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Looks can be deceiving | Kristy Debono

Newly-elected PN council president Kristy Debono acknowledges that the Nationalist Party is undergoing a period of internal strife. But beneath the veneer of angry dissent, she also sees an Opposition that is passing through an entirely normal process of renewal

Raphael Vassallo
19 November 2017, 8:30am
First of all, congratulations on your recent success in the PN General Council elections. These congratulations, however, come with a small proviso:  you are now the General Council president of a party that – from the outside, at least – looks like it might implode any minute. Since the September elections, new leader Adrian Delia has visibly struggled to put his stamp on the party; and his efforts appear to be consistently undermined from within. Do you agree with that assessment? And if so, how do you intend to address the issue in your new position?

Let me start by saying that ‘looks do deceive’. I acknowledge the fact that the party appears divided and confused. But when you work within it, day and night, you also realise that it is going through a very normal process, after both a general election which gave a very unwelcome result, and also an internal leadership election. Inevitably, there will be some initial division: because naturally, in any leadership election there will be opposing camps... even if they form part of the same party. In this case there were four contenders, and the election itself was very recent. There is an expression: ‘time heals’. But the reality is that in September, a new leader was elected – Adrian Delia – in two separate rounds, which he won fairly and democratically. But obviously, some will have been disappointed, either because they were working to elect a different leader, or perhaps because they don’t have faith in Adrian Delia. That’s why I agree that, from the outside, the party seems to be in disarray. But working on the inside, you see a different picture: the meetings we are having, the bridge-building that is taking place... the people who tell us, ‘At first we wanted to have nothing to do with Adrian Delia... but today, we’re following him in Parliament; we’re following the way he communicates... we’re getting to know him better.” The problem before was that people didn’t know him: except for what they followed on the social media. So many people tell us: ‘We didn’t vote for him;  but today, we’re very happy with him and backing him all the way.’ Despite all the media spin – especially the Labour media, which portray the state of the PN as the only problem that exists in the country... because it accommodates them to do so – I think the reality is different. 

That may well be, but the electorate is also receiving very mixed messages from the PN under its new leader. For instance: Delia recently came out saying that ‘Malta is not a mafia state’... and he was immediately contradicted by Jason Azzopardi  (his own MP) on Facebook. It seems like these are more than just teething problems. Isn’t it also true that Delia is facing a backbencher revolt?

There is disagreement, but no revolt. I would say that is also the beauty of politics, in any party. The PN is home to many divergent views... we don’t agree on everything, and we agree not to agree on everything.  I, for instance, do not agree that Mata is a mafia state. I am proud of my country, and of the financial services sector that was ultimately implemented by the PN. But I also believe that there are corrupt politicians, especially in the corrupt practices under the present government...

"Confusion: We are still in the embryonic stage of the new leadership. And a lot of the so-called ‘confusion’ is being amplified. The media, including the social media, focuses on the PN’s ‘internal turmoil’ through a magnifying glass"
Do you only see corrupt politicians in the Labour Party? Or would you acknowledge that an element of corruption exists also in the PN?

I don’t think that’s a fair statement...

Well, let’s start with Adrian Delia. Chris Said - his main rival in the leadership race - has just tabled a motion requesting a parliamentary investigation into allegations made by Daphne Caruana Galizia... among others, about Delia’s involvement with organised crime... 

Agreed... but you mentioned a very important word: ‘allegations’...

In the case of the offshore Jersey account held by Delia on behalf of Soho mobsters running a prostitution racket... that wasn’t an allegation. It’s a fact.

But it’s not illegal to hold offshore accounts...

Then why is the PN pointing fingers at Konrad Mizzi, Keith Schembri over the same issue? 

It’s not the same issue at all. Konrad Mizzi opened a bank account in the same week as he become a minister, and committed himself to deposit a million euros a year... when his annual salary is 50k.   In Delia’s case we are going back 20 years. The case was investigated by Scotland Yard, and they found no wrongdoing...

Not exactly. First of all, Delia’s case dates back to 2006. Secondly, the UK police only investigated the actual prostitution that was taking place in Greek Street, Soho... not necessarily the associated money laundering offences. It seems to me you see criminality only where you want to see it...

But he wasn’t a minister at the time. Are we saying that a private citizen can’t have a perfectly legal bank account?

The issue is not the legality of the account itself; it is the use to which it was put. And it is not just a question of ‘corruption’, either. The issue here is criminality. Do you think it is appropriate that the PN should be led by someone with such shady past connections? 

What I can definitely say is that, when I decided to support Adrian Delia... I had asked about him; I did my research – within limits, naturally... I am not an ‘investigator’. But I looked into the allegations. Like Scotland Yard, I found nothing wrong. So yes, I believe he is well-placed to lead the PN... especially in today’s reality. We have just incurred two large electoral defeats  - not to mention European and local council elections – and so I believe that the PN, at this time, needs a leader like Dr Adrian Delia. But it’s not just me saying this: let’s not forget that Delia contested an election, and got the majority of votes both among the party councillors and the members. I am not unique in thinking the way I do: my views reflect the democratic process the party went through last summer. But yes, I also believed in him before those elections... it’s not as though I was swept off my feet by the prevailing current. Over time, the more I followed him, the more I believed that, yes, we need Delia as leader...

The elections you mentioned are reflections of the Nationalist Party’s internal structures: the council, the card-holding members, etc. But they tell us nothing about the views of the wider Nationalist electorate. Meanwhile, there is evidence that Delia has not won over the hearts and minds of PN voters. A recent Torca survey suggests that, if an election were held tomorrow, Labour would win by over 70,000 votes. Are you concerned about this?

