Addicted to politics? | Francis Zammit Dimech

Francis Zammit Dimech has sat on the government benches for nearly a quarter of a century. But he still thinks that the PN can change itself and the country from the seats of government

Elected in every electoral contest since 1987, Francis Zammit Dimech is one of the most veteran MPs sitting on the government’s benches. Neither does he have any intention of retiring; candidly admitting his “addiction” to politics and announcing his intention to re-contest the ninth and 10th districts.

But after serving in all cabinets headed by Eddie Fenech Adami and Lawrence Gonzi’s first cabinet in 2008, he was only elected to parliament thanks to the constitutional amendment which gave the PN extra seats to govern.

Like several other former cabinet ministers, he found himself relegated to the backbench following an electoral campaign fought under the GonziPN banner, which emphasised the leader while sidelining his front bench.

Zammit Dimech is not bitter, insisting on his loyalty towards the Prime Minister while calling for a  more inclusive party.

Three years down the line, Zammit Dimech thinks that GonziPN was “fine as an election slogan” but warns against using it “as a method of government and party leadership.”

“It should not be a slogan of governing or a mark of leadership within the party,” he says.

Still, he recognises that elections worldwide have become more presidential, and that even in past elections, the role of the leader was emphasised. Zammit Dimech recalls that in the 1980s, he was instrumental in bringing over the band ‘Brotherhood of Man’, who created the song ‘We are ready for Eddie’.

But has Gonzi managed to distance him from this electoral slogan  after being re-elected to power?

Zammit Dimech praises the Prime Minister for “doing his best to champion more change and lead country in the best way possible” but he also thinks that the party and government should be “more inclusive.”

“We should be on the guard to ensure that all talent and resources in the party and at national level are put to good use and everybody feels a sense of belonging. I feel that there are occasions when we lack in this regard”.

What is also vital for the fortunes of the Nationalist Party according to Zammit Dimech is to continue the process of change unleashed in 1987.

“Even under the leadership of Eddie Fenech Adami, the party emphasised change for as a value in its own right.”

As an example of the party’s commitment to change, Zammit Dimech mentions the liberalisation of all sectors of the economy, EU membership under Fenech Adami and the adoption of the euro under Gonzi.

Referring to the latter change, he recalled that there were elements in the party who doubted how wise it was to go for such a major change prior to a general election, which was perceived as an uphill battle.

“Some argued that it would have been better to adopt the euro gradually after the election”.

But it is the momentum of change which keeps the PN dynamic while still in government, insists Francis Zammit Dimech.

But all this talk of change contrasts with the stark reality of having the same government in power for the best part of the past quarter of a century.

With the exception of the 1996 to 1998 interlude, the PN has been in government since 1987, which would mean that by 2013, the party would have been in government for a 24 years. Doesn’t the party need to go back in to opposition to regenerate itself? 

Zammit Dimech disagrees.

“The party has been able to champion change even while in government.  It has also been able to change its leader while in government. This is a party which went for a change of leadership not because it was sent to opposition, as happens in most cases”.

Is the PN suffering from the absence of a rallying cry – as was democracy in the 1980s and EU membership before 2003 – which created a coalition stretching across the political spectrum from the centre left to the centre right?

Zammit Dimech replies by warning against complacency.

He warns against taking the government’s success in managing the economy for granted.

“It  would be a mistake if we think this to be the result of  sheer coincidence and not of the result of hard work and good leadership”. 

But he also hopes that the government will not take its people for granted, claiming that in order to win the next election, the PN has to convince people that “it has a vision of change and that the Nationalist Party is still the best guarantor of this process.”

But it here that Zammit Dimech sees a sharp difference between the two major parties.

Unfortunately, the Labour Party still places too much emphasis on hype and image and very little emphasis on substance.”

Still he gives credit to some of the changes made by Joseph Muscat in the Labour Party.

