Brave new Nationalist generation

Recent surveys suggest that the Nationalist Party is still struggling to make inroads – especially, in Gozo - despite a drop in support for Labour. But Gozitan MP Alex Borg argues that it is up to ‘newcomers’ such as himself, to reverse the PN’s ailing fortunes

Gozitan PN MP Alex Borg
Gozitan PN MP Alex Borg

Traditionally a Nationalist stronghold, Gozo has been known to ‘switch political allegiance’ from time to time: invariably, resulting in crushing electoral defeats for the PN. Today, there are signs that Gozo is once again simmering with the same sort of anger; but while the Labour government is clearly facing part of the backlash, the PN is also losing considerable ground in Gozo. How do you interpret that, yourself?

Without a doubt, any discussion about Gozo has to depart from the premise that the island – for various reasons, and throughout its history – has always regarded itself as being ‘distinct’ from Malta, in political terms: to the extent of being treated almost as a separate electoral district, from the rest of the country.

Why do I say this? Because the realities of Gozo are different from those of Malta. It has different characteristics; different exigencies; and this also means that our political approach to Gozo has to be different, too.

We have to start by recognising, and appreciating, all the unique characteristics that give the island its own distinct identity; and we must also address the very specific needs – and problems - that are also unique to Gozo.

And this, I think, is one of the reasons why we are now seeing clear indications that Gozo’s political landscape is shifting, even as we speak. There is a lot of ‘discontent’, as you put it, on the island today... and a lot of it is down to the fact that the people’s most basic needs, and expectations, are not being met.

Having said this, I have my doubts as to whether your surveys actually capture the full extent of the picture. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that the survey was ‘flawed’... it’s just that, when it comes to Gozo, I feel that the sample used for the questionnaire always tends to be too small.

Even in Malta, the sample is limited to (I believe) around 600 respondents. In Gozo, it’s a lot less than that. And I seriously doubt whether such a small sample can yield reliable results, in any survey...

Is there anything specific about our latest survey’s findings, that conflicts with your own perceptions about Gozo?

No, that’s not what I meant. I actually found myself agreeing with most of the findings, in general. But as I said earlier: Gozo has to be considered separately from Malta. And the Mal-taToday survey was not specifically about Gozo... it was about all of Malta, with Gozo included only as one locality.

At the end of the day, however, the only ‘survey’ that really counts, is the election. And this is why, while it is important to take stock of what surveys say, I feel I have to keep working so that the result of the last election does not repeat itself, in 2027.

Right now, for instance, we – that is to say, Chris Said and myself – are focusing all our energies on next year’s local council elections. It is too early to say, of course; but I believe we are on the right track... because we have already managed to incentivise new people, to register as candidates for the Nationalist Party.

On its own, that already gives me a lot of hope for the future. Clearly, we must be doing something right, for so many new people to be joining us...

That all sounds very promising; but to get a better election result, you first have to convince Gozitan voters to actually vote for the Nationalist Party. And so far, you seem to have been considerably less successful, in this regard. Despite all the anger currently being directed at the Labour for the PN in Gozo (always according to our surveys) has actually dropped to 28.9%: almost four points behind Labour. How do you account for this, yourself?

Well, the situation you describe is certainly a reality. There can be no doubt it: the people of Gozo are ‘not happy’, right now... and they have a lot of very good reasons to feel that way. The state of the roads; the state of the environment in general... the list is practically endless. Not to mention the state of the jobs that Gozitans are currently being offered by the Labour government.

Because instead of delivering its promises of creating ‘quality jobs in Gozo’, the government is offering them only precarious employment: often working under demeaning conditions, that are simply ‘unworthy’ of Gozitans living in 2023.

And there are lots of other reasons, as well. But the point is that this ‘discontent’ is, as you say, not just directed at the Labour government. There are now signs – including the results of this week’s ‘State of the Nation' survey – that the people of both Gozo, and Malta, are starting to lose their trust in both political parties; and in politics, in general.

This is something that frightens me a little, to be honest; but it also gives me that little extra ‘push’, so to speak, to step up my own efforts. It drives me to try and to reach out more, in whatever way I can, to all those people who used to consider themselves ‘Nationalists’, in the past; but today, no longer associate with the party.

And yes: also those people whom the Nationalist Party may have ‘hurt’ when it was last in government; because they needed something, perhaps, and the PN wasn’t there for them; or because the Nationalist government behaved in a way that was ‘unjust’ towards certain people...

Hang on a second: the last time the PN was in government, was before 2013. Surely, you don’t mean to suggest that the Nationalist Party is still losing support in Gozo - to this very day - over decisions taken by the Gonzi administration, well over a decade ago?

I don’t mean just ‘by the Gonzi administration’, no. Even though I can assure you that – in some cases – people DO actually still feel the pain of such grievances, even all these years later.

But let’s just say that certain ‘mistakes’ have been made, even much more recently than that. Certain people for instance, who were ‘pushed away’ from the party; or cases where the party administration may not have acted ‘justly’, towards the people concerned...

All the same, however: I believe it is possible to regain that lost trust. In fact, as one of the younger generation of Nation-alist MPs – I mean ‘younger’ in the sense that I was elected for the first time in March 2022, and had no previous experience in politics whatsoever – I feel it is my job, and that of other new-ly-elected MPs, to try and reverse those negative perceptions about Maltese politics.

Because we were not there when any of those past mistakes were made. Which is not to say that we ‘won’t make any mistakes ourselves’, obviously... but we are a new generation of politicians, who played no part at all in the politics of yesteryear.

