The persuasion of politics | Mario de Marco

Despite the long shadow cast by his late father, Mario de Marco was dubbed as a ‘reluctant politician’. Now, however, the Minister for Culture, Tourism and the Environment appears to be fully in line with the PN party agenda… though he dismisses any aspirations for leadership outright

'I do not entertain speculation', says Culture Minister Mario de Marco on leadership ambitions
'I do not entertain speculation', says Culture Minister Mario de Marco on leadership ambitions

It's something that he has repeatedly stated, but it's quite hard to believe that Mario de Marco was in fact once known as the "reluctant politician" - a title bestowed upon him by former court colleague Gavin Gulia.

He is the son of late President Emeritus Guido de Marco - who is (up to a certain point), an embodiment of the Nationalist Party, and practically an institution within the PN.

On his decision to enter politics, the 46-year-old lawyer rejects the suggestion that it was the natural path to follow given his father's legacy.

"Not at all... in fact I resisted for a long time," he says.

I meet the Culture, Tourism and Environment Minister at his office at Auberge d'Italie. It's a big room with papers and files strewn all over the desk and a table with a flip chart board sitting on the side.

I smile inwardly as he welcomes me in, excuses himself for making me wait and insists he has been very busy. His busy-looking office can vouch for that.

We speak briefly about his initiation into politics.

"As I was saying... even though I resisted it for a long time, you still feel the urge within you. I always actively followed my father in politics and I regularly attended the meetings that used to take place.

"I grew up in the 80s, when politics was everything everyone spoke about and breathed. It was very difficult to run away from politics," he says.

With a far-away look in his eyes, he recalls how he never took a conscious decision to be involved in politics or to become a PN candidate.

"But then came the 90s, and I decided I wanted to get at least marginally involved within the party structure. Even though I had been elected to serve as a representative of the first district on the party executive, I still resisted the temptation of becoming a candidate for the general elections.

"I then decided to take the plunge literally when Dr Fenech Adami called the general elections of 2003."

This was right after the Maltese voted in the referendum approving Malta's accession to the European Union. Malta was ready for the big step and then prime minister Eddie Fenech Adami wanted a general election to support that choice.

"I remember Joe Saliba - at the time the PN's secretary general - calling me and saying 'listen, you have to give us an answer... the executive committee will be approving the final list of candidates. Are you in?' And that's when I decided to give my contribution to the party and to be part of that team," de Marco says.

De Marco was successfully elected and spent five years as a backbencher.

"Was it a natural choice for me to contest? Definitely not. In fact, Gavin used to describe me perfectly with his 'reluctant politician' description," he laughingly admits.

 "But in life, I believe that the bottom line is that whatever you do, you give it your best. And that has been the attitude to anything I've done. I am giving it my best shot and as long as the Prime Minister and the people have faith in me I will continue to give my damn best."

Throughout the interview, I get the feeling that he hates being caught off-guard, and that he's overcautious.

He himself admits that he hates rushing into decisions, but insists that once the decision is taken, there's no looking back.

"I like being informed and I literally hate it when people simply shove something in front of you and expect you to decide there and then," he says. "I would want to see all angles of a situation before deciding ... but once I've decided it's decided. Life has taught me there is an angle to every story."

And with the same decisiveness he speaks about his modus operandi, he refuses to "entertain speculations" that he might be eyeing the post of leading the PN.

"Dr [Lawrence] Gonzi is the leader and I refuse to entertain any speculation on the matter. My task as a minister is to succeed in the three areas I am responsible for and, as an MP, to see that our country continues to progress in the local and international scenario."

But would you consider contesting the leadership race if one were to be called?

"I do not entertain speculations," he reiterates.

Because for de Marco, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi enjoys all the characteristics that a "true" leader of the Nationalist Party should hold.

"I think the general characteristics that have always characterised our PN leaders from all times have always been to have the right vision for the country and having the necessary courage and stamina to take that vision forward," he says.

"Looking back at history, the PN has always been on the right side, determined very much by the vision of its leaders. Because having the vision sometimes is not enough. A true PN leader should have the courage and stamina to pursue that vision."

De Marco hails his leader as the man who had courage to take important decisions and carry drastic reforms during the international crisis.

