[WATCH] The PN’s guidance councillor-in-chief | Therese Comodini Cachia

Nationalist MP Therese Comodini Cachia was chosen by her colleagues to be Opposition leader but with Adrian Delia refusing to step aside, she tells Kurt Sansone that her role is that of guidance councillor seeking unity in a fragmented party

You were nominated by a majority of Nationalist MPs to be Opposition leader, something that did not happen because of the President’s interpretation of the Constitution. How shall I describe you: a rebel leader, Adrian Delia’s rival, a person uncomfortable in the PN?

None of these labels. I was chosen by a majority of my colleagues, and today, even colleagues who were not part of the majority, recognise my position as someone who has been asked to lead and guide my colleagues as a party in Opposition. But this position brings with it other responsibilities to give guidance to anyone who seeks it; councillors, party members and whoever ask for advice… This is a situation like we’ve never experienced.

But Adrian Delia is still Opposition leader and is still leader of the party. You cannot fault people for being confused about the situation. The PN is like a ship with two captains.

We cannot fault people for being confused… this is an unprecedented situation. When one loses a vote of confidence in the parliamentary group and the executive, you expect the person to take decisions in the best interest of the party and the country. But the feedback I am receiving is that… I am serving as a guiding light in this difficult time and which is not yet over. This is a time for healing; it is a time for reflection; it is a time to understand where one wishes Malta to be and what role the PN should play. It is time to reposition and redirect the PN. It is a time when everyone of us – the parliamentary group, the executive, the councillors and members – should think about what they want from this party. I believe every one of us wants to see a united party; a party that rekindles enthusiasm in people; a party that inspires people again and wins over their trust. That is where we are heading to. It is a difficult time but we cannot reposition… without passing through a difficult period that forces you to think on what is the best way forward.

But despite losing confidence votes in the parliamentary group and the executive, Adrian Delia has so far insisted he is PN leader and Opposition leader. Statutorily, there appears little else you can do unless Delia decides to step down of his own accord, or call a general council, or open up a leadership race. It appears there is a statutory dead end in the party. Where will your action lead to? What is the end game?

We started going down the road to see change happening in the PN. As I understand it, the change must lead to a united party, which it wasn’t during the past three years… it must be a stronger party that regenerates and repositions itself, a party that rekindles the hope to the point that people can trust it. We are at the start of this road. It is not an easy road but I trust in our councillors and tesserati. These people never short-changed the party and Malta, they always made the right choice, which they believed in wholeheartedly. We are talking of people, who gave their life for the party. These people are very hurt…

But the tesserati elected Adrian Delia in the first exercise of its kind. Aren’t your actions going against the will of the party members?

Our action does not go against the will of the party members. We are not imposing any decision on the party members and the councillors. We are preparing the road so that the councillors and members reach their own decision. None of the members and councillors voted for a leader to fail in his mission. All of us choose the leader, whom we believe can strengthen the party, unite it and strengthen people’s trust in the party. Members and councillors, like us, see that the party under Adrian Delia’s leadership has not managed to grow strong. Is it his fault? Obviously, it is not just his fault. During the past three years, I saw Adrian Delia work hard and I am certain he gave all he could. Was he given bad advice? Maybe, because when you want to lead a party you do not create division…

But one of the reasons could also be those same MPs who support you, maybe yourself included, who put a spanner in the works and did not allow Adrian Delia to function by dissenting on parliamentary votes, publicly criticising him.

I cannot agree with you when you suggest that part of the blame lies with the 19 members of the parliamentary group who voted against Adrian Delia… No party is there to lose people and lose votes. Throughout the past three years, every colleague of mine in the parliamentary group, and not just the 19, worked hard. Whenever Adrian Delia asked us for advice, we gave it. Whenever he asked us to perform some duty, we did so. Whenever he asked for guidance, we gave it… I can speak for myself, whenever I helped Adrian Delia, like I did with his predecessors… I always promised to be honest with him. I do not go to speak to the leader and tell him something I do not believe in. Every time Adrian Delia asked for my thoughts, I always told him what I believed. This is what we as MPs did and this is why we took the first step and called for a confidence vote… none of us have bad intentions towards Adrian Delia. This is not a choice between Adrian Delia and Therese, this is a question of whether we want the PN to reach its goal and regenerate itself and strengthen.

