Man from the South | Joe Psaila Savona

Former tourism parliamentary secretary Joe Psaila Savona knows what it means to be a Nationalist candidate in the overwhelmingly Labour south of Malta. But while he sympathises with some of the issues raised by Franco Debono, he argues that open rebellion is not the way forward

Joe Psaila Savona: 'Now is certainly not the time to be suggesting radical reforms, that much is certain. You don’t find long-term solutions to problems in times of crisis.'
Joe Psaila Savona: 'Now is certainly not the time to be suggesting radical reforms, that much is certain. You don’t find long-term solutions to problems in times of crisis.'

"What does it feel like to represent the PN in a Labour stronghold in the south? Let's just say that you have to have..."

Joe Psaila Savona checks himself in mid-sentence. "You have to know what you're doing and also respect your adversaries," he resumes with a smile, "...especially if you're an old Sliema boy like me. PN candidates are the underdogs here; and like all underdogs in any contest, it's a tough race to be in..."

Psaila Savona first stood as a PN candidate in Zejtun at the toughest time possible: 1981, and was first elected to parliament in 1987... with successive returns in 1992 and 1996. Asked to comment on the change in political atmosphere between today and the early 1980s, he simply brushes aside all notions of comparison with a wave of his hand.

"The tension back then was, oh, 200 times as much as it is today, at least. Contesting today is a piece of cake..."

But even if echoes of Tal-Barrani are now very distant, Psaila Savona admits that when elections come along - even recent ones - a small fraction of the earlier tension seems to briefly make a comeback.

"To talk only about my own district, Zejtun: yes, people do change at election time. I have a medical practice here, and I engage with my patients all the time, in the most familiar way possible. I would guess around nine out 10 of them are Labour. Normally there is never any issue with this... but during elections some people tend to hold back... to be less forthcoming... and it carries over for a while into the post-election phase, too. But then things calm down, and everything goes back to normal..."

We are sitting in a sun-drenched living room overlooking Psaila Savona's garden on the outskirts of Zejtun, tucked away in a labyrinth of criss-crossing country lanes, all hemmed in by rubble walls. It is difficult to imagine any kind of tension against such an idyllic backdrop; but even I - who was a guest here once, long ago, as election results rolled in through the TV set in the corner - remember how you could (and some people actually did) slice through the Zejtun atmosphere with a knife.

Even today, there is still a palpable sense of difference separating 'north' from 'south' (Note: I use inverted commas because it is more of a political than geographical divide). Even Joe Psaila Savona admits that there is a overwhelming perception of 'the south' as a glorified dumping site for all the nation's unwanted material - the Freeport, power station, waste treatment plant, etc. - but he openly questions how much of this perception stands up to scrutiny.

"It's a card that people here like to keep up their sleeve," he says when asked to comment on the wave of popular disgruntlement currently driving the Franco Debono 'rebellion'. "Some of it is justified, but we tend to exaggerate the problems, too."

He also questions how many of these complaints can realistically be directed at post '87 governments. "The Freeport was a Mintoff initiative from the very beginning; he sowed the seeds for it. As for the power station, I was an MP when it was being discussed. If you only knew how many studies were carried out to identify other areas...

"In practical terms I don't think we have anything to grumble about really. The prime minister is from the south, after all. But still, I do understand the disgruntlement. I know where Franco Debono is coming from..."

Inevitably we turn to the topic of the moment, and at a glance - unlikely as the comparison may now seem - the two have more in common than might at first appear.

"I too was an Nationalist MP from the south," Psaila Savona recalls. "I too was returned to parliament with a healthy vote count. And I also ousted a long-standing candidate on my district: Cachia Zammit..."

Psaila Savona takes the opportunity to point out a little-known fact - he and Gonzi had both contested elections on the same district: but while Psaila Savona was elected in 1987, Gonzi had to wait until 1996.

"So, with Debono's criteria, my expectations after '87 should really have been higher than anyone else's.In 1987 an MP who was only elected because of the 'extra seats' clause was made minister, and an MP who was elected in a bye election was made parliamentary secretary. Should I not have been disgruntled?  But I always recognised that the appointment of Cabinet was the sole prerogative of the Prime Minister..."