"Notwithstanding the crisis, this government has managed to obtain encouraging and positive results be it in tourism, manufacturing or the financial sector.

"Obviously I understand that people are concerned about the precariousness of their jobs, that the income of the breadwinner may not be enough to make ends meet. But at the same time, we cannot ignore that we have the lowest unemployment rate of the European Union and that we have managed to create thousands of jobs throughout all of this."

De Marco added that, together with the hard work of the Maltese, all this was possible because of Gonzi's "courage and stamina" and his ability to take decisions without ever looking back.

But isn't he worried that all these "positive results" are being tarnished by the ongoing internal conflicts within the party?

"Stating these have been the most challenging of times is obvious and to pretend they don't exist is foolish. But in truth, it is the reputation of the political clad that has been tarnished as a result of recent events.

"The general public has had enough of politics and politicians. As a result people will not only refrain from taking politics and us politicians seriously but more worryingly, today's youth will no longer be attracted towards becoming the political class of tomorrow."

But describing it as 'challenging times' is putting it mildly. In just under half a year, Gonzi was faced with three votes of confidence, to the resignation of a minister, the defection of MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando from the PN and having to accept a coalition agreement with Pullicino Orlando.

We need not forget backbencher Franco Debono's continuous outbursts and demand for ministers to shoulder their "political responsibility".

But for de Marco, all this is not reason enough for the Prime Minister to be forced to call early elections as the issues has now become "academic".

"Ultimately everyone has his ideas on when to call elections or why to go to an election. And this is one of the few things that are totally of the prerogative of the Prime Minister. Obviously there are situations where constitutionally, he has to call elections, but so far this is not the case," he says.

He insists that one should distinguish between what the prime minister should do constitutionally, politically or morally.

"Whether he should do it politically, there are 101 arguments in favour and arguments against. Undoubtedly the bottom line is that now we are seven months away from the full term. So from now on any time could be ripe to call a general election.

"We all know that from six, seven, eight months before the end of the term, the party in government starts gearing itself up so that at any point in time an election can be held."

But are you truly comfortable with an MP who is constantly demanding change either in government or within the party, especially when his demands came at the expense of former minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici?

De Marco looks at the papers in front of him and takes a deep breath. After a moment he says: "I think Franco Debono says a lot of things and I think sometimes he says too many things which he does not think through. This is unfortunate, because he has all the characteristics to be, if he wants, an effective MP."

He pauses again to find the correct words: "But unfortunately, he seems to be channeling his energy in the wrong direction."

De Marco adds that other MPs (himself included) knew what it was like to be backbenchers full of energy wanting to serve.

"But this doesn't give us the right to do some of the things that Franco Debono has done over the past four years. It's a pity, because Franco had a lot to offer, but he seems to be intent on burning his career."

But Debono wasn't on his own in criticising the PN: European Commissioner John Dalli has accused the executive party of alienating its supporters; De Marco himself has described the PN as a "bleeding party".

Yet he reiterates that the PN's strong foundations will help it move forward.

"Ultimately, it's the foundations that count and the PN's are strong. Remember that the PN has always been a kaleidoscope of different opinions, different views that are brought together under a common vision, however contradictory it may sound," he says.

So why did the Prime Minister vote against the will of the people over the divorce issue if he was so open to accepting different opinions?

"Fair enough. Valid point," he says. "However, what we are ignoring is that Dr Gonzi gave us the full liberty to vote as we wished on the issue of divorce, while he guaranteed that the legislation would pass. I myself voted in favour of divorce."

So why condemn Debono for voting against Mifsud Bonnici, especially when he presented a 22-point motion with suggestions for the reform within the justice and home affairs?

"Nobody has condemned Franco Debono for presenting a motion. He was condemned for voting on an Opposition motion which, among others, censured Carmelo for a stolen generator and three cars that failed their VRT tests," he says.

He concedes that it could have been probably a better idea if government had put forward on the agenda Debono's motion earlier in the year.

"But at this point in time, it becomes historic and academic. Where Debono in my opinion irked was voting with Labour on a motion where the reasons put forward did not warrant the removal of a minister," he adds.

After the resignation of Mifsud Bonnici, the Prime Minister's problems continued to grow with the Opposition motion censuring the defeated former permanent representative to the EU Richard Cachia Caruana.

It didn't stop there.

