‘Don’t write anyone off so easily’ | Simon Busuttil

Opposition leader Simon Busuttil defends his record at the helm of the Nationalist Party, in the face of scepticism and inauspicious signals from surveys and polls

raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo
25 January 2015, 10:30am
Last updated on 26 January 2015, 8:53am
Opposition leader Simon Busuttil interviewed
If any party leader has ever had a baptism of fire, that must surely be Simon Busuttil. In June 2013, the former MEP inherited a Nationalist Party still reeling from its worst-ever electoral drubbing. It later transpired that the PN was also riddled by debts rumoured to run into millions of euros.

Turning things around was never going to be easy, especially when you consider that Busuttil himself – rightly or wrongly – is perceived as a continuation of the preceding administration: he was both deputy PN leader during the election campaign, and also author of the PN’s manifesto.

Today, two years after his ascension as party leader, our latest survey indicates that – in the broader picture – the PN has yet to regain any substantial ground since its colossal defeat in March 2013. So my first question for Dr Busuttil when we meet at the PN headquarters in Pieta’ is: how does he account for the survey results? Why has the electorate not (apparently) responded to the change of leadership since then? 

“If I had to be led by surveys, including negative surveys, then I would not be here in the first place. My starting point is known: it was the most difficult starting point for any leader of the Nationalist Party – or for any party in this country – post-independence. So I do not allow myself to be led or influenced by surveys. I am here to do a job, and that job is to rebuild and regenerate the Nationalist Party and turn it into a credible and viable alternative to government. Anything in the way, including obstacles such as negative surveys are not going to influence me: I will not allow myself to be derailed from this overriding objective.”

Yet the objective, in his own words, is the regeneration of the PN. The survey suggests that the party is not being regenerated enough to improve its standing with the electorate. How does he interpret that?

“I think this is perfectly normal. In any electoral cycle one would expect that the people would give all the benefit of the doubt to the incumbent government… especially one that has been put into office after so many years, like the Labour one. It is also to be expected that the people would give less attention to the Opposition: because it has been put in Opposition. I think – and this is a pattern one can see also in other countries – that it will take time for us to turn the corner. But if you look […] closer at the survey results, you will start seeing things which are changing. For instance: from a high of almost 60% in terms of popularity, Joseph Muscat has gone down by 16 points to 44%. I would say that is significant, in just under two years. As to me, I started from 25% and I have slowly but steadily increased to 29%. So things are moving. But as I said initially, I will not allow surveys to influence me or get me to give up.”

At the same time there has been criticism that his own close association with the previous administration may have something to do with this. Busuttil was the public face of an electoral campaign that went on to lose. Couldn’t this also be reflected in the PN’s current ratings?

“Using your argument and taking it to its logical conclusion… by the same token, I should think that Joseph Muscat was much more closely associated with Alfred Sant’s anti-EU bandwagon, which was soundly defeated 10 years ago. And yet he came back and made the biggest electoral victory in our post-independence history. So I wouldn’t write anyone off so easily. As to me, I’m much newer in the national parliament than Muscat. I have been an MP for less than two years. And of course I was associated with the previous Nationalist party under Lawrence Gonzi: I was an MEP for nine years. I was part of this party, and am proud of it. But being written off for having been the deputy leader of this party during the electoral campaign, and putting it as if I was to blame for the defeat… I think that is taking things a little too far […] If you wish to conclude that the defeat was attributable to me, that’s your conclusion to make.”

I didn’t say Busuttil was responsible for all the factors that led to the defeat; but that, as the campaign leader for the PN, he had already been rejected by the electorate when he was made party leader…

“In the same manner as Joseph Muscat was rejected in the 2003 EU referendum and the 2004 election. In the same manner. And yet he came back to grab the largest electoral victory for Labour…”

Yet his own answer seems to pinpoint the difference between the two scenarios. Muscat was associated with Sant’s anti-EU platform in 2004, but he did not present the same platform in 2013.

“I’m sorry?”

The Labour Party has changed its policy on the EU…

“Has it?”

As far as I can see, yes. It’s not advocating ‘partnership’ any more. It’s not proposing pulling out of the EU…

“Has [Muscat] ever said he was wrong about EU membership?”

