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Don’t blame it all on Delia... | Clyde Puli

Newly-elected PN secretary general CLYDE PULI admits that his party faces an uphill struggle to heal its internal wounds. But he argues it is unfair to saddle the new leadership with all the blame over a situation which has been years in the makin

raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo
3 December 2017, 8:30am
You have been elected secretary general of the Nationalist Party, after submitting your nomination literally five minutes before the nominations closed... and also after MEP David Casa had withdrawn on the presumption that he would actually be running against Pierre Portelli. Was this an elaborate ruse to eliminate Casa (known to be unsympathetic towards PN leader Delia), and thus consolidate the new leadership’s control?

Not really, no. It is no secret that both Pierre Portelli and myself were close to Adrian Delia in his leadership campaign. So when there was the handover of the party [to the new leadership], and we started looking at what positions would be filled by whom... we departed from the idea that I would be focusing on the party media – in fact, I had already started taking look at the content, and so on – and that Pierre would be secretary general. Pierre and I go back a very long way: we were at university together, and there is a certain chemistry between us. But we soon realised that while we both had experience in politics and media, the truth was that Pierre had more experience than me in the media - he managed a media house, and therefore understands even the financial aspects better... while also having worked in newspapers, TV and radio – while I had more experience in politics. We realised it would make more sense the other way round...

Perhaps, but the last-minute programme change had an effect on the race itself. David Casa might not have pulled out otherwise...

That’s a question to ask David Casa. But if you want my interpretation: the relations between us [Casa and I] are so good that... let me put it this way, we’re friends, and have been close for a long time. It has nothing to do with this election. So I don’t think he would have had a problem with me... if anything, the problem would have been to run against me, as a friend...

But it seems that you were the one who had a problem running against him. In fact, you ended up uncontested for the post...

Nobody stopped other candidates from contesting... neither Casa, nor anyone else. But even so, the post of secretary general has traditionally always been uncontested in the PN. The secretary general has always been very close to the leader: there has to be a chemistry between the two roles. Why? Because the secretary general is the administrative, organisational, political, financial and commercial arm of the party. Everything has to pass through his hands. So it is useless for the leader to have a lot of aspirations, if his secretary general is pulling him in a different direction. You have to see it also in this context...

 

The difference here is that past PN leaders enjoyed broad support, not just of the secretary general, but also across the entire party. Delia does not enjoy total support at all... in fact, six of his own backbenchers have just voted against his motion in Parliament.  There have even been reports of individual MPs coming to blows behind the scenes...

That is absolutely not the case. First of all, in any group – of any kind; it could be a family – there is an art of compromise, and an element of conflict. It’s a question of conflict and compromise: a clash of ideas, from which something different always emerges. Ideally, something that is also better. Obviously, this also exists in the Nationalist parliamentary group. Not just today, and not because there is Adrian Delia. It has existed for years. One of the biggest challenges facing the PN, which I also mentioned in my first speech in the campaign, is the existential challenge. What is the PN? Who does it represent? What are its values? After what is known in theory as ‘the end of history’ – to quote Francis Fukuyama – the PN also found itself facing the challenge posed by the end of ideology. When we, as a party, introduced all the things that we ideologically believed in over the years: facing a number of challenges, culminating in the biggest one of all – EU membership, so that our European identity would be sealed - we were left in a situation where the biggest challenge was actually the lack of any big challenges. In a sense, former leaders like Eddie Fenech Adami and Lawrence Gonzi had the ‘luxury’ of big overriding issues. From Simon Busuttil onwards, that luxury is no more...

"Challenge: When we, as a party, introduced all the things that we ideologically believed in over the years [...] we were left in a situation where the biggest challenge was actually the lack of any big challenges"
What if the PN’s fortunes had nothing to do with those ‘big, ideological battles’ at all... but was simply down to issues of leadership? That Eddie’s successors have, to date, all lacked his unifying qualities, and therefore cannot stop the party from fragmenting...?

