition at the moment is the PD. Both inside and outside parliament. We are coming out with proposals, criticism, etc. The PN is so focused on its leadership election, that it is not functioning as an opposition party at all. So even if we are a brand new party, probably one hundredth the size of the PN – if not less – the bulk of the work of opposition is coming through the PD at the moment... 

 

That may be true, but it tells us more about the state of the PN than the PD. For instance: in whose name does the PD speak? Its two MPs were elected on the PN ticket, which also means that technically, they represent Nationalist voters. And besides, who else is there, anyway?

There’s the party executive: Godfrey is not a member of the executive; as an MP, he is there in an observer capacity only. But Marlene’s resignation, even though she gave it in, was not accepted, and she is still acting party leader...

 

Isn’t that an abnormal situation, though? You have an acting leader of the party who has expressed an intention to contest for the leadership of another party...

That is why we have to go through the process of having an AGM and election: in a way, like the PN are doing. The difference is, ironically, that the smaller party is functioning while going through that process, while the larger is not. And to be fair to her [Marlene]: at the very beginning, when the party was being formed, she had said that she would only be leader until the PD got onto its own two feet. She never said she wanted to be leader for the long term. To be honest, she actually wanted me to be leader initially... but I refused: nobody knows me; I was as well known to the public as my dog. That makes no sense at all: the party leader cannot be someone totally unknown. She should have been leader of the party; and that’s what happened. 

"With all due respect to the PN, the only functioning opposition at the moment is the PD... The PN is so focused on its leadership election that it is not functioning as an opposition party at all"
 

But at the stage you’re talking about, the party had yet to be even formed. Now it is not only a fully-fledged party, but it is also represented in Parliament.  This in itself raises questions: is the PD in parliament on the strength of its own identity or message... or simply because, as a junior member of a pre-electoral coalition, it became an extension of the PN?

That’s a good question. We have to be absolutely, 100% honest about this: if we hadn’t been in a coalition with the PN, it would have been much more difficult for people to be elected to Parliament. I don’t think anyone should be surprised if I say that: it’s a fact. But does the PD have its own identity? I would say yes, very much so. The whole reason people, myself included, joined the PD is that we were fed up with this ‘revolving door’ politics we have at the moment. ‘You scratch my back, I scratch yours’. And lo and behold: five years of ‘corruption, corruption, corruption’... and a new party goes into government, and does nothing about it. They’re in cahoots with each other, in my opinion. Not all, perhaps; that would be unfair. But that was the perception I had, even from before March 2016... before I was even interested in entering politics. 

 

March 2016 is very recent. Did you ever consider political involvement at any time before?

No. I had never been involved in politics in my life. I hated politics, in fact. The only time I ever went to mass meetings was pre-1987, and I didn’t go there to support the Nationalist Party; I went to support my own concept of freedom. They won the election, and I never went to another meeting. I was, what, 25 years old? And that was the end of it, as far as I was concerned at the time. 

 

Would you have described yourself as a Nationalist before joining the PD?

No. My family was politically mixed anyway. And besides, I was brought up in the UK; my parents emigrated when I was only six weeks old. I was brought up with the concept that politicians were there to serve the people, not vice versa. Coming to Malta was a bit of a shock. Here, it was the other way round. Politicians and parties were worshipped almost as gods. Almost like an alternative religion. I found it very weird, and I still do to this day. So to answer your question about ‘what the PD stands for’, I would say it is that. To give power back to the people. We are here to serve; not to use power to serve us. Now, people might say: ‘oh, that’s just something everyone who enters politics says... when they enter politics, it’s not the case. It’s not human nature...’

 

I was about to say it myself...

But I don’t think it’s a correct way of looking at things. I’m a doctor. In my profession, and the surrounding professions: nursing, physiotherapy, etc... there are a lot of highly qualified people who could work much better hours in another profession, making much more money. They don’t. Why? Because they care. So there are people – a very large section of society – who care. There is no reason why there shouldn’t also be politicians who care. The problem is, with the two-party system we have, even those within the two parties who do care tend to be emarginated.  Because in a two-party race, you always have to be as dirty, or as wily, as the others. If you’re honest, you’re just not going to get there... you won’t stand a chance.

 

Yet both those two parties also claim they want to ‘give power to the people’. It is, let’s face it, a very vague and generic thing to say... and it could also be interpreted as ‘populist’.

You could say that, but I do have something specific in mind when I say ‘giving power back to the people’. I mean strengthening all the institutions that have been weakened over the years. We have institutions already in place; but through subtle ways, many of them are not functioning as they should. The Ombudsman, the Auditor General, the Attorney General, the police, the judiciary, the MEPA... all of these are not functioning properly. They were not put into place to empower certain people to get rich, or do what they like. They were put there to protect the people from government. Politicians, by nature, are power-hungry. Well, most of them, anyway. The whole point of those institutions is to put brakes on the politicians. At the moment, they’re not doing that. So when I say ‘power to the people’, it’s through the institutions... not by having mass protests, or anything like that. It is about making our Constitution, as it is, function as it should...

