The man who would (not) be king | Mario de Marco

Recently promoted to Tourism Minister as part of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet reshuffle, Mario de Marco is often touted as leadership material within the Nationalist Party. But does he really want the top job?

'The more MTA and Air Malta can sing from the same hymn-book to promote Malta, the better for all concerned' - Tourism Minister Mario de Marco
'The more MTA and Air Malta can sing from the same hymn-book to promote Malta, the better for all concerned' - Tourism Minister Mario de Marco

"I have never thought about it," Mario de Marco says simply, when asked about rumours that (given all the political uncertainty of the moment) he might be considering a stab at the Nationalist Party leadership himself. "There are others who have more qualities than I do..."

Echoing a recent interview headline, the newly-appointed Tourism and Culture Minister describes himself as a 'reluctant politician'. Naturally, not everyone is entirely convinced. Isn't this, I ask, precisely the sort of self-effacement that so often accompanies leadership aspirations? After all, history is full of highly ambitious politicians who have taken pains to project themselves as disinterested in power...

But de Marco sticks to his guns, and I have to admit that there is an undeniable ring of sincerity in his tone.

"I have absolutely no aspiration to lead the party," he insists once more. "For me, each step in politics is a big step in itself... and I am happy to take things one step at a time."

In his own quiet way, the 47-year-old lawyer has already taken quite a few steps up the political ladder. A Cabinet minister since the latest reshuffle on December 31, he was arguably the main beneficiary (together with Chris Said) of Franco Debono's backbench 'rebellion'.

Some saw this as an indication that he may one day form part of a triumvirate at the helm of the PN, alongside other plausible contenders such as Simon Busuttil.

But he recently dashed all such speculation by declaring absolute support for Gonzi ahead of this month's leadership contest.

Having so often publicly denied harbouring personal ambitions: how does de Marco account for such high expectations surrounding his career? And more to the point: how much of this same aura of expectation is directly attributable to his family pedigree, as son of the late former President Guido de Marco (arguably one of the more charismatic politicians in recent times)?

 "Comparisons, as they say, are odious," he almost sighs in reply. "But yes, inevitably you do get people who compare me to my father..."

Naturally, this places a certain pressure on the younger politician's shoulders... Guido de Marco being, by all accounts, a tough political act to follow.

"My father achieved a lot in his lifetime. And he started from zero - so everything he did was a significant and major achievement..."

But at the same time, de Marco sees more differences than similarities between himself and his better-known forebear.

"My father was a great extrovert," he points out. "I am not. I am probably closer to my mother in this respect. And my mother always said, 'having one mad politician in the family is more than enough!'"

Leaving family history aside, we turn to the goings-on in the Nationalist Party. I ask the Tourism Minister for his own view on the Prime Minister's choice to embark on a one-horse race for reconfirmation as leader. The date for the leadership election has now been fixed at 25 February... and, considering that parliament is meanwhile virtually hamstrung - reduced to meeting only when all MPs are in the country, in what appears to be a bid to avoid further embarrassing discomfitures in the House - how would de Marco respond to the charge that the Nationalist Party is deliberately prolonging uncertainty, in order to cling to power as long as possible?

De Marco acknowledges that this perception exists, but disagrees with the common assumption that early elections are the only solution to the current impasse.

"We are all talking about the national interest, and most would agree that this involves stability in the country," he begins. "The question therefore becomes: how does one achieve stability? Does it have to be through holding an election right now? Or can the same stability also be achieved through other means: for instance, by establishing a modus vivendi which would allow government to carry on governing for the time being, and call an election later in the year?"

De Marco also disputes the view that people would prefer going to the polls immediately (to be fair, this was before the results of our survey were published this morning).

"People want a sense of peace of mind", he says... consciously or unconsciously echoing one of the PN's less prophetic slogans from the 2008 election. "This is true also of industry. What they [businesses, companies, etc] are saying is that, if the only way forward is an election, then so be it... but is it really the only way forward?"

I counter that this line of reasoning sounds suspiciously like an excuse to justify delaying the inevitable. And doesn't it also vindicate the billboards (I just drove past one on my way to the interview) showing Lawrence Gonzi clinging desperately to the 'seat of power'?

In response, de Marco invites me to look at it another way. "If that were the case, Gonzi could have simply asked the council to reconfirm him as leader at the general council there and then last Sunday. He had just a delivered a great speech, there was an atmosphere of euphoria among the audience.., he could easily have asked for a show of hands, and he would have almost certainly been unanimously reconfirmed. But he didn't do that; he didn't take the easy path. Instead he chose the longer route... giving time for emotions to calm down before any decision is taken."

Nor, in de Marco's view, does the fact that he will be uncontested for the post (barring an unforeseen and highly unlikely change of script) diminish the overall credibility of the exercise.

"Don't forget it's a secret ballot. And I believe (you can check the party statute on this) that he needs two-thirds of the vote to win. If people want to show their disapproval they still can... by voting no, or not voting..."

They can even write 'no kacca, no vote' on the ballot-sheet, I jokingly suggest; but humour aside... in all these political-orchestral manoeuvres in the dark... aren't we all  missing the wood for the trees? Franco Debono's motives and methods may well be out of line with ordinary politics... but few would really deny that some of the issues he has raised are valid. There is a feeling out there that somewhere along the line, the Nationalist Party has lost at least part of its former ethos and identity. Debono's talk of 'hidden cliques' has clearly struck a nerve. Beyond all the empty shows of solidarity and support - the standing ovations, and the chants of 'Ghax ghandna Gonzi maghna'... isn't there also an underlying malaise gripping the entire party?

