Vetting the candidates | Karol Aquilina

New PN President Karol Aquilina is responsible for the vetting of candidates standing for local and national elections. He makes it clear that a rethink is necessary in the way the party chooses its candidates.

As President of the PN’s administrative council, Karol Aquilina’s job description includes overseeing the party’s commercial companies and electoral structures and responsibility for the initial choice of candidates standing for elections.

Considering recent events at both local and national level, Aquilina’s role in vetting candidates contesting under the party’s banner could well be the most sensitive one.

During the past two years, the PN faced difficulties in various local councils where candidates and even mayors elected on its behalf had to resign or were forced to resign because they ended up being investigated by the police. Has this exposed a lack of vetting of candidates?

Aquilina is quick to point out that this problem affects both parties, citing a recent court case against Labour’s Cospicua mayor.

But Aquilina thinks that a rethink is necessary on the way local council candidates are chosen.

“We surely cannot afford to choose candidates on the eve of an election. The process of becoming a candidate should be spread over a period of time, and not a few days”. 

One thing that would help for sure is ensuring that all candidates have experience in administrative structures either of the party itself or of voluntary organisations.

Speaking out of personal experience, Aquilina believes that his past participation in organisations like the Kunsill Nazzjonali taż-Żgħażagħ and Studenti Demokristjani Maltin helped him in his political formation before becoming a local councillor and later deputy mayor in the Siġġiewi council, and one of the PN’s leading officials.

“Through these experiences, one learns those unwritten rules of conduct which prove vital when one assumes office. People with these experiences offer a greater guarantee of correctness than those involved in cases which occurred recently”.

Still, this does not offer an absolute guarantee.

“Mistakes in the choice of candidates cannot always be avoided. People change and circumstances change them… but things could improve if candidates are chosen over a period of time.”

Is Aquilina concerned that rather than rising from grassroot structures, some local council candidates are identified and pushed by district heavyweights to whom they owe a sense of loyalty?

“Many of the members of parliament identify candidates for local council elections because they know the people who surround them and their capabilities. The party also asks them to do this. They are in a good position to assess the character of those who are proposed as candidates”.

Aquilina himself proposes candidates.

“Obviously, I only submit names of people who I know can give a valid and serious contribution”.

Will there be a vetting process for candidates standing for national election?

“Yes, and this has always been the case.”

And what are the criteria?

“There are no definitive criteria. But the party is now in a position to take this process more seriously.”

The PN’s parliamentary group has been riddled with division. While any rifts on divorce can be explained as emerging due to differing viewpoints on an issue of conscience, the government is now facing a no-confidence motion in one of its Ministers: Austin Gatt. Franco Debono has already announced that he intends to abstain on the vote if Gatt does not assume political responsibility. Wouldn’t any abstention on this vote undermine the principle of collegiality on which a government is based?

Aquilina immediately points out that the motion was presented by the opposition, and not by members of the PN bench.

He recognises the fact that various PN parliamentarians are expressing concerns about the public transport reform but he also gives credit to Gatt for embarking on a reform of a system which had been in place for 40 years.

“In actual fact, Gatt has already recognised that there are serious shortcomings in the present public transport system, and has also publicly assumed political responsibility. However, he deserves recognition in view of the fact that previous Labour and Nationalist governments never dreamt of embarking on a wholesale reform of the sector. I must also recognise that previous Nationalist Ministers responsible for transport – Censu Galea and Jesmond Mugliett – had implemented a number of reforms in the public transport. But this time around, we were too ambitious and the crucial point is now how to make the reform a success in the shortest time possible”.

Aquilina augurs that all those parliamentarians expressing concerns on the new system and Austin Gatt’s role in the reform, will still vote with the government after being presented with all the facts on this issue.

Will those Nationalist MPs who were not sufficiently loyal to the government in parliamentary votes, pay a price when the party chooses its candidates for the next election?

Aquilina insists that it is “premature” to talk of any decision on this matter, even if he hints that loyalty is an important criterion when assessing the suitability of candidates standing for re-election under the PN banner.

But he also makes it clear that the party does not expect blind loyalty from its MPs.

“The question of loyalty is a double edged sword. It would be very negative to have blind loyalty but it is also negative to have persons who, while affirming their loyalty, create all the problems in the world for the government without any valid reason”. 

He also points out that any assessment must be based on the performance of MPs throughout the entire five years of the legislature including the next one and half year “in which many things can happen.” Aquilina does not foresee any particular difficulties in this matter.

The last election was contested under the GonziPN banner. The formula worked in the last election, but can it be replicated in 2013?

“Every election is a different story, and the factors determining the outcome of any election are different."

Was the party too associated with the party leader in the past election in a way that people voted for the leader rather than the party?

“A political brand name serves to win over the majority of the electorate. Even at an international level, the leader is far popular than the party. For example, in Italy one of the problems facing the centre-left is the lack of charisma of its leaders."

So what could help the PN win the election next time round?

“One of the factors which could win us the election is our experience in governing the country. The second thing, which is in our favour, is that we are forward-looking. We are not imprisoned by our mistakes. Take public transport – we admitted that there are difficulties, and we are doing everything to address these problems."

Another winning card for the PN is that it has an answer for any question regarding its policies.