On Xtra Sajf, Edwin Vassallo argued that if the PN ignored its internal rules, ignored its own members who democratically elected Delia, it would be sending out a contradictory message to the rule of law rallying call it has been clamouring about for the past seven years. How do you answer to this accusation?

Edwin has all my respect. I have worked with him and will continue to do so… but we do not go out there and speak on the ‘rule by law’. We speak on the rule of law. Rule of law does not only include the written rules but also the principles and values that bind those subject to them. Democratic principles built on the rule of law, and not on the rule by law, demand that a leader who loses two votes in the party’s highest organs will take the cue and do the right thing… in the best interest of the party he is working for and which he definitely loves.

What is the right thing you expect Adrian Delia to do?

If I had the first inkling of a vote of no confidence, I would go to the parliamentary group, the party organs, and tell them that I have managed to arrive so far, the party is not doing well in the surveys, the party is losing people, the party needs to create enthusiasm in people and I am not able to do so, and I wish the party to take a decision on who can best lead it forward… but this is what I would have done because I believe in the rule of law.

Edwin Vassallo said something else. The surveys are not giving Adrian Delia and the PN any chance but Vassallo argued that there were instances in the past when the PN lost local elections and European elections and yet went on to win the general election. This happened under Eddie Fenech Adami and Lawrence Gonzi. Vassallo is arguing that Delia should be given the chance to lead the PN until the next general election. What do you make of this argument?

I do not agree with Edwin Vassallo on this point… I don’t go for the general election battle already deflated, and suffering from shortness of breath. I want to face a general election with enthusiastic people, who are ready to work and who are ready to trust my party. I want to face the electorate with a united front so that people can see in my party the opportunity to challenge the government… I do not want to face an election by discarding people or dividing them but by uniting them. The PN is like a mosaic. Everyone knows that if you lose a piece of that mosaic, the picture is ruined. I believe that if we want to have a fighting chance in the general election we have to be united.

Lawyer Andrew Borg Cardona spoke of first class and ‘third-tier’ Nationalists. You spoke of a mosaic but don’t you think statements like his strengthen the perception that this internal battle is rooted in class? Do you represent the elite in the party who felt betrayed by members who elected Adrian Delia?

A declaration like that of Andrew Borg Cardona is uncalled for and does no good to the party. Whoever looks at me as an elitist person, does not know that I lived in Żejtun and Birżebbuġa. There is no dishonour in hailing from any place. It is an honour for me to have lived in Żejtun and Birżebbuġa, where every day I met ordinary people, like I do today in every locality in Malta and Gozo that I visit. I contested the MEP election and visited every locality as part of the campaign and Malta is made up of every type of person and family. The PN must represent every type of person and family, otherwise it will have no chance of moving forward. No, the PN does not belong to elitists, the PN belongs to everybody. It is up to us, the councillors, members and MPs, to inspire them and fire up their enthusiasm to get back into the fold.

I was present outside PN HQ when the parliamentary group met and voted against Delia. There were people outside the building, who are passionate about the PN but they voted for Delia and are feeling that their choice is being ignored. What do you tell these people?

There are a lot of people who are hurt and we are speaking to them. We have spent the past week meeting people… I am the first one to sit down with people and listen to them and understand what they are passing through. This new process has hurt a lot of people because you form part of a group and suddenly you feel that someone wants to destroy you… we need to pass through a healing process. There are hurt people on all sides – people who side with Adrian Delia are hurt but there are others who say they will not vote until he remains leader. Everyone is hurt but the only thing that binds us is the love for the PN and Malta.

This healing process should have started in 2017. The general election can be one-and-a-half years away at the latest but it could be earlier and political history shows us a healing process like this is not one that can end in a few months. It requires time to meet people, speak to them, understand them, admit your mistakes. It could be too late.

