‘The first day of the PN’s future’ | Francis Zammit Dimech

Undeterred by questions surrounding his age, PN veteran (and new interim secretary-general) FRANCIS ZAMMIT DIMECH admits he has a gargantuan task ahead… but insists he is not one to give up easily

Francis Zammit Dimech
Francis Zammit Dimech

Reacting to your appointment, the former PN government aide and activist Manuel Delia blogged: ‘You’re my father’s age. And I’m too old for the job you’ve just taken on.’ How do you respond to that: ageism, or does he have a point?

I get the feeling, in general – this does not apply to all people – that here in Malta, we tend to have too much of a bias against age. I look at politicians in the rest of Europe, and outside of Europe, and I see quite a few of them who are older than myself…

Well, Bernie Sanders is almost old enough to be your father, too…

[Laughs] But in any case, Manuel Delia said that I could be his father’s age. I don’t know if that’s a compliment or not; but what I can tell you is that I called him, and thanked him for his article…

All the same, people might interpret your appointment as evidence that the PN still cannot reach out to a new generation of voters. Isn’t there some truth to this?

No, I disagree that we have that problem. We are in touch with young people on a daily basis; we have MZPN which is the party’s youth movement; as well as ‘Team Start’, which is made up of people of an even younger age. Both branches of the party are very active... though we do need to reach out more. One of my tasks – and I said this from the very beginning – is, in fact, to reach out to more young people…

But that’s precisely the point of the criticism: how well-positioned are you to do that?

[Shrugs] To be perfectly honest, I still feel young… younger than ever, in fact! My CV within the party also includes having been president of the Nationalist Party Youth Movement; before that, I was President of the University students’ union, and set up a youth organisation of my own. When you’re that involved in student or youth organisations, I think that you tend to remain focused on young people all the rest of your life.

Fair enough. Let’s turn to the actual situation in the PN, which is split between rival groupings: the so-called ‘17 Blue Heroes’, against the faction loyal to PN leader Adrian Delia. It is now your job is somehow reconcile these differences. Do you genuinely feel this is possible?

I do believe it is possible, yes. After all, it is normal to have differences of opinion in a parliamentary group; though I admit that the differences, at this stage, are stronger than they should be. But part of my remit is to get these people together, and ensure that they work as one team. At the end of the day, issues can be resolved by working together…

Meanwhile, Adrian Delia has described his detractors as the same ‘clique’ which had previously ‘hijacked’ the party. Isn’t it a case, then, that both sides are claiming ownership over the PN?

In my opinion, the party belongs to all people who are willing to work within it; and who share the same vision and values; and I don’t see any fundamental differences there…. I have heard of people being described as belonging to different groups: but both speaking out very loudly for justice; both and speaking out very loudly about the need for truth, and against corruption…

But they are accusing Delia himself of corruption and money-laundering…

Adrian Delia has repeatedly called on people making such allegations to come forward, and if they wish to probe further, he is available for further scrutiny…

How tenable is Delia’s position, though? Do you think he should resign?

I think we have a party that has made up its own structures; these structures are very clear, in my opinion. They include what the membership of the party should decide upon; they also include the General Council: where Adrian Delia has been confirmed [as leader] twice over.

So at the end of the day, we need to work within what the party structures, and party statute, provides for us.

Turning to the PN’s debt: the party disputes the figure of €34 million; but admits that it ‘runs into millions’. Why does the PN not publish all its accounts – including those of its commercial enterprises – to establish how much it owes, and to whom?

The Nationalist Party submits regular accounts to the Electoral Commission; these accounts can be viewed online…

That doesn’t include commercial entities…

Well, the commercial entities do their own filing, in terms of the legal provisions regulating companies…

But don’t you think this information should be made public, in the interest of transparency and accountability? Otherwise, it creates a risk that the PN could be blackmailed, by the threat of a creditor calling in his debts…

That risk does not exist, I can assure you. I contest that we owe money to commercial entities, which are in any way subjecting the party to any form of control over the contents of our message, or about how we do politics… I completely contest that.

But ultimately, debt is not only a question of how much one owes; but also of the value of one’s assets and liabilities. And as long as the value of your assets is superior to that of your liabilities, then you are in a financially stable situation.