The political context was also comparable to the present scenario. "After 1987 the PN governed with a one-seat majority in the House. And we had our differences also. But when it came down to brass tacks, there was absolute loyalty to the leader and to the party. It didn't even cross our minds to indulge in charades like this. But then, you have to also remember where we were all coming from at the time..."

Psaila Savona nonetheless sympathises with a few of Debono's arguments, if not his methods.

"Debono does have a point when he says that Cabinet posts should be allotted on the basis of meritocracy/ But there are more qualities to meritocracy than wisdom and intelligence alone. There is also party loyalty; patience; camaraderie, tolerance... a sense of appreciation that the leader has other things to deal with..."

Psaila Savona also credits Lawrence Gonzi with changing the prevailing political culture, though he acknowledges that this selfsame initiative marked the start of his present problems.

"I remember in 1966, when Prime Minister George Borg Olivier set up his Cabinet, it was practically the same Cabinet that he had appointed in 1962. As I recall there was only one difference: Vincent Tabone came in to replace Peppi Paris, and even then only because the latter had passed away. That was the culture at the time: ministers were expected to remain in place forever..."

That has now changed.

"Gonzi had promised to do away with old faces, in response to a popular demand for younger blood. Some ministers didn't take too kindly to that, and started grumbling. This clearly influenced Franco Debono. He saw, for example, how people like Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando were 'naughty' and got away with it. How people like Jean-Pierre Farrugia criticized government, and was listened to. Debono will have seen all this, and reasoned to himself; why not take the same concept one step further?"

But couldn't the same be said about the crisis of 1998, when a Labour government was similarly brought down by a rebellious backbencher? Unlike many of his former colleagues in the party, Psaila Savona has no difficulties admitting to that he liked the goings on then as much as he is disliking those of today.

"I was an MP back then, and yes, we were enjoying the whole scene: It would be futile to deny it," he says. "But there was a significant difference between the two scenarios. Although Mintoff was the problem back then, in practical terms it was Sant, not Mintoff, who brought the government down. Both Mintoff and members of the Opposition   had advised Sant to be careful. At the same time, Labour MPs were urging him to call Mintoff's bluff..."

Franco Debono, he continues, is in a sense doing the opposite: "He is challenging the Prime Minister to go to the President and dissolve parliament. He is actively trying to bring the government down..."

Still, Psaila Savona credits Debono with playing a shrewd political game... at least, until he pushed his luck too far.

"He was very good at assimilating what people were grumbling about, and building his strategy around their complaints. He knows what irks people, and how to take advantage of their disgruntlement."

As an example the Zejtun doctor points towards the recent public transport reform, which most would concur got off to a rather shaky start last July.

"True, there were big problems with the Arriva reform, and these needed to be addressed. But let's be honest: how often does Franco Debono use the bus? Did he bring this issue up because of a genuine interest in the case?"

But surely, I counter, an MP is well within his rights to voice his constituents' complaints, even if he himself is unaffected by the issue at hand...

"Yes, and I don't doubt the original complaints were justified, too. The monumental mistake made by Austin Gatt was to take on a mammoth task like reforming the bus service... and let's face it, many of the drivers are from this side of the island; I can assure you they are not the easiest people in the world to deal with.... But to present the reform, as Gatt did, as if it were a guaranteed success... and to try and do it all at once, too, instead of introducing gradual changes, step by step... I am all for necessary reforms, but if you're going to do something, do it right."

But while Psaila Savona acknowledges that the mistakes were serious, and that "something needed to be done", still he disagrees with the way Debono set about the issue.

"Again he has a point in his arguments; but for one person to hold the remaining 64 to ransom... that is is not correct, as what one's colleagues think matters, too."

This brings us to an apparent irony in the entire political impasse. Ever since he started making noises on the backbench, Franco Debono has been stressing the need for a wide-ranging Constitutional reform. On this aspect he may well find an unlikely ally in Joe Psaila Savona: who has likewise made similar calls, though separately and not from the privileged position of a seat in parliament.