So it is up to us, really, to provide a new political direction for the Nationalist party... one which is closer to the people; and more in touch with their everyday aspirations. Basically, what I refer to as ‘politics of the street’; because I believe it is there, at the street level, that we need to be present, the most.

But with the right people on board, I also believe that it is perfectly possible, to reach out to those disillusioned voters: not just in Gozo, but in Malta too. We just need to work harder...

Let’s turn to the individual grievances themselves. One major complaint in Gozo concerns ‘over-development’, and ‘the rape of the environment’. And yet, when Xaghra’s Labour mayor Christian Zammit made this issue the focal point of his own campaign... he failed to get re-elected (and even resigned from the Labour Party). Could it simply be, then, that Gozitans are not as ‘unhappy’ about the environment, as we all seem to think they are?

Now that you’ve mentioned Christian Zammit: let me take the opportunity to commend him, from here. I have a lot of admiration for Christian, because – regardless of our political differences - the step he took, clearly shows that he is a man who places principles above party allegiance. The moment he felt that his own party was acting against the values that he himself believes in... he ‘stood up to be counted’. And it takes courage, to stand up to your own party like that...

But there is, of course, a reason why he felt he had to do that: because there is simply no political will, on the part of the Labour government, to actually address all the issues he was raising. The Labour government has no interest, in putting a stop to all the obscenities [‘hnizirijiet’], that are happening in Gozo right now; and have been happening, over the past few years...

Do the Gozitans have that will, though? Do they really want to put a stop to those ‘obscenities’? And if so: why don’t they support those politicians who actually speak out, on environmental issues?

Oh, the people of Gozo DO want a change: of that, I can absolutely assure you. Even on my own home visits – because I’ve already started knocking on people’s doors, as part of my efforts for the 2024 local council elections – I hear this with my own ears, all the time. Speak to just about anyone in Gozo, in fact, and they’ll all you the same thing: i.e., that they really are ‘sick and tired’, of the status quo...

But I have to stress that: what actually angers Gozitans the most, is not so much ‘construction’, in and of itself. It’s the way things are being done. It’s the shoddy planning; the lack of clear regulations; the way that certain developments always go ahead, no matter how severely they will affect the character, and quality of life, of the rest of the town or village...

That is the sort of thing that upsets people the most, in Gozo; and I am one of them myself. I am not ‘against construction’, as such... on the contrary: I fully recognise that ‘progress’ is important – if nothing else, because Gozo cannot realistically remain a ‘presepju’, forever.

But ‘progress’ cannot come at the expense of all those qualities, and characteristics, that make Gozo the unique island that it is.

At the same time, however: what is the Nationalist Party itself proposing that is in any way different from Labour? Will the PN commit itself to, for example, ‘putting a stop to those obscenities’... and if so: how, exactly?

Funny you should ask, because – just this week, in parliament, we discussed this very issue: a new Local Plan for Gozo. And on the part of the Opposition: we asked the government, directly, whether it would be willing to discuss the creation of a new planning policy for Gozo: one which would actually take into account the contemporary realities of that island, because...

... let’s face it: the current plans we have, for Gozo, haven’t actually changed, in any detail whatsoever, since they were first approved back in 2006. And personally: I don’t think that today’s realities, in Gozo, are the same as they were 17 years ago.

So it is important that the two parties get together, and sit around a table to discuss – together with all the other stakeholders: including, naturally, the residents of Gozo themselves – what type of Local Plan we really need, to address the issues that are causing so many problems in Gozo, today.

One last question. You describe yourself as a ‘new’ politician, with no past experience in politics; but your name has already been touted as a possible future leader of the Nationalist Party. So far, you have consistently denied having any such aspirations; but would you exclude any future PN leadership bid, from now?

As I’ve always said, in the past: I believe I have to first learn how to walk before I try to start running. And I also feel I still have a lot to learn. I have, after all, only been involved in politics for just over a year. And every single day, I find myself learning something new. So in all honesty, I don’t believe I am politically ‘mature’ enough, yet, for that kind of responsibility.

But to answer you more directly: there is another reason why I don’t even consider taking that step: either now, or in future. There is already a leader of the Nationalist Party: Bernard Grech...

Sorry to sneak in a follow-up question, but... Bernard Grech has already lost the PN one election. What sense does it make to go into the next one, under a leader who has already been rejected by the electorate?

I hear what you’re saying, but... the fact remains that Bernard Grech is still the leader of the Nationalist Party. And besides even if he lost the election last March, he was still re-elected to the post of the PN leader, by the party executive.

Effectively, that makes him the PN leader; and I am someone who deeply believes in ‘loyalty’, at the end of the day.

Yes: in fact, you were loyal to former PN leader Adrian Delia, too...

That’s precisely the point I was coming to. When Adrian was still party leader, I remained loyal to him, until literally ‘the last breath’. And from the moment that Bernard Grech became party leader: I did exactly the same thing. I am every bit as loyal, to today’s PN leader, as I was when the leader was someone else...

Don’t you see any contradiction in that, though (given all the animosity that was involved, in the transition from one leader to the other)?

No, I don’t. Because to be perfectly honest: I don’t look at things like ‘personalities’, or ‘individuals’. I look at the emblem of the Nationalist Party; and above all, I look at at the Maltese flag. Because for as long as we remain stuck, at the level of ‘this personality, against that personality’.... not only will we be weakening the Opposition party; but also, abdicating our responsibility towards the country, as a whole.

It is, after all, our responsibility, as Nationalist MPs, to provide a strong, healthy and effective Opposition, against the excesses of today’s Labour government. And that – along with Gozo, naturally – is going to be my only focus, from now on.