Cracking the party whip | David Agius

Nationalist Party Whip David Agius says that the Nationalist Party faces nothing short of a battle next Thursday.

David Agius: 'Criticise, put your ideas forward... but why attempt to break the chain of command, and take away the PM’s authority to decide on his ministers?
David Agius: 'Criticise, put your ideas forward... but why attempt to break the chain of command, and take away the PM’s authority to decide on his ministers?

Just over a week ago, he stepped out of the Nationalist Party headquarters and read out a statement spelling out the parliamentary procedure to be followed on Labour's no-confidence motion which was triggered by Franco Debono.

Today just hours before the House is convened to start debating, the anxiety is clearly visible on David Agius' face.

He's whip to the PN's parliamentary group. A challenging role for any parliamentarian, especially if you're in government. He must coordinate the parliamentary duties of each MP, jostle between the front and backbench, liaise with the Opposition, and work with the Leader of the House and the Prime Minister.

When given the post in 2008, the former broadcaster, councillor and elected MP from Attard may have never forecasted the tumultuous legislature he was about to face, leading a parliamentary group in a one-seat majority government.

But while he reminisces on the tensions he faced in December 2009 when Franco Debono showed the first signs of being a maverick (by deliberately missing a parliamentary vote), then Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando's private members' bill (which triggered a referendum for the introduction of divorce), Jean-Pierre Farrugia's opposition to the proposed primary health reform and the divisions that left a permanent fissure between the front and backbench over the honoraria saga, Agius knows that what he and his parliamentary colleagues are about to face from tomorrow until noon of Thursday, is a battle for survival in every way one may look at it.

So is an election inevitable?

"It all depends on what is going to happen," he replies and pauses for a second to add how an election now is "not in the interest of either the PN on the Labour Party".

Agius believes that in the wake of external economic pressures, the country cannot afford to go for an election.

"An election now would be distracting and potentially damaging for the economy, which needs to keep fighting to avoid the obvious casualties: jobs."

But faced with repeated declarations from Debono, who says he is no longer going to support government, the PN-led administration has no choice but to face a no-confidence motion which has been moved by the Opposition.

Agius knows that the clock is ticking, and his only weapon to keep his ship afloat is to keep all lines of dialogue open with his maverick MP.

He is extremely careful in the way he talks about Franco Debono, and even though it was he who signed the parliamentary group statement that calls for the MP's resignation, he is adamant to point out that Debono is still part of the PN parliamentary group.

"Franco is still part of our parliamentary group, and still is the chairman of the parliamentary select committee on re-codification and consolidation of laws, and also parliamentary assistant within the Office of the Prime Minister and has not resigned or been removed from any of these posts," he says, adding that he still corresponds with Debono with parliamentary group meeting agendas.

But you have signed a statement that calls for Debono's resignation, why is it that you still correspond with him?

"The statement invites Debono to resign if he persists with his position of voting against government in the no-confidence motion. So far Debono has just talked, and this is why the Prime Minister is still waiting for replies from Franco Debono."

He adds that Franco Debono will use government's time to address the House when debating the no-confidence motion, and is keeping constant dialogue with the MP.

Agius' tone may be pacifying, but as he speaks there is a long line of other MP's who have chosen a different path.

MPs Beppe Fenech Adami, Francis Zammit Dimech and Charlo' Bonnici have come out strongly to rubbish the Ghaxaq MP.

Speaking on Radio Malta yesterday morning, Beppe Fenech Adami went as far as to hint that Debono had 'offered' him a ministerial post if he supported his plan to oust Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi to take his place. The statement triggered an immediate reaction from Debono, who called Fenech Adami a "liar".

Perhaps naive to the stalemate and the reality of how things have continued to evolve, notwithstanding his efforts to bridge with Debono, Agius insists that "contrary to how Labour MPs had attempted to physically attack Dom Mintoff during the 1998 political crisis, the PN debates".

Agius's anxiety is evidently built on the fact that Debono is a good friend of his. They have known each other within the party since their youth, and beyond the possibility of losing a parliamentary majority which would inevitably lead the Prime Minister to call an election, he is genuinely concerned at Debono's future.

"He is young, a good lawyer and a good politician. He may be right on the reforms he is calling for, but the way he is handling that call is not correct," he says.

"Franco may disagree with the way government may respond to his insistence to the reforms he's calling for, but he must understand that every politician must never cross the line of respect towards the Prime Minister, whoever he may be."

Agius recognises that Debono is an MP who doesn't want the status quo and believes in the reforms he insists must be implemented, "but you definitely cannot cross the red line and attempt to take away the Prime Minister's only prerogative - that of appointing his Cabinet". I remind Agius that last week's Cabinet meeting at Castille ended with an official statement saying that it discussed the current political situation that developed after Franco Debono was "not given a ministerial post".

Does Agius agree with that statement? Does he believe that Debono has thrown in the towel with Gonzi for not appointing him minister in the latest reshuffle?

"Looking at it from a timing point of view, I am inclined to say yes... perhaps he really was eyeing a ministerial post."

According to Agius, on 6 January - the day Gonzi announced his Cabinet reshuffle - "Franco Debono was supporting government in the morning, until the reshuffle was announced in the afternoon and all hell broke loose, so yes I tend to believe that he may have wanted to be appointed minister."

He returns to talk about the 'fine line' every politician must never cross.

"Criticise, put your ideas forward, persevere, persuade, rock the boat with caution, but why attempt to break the chain of command, take away the Prime Minister's authority to decide on his ministers?"

