Picking up the pieces | Francis Zammit Dimech

The PN is undergoing a restructuring exercise, and is about to undergo its first electoral test under new leadership. Immersed in both challenges, veteran MP Francis Zammit Dimech talks about the ‘rejuvenation process’

raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo
18 February 2014, 12:00am
The PN is now more conscious of what it says about issues where the party has taken a stand: ‘Once a decision is taken, we must all abide by it.’
The PN is now more conscious of what it says about issues where the party has taken a stand: ‘Once a decision is taken, we must all abide by it.’


The PN is undergoing a restructuring exercise, and is about to undergo its first electoral test under new leadership. Immersed in both challenges, veteran MP Francis Zammit Dimech talks about the 'rejuvenation process'

Being in Opposition is traditionally perceived as easier than being in government. Yet the party in Opposition is currently facing tough times. Still reeling from a stinging electoral defeat last March, the PN has awoken to the fact that it faces a distinctly uphill struggle to regain political strength for the next electoral appointment, and that its own finances are far from being on a solid foundation. And mindful of its recent (considerable) internal dissension problems, it has embarked on a process to 'update' its structures to cope with these new realities.

Francis Zammit Dimech, a former contender for the leadership, was entrusted with overseeing this reform: a task which he describes as "a great honour"... even though, by his own description, it also sounds like a heck of a lot of work. It transpires that the PN's structures are little short of gargantuan: meetings were held with party councillors on a district-by-district basis; the various sectional committees and other hives of party activists; the executive council and its many branches; a youth movement; a women's movement; a workers' movement...

"And we also had meetings with people outside the party, to get a fresh perspective," Zammit Dimech adds cheerfully, reclining in a leather-bound armchair in his spacious legal office on Republic Street (right underneath a portrait of himself in exactly the same position, which creates an uncanny double-vision effect). 

All this places the former environment minister - himself one of the longest serving PN MPs, having been returned to Parliament in every election since 1987 - in an ideal position to comment on what the actual cause of the PN's evident internal disenchantment is all about. What emerged from all those meetings, anyway?

"If there is a common thread in the feedback, it is that they all insist that the party remain in closer contact with the grassroots. To listen more, and to be there for them..."

Another way of looking at it is that grassroots complaints also add up to an indictment of the former leadership - of which the present leadership appears to be a continuation. Even Zammit Dimech's own proposed revisions to the statute seem to indicate this: foremost among the proposals is a widening of the pool of voters to decide the party leadership.

The last two times the PN general council convened to elect a new leader, there were similar calls for the electoral process to be opened up to all card-holding party members, instead of the more easily-controlled 900 members of the executive council. Isn't this also an admission that the party grassroots may be dissatisfied with the past two choices of leader? And wouldn't even the demands for more consultation also be a reflection of the quality of leadership of the PN in recent years?

Zammit Dimech shakes his head. "Don't forget that the person most keen on conducting this reform [in direct reference to the extension of the leadership election base] was Simon Busuttil himself. I think the overall message emphasised a need for change. At all levels, people feel that the party structures needed to go through a process of rejuvenation. What the results of our exercise reflect is a wish to be more involved in that process... not dissatisfaction with the leadership."

To drive this point home he adds that many of the party officials also expressed support for both Busuttil and former Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi. "Many made it clear they would have made the same choice, both in the case of Gonzi and Busuttil. It was evident that they were satisfied with the choice of the party councillors on both occasions. That also includes myself."

And yet, Francis Zammit Dimech was himself a contender for the leadership in 2008. Does this mean he also approves the fact that he was rejected by the party council?

"I took no offence at that," he replies genially, reminding me that he had withdrawn from the contest before the final stages and had backed Gonzi in the final round. "I think it is obvious that the real choice was between Lawrence Gonzi and John Dalli. The feedback we got from meetings was that they [party officials at all levels] perceived Gonzi as the better choice. They are not saying they would not have chosen Gonzi... just that they would have preferred to be part of the decision-making process."

At the same time there seems to be a divergence between the stated aims of the party reform, and the modus operandi of a party that does not seem very keen to listen to different opinions. Zammit Dimech is also a candidate for the European Parliament Election next May. The first unofficial salvoes of the campaign have already been fired, and one of the effects was a media ban imposed by the Nationalist Party on one of its own candidates, Kevin Plumpton, over his public comments regarding the revised Individual Investor Programme.

In brief, Plumpton posted an online comment to the effect that the PN should support the revised scheme, even though the party was still in the process of seeking to challenge it on legal grounds. As a result he was chastised by the party and denied space on its media.

How does one reconcile this with the fact that Nationalist Party officials all agree that the party needs to listen more?

Zammit Dimech however denies that Plumpton was unduly chastised for speaking his mind. "You will appreciate what we went through before the last election" - a reference to multiple backbencher revolts that ultimately cost the government its majority in parliament - "As a result we are now more conscious of what we say about issues where the party has taken a stand... once a decision is taken, we must all abide by it."

All the same it seems rather harsh on Plumpton, whose comments were after all echoed by PN leader Busuttil himself a little later. Like the young MEP candidate, Busuttil also claimed victory over the amendments imposed by the European Commission to the IIP scheme. From this perspective it doesn't even look like Plumpton was singing from a different hymn book...