This has always been my aim in politics. I meet a lot of people who feel hurt by the actions of the PN, the Labour Party… I meet them and try and understand what they passed through… We politicians must be there to understand why a person is hurting without being judgemental… This process will obviously take its time.

How do you explain your transition from a person who did not want to take up her seat in the Maltese parliament after the 2017 election to retain a seat in Brussels, to someone who is at the centre of political upheaval wanting to become Opposition leader?

Both circumstances show that I am a person, who many believe is quiet - I am a quiet person in that I listen a lot and am not loud - but when faced with a challenge, I get down to work. When I am given a challenge, I evaluate it and with everyone’s input try to find a solution. Three years ago, I had a seat in Brussels and an electorate who wanted me to stay there and employees who depended on me, and an electorate in both general election districts that was asking me to stay in Malta. It wasn’t an easy decision. It was not simply a decision about my future because the livelihood of my employees depended on me. When I saw that my voters were hurt by my initial decision to retain the Brussels seat, I held a meeting for all my employees at my house and it was only when they decided to leave the final say in my hands that I decided to stay in Malta. From day one, I stayed here, continued my political work that led my colleagues to trust me with this responsibility.

If there is a vacancy for party leader, will you contest?

For the time being my role is to offer guidance. Whenever that vacancy arises, and it will probably arise, I will evaluate what my role will be. However, my current role is to unite people in the party and attract people towards the party.

You seem convinced there will be a vacancy before the next general election.

I am convinced not because of some personal conviction because even the party procedures demand that in such situations some form of solution is found. I will never give up from finding solutions. What will the solution be? We have to take it a step at a time.

If Adrian Delia keeps insisting that he will not resign, is there a feasible solution?

There are many solutions on the table. But I am ready to implement the solution that unites the party… the solution today, given that we do not have an open leadership contest is to use and respect all the party procedures, respect and understand the hurt of the party councillors and members, and guide people to unite the party.

There are some who believe that these two sides are irreconcilable and the solution is to split and form a new party.

They are not irreconcilable. Who speaks this way is not realising that despite the friction that exists and the manner in which we are speaking to each other, we all cherish the PN and Malta. And even when I speak to my colleagues who still support Adrian Delia, we agree on this.

Someone looking from the outside is seeing a surreal picture of two factions not wanting to appear as breaking up the PN and yet strangely cohabiting under the same roof.

The vote of no confidence in Adrian Delia only happened a few days ago… a process of healing takes its time. Try and understand what we are doing. Be patient with us because we are walking down a road that those before us never walked… Give us the chance to seek reconciliation.

But you have to tell this to the party members.

I assure you that I am sitting down with all those who are approaching me and my colleagues.

There are definitely those who are accusing you of being traitors.

Of course. Look at the social media and you can see all the abuse we have received. But I do not blame people who accuse us of being traitors. With every person, we sit down with and ask them if they believe our interest is to destroy the party, they reply, ‘obviously not, wasn’t I with you in the last election’. These are the members and councillors who were walking down the same road with us. When you start explaining the situation the party is in, and they themselves acknowledge the need for the party to strengthen, we find common ground. We can only start moving forward if we find common ground. It takes time.

You referred to poor survey results but all that erupted recently was caused by a story in The Sunday Times of Malta that reported on alleged messages that were exchanged between Yorgen Fenech and Adrian Delia. What weight do these shadows have on Adrian Delia?

The shadows are there and it is up to Adrian Delia to deal with them. What is sure is that there were never any shadows on previous PN leaders. These shadows are damaging because they may keep people interested in supporting the PN, away from the party. As a party, we have certain values and myself and every MP is obliged to live them. Unfortunately, those allegations have not been quashed and they keep hindering [the party]. Having said that, in the past three years I have seen Adrian Delia trying to give his all. It was not enough, that is what surveys are telling us. Is it his fault? Not entirely. But that which unites us is the need to strengthen the party.

Who will be leading the PN in the next general election?

That is something that the councillors and members will decide on.