Praise me – when I am gone

Arrigo turned out to be an asset for the PN, for he was a simple and ordinary Nationalist from Sliema seeking to represent his constituency, who could garner thousands of votes from both his districts

The outpour of grief at the death of former Nationalist party deputy leader Robert Arrigo last week came as no surprise. Even his harshest critics and those who did not spare one opportunity to ridicule him, had words of praise. And I’m not referring to anyone from the Labour camp, but those within his party. Indeed, one of his main detractors exhorted his Facebook followers to pray for him! I can just imagine Robert’s face in his inimitable dry humour laughing it off and saying: “... with friends like this... who really needs enemies?”

I had known Robert Arrigo for years, as a journalist and political observer. He was not a close friend, but he was close enough for me to know how hurt he had been at the attitude of his own colleagues and those who, historically for reasons of their own, attempted to spurn his political aspirations.

Arrigo had always aimed to make it big in politics, influenced I guess, by his father’s failure to chart his own path in the political game.

Even as a big man of football and when Sliema mayor, the PN machine under the command of Austin Gatt as secretary-general, was inclined to underline his unsuitable to join the PN parliamentary group. Certainly, it was also pushed by district heavyweights like George Pullicino. PN leader Eddie Fenech Adami was comfortable enough with this mindset, and did little to entertain Arrigo’s ambitions. I believe the thinking behind this line of reasoning was that Robert Arrigo was a very successful businessman who could be unwelcome in the political class.

But it was true that he was in fact, a businessman of vast experience who had done well for himself, even as a self-starter, in the tourist sector.

Whatever misgivings anyone inside the PN had at the time, nothing stopped those ministers who hung up their political shoes after 2013 to dive headlong into the arms of their big business friends, for directorships, chairmanships, and top consultancies. Just ask Gatt and Pullicino.

Arrigo was not only shunned by Fenech Adami. His popularity and ambition, backed by his personal money, annoyed the party establishment under Lawrence Gonzi’s leadership as well. Despite his evident vote-winning in his districts, Gonzi never made him a minister.

Arrigo also faced the public and the press in spite of his evident speech impairment a stutter that won the hearts of his constituents and because it enhanced the ordinariness of the human being he was.

Robert’s approach to campaigning was simple and traditional – walk the walk, knock on the doors and meet people in their living rooms and listen. He did this on a daily basis. His success at the polls was down to this hard work and campaigning. Come down to their level, was his motto.

He was a people’s man but not to the ‘establishment’ in the party. I often bypassed the wishes of the party administration to invite Robert to my programme on TVM. And oftentimes I would be chided for having chosen him as a guest.

Even in 2010, when she acted as the PN establishment’s unofficial mouthpiece, Daphe Caruana Galizia fired off on Robert – “who is really irritating me now with his claims that he is some kind of asset to the Nationalist Party and would be an amazing asset to the government” – by saying he had in fact never been allowed to contest the 1996 and 1998 general elections, while allowing him to run for Sliema councillor in 1994, where he was returned as mayor right up to 2003, “when the party finally relented and allowed him to stand on the PN ticket in the 2003 general election, no doubt because of the ‘all hands on deck’ nature of that election which would decide on Malta’s EU membership.”

Of course, Arrigo was elected in 2003 and returned again in 2008. Caruana Galizia thought differently: “The Nationalist Party should get a grip on itself and deselect him in 2013. There’s nothing about him that tells me he’s in it for the good of the nation.”

But Arrigo turned out to be an asset for the PN, for he was a simple and ordinary Nationalist from Sliema seeking to represent his constituency, who could garner thousands of votes from both his districts. When he served as deputy leader he confided to me the unfairness of those who did everything to derail Adrian Delia’s leadership. In his last interview in August of this year, he could not hold his anger and frustration back anymore for being sidelined, telling his interviewer that the PN “.... caused me pain worse than cancer.”

If that was not poignant, what was?

He recounted how PN leader Bernard Grech had removed all his responsibilities as deputy leader, which included collecting finances and coordinating home visits. Indeed Arrigo used his vast network in the post-Busuttil period to drum up support with donations and contributions to the PN.

Typically, Grech could not face the music and ask Arrigo to step down and make room for someone else. So he simply made Arrigo’s life miserable. “I had practically nothing to do,” a visibly hurt Arrigo told his interviewer.

Arrigo was not going to save the Nationalist Party in the long term, but his votes kept it afloat. Arrigo’s popularity was widespread in those sectors of the community which were far from privileged and self-entitled – just normal, unpretentious folk who wanted change, but not expect a massive culture change.

Pre-budget woes

The pre-budget document presented by the Nationalist Party and scripted by the shadow minister Jerome Caruana Cilia is not only an embarrassment but a clear sign that no one is in control at Pietà. I am 100% sure that Bernard Grech did not read the document before it was turned over to the public domain.

If he did, he would have flagged the horrible spelling and idiomatic mistakes. If Grech did read the document then he should be scolded for being careless and shabby.

The economy should be in the hands of someone with the gravitas and intelligence, education and foresight to convey clear, constructed proposals and counter-proposals. And with a deep knowledge of the subject.

That, I am afraid, is a subject too big a task not just for Grech, but for young Qormi MP Jerome Caruana Cilia. Surely it would not have hurt if Mario De Marco had been retained in this role (or given the document for a quick skim-through).

It continues to reconfirm our worst fears that the PN simply does not have it.