Never give up… | Hermann Schiavone

Nationalist MP HERMANN SCHIAVONE was the first to sound the alarm over a MaltaToday survey which paints a dismal picture of the PN’s electoral fortunes. Yet he insists that the PN still has a chance of winning, in spite of everything 

Reacting to our survey last Sunday – which indicates that the PN’s support has dwindled to 21% – you wrote a note to the PN parliamentary group calling for an urgent meeting to discuss the situation.  Why do you think has the PN not managed to regain any of its lost ground since the 2017 election? 

First of all, let me point out that I send a note to the parliamentary group every time there is a survey: not just this time. This is because I know how seriously the journalists who work on these surveys take their job – in MaltaToday, but also in other media houses – so I take their surveys very, very seriously. 

But at the same time, it’s also only a snapshot of the situation. You also have to look at the circumstances. Right now, we are in the middle of a pandemic. And when there is a crisis – like the Libyan crisis of 2011, for instance – the trend is for people to rally round the government. This happens all around the world, not just in Malta. 

Naturally, this doesn’t mean that we can set our minds at rest. The results of Sunday’s survey still worry me, a lot. But does it mean that, if an election were held today, the PN would lose by 90,000 votes? Definitely not… 

But that’s what you yourself predicted in that note; you said that the PN would lose by 90,000 votes, and also lose up to seven seats… 

Yes, but let me tell you why: because while the survey is indeed showing a gap of that size, it comes at a time when there is no election in the offing. When an election is announced, things usually start to change. The category of ‘Don’t Knows’, or those who are saying they will not vote at all, will start to decrease, as more and more people make their voting intentions known.  

The reality today is that we are only three years into this legislature; so the next election is due in two years’ time. We are not in ‘election mode’ yet; people out there are not talking about politics at the moment. They’re more interested in the pandemic. So if it wasn’t for the fact that my note to the Parliamentary Group got leaked, most probably people wouldn’t even know there was a survey at all... 

Perhaps; but this doesn’t change the fact the PN has clearly not managed to regroup, three years into Adrian Delia’s leadership. Why is that, in your opinion? 

I think there are many different reasons; you can’t really single out only one. For example, the hurt experienced by people who feel that the last PN government was not close enough to them, is still there. Also, the fact that the last leadership election was so divisive has damaged the party. We took too long to unite behind the new leader; and unfortunately, the death of Daphne Caruana Galizia did not help the PN’s cause. On the contrary, it created yet another rift. 

Having said that: for the past year or so, I have seen the parliamentary group becoming more compact and united. I have seen how party delegates have once again started to work hand in hand with Adrian Delia. But unfortunately, we’re not projecting this enough to the outside world. And that’s one of the problems we are facing.  

When there is some kind of confrontation [between Nationalist exponents], it tends to get sensationally reported in the media. But the fact that we are now working well together – especially since the shadow cabinet reshuffle – and there is a renewed synergy with the party leader… that has not been felt, out there. 

So some people are still judging the PN as a ‘divided party’. I can assure you, however, that it is not… 

The PN does project that image, however. For instance, Adrian Delia recently paid the AFM a courtesy visit, to congratulate them for saving lives at sea… just a day after Jason Azzopardi filed criminal charges against several AFM members, accusing them of attempted homicide. Doesn’t that send out the message that the PN leader, and his shadow Justice Minister, are on different wavelengths? 

But Jason Azzopardi also practices as a private lawyer: as is his right to do so. He represented that case in his private professional capacity, not as a Nationalist MP. And besides: Azzopardi himself acknowledged that his actions could have been misinterpreted; and he withdrew from the case of his own accord. 

But it doesn’t change the fact that Jason Azzopardi also works hand in hand with the party leader; and that he was given an important portfolio, as shadow Justice Minister… 

That, too, seems contradictory. Adrian Delia won the 2017 party leadership election on a promise to ‘give the PN back’ to its rightful owners… yet he now seems to be accommodating his detractors within the party; and even rewarding people who are (to outside appearances, anyway) trying to trip him up… 

To me, that is a sign of Adrian Delia’s greatness as a leader. Great leadership is not just a question of winning other people over; it also consists in consolidating what you already have…. and recognizing how to make the best use of the available talent. 

Let’s face it: it is a natural human instinct to kick someone out, when they do things to make your life difficult. And some people thought that that was going to be Adrian Delia’s way of doing things. But it would have been wrong… 

In the light of the survey results, though…  wouldn’t you say that Adrian Delia’s leadership strategy has so far failed? 