Zammit Dimech agrees that he wasn't. "If you go back to the parliamentary debate last October, you will remember that government had rejected a number of amendments put forward by the Opposition. These were all later reflected in amendments to the scheme, to bring it in line with what we had suggested all along."

But all is fair in love, war and European parliament elections, and Zammit Dimech hints that "being right", on its own, is not always enough.

"Kevin Plumpton was right that the scheme now reflects the basic demands of the PN. But the way a single sentence was taken out of context by the Labour media also shows how careful you must be when making that kind of statement. We need to be sure of what we state on any issue, not only in its totality but also in all its component parts."

So if I've understood correctly, people are still free to speak their minds in the PN. They just have to be very careful what they say...

"They have to be careful that what they say is not used against the party. But in principle, all party members are free to express their views. That includes Plumpton too. He remains a PN candidate."

But he has been blocked from the party media just before the onset of an election. Isn't that the equivalent of telling the electorate not to vote for him?

"Not at all. If that's what the party wanted to say, it would have removed him from the list of candidates. In fact there were people who wanted him out of the race altogether. But that's not what happened."

In a sense the entire episode also touches on a subject that will shortly be very topical: the European Parliament. Plumpton's comments are framed against the backdrop of a curiously anti-climactic example of the EP in action. Last month the parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of a resolution criticising Malta's sale of passports scheme. This prompted intervention by the European Commission: and the upshot was an amendment which suddenly made the same scheme not only legitimate, but also endorsed by the Commission.

You could argue, then, that the European Parliamentary resolution not only failed to halt the sale of Maltese citizenship, as planned... but facilitated it to a considerable degree. Given that we will soon be called to elect MEPs, isn't this also an illustration of how powerless and ineffective the entire institution really is?

Zammit Dimech however contests that the amendment forced by the Commission was in any way minor or cosmetic. "There are fundamental differences in our interpretations of what happened. And I don't think the EP resolution was ineffective. Had the EP vote not occurred the Commission would not have acted."

Perhaps, but the Commission's action fell far short of expectation, considering that the EP resolution also urged Malta to withdraw the scheme altogether...

"We disagree on this too. I think the amendments forced by the Commission constitute a major change... in fact they are so significant and effective that government is already to trying to dishonour its agreement with the Commission."

How so? Zammit Dimech replies by pointing towards an apparent legal inconsistency between the one-year residency condition in the IIP scheme, and the provisions of the Citizenship Act.

"In the law course we were taught that if you have subsidiary legislation, the interpretation will be subject to the definitions of the parent act. And the definition of residency, for the purposes of acquiring citizenship, is supplied in the Citizenship Act, not the legal notice enabling the passport scheme."

Since 2000 the Citizenship Act has been variously amended. But in practice, where it touches on issues such as duration of residence, Zammit Dimech explains how it interprets such duration on aggregate.

"In the past, the expected period someone would have to resident for before being eligible to citizenship worked out at around 17 years." Here he is distracted by a look of astonishment on my face... "I'm not saying it is a good system; you could certainly argue that the timeframe was excessive. The point, however, is that it was calculated on aggregate. An applicant would have to show proof that he or she had spent 17 years in total in the country, even if spread out over a longer period. It's not enough to have an address here for 17 years, if you're spending half the year or more overseas."

Yet government has not yet made clear if the one-year period stipulated by the amended passport scheme will likewise be calculated on aggregate.

"I suspect the EC's legal department will have studied Maltese citizenship legislation and would be aware of the local system. It will now expect applicants to have to spend one year in total before becoming eligible - and not one calendar year, of which they have only spent a few months actually residing here. I wonder, however, if the Muscat administration intends to implement the law according to the aggregate principle. These are the terms of the agreement with the Commission. Is government being honest and implementing the terms in full? Or will Joseph Muscat fudge this agreement as well?"

Here is where he voices his only mild criticism of the Commission's handling of the affair. "I would have preferred it if the Commission insisted on a longer period of residency. If the idea is so that applicants form a genuine link or bond with the host country, one year seems a short time. This is also why it is important to respect the aggregate principle: otherwise, one year could become even shorter..."

And like Busuttil (or for that matter, Plumpton) Zammit Dimech also interprets the EC's involvement as a vindication of the PN's earlier position. "This why we have to go back to the parliamentary debate last November. If you listen to the speeches, you will hear one after another - including my own - urging government to suspend the debate. Our position back then was: let's discuss the individual components of what might be a good initiative. I'm not saying this now, with hindsight of the EP vote. We had presented amendments to remove the secrecy clause, and to ensure that there would be a residency component to satisfy international law criteria. Myself, Simon Busuttil, Mario de Marco, Jason Azzopardi... we all said the same thing. Let's stop and reconsider the details. But government was very shortsighted, and repeatedly availed of its large majority to outvote us."

Ironically, he adds, the same majority had earlier been kept in the dark about the citizenship scheme: which it now opposes, suggesting that on this issue at least, the Muscat administration has all along been in a minority position.

And since that time, he goes on, we have made our tortuous way back to all the points the PN had originally raised in November. "I am confident we could have reached an agreement back then and avoided all that happened afterwards, if only government were willing to listen."