“The Labour Party has chosen a socialite who knows how to move around in society in various events and who has no difficulty in reaching out to people holding different opinions…”

However, he claims that Muscat has been unable to project a “new way of doing politics” or a programme based on “substance” which is better for the country than that implemented by the Nationalist Party in government.

Back in 2008, the PN ended up scraping victory with a paltry 1,500 votes despite facing a twice-beaten Alfred Sant, who had already been tried and tested in government between 1996 and 1998. 

“I cannot but agree that it will be an uphill battle but we should not forget that we have three more years ahead of us…”

But hasn’t the government shot itself in the foot through its poor handling of certain issues, such as granting ministers an honoraria apart from their salary as MPs at a moment when the country was facing a recession?

While acknowledging that that the matter “was certainly mishandled,” he insists that on principle what was done was “correct.”

“Ministers are being paid the honoraria which is given to all MPs. In this way, they are being treated like any other government employee who is elected to public office… there have been some adjustments in what ministers receive but their pay remains well below that of people serving in top managerial positions”.

But still, while the government would like people to talk about its ability to steer the country away from recession, most people are still talking about issues like the honoraria and the way the PM voted on the divorce issue. Does this not suggest a massive communication problem?

“We surely need to re-connect with the people. We need to re-connect by communicating our message more clearly and by being seen as more united… certainly, we need deep soul searching and a closer look at our public relations approach both as government and as a party”.

He reiterates the importance of placing people first.

“If people want to be objective they will realise that country is managing to sail very well despite the turbulent waters around us, but it may well happen that people will not think enough of this when they cast their vote.”

Could it be the case that people do not give much value to abstract macroeconomic threats because despite all the talk of Malta not experiencing the same troubles of other countries, they still feel the pinch in their pockets?

Zammit Dimech himself warns the party not to forget that “at the end of the day people will react most to their immediate experience than to what is happening to the economy”.

He calls on the government to be more sensitive to the problems faced by people who have experienced higher electricity bills.

“I would like to think that the next budget will address – as far as humanely possible in the present circumstances – the needs of the most vulnerable groups in society”.

But he also warns that people would face even more hardship if the economy as a whole falters.

“If this happens, we would be in the same position as Greece and Spain. Even the riots in the United Kingdom are not merely a result of a police shooting but also a reflection of underlying tension caused by economic factors”.

One issue, which strayed the focus from economic issues and continued to dominate the news, was divorce. Thanks to the way the Prime Minister kept the people guessing on his vote, it continued to dominate the headlines weeks after the referendum.

Francis Zammit voted No in the second reading of the divorce bill, and Yes in the third (and final) reading.

But he denies that he changed his vote to accommodate a more liberal 10th district constituency.

“Had I based my vote strictly on electoral calculations, it would have been far more comfortable for me to vote No at all stages”.

He explains that there are at least two quotas in the Nationalist camp which voted against divorce. In fact, only a slight majority of 10th district voters voted for divorce in what is a clear indication that a majority of PN voters in this district voted against divorce.

He also claims facing a backlash from anti-divorce voters who approached him after voting Yes in the third reading, asking him “were we not entitled to have at least one MP from the district to represent our views?”

What Zammit Dimech questions was the need to take a final vote in the third reading.

He insists that it is during the second reading that MPs are expected to declare, in principle, what they think about the bill in question.

“Therefore, it was at that stage where I voted in line with the stance I took as an individual voter in the referendum: that divorce would bring more social harm than good”. 

But despite his stance against divorce, he still felt it to be his duty to participate in the committee stage in parliament to produce the best possible law in the circumstance.

Zammit Dimech would have preferred to avoid the second vote.

“My own advice was that there was no need for a vote at this stage because in the second reading, you vote according to principle but at committee stage, you work to produce the best possible law for the country irrespective of your position on the principle”.

He insists that in most cases, a vote is not taken at a third reading.