In a welcome break with Nationalist tradition, de Marco does not resort to the usual, immediate knee-jerk defence mechanism.

"I won't contest that there are problems," he replies without hesitation. "It would be a mistake to drive the message that everything is fine. Everything is not fine. We definitely need to reach out more, much more, and more effectively too..."

Asked to specify where, in is view, the PN went wrong, de Marco implies a subtle alteration in the party's overall political identity.

"The Nationalist Party has always been a party that groups together different people with different views. It was never a party of fundamentalists, but rather an alliance of both of liberals and conservatives. We can't forget that. It would be a serious mistake if one aspect of this identity took precedence over the other..."

As happened, for instance, in the divorce debate? De Marco nods. "The perception on that occasion was that the conservative element took dominance over the liberal one," he concedes. "We suffered a lot for it, and we are probably still suffering today. There is a lot of bridge-building that the party needs to do. I for one believe we need to work a lot more with young people..."

Coming back to the present political crisis: isn't this concern partly what is fuelling Debono's demands? Taking only one of his hobbyhorses - party financing. Did we really have to wait 25 years for such essential legislation to be forced onto the agenda in this way?

Here, however, de Marco feels compelled to remind me of the PN's record, and dismisses all charges that his government has neglected its obligations to reform the country in the interests of justice and liberty.

"I don't deny that the issues Debono raised are important. A law on party financing is a necessary piece of legislation and needs to be debated. But the Office of the Prime Minister was always in agreement with this; it even placed Debono himself in charge of the reform. It's not as though we were putting it on the backburner..."

He also points towards a litany of huge improvements effected by the Nationalist Administration concerning issues central to Debono's basic complaints: among them, police procedure.

"Policemen today are no longer 'walking warrants', as they used to be before 1987," he says. "Back then, any policeman with a grade of inspector could carry out a search or arrest without a warrant. This was one of the first things the Nationalist administration changed after winning the election..."

On administrative justice, he also points towards the establishment of the Ombudsman; the entrenchment of the European Convention of Human Rights, the many and various remedies now available through foreign courts.

"A lot of work has already been done," he continues... and while he admits that more reforms are needed; de Marco stresses that it would be unfair to suggest that the present government has done nothing at all about the issues raised by Debono.

One area where he himself recently effected an important legal reform concerned the censorship of theatre. The recent abolition of a stage and classification board- prompted by the outrage surrounding a ban on the controversial play Stitching in 2009 - was widely welcomed, though by the minister's own admission a lacuna still remains concerning printed literature.

"The regulations I introduced for consultation are aimed towards strengthening artistic expression. But they are only a single step. Certainly this is not the end of the process, but rather just the start..."

Pointing towards a 'vacuum' in the law regarding obscenity, de Marco reveals that he is in the process of setting up a working committee to address any remaining grey areas in that department.

"We need to start by assessing the legislation which can have a negative impact on expression," he asserts. "To be fair there already is an exception written into the law. According to the legislation, there should be no charges on grounds of obscenity, if it occurs in the context of a work of art or literature. The problem is, how do you define 'literature'? How do you define 'art'?"

I put it to him that these are questions that have been asked, without any broadly convincing answer, for literally thousands of years.

De Marco acknowledges that he does not expect to succeed overnight where the world's greatest thinkers have so far failed; but he has at least enlisted some of the foremost local literary (and legal) brains to come up with at least a workable solution to existing problems

"In the next few days we should be announcing the official working group. I have so far approached former judge Giovanni Bonello - who has enormous experience in legal matters, apart from being a writer himself - and he has expressed an interest. Also publisher Chris Gruppetta and author Caldon Mercieca..."

Once established, the group's remit will be to review existing legislation in order to remove archaisms, and to come up with workable legal definitions so that all parties concerned at least know where they stand.

So much (for now, at least) regarding the arts. De Marco's greater challenge, however, remains that of overseeing one of Malta's most sensitive and perennially problematic sectors: tourism.

I draw his attention to the fact that there has been a lot of talk recently about 'trouble' brewing between the Malta Tourism Authority (which falls under de Marco's portfolio) and Air Malta, the national airline currently being 'restructured' under the auspices of the Finance Ministry.

With characteristic frankness, de Marco confirms that tensions do indeed exist between the two entities.

"There is a lot of room for improvement in the level of the co-operation between Air Malta and the MTA," he admits. "MTA is obviously intent on seeking to improve the number of arrivals of in-bound tourists. At the same time, however, we have to acknowledge that Air Matta has been going through a difficult period. It is not an easy time for airlines the world over. Spanair, for instance, has only just folded. And the Hungarian government's restructuring plan for its own national airline was rejected by the Commission..."

Isn't this also true of Malta's plans for a capital injection? De Marco disagrees: in our case, he argues, the Commission objected only to certain aspects of the plan, without refusing it outright...but these are admittedly technicalities.

"I am please to note that Air Malta has managed to decrease its operational losses recently, and that despite having one less aircraft, it has more or less maintained its overall rate of passengers since 2010.

"Is this enough? No, clearly much more needs to be done. The more MTA and Air Malta can sing from the same hymn-book to promote Malta, the better for all concerned."