I’m not interviewing Joseph Muscat…

“No you’re interviewing me, and I can reply. He has never done so [...] In fact he hasn’t changed his policy, either. He merely accepted reality…”

Perhaps, but the result was still a different policy. And this seems to be the clean opposite of what is happening within the PN right now. In the past 18 months, there have been no discernible policy changes – this is an opinion, of course, to which he is invited to react –from the ones presented by Gonzi before the last election.

A couple of examples: in Busuttil’s speech at the recent convention of ideas, when talking about the government’s current energy plans, he said: “Mela kellna ragun ahna” (So we were right). Another example is hunting. Busuttil has just come out with his position on the referendum: it is indistinguishable from both Gonzi’s and Fenech Adami’s policy, which was in favour of a spring derogation. Most ironic of all, it is indistinguishable from the Labour government’s, too. So in what ways has Busuttil changed the PN’s policies?

“First of all you are not correct. Our position on hunting is different from how you put it.”

How so?

“The party has said very clearly that it would give full freedom to the people to vote without being influenced by a position in favour or against by the Nationalist Party.”

But freedom to vote is not the PN’s to give. It is a right enjoyed by the electorate anyway.

“Without being influenced, however. The position of our party is to allow people to vote without being unduly influenced by the party itself. We could have taken a position for or against the spring hunting referendum; instead, we didn’t. We chose to allow the people full freedom to vote in the manner they wished.”

But his own position is to vote ‘Yes’. Won’t that influence voters?

“As to my position, I explained why I will vote in favour of the derogation: because I was myself involved in the negotiating team that obtained it. What you have here is a change of position from Joseph Muscat, if anything; because after he spent years telling hunters that no derogation was achieved, he is now making a full U-turn and voting in favour of this derogation that WE [heavy emphasis] negotiated. And that we defended in the European Court of Justice. So I stress: my position is based on my personal experience on this derogation. I took it because consistency dictates that I stick to the word that I gave to the people, including hunters.”

But doesn’t this also mean that Busuttil is constrained by his past involvement, which has limited his options as to what position he can take? And doesn’t this also suggest that, for the same reason, perhaps a person who was so closely associated with those policies shouldn’t be leading the PN today?

“By the same token, Joseph Muscat shouldn’t be leading Labour either.”

Perhaps he shouldn’t. But I’m asking Simon Busuttil…

“And I gave you my reply.”

[Pause]

OK, let’s turn to the energy sector. Does he still think the PN government was right with its energy proposals, and that – by the same token – the electorate was wrong to vote against them? 

“The electorate is always right. Let’s get that out of the way. This is absolutely clear, and I bow my head to the decision of the electorate, whatever it is, whenever it is. I hope that is clear. As to the energy policy, we now see a completely different policy from that which the Labour government had promised to the electorate. And when compared to the policy that we were offering in our manifesto, I am claiming that our policy was clearer and more achievable.

“So people were conned into voting for Joseph Muscat. What we have today is people receiving lower electricity bills, but paying higher petrol and diesel prices than they should be paying. The Maltese people are not getting any advantage whatsoever for the drastically reduced prices that there are all over Europe in petrol and diesel. So when you look at this energy issue very closely you will see that we were very honest about our policy – warts and all: it was not perfect; the transition to gas, for instance, could have been achieved faster – but it was certainly more honest than the policy presented by Muscat.

“Today, we are seeing Muscat performing things that he did not promise, and breaking promises that he made. I wish to also add one bit on the broader policy issues […]. What I did, as part of the process of regeneration, is set up 10 policy fora. And I asked these policy fora, not just to come up with new ideas, but to give me paradigm shifts in terms of policy-making in the respective areas that they are looking into.

“So yes, I will come back on this in due course, when the policy fora would have performed their duty, [and] reported back to me. What I want from them are the best ideas that, as the Nationalist Party, we will put forward to the country in the years to come.”

I’m noticing, however, that Busuttil consistently talks in the future tense: about what he will do, rather than what he is doing. Likewise, when effecting a shadow cabinet reshuffle last month, he said this was ‘only the start’. Yet the actual start was 18 months ago, when he became leader. Some might say the start was late in coming. What has Dr Busuttil done since June 2013, and is doing now, to reverse the tide of the PN’s fortunes?