This is perhaps Agius main point of contention with Debono, and probably the most difficult part of his attempts to keep the MP on board. How could all that has been said and done throughout these past weeks be forgotten?

"Believe me, the Prime Minister, and we as MPs within the parliamentary group have listened to him numerous times. He has since been entrusted to draft an important law on party financing, he has been given the chairmanship of the select committee on re-codification and consolidation of laws, given an important role as parliamentary assistant within the PM's Office, and also travelled with the Prime Minister on important official visits abroad..."

"So do I wish to see certain reforms being implemented, but I know that there are ways and means how things are done, but I will never attempt to dictate anything to the Prime Minister."

Agius believes in loyalty. "It's loyalty towards our constituents, to the party that got us elected under its ticket, to the leader..."

So what is Lawrence Gonzi saying about all this?

Agius says that the Prime Minister is disappointed in Debono. "He believes that he gave him all his trust and asks why he crossed the line when he had given him the space to do the things he asked for."

But is there a way out?

Agius pauses for a second and replies that for a way out, it would necessitate "two to tango..."

He adds that he was and still remains "confident" in a "solution" as has been the case many times when complicated circumstances developed within the party.

"Wasn't the John Dalli issue honourably solved with his complete re-integration within the party, and appointment to an important ministerial post in 2008 and later as European Commissioner? And what about the divorce issue? We managed to overcome the surprise motion and move forward, go for a referendum and implement legislation..."

But were these cases of dancing the tango?

"Well, take Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando's divorce bill... yes, we were stunned by his motion as he did not discuss the matter within the parliamentary group, but he subsequently followed the correct procedure and civilly debated the issue internally, and the debate that ensued was a democratic one and in full respect of the Prime Minister. Jeffrey was indeed in tango, and the PM, government and the party were in tango with him..."

Agius strongly denies any claim that the PN's battle call in 2008 - 'GonziPN' - is a "system" as is currently been described by Labour.

"GonziPN was and is no system. It is a name that was voted as Prime Minister instead of Alfred Sant in 2008 and nothing more. People preferred to trust the name Gonzi to Sant, and it is definitely not a system," he claims.

He goes on to explain how international leaders, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and recently US Secretary of State respectively praised Prime Minister Gonzi for his leadership in handling the economy and the Libya crisis.

Agius refutes any suggestion that the PN became an exclusionist party having since not parted with its GonziPN label. "I work within the party as an MP, and I have never felt nor seen any exclusionist attitude towards anybody."

Agius was a reporter for the PN's media during the political crisis in 1998 which had led to Alfred Sant to dissolve parliament after a mere 22 months in office.

He smiles as he remembers the days which kept a nation stuck to radio sets listening in to the debates and Dom Mintoff's long speeches. But Agius also remembers that the political crisis was sparked by Sant's handicap of leading a government with a one-seat parliamentary majority.

That same majority crisis is now threatening the Nationalist Party in government, and David Agius is no longer a reporter, but the PN's parliamentary whip.

Does he agree with suggestions that the Constitution must change to avoid governments holding a majority with a single seat?

"The issue is stability, and perhaps it would be a good idea to change things for the sake of guaranteeing stability to the country..."

But what about the principle of democracy I ask?

"Well, it's true, the question about whether it would be democratic to ensure a full term in office is valid, but we must find the appropriate and balanced solution to the problem, which in reality erodes from the stability any government or country would need."

He says that the issue of a one-seat majority in the House is also hindered by the fact that the Opposition has withdrawn from pairing, making it very difficult for ministers to travel and go about with their official duties.

In between phone calls and emails that inundate his cell phone, Agius admits that calling an election right now is not opportune for the PN, even though he tends to believe that another PN victory can be secured.
"On paper, it may look like the PN may suffer a landslide defeat, but with careful analysis, the PN has all the credentials to win yet again...

"If one looks at the successes in education, the environment and the economy, it is enough for any responsible voter to confirm the PN in office. Despite an international economic crisis we have faired well, and our unemployment rate is amongst the lowest in all Europe."

What do you believe are the PN's handicaps?

Agius doesn't mince his words to express his disappointment at the way government handled the ministerial honoraria issue.

"We did it all wrong, even though Labour's George Vella and Joe Mizzi knew about it, we handled it all badly, we communicated it badly, and Labour exploited it well, and this to their credit... hat's off to Labour there."

But is the honoraria the only thing? What about the public transport reform, or the fact that the PN has been in power for practically 25 years?

"We have implemented many important reforms.

"We were correct to implement them and the country has benefited from them. Perhaps certain aspects of their introduction were not as one would have liked, but ultimately they benefited all citizens.

"As for the fact that the PN has been in power for the past 25 years, one must not forget that although it may appear as a liability, it is also an asset.

"In 25 years we have changed a country, we have taken it into the European Union, and into the eurozone.

"We are fully integrated within the EU, our lifestyles have changed, all economic and social sectors have changed. Now coupled with this, in 25 years, Labour has not shown any change."

Agius says that Labour may have changed its leader, but while the PN in government has a brand new Cabinet, Labour has stuck to the same people, and claims that their ideas remain poor, if not obsolete.

Our meeting ends with Agius hurrying off to another meeting.

He parts with a remark that "the alternative to the PN remains a mystery... you never get any answers, they simply cannot be trusted".

The remark consolidates Agius's anxiety over the situation.

Tomorrow he will enter parliament and lead his group to face the system. It is do or die.  Next Thursday at noon, Franco Debono will determine the fate of Lawrence Gonzi's government.