“Unfortunately the Opposition’s answer to any question is ‘we will tell you in 18 months' time.’  On the other hand, when we are asked we can say what we have done and what we intend to do."

But while the Nationalist Party is in government – and therefore is obliged to have all the answers – the opposition is not, and does not even have all the books in its hands.

“But ideas are nobody’s prerogative. Ideas can also come from people not involved in politics, let alone an opposition aspiring to be in government."

Divorce created a chasm in the party. With hindsight, did the PN take a wise decision opposing divorce?

Surely for Aquilina, the internal discussion was “very healthy".

“It was a no-holds-barred discussion, and I believe that we should use the same formula to discuss similar issues which may come up in the future.”

Aquilina thinks that the PN’s decision to oppose the introduction of divorce is now “irrelevant.”

“What counts for the PN is the decision of the electorate and in fact, that was one of the fundamental points included in the motion approved by the PN executive. Positions must be taken in a context. I don’t think that now that divorce has been introduced people care about that decision anymore. For the PN, divorce is a closed chapter. What I hope is that the discussion now focuses on how we can strengthen the family.”

It is very obvious that the PN now includes social liberals as well as members and activists who do not adhere to the Roman Catholic religion.  Doesn’t this contradict the party’s Christian democratic identity?

Aquilina makes it clear that the party’s identity is not in question. But he makes it clear that while the party has its principles, it does not exclude people simply because they disagree with it “on a couple of issues.”

So can one support granting gay partners the same rights as married couples while still being a PN member?

“One can choose to have such a position without necessarily expecting the party to take the same position."

But in open recognition of the plurality of values in Maltese society, Aquilina makes it clear that his party is not tied to a particular set of moral values.

“We are not tied to a particular set of values but we try to pick the best values from everyone. What counts for us is whether an idea is good or not, irrespective of who says it or from where it originates. This is why, for the past elections, we gained the support of the majority of the population. We are not anchored to dogmas”.

He attributes this ideological flexibility to the great changes made in the 1970s under the leadership of Eddie Fenech Adami when the party became closer to the working class and strengthened its social policy.

In this spirit, apart from basic principles like freedom, social justice and respect for fundamental human rights, nothing is cast in stone.

But this does not mean that the party cannot take a position.

“We are open to any sort of discussion on issues but we will never abscond on our duty as a political party to take a decision”.

Moreover, as was the case with divorce, those who took a different position can still co-exist with the majority without being expelled from the party. 

Nobody can feel excluded from the party because there is something fundamentally against him or her. 

Except for a brief interlude between 1996 and 1998, the PN has been in power between 1987 till the present day. Aquilina does not see this as a problem.

“Since 1987, the Nationalist party has cultivated a culture of government among its officials. They all know what is demanded of them when occupying responsibility.   This means that if elected again, it will not face the problem of adjusting itself to being a party in government. If Labour is elected in the next election, Muscat will enter Castille asking himself: “OK, I am the Prime Minister, what should I do now?”

He disputes Labour’s credentials as a government-in-waiting.

“The Labour Party’s higher ranks are either occupied by persons who served in the disastrous administration which ran the country between 1981 and 1987, or by people who have no experience of what it takes to be in government”.

Wasn’t the PN exactly in the same position in 1987?

Aquilina insists that that this was a completely different circumstance.

“There was nothing to recover in 1987. On that occasion, the PN literally had to start from scratch”.

In the last few weeks, there was talk of reforms aimed at strengthening Maltese democracy. One topic which is expected to be discussed in parliament is a bill on party financing which has been drafted by Franco Debono.

Aquilina agrees with the need to regulate this sector.

“We want greater transparency and openness in this sector, but at the same time we have to ensure that political parties can operate. The law should not curtail the work of political parties as these are essential for democracy to work.”

If political parties are so important, why not introduce a system of State financing, as happens in advanced democracies like Germany?

Aquilina is wary of this concept.

“In my opinion, political parties should remain dependent on the electorate and not on the State. I find no problem that parties receive state aid in the formulation of policies or to train people. But I don’t like the idea of having the party’s organisations financed by the State”.

But isn’t this preferable to parties being financed by big contractors?

“As long as someone finances the party without expecting anything in return there is no problem. In reality the Nationalist Party depends on the income generated by its commercial companies and on donations it receives during the yearly televised marathon and various other activities held from time to time”.

Speaking on a personal level, Aquilina, who is known for standing up to building contractors on local issues affecting Siggiewi, makes it clear that he has never received donations from big contractors and never intends to do so.

“In my role as councill or I never had any qualms on taking a stand on environmental issues involving major contractors. The important thing is that we have to ensure that we do not have any obligations towards financial contributors”.

The declaration of donations over and above a certain amount will help to bring about more transparency, but he wants to avoid a situation where this serves to deter families who give money to political parties out of a sense of belonging. On the other hand, big contractors who do not have the same sense of belonging tend to help both parties equally.

Is the party suffering from a lack of enthusiasm among its grass roots, who are sceptical of another party victory?

“I see the same situation we had in 2007 when, after 20 years of the PN in government, party activists had strong doubts that the party could win again. In 2008 we showed that this is not the case”.

He also points that it is normal for a party which is in government to suffer from mid- term blues, but he expects activism in the party to pick up in the next months.

“As soon as an election approaches people start engaging again”.