The rise of the Phoenix | David Agius

Nationalist Party whip David Agius is confident that the party will rise from its own ashes, stating that it has already emerged stronger after banning three MPs from contesting the forthcoming election on its ticket

Government whip David Agius
Government whip David Agius

Barely a few hours after the crucial meeting the PN's executive committee held on Thursday, the party's whip David Agius is confident that the party has emerged stronger and conveys a quiet sense of confidence ahead of the forthcoming election.

The Attard MP - who is entrusted with keeping discipline within the party's Parliamentary ranks - has first-hand experience on the internal ramblings that have kept the country guessing about the government's immediate political future.

After threatening the three rebel MPs - Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, Franco Debono and Jesmond Mugliett - with expulsion, the executive committee decided to ban the MPs from contesting the next general election on the party ticket.

Asked whether the presence of Eddie Fenech Adami during the executive's meeting bore any influence on the final decision, Agius quickly retorts that it was not the first time that Fenech Adami was present for the executive's meetings.

"It's not common, but he does show up sometimes. He has the right to be on the executive, as do all former party leaders and deputy leaders."

He denies that Fenech Adami's larger-than-life personality had any influence on the executive's decision. "He sat down with all other members, he did not intervene and the end result was very clear anyway."

Agius also notes that it is common practice to vote by a show of hands in the party's executive committee meetings "unless somebody requests a secret ballot, which nobody did in this case".

Asked why the party did not follow through with its reported intention to expel the three MPs, Agius explained that before Thursday's meeting, the party's administrative council decided that the course of action should be that of banning the MPs from contesting the next election on the party's ticket.

"The administrative council, which I form part of in my capacity as party whip, decided that these are the measures to be taken against the three MPs after they went against the whip's directions."

He adds that "the administrative council proposed this course of action and the PN's executive accepted and approved it on Thursday".

He believes that the PN is already stronger after Thursday's meeting because "the people are seeing that we have emerged as a better party. I can already gauge this confidence and the people do not accept that individual MPs vote against the will of the electorate after voting a party in government".

"We can disagree and exchange ideas but whoever contested elections with the party did so on the party's ticket and must therefore toe the party line. All MPs know that they cannot vote with the Opposition."

Despite the unprecedented difficulties the PN faced in this legislature, Agius appears confident about the future. "Whenever the Nationalist Party went through turbulent times the party has always emerged stronger. We did so in the 1980s, we did so in the EU referendum, and we will do so this time round."

The PN whip believes that the electorate is aware that investment "is still coming our way despite the current international difficulties" and the PN will be going to the polls without the three MPs "who created a few problems".

"We have the vision to lead the country and with the electoral programme completed soon, we have a fair chance to show that we have the right policies and the energy and drive to lead the country once again."

"People will ask whether they can trust us again and they will see that the three MPs who caused some problems will not be on our list of candidates," Agius says.

"Together, everything is possible. The people will see for themselves that we are a new united team, including experienced and new faces with a solid track record and compare us to an opposition with nothing to show."

Agius does not believe that the gap between the PN and Labour shown in polls is insurmountable, and notes that with a large section of the electorate still undecided, and with two out of every three young voters declaring that they will vote PN, "we can still make it".

He explains that a large chunk of the electorate will decide in the last week or two prior to the election and "whenever the election is held, we will go to the polls when it is the right time for the country".

Asked about whether the decision to ban the MPs was farcical when Pullicino Orlando and Mugliett had already declared that they will not be contesting the next election, Agius said: "There is a difference. The difference is that even if they change their mind and decide to contest the next general election,  they will not be allowed to."

Was this done to appear tough without the need of calling an early election? "That's not true. The feedback I have received from the people out there has been very positive."

He says that he has personally received a number of phone calls, SMSes and e-mails and the feeling is that the party has taken a bold and strong position without exceeding the limit. "That is how people are viewing things, and I agree."

Agius says the decision was a sensible one and that "it also gives a clear message to all Nationalist Party candidates in the forthcoming election that what happened in the last four years cannot ever repeat itself".

"Candidates must be aware that there is a party line which must be toed. If there is anything that you disagree with, you must raise the point internally and discuss it but you must also keep in mind that you should always respect the leadership and the majority within the party."

He says that MPs cannot destabilise the government just because it has a one-seat majority.

"I believe, although I am aware that not everybody might agree with my position, that in order to guarantee stability in the country, we must have a mechanism - similar to the one used in Greece - where the party which garners a majority is given a 'premio di maggioranza' of not less than three seats."

The MP adds that from his experience as whip during the last four years and even through the experience of the 1996-1998 Labour administration, the electorate should vote knowing beforehand that the party which wins the election, even by one vote, will be given a three-seat premium.

"This will ensure greater stability which can translate itself in job creation and more foreign investment. We must understand one thing here: foreign investors keep a very close eye on the political situation in Malta. We do not live in isolation. Yesterday I held a meeting with some foreigners who want to invest more in Malta but the first thing we spoke about was the stability in the country."