Regarding the Torca survey: once again, it doesn’t surprise me. You follow politics as much as I do. We all know that even one day is a long time in politics... let alone five years. We are still in the embryonic stage of the new leadership. And a lot of the so-called ‘confusion’ is being amplified. The media, including the social media, focuses on the PN’s ‘internal turmoil’ through a magnifying glass. Most of the time, this turmoil will be just a clash of ideas, which I consider to be perfectly normal... especially when we are still going through an internal election process. We are still electing the deputy leadership... and next week, there will be elections for other posts. So I can understand that there are segments of the Nationalist electorate that feel orphaned...

Nonetheless, part of your job as party president is now to address this apparent discontent.  How do you propose doing that?

It is up to me, as president of the PN council – but also up to the party as whole – to continue with the process of bridge-building. I know it’s been said before: you’re probably sick of hearing it, in fact. But we have to go down to street-level and listen to the people. I believe very much in people-based politics. I believe that is the only way. As for Adrian Delia: he is the type of person who convinces when you meet him. So I think his most important role right now is to meet as many people as he can, and talk to them. And they can ask him questions about the issues that concern them. When I said I supported Delia’s leadership bid... I didn’t follow him blindly. At the beginning I didn’t even know him. So whenever there was a media story about him, I used to confront him with it: ‘Is this true, or untrue? Convince me about this...’  

At the same time, however, Delia’s takeover of the PN didn’t follow the usual pattern. When Alfred Sant resigned as PL leader after 2008, he withdrew from the scene altogether to give Muscat space as new leader. Gonzi did the same for Busuttil in 2013. This hasn’t happened with Delia. Busuttil is still omnipresent at all the public protests in the wake of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder, for instance. The BBC even interviewed him as ‘Opposition leader’, two weeks after he resigned. Doesn’t this suggest that Delia’s leadership is still being contested in spite of his victory?

There is a big difference from the case of Alfred Sant and Joseph Muscat. Sant had practically anointed Muscat as his successor. Muscat therefore had his path laid out for him to slide easily into the leadership. To me, that’s a case of the democratic process being – not just bitten, but torn to pieces, with a party leader literally placed into his position like that...

Wasn’t it the same with Eddie Fenech Adami and Lawrence Gonzi? Or for  that matter, with Gonzi and Simon Busuttil?

I don’t think so. Gonzi had a hard-fought leadership battle at the time...

Well, Muscat had to face off against George Abela, Evarist Bartolo and Marie-Louise Coleiro...

Yes, but it was very clear that Muscat was Sant’s favourite. Meanwhile you mentioned the public protests. Simon Busuttil is one of 28 PN MPs who attended those protests; Delia decided not to, for several reasons. I think this is another game played by the media, to suggest internal dissent within the party. As for the BBC... to me, it was a lack of professionalism on the BBC’s part. It’s not Busuttil’s fault, still less Delia’s...

Perhaps, but there is a reason they made that mistake. Busuttil is still playing the part of Opposition leader. And on a separate note, there are probably thousands of traditional PN supporters who likewise do not really recognise Delia as their party’s new leader. Do you not get this impression yourself... for instance, from the cold reception Delia got at the Sliema vigil after Daphne’s murder?

That some people might not have appreciated Delia’s presence at the vigil is one thing. That there is a level of discontent at Delia as party leader, among a lot of people... that’s a fact as well. Just as, had he lost the leadership election, there would have been thousands of Nationalists equally unhappy with the result. This is completely normal. I’m not surprised at all. 

"Discontent: That there is a level of discontent at Delia as party leader, among a lot of people... that’s a fact. Just as, had he lost the leadership election, there would have been thousands of Nationalists equally unhappy with the result. This is completely normal. I’m not surprised at all"
Let’s turn to the state of the PN as a whole, with or without Delia as leader. It is a widely known fact that the PN is some 20 million euros in debt; and a breakdown of the figures shows that 6 million euros are owed in unpaid social security contributions. So isn’t the party (of which you are now council president) somewhat poorly placed to be talking about ‘good governance’ and ’the rule of law’?

I’m not sure how true that is. I’ve only been council president for a week, and I haven’t even met the rest of the party administration yet. I can’t comment on the precise facts and figures...

But you’ve been an active member of the PN for years. Don’t you have an opinion about it? Shouldn’t the PN clean up its own mess, before talking about ‘good governance’?

I’m not avoiding the question. Let me put it this way: if the PN, when in government, gave itself a property like Australia Hall as a present – like Labour did – then yes, it would be in no position to talk about ‘good governance’. But this didn’t happen. In 25 years of government, the PN could very easily have taken the easy way out...

But that’s not what I’m asking. It’s a question of the PN being technically in a state of illegality. It is illegal not to pay your employees’ NI contributions. When lesser mortals break the law, they face consequences. When political parties do the same thing, they don’t. How do you justify that, in the context of a debate about ‘rule of law’?

I cannot answer that. Whenever I ask about the party’s financial situation, I am told there is a financial plan in place, and we are implementing that plan...

But that doesn’t absolve the party of the state of illegality it is in today. Are we to understand that the ‘rule of law’ is something that applies to everyone but the PN? 

No, I disagree with you completely. I think it’s a very unfair comment. We can’t say the rule of law is not being followed, if there are agreements in place to pay off the debt. That would be to mislead your readership. But that the rule of law does not apply to the country as a whole... that’s something we can say with certainty. Everywhere you go, you hear people saying they have lost faith in the institutions... we have given up on them, because there is no rule of law... that is a state of fact. 

The Opposition is a national institution as well. Do you think there is a lot of faith in today’s Opposition?

I think there is faith in it, yes: and there is hope that the party will continue unifying itself and strengthening, so that it can offer a real alternative government for the country.