 

In the meantime, the PD is in a coalition with another party... which is also going through seminal changes as we speak.  In fact, the PN may well be a very different party in a week’s time. This creates further confusion: the PD/PN coalition was forged with Simon Busuttil, not with Adrian Delia or Chris Said. Where will this coalition stand after the change in leadership?

That depends on who wins. Let me start by saying that – at the moment, insofar as the PD is concerned – I’m the only declared candidate for the PD leadership. It’s not a done deal; an election hasn’t been called yet, other people might step forward. All the same, I think that the PD should start building its own identity as a separate party anyway. We started running before we could walk. We formed the party in October; we signed the coalition agreement six months later... within nine days, we were in an election campaign. So we didn’t really have time to build ourselves from the ground up. I think we should, as a party, take a step back, form ourselves properly... then go out for European and local council elections as a separate entity – generally, smaller parties do much better in those elections than general elections anyway – and build up our profile through those elections. But in the meantime, Marlene and Godfrey were elected on the mandate of a coalition with the PN. I think they should honour that. If the PN wishes to continue honouring it, the coalition should continue.

"Politicians, by nature, are power-hungry. Well, most of them, anyway. The whole point of national institutions is to put the brakes on them. At the moment, they're not doing that"
 

But my question was really about that coalition agreement itself. From the perspective of voters, the PD and the PN were technically the same party – they were on the same party-list on the ballot sheet. We could debate endlessly about whether those two MPs actually represent the PD or the PN, but the real issue is: were Marlene and Godfrey elected because they represented an interesting and exciting new party... or simply as part of a Nationalist strategy to win an election against Labour?

I think the best way to answer it is what people told me themselves. Even though I ran on two districts, I concentrated my efforts on the 10th: where Marlene got elected. I did quite a few house visits. Most of the people I spoke to wanted the PN to win the election... but they also wanted the third party in Parliament. They wanted those checks and balances. They admitted it themselves: the PN had not renewed itself as they had hoped... there were still all the old faces there... and their dream situation would have been: the coalition wins the election – meaning Labour would be out... but there would be one or two PD candidates within the new government, to put the brakes on it. They actually came out with that wish themselves: they told me they would give their number one vote to the PN, and number two to the PD. And that is what happened:  Marlene was not the third candidate on the PN list at the first count... she was around the seventh. She started overtaking the others on the later counts...

 

Coming to the declared objective of ‘giving power back to the people’: could you give any practical examples? Let’s take the environment, one of the PD’s pet concerns. We live in an age where all political parties claim to have ‘environmentalist’ credentials: what makes the PD any different?

Let’s start with ODZ. To us, ODZ means ODZ. It has to be enshrined in our Constitution. The only exception I think there should be is if there is a national need for some structure... for example, a new reverse-osmosis plant... and there is no other practicable place to build it. We should not give out ODZ land for private companies to make money... which is what is happening at the moment.

At present, about 60% of our land is unbuilt. At the rate it is being eaten up at the moment, in 10 years’ time it will reach inverse proportion. What we destroy today will never be given back. I know it’s a hackneyed term... but we have this country in tenancy. Our children and their children will look on us in future with a very dim eye. We will become another Singapore, or another Dubai, or another Bahrain... one great big concrete block. The irony is that Malta is doing well partly because of what we are: companies don’t come to Mata just because of the tax regime. There are plenty of other countries that offer the same tax incentives. They look for quality of life for their employees. And we are beginning to lose that. Funnily enough, the Ex-Patriate Index came out just a few days ago, and Malta dropped six places. The main drop was in quality of life. We are losing ground. If we don’t look after the environment, we will be the losers...

 

This is all well and good, but what is also expected from a political party is a set of policies to address specific environmental issues. How does the PD intend to implement its environmental vision, beyond amending the Constitution here and there?

What needs to be done is to get all the stakeholders together, take a breather, and do that thing that has been promised but never done... a National Masterplan. Let’s get down to it, and do it. Before it’s done, no major projects will be approved. That will focus minds: we can’t afford not to have any major projects, because the economy will slow down too fast. So if we actually make that a real condition – and say, ‘listen, we need to bunker down for six months; lock ourselves in a room, if necessary...  shout at each other, argue, fight, whatever...’ but we must find a workable solution whereby the environment is protected, and businesses can still flourish. Because they have to: we can’t be extremists, and oppose everything. The economy needs to grow, we all know that. But it needs to grow according to a plan. So we need to settle down, and come up with that masterplan once and for all. Only then can things move forward...