Parts of the media have since taken up the cry; and not without any effect, for up until only a few weeks ago the President of the Repuiblic was also floating the idea of a national convention to initiate a process of Constitutional reform.

And yet, the current political crisis brought has now emphatically overshadowed the proposal, and it looks almost certain that an election will be held before any talks on Constitutional reform can even begin.

Isn't it ironic, then, that a 'revolt' intended to bring about change, will in the short term actually prevent that change from coming about?

"Now is certainly not the time to be suggesting radical reforms, that much is certain. You don't find long-term solutions to problems in times of crisis. For even if the parties do come together and reach an agreement, they will be looking at the situation only from their own perspective. They might be willing to agree on constitutional amendments: not necessarily for the right reasons, but to gain advantages for themselves. Ideally, the time to embark on this sort of reform is after an election; not before..."

Joe Psaila Savona reminds me that this is all territory we have been over in the past. "If you look at the 1987 Constitutional reform [the one that gave extra seats in case a party won a majority of votes but not seats] that should really have been considered only as a temporary measure. Once that election was out of the way, the sensible thing would have been to revise the electoral procedure to address this shortcoming on a permanent basis. But it never happened; and we are still stuck with a 'temporary' stopgap measure..."

As he expands on these and other failures, a certain frustration becomes almost visible in his eyes.

"The trouble is not so much that the parties never agree; it's often that they do agree, but only on issues where they have a direct interest to reach an agreement..."

As an example he turns to the eternally thorny question of electoral reform. "They agree to keep out third parties, for instance. How can they justify keeping out a party like AD? Because of instability? That's not an argument. It's always good to have a stable government, but not at at the cost of representation. And in any case instability is already here, without any third party in parliament. You cannot have a quota of people and not be represented in parliament..."

Psaila Savona freely admits that he longs for a truly new way of doing politics. "As a consumer, I think I can safely say that many people have had it up to their eyeballs with the ongoing political situation. I don't mean today's crisis; I mean the fact that for five whole years, the PN will say 'this' only because it pays them to say 'this'; Labour will  say 'that' because it pays them to say 'that'... Net News, One TV... they all do exactly the same thing. Not just in the months before an election, but for the full five years of the term. I would like to see a break with all this. I'd rather hear people say what they really think, than what it pays them to say..."

But... isn't this similar to the concerns raised by Debono?

Psaila Savona counters that what he finds objectionable is Debono's motivations and methods, and not the underlying premise that change is necessary.

"Like I said he was quite clever tactically in echoing public concerns. He won a lot of sympathy that way. But then he made the tactical error of going into a frenzy immediately after the Cabinet reshuffle. He gave his own game away. Now, I'm not saying that it's wrong to criticize the government. I could criticize Gonzi on any number of things... but to blackmail the government, that's something else altogether."

Meanwhile, the prospect of lasting change has only receded further into the background as a result of these and other shenanigans.

"Call me a dreamer, but what I would like to see is a totally different system in place: where Prime minister and Opposition discuss ideas between them, then put them forward for all parliament to discuss. And it would be possible too, if all sides could come together to discuss a serious programme of Constitutional reform. I admit it's a dream, but then again... how else do important things come about, if not as dreams?"

Joe Psaila Savona reminds me that this is all territory we have been over in the past. "If you look at the 1987 Constitutional reform [the one that gave extra seats in case a party won a majority of votes but not seats] that should really have been considered only as a temporary measure. Once that election was out of the way, the sensible thing would have been to revise the electoral procedure to address this shortcoming on a permanent basis. But it never happened; and we are still stuck with a 'temporary' stopgap measure..." Who was in power for practically the last 25 years? The interview in itself was very balanced.But JPS forgot to mention one thing: the present Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi voted against the will of the people in the divorce issue, and will have to pay heavily as Dr. Alfred Sant paid in 2003 General Elections when the referendum pointed the will of the people for Malta to join European Union. In politics you cannot afford to be hard headed, as Lawrence Gonzi is doing in today's circumstances once again. He should give the NP leadership to someone else in the best interest of the party and country. And the PN Government will be saved.