You and I are too young to remember Eddie at the start of his career. When you speak to people who served under him at the time, they tell you that the first two years as leader were turbulent for Eddie Fenech Adami, too. Because the ‘Eddie Fenech Adami’ you and I remember was at the very apex of his career: we can’t even imagine him any other way. So every other leader gets compared to Eddie...  but you also have to see how he started out. Eddie had his challenges. For example, his first secretary general had won the election by only one vote in the executive: if I’m not mistaken, against Josie Muscat. So if you think it was easy for Eddie, it wasn’t. The unity came later. The myth of Eddie Fenech Adami came later, too.

 

Another way of looking at it is that the PN is now paying the price for its over-reliance on the ‘myth of Eddie Fenech Adami’ for so many years: without that myth to hold it together, it is simply falling apart at the seams...

No, I wouldn’t agree. I think that, now that people are assured that everything the PN once fought for – starting with a choice on the [supermarket] shelves, all the way to EU accession – has been safely introduced to the country, and there is no longer any overriding issue... the PN today has to find niche issues that it can address. There has been a fragmentation of society: there is no longer ‘one Malta’, so you now have to reach out to different ‘Maltas’. To give an example concerning one of the challenges we faced at the last election: while ‘good governance’ is an extremely important issue for the country... on its own, it was not enough to make the break the PN needed. Because it spoke mainly to what we usually refer to as the ‘professional middle class’...

... traditionally, the stronghold of the Nationalist Party...

Agreed. But their support alone is not enough to win an election. That’s why the PN is a popular party, because it represents an entire mosaic of different people. But not all parts of this mosaic may have felt represented by this concern...

On the subject of ‘good governance’... don’t you think the PN also exaggerated that message somewhat? A lot of people (and this emerged from surveys, and even from the election result itself) clearly did not share the view that Malta had become ‘intolerable’ over governance issues. Perhaps they saw that businesses were doing well... that even if there was corruption, it wasn’t affecting the economy or their own pocket (unlike their experience under the Nationalist administration, perhaps, when corruption in oil procurement translated into higher utility bills). How do you respond to that argument?

On the subject of utility bills, a big story has only just come out about the power station that was supposed to have lowered those prices, but didn’t lower them at all. It is now clear that they became cheaper thanks to the initiatives of the PN: the interconnector, increased efficiency at the BWSC plant…

OK, but it doesn’t answer the question...

Granted, but what I meant was... there WAS bad governance at the time. But you could be right about the public perception in general. Even surveys done before the election showed that there was a shift towards the PN, which may have been attributable to governance issues... but then, others who voted for us in 2013, ended up voting Labour in 2017.

Why do think that happened?

Because we didn’t address other issues.  We gave that one issue (good governance) absolute importance, on its own... and perhaps we ignored other issues that... well, ironically, we had a very good electoral programme on those issues, too. But for the people at the bottom of the ladder, who are on the brink of poverty... good governance is important, yes, but only up to a point. The cost of renting their own home is always going to be more important than corruption taking place under this or that minister. And let’s face it, it stands to reason...

Couldn’t it also be that a large majority simply didn’t trust the PN on good governance issues either...  and, in fact, trusted it less than Labour? Meanwhile, there are ‘governance’ issues (in the broader sense) connected with the PN’s new leader, Adrian Delia:  for instance, his offshore Jersey account, which contained money traceable to a prostitution racket in Soho. Doesn’t this dent the PN’s credentials even further on governance matters today?

I don’t think the people did not choose the PN because of governance issues. On the contrary, as I already explained, those who wanted ‘good governance’ did vote for the PN. The others didn’t. Businessmen who said: ‘What is this ‘good governance’ all about, anyway? Stricter regulations? That I can’t put out tables and chairs for my restaurant? Or an umbrella...?’ Those are the people who left the party... [...] On the subject of Adrian Delia. First of all, what we are talking about here are simply allegations: no proof at all. Just big stories...

