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Keeping the Opposition on the right track | Marlene Farrugia

That is how outgoing PD leader Marlene Farrugia views her role within the fragile ‘ForzaNazzjonali’ coalition. But does it tally with her actual performance as an Opposition MP?

raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo
1 October 2017, 8:00am
Dr Farrugia, in the aftermath of the election and your subsequent resignation as Partit Demokratiku leader, there seems to be some confusion regarding where you actually fit in the current political landscape. You were both founder and first leader of the PD; yet you got elected to Parliament on the Nationalist  Party ticket. You then resigned as PD leader, and reportedly expressed an interest in bidding for the PN leadership instead.  So... are you PD or PN?

Let’s start by correcting your opening statement a little... when the Partit Demokratiku was founded, I expressed a wish that the leader would be a new face. As it was still a new party, PD decided that it was in its interest to keep me on as leader. We got to the election; after the election, what happened, happened. Naturally, I did what I felt was appropriate, and which had been agreed with the party beforehand. I resigned as leader, so that after the forthcoming AGM, a new team could take over.

But insofar as the PN leadership is concerned, I never said I wanted to be leader. When I was asked, I replied that I exclude nothing at this stage. The reason is that, until the election, we were PD and PN contesting under the umbrella of ‘Forza Nazzjonali’. The result of that election automatically creates [a new reality]. In politics, you can’t exclude that a new entity might arise: which would be neither PD nor PN, nor some other party name which perhaps demands my leadership.  I have no problem stating that, wherever I fit in the political landscape, I stand for good sense and good governance. I have little time for labels and pigeonholing. I just do what needs to be done, for the common good.

Yet labels are important in politics: voters have a right to know who they’re voting for. In this case, they voted for ‘Forza Nazzjonali’ (FN). Again, however, the exact status of this coalition is now in doubt. The original agreement was negotiated with Simon Busuttil; today, there is a new PN leader – whom you have very publicly criticised and opposed. Where does that leave FN today? Does this coalition still exist?

Let’s take it even further back than FN. Why did the PD feel that, in the context of a political situation involving one very strong party government – not least, because of the power of incumbency – and an Opposition party in which there were elements who believed in clean governance (which underpins everything else)... but there were also elements which were casting the PN in an ugly light...

Can you specify these ‘elements’?

Everyone knows who they were... and some of them were removed by the electorate. But when we [PD] looked at the possibilities that existed for the country, it occurred to us that a coalition between PD and PN could be more appealing to an electorate which saw in Joseph Muscat’s Labour a government that could create employment, and administer the economy well... but which was infested by a confusion of corruption at Castile.

But on the other hand, in the alternative government offered by the Opposition, the electorate saw that there wasn’t enough credibility where good governance was concerned. We hoped that, with our new faces, and with the candidacy of people like myself and Godfrey [Farrugia] – our political record being well-known – we could perhaps have boosted the Opposition’s chances of providing a credible alternative governance. In reality, however, that didn’t happen. The people still chose Joseph Muscat. So that’s why I said that, after the election, what was ‘Forza Nazzjonali’ – the PD, the PN, and individual components of the coalition – would obviously have to reform themselves: undergo a metamorphosis, and truly become the force that the country needs...

Once this metamorphosis occurs, and the PD has a new executive committee in place... where will you stand then? Would you still consider yourself a PD member of parliament?

Yes. The people elected me on the basis of a clear electoral manifesto: based on good governance, protection of the environment, social justice, Constitutional reform, and sustainable economy. Those were the five points...

The manifesto may have been clear, but the actual agreement binding this coalition together was anything but. Muscat dubbed it a ‘coalition of confusion’... and the election result seems to vindicate that view. Did he have a point with that description of FN? 

The question I would ask is, why did Dr Muscat hold an election a year ahead of schedule? Because there was, and still is, confusion in Castille... just as there is confusion today in the PN. He [Muscat] didn’t want to give FN – which had only just formed – a chance to succeed in convincing people against a spin machine as powerful as his own. Labour’s spin machine is a lot stronger than the little ‘box’ [holding up her smartphone] that I use myself... my only channel of communication is the social media...

But your coalition partner, the PN, also has a massive spin machine consisting of television and radio stations, newspapers, etc...

Yes, and it is now clear that it wasn’t put to good use. Today, we know why, too. Because within the PN itself, there was a faction which believed in what we were preaching; but another, substantial and powerful faction that did not believe...

Going on the result of the recent PN leadership election, that second faction includes the PN’s ‘kunsilliera’ and ‘tesserati’: i.e., the only people who can claim true ownership of the PN. What you are saying, therefore, is that the PN itself did not believe its own message...

 Those constitute a very small segment of the electorate. It’s not a reflection of the electorate as a whole...

But the electorate as a whole evidently didn’t believe it either. It returned the largest ever majority for Labour...

True. But let us focus on the PN on its own. If the PN really intended to represent those voters who wanted a meaningful change – even within the parties themselves – it should have appointed an interim leader, and opened the election as wide as possible... not a situation whereby the average age of voters was around 60. It should also have made its financial situation public: it has never been published, and from what I gather, it won’t be published even under the new leadership.

Then, we would have had a leadership contest that was decent, clean and transparent: without any of the nonsense [kummiedji] that only wounded what was previously known as the ‘Nationalist Party’. Had this been done, the country would be facing a much more pleasant political situation than the one that confronts it today. Never mind if Dr Adrian Delia would have won anyway: no problem. But the way things were done, and the consequences, and the questions that everyone is still asking, only served to cut off the new leader’s legs before he even got started. Even the issue of due diligence. Why did that fall to journalists to conduct due diligence? It should have come from the party...