“The third reading is a formality. We do not usually vote at this stage. A vote at the third reading is a very rare thing.”

He also thinks that it was a “bit cheeky” on the part of the opposition whip to call for such a division.

But faced with a vote, Zammit Dimech felt compelled to vote Yes because although his principles had not changed, the bill was made substantially better thanks to the contribution of MPs like Labour MP Owen Bonnici – whom he praises – at committee stage.

The PM voted twice against the divorce law – both at the second and third reading. Does this not show disregard for a democratic decision taken by a majority of voters in a referendum?

The Prime Minister needs to be credited for the fact that he really ensured that the will of the people prevailed in the shortest time possible. I say this because I followed all the internal discussion on this matter”.

He praises the Prime Minister for immediately conceding defeat on television and “accepting the result without being ambivalent on its interpretation”.

He also praises his “pro-active role” in making “the calculations necessary to ensure that the people’s will prevailed”. 

“Should we then not allow him to exercise his right to vote according to his conscience?” asks Zammit Dimech, in defence of his Prime Minister.

Still, a substantial minority of Nationalist voters – especially in the ninth, 10th and 12th districts – have voted Yes to divorce, in what could be a reflection of a growing  socially liberal wing of the party. How can the PN retain these voters?

“All these people have to do is to look at the track record of the party and what the party have stood for throughout the years…”

He also dismisses the notion that the party is experiencing a rift between liberals and conservatives, insisting that the PN was never conservative.

“The term which least suits the Nationalist Party is the term ‘conservative’”.

He recalls that in the mid 1980s, when he was President of the PN’s youth movement, he was repeatedly advised to avoid having international links with youth sections of conservative parties.

“We were very careful to be more pro-active in young Christian Democratic formations, as opposed to conservative groups.”

He insists that little has changed in the party’s ideological orientation.

Disputing the idea that the PN is a coalition of liberals and conservatives, he describes his party as a mosaic of people holding “Christian democratic convictions and liberals.”

Moreover, while Christian democrats might be more conservative on moral issues, on economic issues they tend to be on the centre left while liberals tend to be on the centre right.

For Zammit Dimech, there is still enough common ground to hold Christian Democrats and liberals together.

“All the liberals have to do is ask: which party has put an emphasis on human rights, and which party has liberalised the economy and broadcasting? Which party had the guts to dismantle a State run drydocks and change it in to a properly functioning privately run company? Which is the party which is still in office and still pushing these changes?”

But hasn’t Labour also moved towards the centre in a way that liberals no longer fear any reversal of these policies?

“When I listen carefully to what Labour exponents say on various issues I am not convinced that they have really changed their policies. I see too many of the old Labour faces in front of me. I am not only worried about how Joseph Muscat would perform as Prime Minister but am equally worried about the kind of cabinet that he will appoint if chosen as Malta’s Prime Minister. It would not be an agenda that would be closer to people with a liberal frame of mind”.

But Zammit Dimech’s agenda is not limited to economic liberalisation.

He speaks about the need of the PN spearheading political reforms – such as a more representative electoral system – through the establishment of a threshold which would open the way for third party representation, a reform of party financing and a broadcasting system “where there is less need of broadcasting by political parties.”

On a personal level, Zammit Dimech has seen himself demoted from the front bench to the backbench.

The former minister admits that the transition “was not an easy one” but he wanted to be as positive about it as was humanely possible.

He recalls telling the PM in a meeting in Girgenti that “the test of loyalty is fulfilled not when it is easy to do so but in difficult circumstances.” He recalls that all MPs who lost their cabinet post were all invited for the meeting.

“Apart from the SMS, there was a meeting for those who were not re-appointed and who accepted the invitation.”

Zammit Dimech has not called it a day from politics. Asked whether he is in fact addicted, he smiles, admitting that he cannot see himself outside of the political scene.

“I will definitely contest the next election on the ninth and 10th district, and I intend to move in to full campaign mode in the near future.”