He explains that this is his own proposal. "I do not know what the future holds for us but I think the chances of this mechanism being implemented before the forthcoming election are slim. However, if a party wins the next election by a slim margin and has a one-seat majority, it will face the same problems because nowadays MPs operate in completely different circumstances to what we were used to."

"I do not believe there is broad consensus on both sides of the House over this issue but I do know that some MPs agree with me while others are vehemently opposed to this idea because they believe that if a party garners a one-seat majority it should govern with a one-seat majority."

Agius explains that this will deliver "the stability which our families and workers crave for and a government that is able to implement the electoral programme the majority voted for".

Is he ready to sacrifice strict proportionality for stability? "Yes, because the electorate wants the party voted in by the majority, irrespective of how large the majority is, to govern. This mechanism will guarantee stability."

Asked whether the internal unrest is a symptom of the GonziPN coalition formed before the 2008 election, Agius answers in the negative.

"It was a question of individual MPs calculating their strength in these particular circumstances and we have all seen what this has resulted in."

Agius elected from the seventh and 11th districts for two consecutive elections believes that the rebel MPs personally wanted to convey a message but at the end of the day the country came out on the losing end.

"As a result the country lost a minister and a representative of the people. We now face a situation where an MP, together with a group of other MPs, can get rid of anyone they deem fit, be it a director, a minister or an ambassador. The way things are today, Parliament can get rid of anyone."

Although he believes that an MP has every right to disagree with the government, he says that the opposition must be dealt internally and the will of the majority must always prevail.

"I have had disagreements myself. However, I speak directly to the person in question, which could be a minister or even the Prime Minister. We exchange ideas, discuss things and convince each other one way or another. However, the will of the majority must be respected at all times."

He explains that in the past, there have been instances in which his ideas were not accepted, such as the sharing of TV rights by competitor companies.

"This did not go through. Recently in Italy, Mediaset and Sky reached an agreement to share TV rights. Maybe, Malta will get there too."

"You have an agreed electoral manifesto and then there are other issues which are external to the manifesto. Individual MPs have a right to champion such issues, but there's a limit. And in recent weeks, three government MPs voted with the opposition or abstained and the red line was crossed. That is why we have taken disciplinary action."

During Thursday's meeting, Mugliett argued that he did noting wrong because he did not vote against the party's electoral programme.

Agius says this is a valid point from his end, "but Mugliett did not vote with government on the Cachia Caruana motion and did not inform me of this. This isn't acceptable. He could have approached me and spoken about this and we would have tried to find a solution together".

"It would have made a difference. In the past we have had similar situations, with a number of MPs voicing their disagreement on a number of issues such as the St John's Co-Cathedral car park and the Special Purpose Vehicles. We discussed things and they were resolved. However, in recent weeks, the red line was crossed by the three MPs."

Asked whether he feels responsible for the recent events that unfolded, he emphasises that one can always claim that more could have been done. "But I have always been very approachable and open to discussion with all MPs. I keep everybody informed and updated."

"In the particular circumstances we were in, I humbly believe that I performed to the best of my abilities. I assure you that if I could have done anything to prevent the situation from escalating in the way it did I would have done so."

Agius was appointed Parliamentary Whip a few months after the 2008 election. He says that he never expected to deal with such a difficult situation.

"I expected to face some kind of difficulty since I was aware of the one-seat majority but I never expected to face the difficulties which cropped up."

He explains that after the initial debacle (when Franco Debono failed to show up in Parliament in 2010), things were revised and Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi dedicated time every Monday to meet MPs in Parliament.

Agius calmly notes that the party leadership could have done more to avoid this situation, "but we have always put the country's interests first. We must remember that while the party was dealing with these internal ramblings, the country was going through an international economic crisis, the Libya crisis and carrying reforms in public transport, pensions, health, the environment, among other sectors".

The problems the PN had with the three MPs must not be taken out of the wider context, he says. "We were dealing with many other things and the prime minister had to ensure that jobs were created, investment attracted and Malta was not badly hit by the international recession while hearing what the MPs had to say as well. He still had time for them and this has been confirmed by Robert Arrigo, Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando and Franco Debono."

"It takes two to tango but you cannot expect anyone - the prime minister included - to grant someone or do something he cannot possibly do," Agius says.

Since Debono was the only one to have expressed a desire to recontest the next election, I ask Agius whether Debono is right to feel hard done by the party's decision.

"No all three were affected equally. When you militate in the Nationalist Party and you are hit by such disciplinary action it is obvious that you will feel hurt as much as Richard Cachia Caruana and Carm Mifsud Bonnici hurt when they had to relinquish their posts and as much as the prime minister and other government MPs hurt when these votes went through."