“I’m rebuilding the party. The party needs to be rebuilt organisationally, by changing the statute of the party to ensure a thorough re-organisation. The party is being re-organised from a financial point of view. I found it in financial difficulties, and I’m dealing with that; I’m also restructuring the media of the party. I think that these three tasks, which I’ve already handled in the past [two] years, are not insignificant. Because in your question you seem to be implying that I’ve been sitting pretty for two years doing nothing, because I’m talking about the future. Of course I talk about what I still need to do; but it’s not to say that I have one nothing. We can talk for hours about what I’ve done on these three issues – organisation, media and finances – and over there, we have had results.”

What is the current financial state of the PN?

“Currently, the PN and its commercial operations are financially sustainable. That has not fallen out of the sky: it has been achieved over the past two years, through sheer hard work. I have now turned my attention to the past debts that I have inherited, in order to restructure them. What I’m doing at the moment is preparing a plan to restructure the debt and settle it over the years. On finance, a great deal of work – that is not, admittedly, visible from outside –has been done.”

This raises another issue. Part of the reason this work is not visible is because the PN has not published its accounts. Yet Dr Busuttil talks endlessly about transparency and accountability: he accuses – possibly quite rightly – the government of not being accountable… isn’t there a contradiction here?

“Not at all. First of all, the law on party financing is still not in place. As soon as that law is in place we will follow it to the letter. Secondly: until that law is in place, I will do what is necessary to put my party’s finances back on track. And I will do it with full transparency. But I will be transparent when I have overcome the entire situation. When I’ve ended that situation, I will spell out what the situation was, and how I have tackled it.”

Does this means that a commitment to transparency and accountability exists just because of the law? Isn’t there a principle at stake here?

“No, it’s not just about the law. It’s about doing things well. Which is exactly what I’ve been trying to do. But I’m not going to be transparent just for the sake of being transparent, then prejudicing the commercial operations of my party…”

But there is also a question of national trust: it is difficult for the electorate to trust a political party, when there is so much secrecy involved in such issues…

“It is very easy to be cynical about these things. It’s much harder to address them. What I’m doing is addressing them.”

So we have to take his word for that?

“For the time being, yes. When I have the solution in hand, I will get back to you on that.”

In the meantime, to turn to another issue: very recently, Busuttil went on record describing the latest revelations in the ongoing oil procurement probe as a “smokescreen” to deflect attention from the petrol and diesel prices. Does he stand by that remark? And doesn’t this seem to minimise the issue of corruption?

“That is entirely your conclusion…”

Yet it was Busuttil who used the word ‘smokescreen’…

“What is your question?”

Is he minimising the corruption scandal because it casts the PN in a bad light?

“Not at all.”

So how does he explain that comment? Because at the time this was happening…

“Can you please ask the question, and I will answer you? This is not a conversation, this is an interview.”

Yes, and some questions need time to elaborate. He seems to be very impatient…

“No, I’m asking you for a question…”

The question is this: people were paying more than they needed for water and electricity under the previous government, to cover up for corruption which Dr Busuttil now seems to be minimising. How does he respond to that?

“My answer is, I am not minimising anything at all. What I said is this. People are interested mostly in the high petrol and diesel that they are paying for today. More than things that happened in the past. That is what I said. As to what happened in the past, let me remind you that the only people who were arraigned after this oil procurement scandal, were arraigned in February 2013, under a PN administration.

“No other person has been arraigned on this case under a Labour government for two whole years. Not only, but recently we learnt, through inspector Angelo Gafa’, that the brothers of George Farrugia had to be arraigned as well, but were for some reason not arraigned under this Labour government. And guess what? Their lawyer was the former minister, Manuel Mallia.

“Now you tell me who is in denial on corruption. Let me make it clear to you that I have zero tolerance for corruption. I had, I have and I will continue to have. On the other hand, our current prime minister has 100% tolerance for corruption, because he pays lip service to the fight against corruption; but when the first case came to him – and here I refer to the tendering of Smart meters – what did he do? He gave an amnesty to people who bribed Enemalta officials after having tampered with their meters. So my position is very clear. Of course I am not in denial about corruption. Of course I will not disregard what happened: on the contrary, I think that justice should run its course, and all the people involved who deserve to be arraigned, should be arraigned. That is exactly what we did when we were in government. We did not try to cover anything up.”