Nonetheless, debt does affect the PN’s ability to rebuild itself. As things stand, we have a very strong Labour Party in government; and the PN on the brink of fragmentation. Doesn’t this mean that the future of Parliamentary democracy (as we know it) is also at stake?

I agree that this is a serious situation, and that we owe it to ourselves – but, much more than that, we have a duty towards the country as a whole – to ensure that the party moves forward. For that, the first key ingredient is to promote further unity.

I have always deemed my role to be that of someone who can somehow build all the necessary bridges, between different personalities, different talents, different ideas…

Do you think it’s possible to build a bridge between Adrian Delia and, say, Jason Azzopardi?

Actually, Adrian Delia and Jason Azzopardi do work together on a number of issues. We have to make sure that they work on further issues together; and that they, like all the others, feel an equal sense of belonging to the party.

That brings us back to Delia’s claim that a ‘clique’ is attempting to hijack the party. Do you agree that there is an ongoing coup against Adrian Delia?

I don’t think that any ‘clique’ has taken over the party at any stage of the situation. I think the party belongs to all of us, and we should not put any label on any part of the party or other. As far as I know, Adrian Delia puts far more emphasis on the need to work together; and on being open himself to all people working alongside him as leader. That is the emphasis I would place, with regard to Adrian Delia.

Realistically speaking, though: what chance does he have of reuniting the PN?

Well, we need to sit down and work together. [Pause] I never give up. I like to see difficulties as challenges, and challenges as opportunities. The only reality we can talk about today, is that this is the first day of the future of the Nationalist Party. We have 140 years of history to be very proud of: let’s build on that. Let’s move forward. Let’s regenerate. Let’s really carry out our reform process…

On that point: Adrian Delia has been PN leader for almost three years now, and this reform has still not begun. Why is it taking so long?

It’s not as though they haven’t been any changes since the leadership election. But the reform process I am talking about now – and by that, I mean the report that Louis Galea was asked to conduct for the party, by Adrian Delia – was triggered after the MEP elections last July. And it is a process that is now approaching its tail-end…

But we haven’t seen any changes so far. The vacant administrative posts were supposed to be filled last November, but the election was postponed to March. Is the PN just postponing all its difficult decisions?

We’re not ‘postponing’. The reform process has already been discussed within the parliamentary group. On Saturday [yesterday] the executive committee will be meeting to discuss the reform process, with a very thorough presentation by Louis Galea. The moment there is agreement on that – and I do not envisage particular difficulties – we will present the recommended reforms to our consultative assemblies: which are what you might call sub-groups of the General Council. Over the coming weeks, the General Council should adopt the reforms that are being recommended.

Will these reforms will be enough to resolve the PN’s current predicament?

The reforms will certainly help, but they can never be seen as a paper exercise. Obviously, success will depend on positive implementation; and on their being taken up, on a collective basis, by each and every one of us.

When announcing his resignation, an embittered former deputy leader Robert Arrigo commented that the PN has been ‘taken over by hatred’. Do you agree with that assessment?

When there are disagreements – and you can apply this even to people who are very close friends – sometimes, you get an element of animosity. But that does not mean we cannot overcome it; and as I always state, the way to overcome it is to work together, to make sure that there is a sense of belonging for each and every one of us. What I would like to see happening, in this regard, is that we move from what I call a ‘blame-game’, to a ‘merit-game’. If there is a problem, I don’t want to hear whether it’s the fault of this or that person. It’s about time we start asking ourselves the question, whose merit is it? Who is doing more to solve the prob

The moment we focus on that, I don’t think there will be more animosity of any nature. If anything, I think there will be healthy competition, so that we really get positive results together.

It’s a fine pep-talk, but some might also call it ‘being in denial’. Do you really believe those words yourself?

Yes, I do. I am not in any state of denial; had I been in denial, I would not have come forward to offer all my experience, and all the help I can give, to address these situations. Mine is not a state of denial: I am a realist. But, being a realist, I also know that we have to resolve these issues to move forward.

It would be a ‘state of denial’ to argue that these problems simply cannot ever be overcome at all. That would mean giving up… and I am not the type of person to give up.