Agius says that the three rebels might have believed that they were doing the right thing, and when they failed to convince the party, they kept on insisting on their point. However, Agius says that they had to face the inevitable consequences for their actions. Agius adds that although the decision to ban the MPs is final, things may still change in the coming weeks.

The PN's executive will be reconvening to hear the request tabled by Pullicino Orlando to expel Cachia Caruana for having colluded with the Labour Party in the 1996-1998 period and to decide on Franco Debono's request to remove the condemnation issued by the party last week.

On the Cachia Caruana case, Agius says that the PN's executive is not a court. "We will hear the witnesses and decide after listening to what they have to say."

A visibly concerned Agius says that such issues are alienating the people from the real issues. "Nobody will earn a living though the opposition's motions, no new jobs will be created through the behaviour of the opposition and some of the government's MPs."

"We have given these motions and positions their due importance but our priorities remain strengthening the economy, education and health."

Has Thursday's meeting weakened or strengthened the government which only has a one-seat majority? "We will only know in October, when Parliament reconvenes and take it on from there."

Following Franco Debono's announcement that he will not be supporting the government as long as Austin Gatt stays on as minister, Agius says that "it's up to Franco".

"My doors are always open. I have spoken with Franco this morning and he informed me that he will not support the government as long as Austin Gatt remains a Cabinet member. I told him not to rush in his decisions and take such decisions at the right time."

Faced with the question on whether this means that the government is still on life support, Agius says: "We have shown that whenever people are open to discussing issues and show a good will we have always found a solution. If not, and if Franco Debono or anyone else - including Jeffrey or Jesmond - vote against the government, we will call an election."

"That's how democracy works and unlike Labour, we have never stayed in power for one day more then we should have. The decision not to expel them was not influenced by the decision to call or not to call an election but it was only influenced by what the country needs," Agius stresses.

"We cannot drive the country to bankruptcy for our own political interests. We will call an election when it is in the country's best interest.

"If the opposition is so power-hungry and wants to go to the polls immediately, it will be up to the people to decide who really has the country's interest at heart."

More in Interview
Didn`t a very popular German Minister resign because of plagarism?
How can the Zombie arise from the dead if it hasn`t been killed yet? The country is bankrupt.. The GonziPN Party cannot survive without power.
Better Future
Ghaziz David, nahseb li ghadek zghir wisq fil-politika Maltija li ggalek tbassar "that the party will rise from its own ashes," mur mawra sas sena 1971 u tara li t-tbassir ta' Borg Olivier li se nitilghu mil-hama li konna fija spiccat fix-xejn meta tlifna l-elezzjoni ghax is-sitwazzjoni kienet simili tal-present. Aqra ftit id-diskorsi fil-Mass Meetings etc etc u titalem ftit.
Dr. David Pollina
Does this guy want to be taken seriously? The party is as good as dead and its very clear that there is so much back stabbing between them. This reminds me so much of the now defunct democristiani italiani who were so very friendly with the pn.
Raymond Mintoff
That is what my grandpa of 90 years used to say ad hope about his ding-a-ling.
john spiteri
What a disgrace; he cheated three times and is still an MP! Only in Malta!
Lennex Brincat
Dear David, you have to and you must be joking.
Who are the former party leaders and deputy leaders before Fenech Adami. Are they all dead or what?
Stephen Xuereb
Sorry, but cheaters will always be cheaters and they do not have my trust in anything they say or do. David Agius cheated at this university exams THREE TIMES - while my son who was in the same Uni course as him ( and many other students) swotted and studied like a maniac to pass exams. In any other country this man - a cheater - would have been kicked unceremoniously out of parliament for such dishonourable behaviour. In Malta we make him a Whip - a disciplinarain on all the other MPs. This is Gonzipn - its values and standards. L-aqwa li yes- man!
albert leone
Hekk kien qal darba fuq il-Pajjiz f'wiehed mill budget speeches tieghu Bonello Dupuis.....meta id-dejn u l-bejgh tal-assi tal-pajjizkienu bdew telghin u mhux il-Phoenix! Kollox ihobb jikkopja is-Sur David Agius, u kull darba jinghabad!
Lino Micallef
the party's whip David Agius is confident that the party has emerged stronger Yes stronger it showed last thursday with thugs and known crinminals by the front door of Dar Centrali Pn, that is stronger I must admit and becomes stronger on Tuesday this week for sure.
mark bonavia
Raymond Mintoff
That is what George Bonello De Puis said about Malta's finances years on and Malta is €5 billion plus in the red.David when are you going to come out with some original idea?
Raymond Mintoff
That is what George Bonello De Puis said about Malta's finances years on and Malta is €5 billion plus in the red.David when are you going to come out with some original idea?
Monique Vella
"... the party's whip David Agius is confident that the party has emerged stronger and conveys a quiet sense of confidence ahead of the forthcoming election." Wishful thinking. But please keep it up.

Get access to the real stories first with the digital edition