You could argue that way; but I have another explanation for why we are struggling so much to recover, as a party. I would say it is because we have a serious communication problem.  We are in a very disadvantaged position, when it comes to communicating. Our media is not the most followed in the country, right now; we are in competition with TVM, which is state-owned, and has an enormous bias in favour of government.  

But for some time now, even the independent media is not taking us seriously anymore, or giving us enough space. And I don’t really blame them, because we are the ones who have to regain their confidence. I’m not saying the independent media are wrong; or that they have a hidden agenda. On the contrary, they are right not to have any close ties with anyone. 

To give you an example, however: just recently, we issued an excellent report, authored by Claudio Grech, about the Post-COVID Economic Recovery Plan… but it was hardly featured or discussed at all in the press. Which is a pity. We are coming up with proposals; we are holding press conferences almost every day… not just to criticize government – which is also part of our duty, as an Opposition party - but to put across our own vision, and our own proposals… 

And yet, the PN is often criticised for ‘criticising too much’. MP Ivan Bartolo, for instance, commented that “the [PN] brand has fallen into negative territory”. Isn’t there some truth to this? 

I would say the PN’s message is not ‘negative’, but ‘realistic’. If, in order not to be called negative, we are expected not to talk about the rampant corruption that is going on… I think that would be a mistake. Take the Vitals scandal, for example… is the PN being ‘negative’, by highlighting the outright theft of three Maltese hospitals? 

What about MP David Thake’s recent criticism of the prime minister over sharing a bowl of chips at a Gozo restaurant? Isn’t that taking the Opposition’s duty to criticise slightly too far? 

Just yesterday, in fact, I asked a supplementary PQ about it… which was slightly ‘tongue-in-cheek’, more or less. But then again, what’s so wrong with pointing out the prime minister, and Gozo minister, were setting a bad example, by disregarding the health regulations at a restaurant? In the UK, for example, a minister had to resign this week because [government advisor] Dominic Cummings went for a spin in his car.  

I can assure you that, if Robert Abela was the prime minister of Britain, and shared a bowl of chips after the Superintendent of Public Health had issued a clear regulation about not sharing food in restaurants… the British press would have butchered him. You know how brutal they can be… 

That’s a fair point. At the same time, however, the reactions I saw – mostly coming from Nationalists – were not exactly positive. And the survey results reinforce this perception. So why does the PN persist with such tactics, even when they are clearly backfiring? 

This is what I was coming to earlier. There is a perception out there that the PN only ever criticises, for its own sake… but this is simply untrue. For example, around a month ago, I came out with proposals for vouchers to be given out in restaurants, to help kickstart the catering industry. And I was ridiculed by Labour-leaning commentators.  

This was a positive proposal… and while we didn’t implement it ourselves, it was separately introduced in Austria. I’m not trying to say that they got the idea from me; what I mean is that, while we are often criticised for being ‘negative’, the truth is that we come out with positive proposals all the time. 

Unfortunately, however, they are given little space in the media. And this is where we are failing, as a party. In fact, at the parliamentary group meeting to be held on Friday – i.e., before this interview will be printed – one of the items on the agenda is precisely this: why are people not responding to our proposals?  

This brings us to the question of the PN’s electability. You reacted strongly to Ivan Bartolo’s statement that “the PN will not win the next election and it must come to terms with this fact sooner rather than later.” Do you really believe the PN still has a chance of winning, under its current leadership? 

I said this to Ivan Bartolo directly, so I don’t mind repeating it here. I can never accept the suggestion that the PN should simply throw in the towel, or contest an election in which it has no chance of winning. Definitely not. 

And yes, I do genuinely believe that the PN can still win. This is, in fact, what I’m always pushing for: that we, as a party, have to try and find ways to win the next election with the current leadership. We have a leader who has very good qualities; Adrian Delia is a very good listener; he is articulate; a good communicator… so I do believe we have a chance of winning the next election. Some people might even think I’m mad, but I do strongly believe that. 

But there are some things we need to change. We cannot remain static; and keep looking at the situation, and saying how ‘sorry’ we all are. We just need to have the courage to change the things that need to be changed.  

And by that, I don’t mean changing the people. For although I am heartbroken by these numbers… I have not given up on the hope that we might still be able to turn that corner.