 

One could say the same about Joseph Muscat and Egrant. But in any case, they were not all ‘allegations’. The Jersey account, and the money deposited into it, were facts...

What were ‘allegations’ were the interpretations of those things. For instance, to say that somebody made money out of prostitution is, to me, a huge exaggeration... if I’m a lawyer representing a client, who bought a property, who rented it out to somebody else, who then illegally sub-letted it to someone else, who then used it for prostitution... and all I am is the owner’s lawyer...

So how did money from that racket – which constitutes the illegal earnings from prostitution - end up in Delia’s account to begin with?

It’s a lawyer’s account, servicing a client. Now, if you tell me it’s bad because it’s in Jersey...

I never said that. It’s ‘bad’ because it seems to have been used to launder dirty money...

... and that Jersey, 20 years ago, was according to some not a serious jurisdiction... well, Malta wasn’t a serious jurisdiction 20 years ago, either.  Meanwhile the contract clearly states that if whoever rents the property, either sub-lets it illegally, or uses it for immoral purposes, the property will be requisitioned. And that is what happened. To use the prostitution argument in that sense, is also to argue that, if a grocer uses his grocery to launder money from drug trafficking... and he pays his taxes... then any public official on the public pay-roll – be it a minister a civil servant, whatever – would be paid out of drug money. This is an argument that makes no sense at all...

"Money laundering: To use the prostitution argument in that sense, is also to argue that, if a grocer uses his grocery to launder money from drug trafficking... and he pays his taxes... then any public official on the public pay-roll [...] would be paid out of drug money"
With all due respect, I would say your comparison makes no sense...

... but what we always say - and Delia has always been very clear on this – is that anyone who has anything factual, let him step forward. By all means. But with facts, not allegations...

It seems to be a fact that PN’s support base has crumbled since Delia took over as leader last September. Recent surveys suggest that, if an election were held tomorrow, Muscat would win by around 71,000 votes. Do you see no connection between this apparent nosedive in PN support, and the cloud of ‘allegations’ hanging over its leader’s head?

I appreciate your interpretation... but that’s all it is. An interpretation. If I buy a car from you, drive it home, and it breaks down... is it my fault? I bought the car from you...

So you’re suggesting that the current meltdown is due to the previous ‘owner’ of the PN?

I’m not pointing fingers. What I’m saying is that there are circumstances which have been hyped up. Of course there are. The fact remains that in 2013, we lost by a wide margin. It is also a fact that in 2017, we lost by an even wider margin. From the Opposition side this time, not government. It makes a difference: the former defeat came after 25 years in government. Then we lost from the Opposition side. It is also a fact that many people – at least, in the ‘choir’ – had a strong impression that we were heading towards a victory the second time round. So I feel it is entirely natural, when that didn’t materialise, for there to be a huge sense of disillusionment. So to come back to that survey: first of all, let’s not simply assume it’s correct. In reality, it’s too early to say. Even if we accept it as true, however... I don’t think it’s a fair interpretation to pin the blame only on Delia becoming leader. Sorry, but no: that is the situation the incoming leader found himself facing. That’s the challenge that is now his to overcome. Next up, I suppose you’re going to ask me about the PN’s financial situation. Is Delia responsible for that, too?

No. Interestingly enough, however... you are, in your new role as secretary general of the PN...

Yes, it all falls on my shoulder now. What I can say is that there are challenges, certainly, and they need to be addressed in a professional way. But the situation is not really how it is being depicted in the press. I’m not trying to minimise the issue; if these problems are not addressed, then yes, we really will be facing a crisis. But we are addressing them. We have brought in a group of professionals to assist us, especially when it comes to making better use of our properties. Because while it is true that we are ‘cash-poor’, we are also ‘asset rich’. The value of the properties we own is far greater than what we owe. We’re not a bankrupt party, if that’s what you’re asking.