If Delia’s legs have been ‘cut off’, as you put it... it was by internal dissent within his own party and its allies. PD is part of the movement that is trying to put spokes into the new PN leader’s wheels... among other things, by contesting the casual election in a bid to prevent him from winning a seat. So aren’t you adding to the same situation yourself? 

What we are doing is representing our constituents, not putting spokes in Delia’s wheels. We can’t do otherwise: those who voted for us, did so for a reason. The ones who are creating obstacles for him are those MPs who refused to give up their seat for him. And by contesting [the casual election], we’re not really blocking him anyway. We all know he will still get elected. We’re doing it to make a point.

It is in fact the point you are making that I question. To quote Michael Briguglio: “It is only reasonable and in the spirit of Forza Nazzjonali to expect that Partit Demokratiku collaborates with Partit Nazzjonalista on Adrian Delia’s co-option in Parliament.” You disagreed with that statement at the time. Could you tell us why?

Michael Briguglio made that statement from his position as a full member of the PN... just to be clear where he was coming from. Now: as leader of the PD, my duty is to represent the vote of those who placed their confidence in us. Those voters after all had a choice: they could have voted for other candidates. But they chose us, because they know – from our parliamentary performance, and all the stands we took in the past – that we don’t just ‘believe’ in good governance; but we are ready to actively fight for it.

Our party was founded to promote clean governance... so when you have a new PN leader, whom we also have to accept as Opposition leader... we have a duty to say that we still stand for clean governance. Nothing has changed. You might ask: what has Delia got to with our stand? The way things were done: with no proper due diligence by the party; with all the facts which emerged, and which have not been denied; Delia’s financial situation, and many other things... all this places us in serious doubt as to how Dr Adrian Delia can be the person to push forward the battle-cry of good governance. That is the agenda our party was founded to promote: and which, given a chance, it will put into practice. That is why we took the position we took.

At the same time, however, PD was less scrupulous when it came to forging the original coalition agreement with the PN. By your argument, one would think the PN was clean as a whistle...

Not at all...

In fact, there were (and still are) many question marks surrounding the PN’s record concerning good governance. It seems to me you only develop such scruples when it comes to a PN led by Adrian Delia...

No, I had exactly the same scruples in both cases. There were many issues that concerned us about the PN: and we came out forcefully against all of them. When I started shouting about ITS in parliament, for instance. Bear in mind it’s been several years since I was at the core of the PN. But if it wasn’t for all the dirt within that party – not just ITS, there were many other issues – the PN would have come out much earlier and much stronger on the good governance issue. Today, it is clear that there was a lot holding Simon Busuttil back. Our hope, when forming the coalition, was that voters would have more candidates to choose from, and could therefore choose the best candidates to promote the agenda of good governance. At the end of the day, however, the people chose the lesser of two evils...

That also means the electorate considered FN the greater of two evils...

No: if FN won the election, it would have swept the place clean. If more people like me were elected, we would have cleaned up the mess. But the people didn’t have confidence that we could get this done, for reasons I’ve already explained. On the one hand, the PN media were hopelessly weak. Hopelessly. It is clear that there were undercurrents, within the PN itself, that almost didn’t want FN to win. And we were up against an extremely professional, well-oiled media machine wielded by Labour, with all Joseph Muscat’s power of incumbency.

So Labour won only because of spin and propaganda?

No, there was more to it than that. Labour implemented certain measures that improved the living conditions of people. Even if these were short-term measures, those who benefit will say, ‘Yes, today I have more money in my pocket. Today, I have a job. Yesterday, I didn’t have one.’ So, if the Opposition still had all the question marks hovering over it... who can blame the people for voting the way they did?

The current situation within the PN may also have repercussions for the democratic process as a whole. There are now doubts as to whether the party can even survive as a single entity. Wouldn’t this have dire consequences for the role of the Opposition... and if so, wouldn’t you (as part of the Opposition) also have a responsibility towards ensuring that democracy is not weakened?

Our responsibility, as PD, is to help the PN – because Delia is a Nationalist, but the Nationalist Party is not Delia – to stay on the path that the country needs, as an Opposition party: so that, for instance, we don’t start choosing which issues to oppose, and which to ignore. I can assure you the PD will be doing its duty. And let me reiterate: it is not PD that is keeping Delia from entering Parliament, but his own colleagues who don’t want him as leader. Even they are unconvinced that Delia can be the Opposition leader the country needs to fight against a government that is drowning in intrigue, such as Muscat’s Labour government.    

 

Seeing as, however, you have not excluded the possibility of a future PN leadership bid... some might interpret your opposition to Delia today as a ruse to force a future vacancy in the leadership, in order to contest for it yourself.

Absolutely not. So much so, I can assure you from now that in the next five years, I will not contest any election that might undermine the PN...  so as to make sure nobody gets that impression.

So if, for argument’s sake, there is another leadership election in the next five years – as some voices within the PN are already anticipating – you will not contest?

I was talking about elections in general – e.g., European elections – where the result might undermine the work of Delia and his colleagues.

My question was not about that kind of election. Would you contest for the PN leadership, if the opportunity arises between now and the next general election?

I can’t answer that right now. At the moment, I am the outgoing leader of the Partit Demokratiku. My biggest ambition, and I hope I can fulfil it, is to put up serious opposition to Joseph Muscat’s government in parliament: an opposition that is critical and constructive, but also sincere.