Pullicino Orlando asked the executive committee to expel Cachia Caruana - a member of the PN for over 30 years - from the PN. Gonzi insisted that Cachia Caruana should be given the chance to defend himself.

Gonzi's strong defence of Cachia Caruana has however raised criticism by John Dalli, who accused him of never sticking out his neck when he [Dalli] had been falsely accused of fraud.

But de Marco insists the two cases were different, especially since there was no motion asking for the expulsion of Dalli.

"In the case of Dalli it was totally different. He was a minister. At one point in time there were some serious allegations vis-à-vis Dalli and he was asked to resign.

"But subsequently to that resignation, he was reappointed minister during the 2008 general elections. In other words, I think that the prime minister had showed that he enjoyed full trust in John Dalli by appointing him as the minister responsible for health and social policy."

Was this enough to seal the rift between Dalli and Gonzi?

"I think it's obvious that John Dalli still feels hurt by what has happened and it's a pity that he still feels remorse inside," he says.

"I think in life you have to look forward and you have to move on. I don't want to be critical of John Dalli, who I know to be a very competent person, but unfortunately sometimes he doesn't seem to move on. And John needs to move on. He cannot keep delving on in the past, as to what happened seven, eight years ago. Because seven, eight years ago in politics is ancient history."

Isn't it ironic that you are describing eight years as "ancient history", when the PN's campaign is hitting at Labour for what happened 20, 30 years ago?

"It's delving into the past for one, very obvious reason: that the people who are in the PL today are unfortunately still the same people of 30 years ago.

"I look at the benches opposite to where I sit in parliament and what I see is probably the same sight my father saw when he was an MP. While the PN has succeeded in totally renewing itself, the same cannot be said for the opposition."

I turn back to the Cachia Caruana case and ask why the de Marco family never commented on Cachia Caruana's reference to Guido de Marco in the secret recordings broadcast by the Labour media.

"We had no reason to say anything about Richard Cachia Caruana, because at no point did he say that my father was in any way implicated in the attempt on his life.

"That was a totally malicious and false headline by the Labour Party. And that is why we condemned it."

De Marco says that "In the transcript, Richard sounds upset that 'the de Marco children', as he puts it, had taken up the defense of Meinrad Calleja. Presumably he was referring to my sister, who is a criminal lawyer, and who for a time was one of Meinrad Calleja's lawyers. As a lawyer, my sister was ethically and professionally bound to take up the defense of a person who sought her counsel.

"From a layman's perspective however, one can possibly understand Richard's reaction, given that they knew each other, as it is a common reaction among those who may not be familiar with the duties and responsibilities of the legal profession. One always has to understand all sides."

De Marco adds that Cachia Caruana's comment - the "this must be some ruse by Richard" attributed to Guido de Marco - may have been an impulsive comment arising from a moment of anger.

"There is no reason for me to get offended because Richard expressed being upset. Then even when you look at what he said about my father, again he didn't pass any disparaging comments ... with all due respect, it is much ado about nothing," he adds.

De Marco concedes that there had been clashes between Cachia Caruana and his father:

"Richard and my father had their own style of doing things. My father was a politician, Richard was not a politician.

"My father was a very independent person believing in what he did. Richard was a political animal.

"So being a party person as opposed to a politician, he firmly believed in trying to centralise things as much as possible within the party structure or within the Office of the Prime Minister. Obviously my father - very much an independent person - never felt comfortable with having to account what he was doing to people."

De Marco adds that despite the clashes, the two men held each other in high respect and, a few weeks before he passed away, Cachia Caruana and his father dined together.

Mario is sure not made of ministerial stuff never mind leadership material. It simply the De Marco name that really is in play with Mario he should have stuck to being a lawyer.As regards his father it is better that we simply remeber him as PN politician who did utmost to further the party's aspirations and simply leave it at that. I believe the Demarco family were supposed to be taking legal advice regarding the ONETV airing a very interesting recording in which his father was mentioned, whatever happened about this?
The politics of persuasion - yeah, say it again...getting 600E behind our what do you call that Dr DeMarco? The politics of convenience? With all due respect, we have politicians with big mouths but act exactly the opposite what they say! If you inspire to be a leader one day, past actions don't really augur well.
dr.demarco must first learn to listen and serve people and not take them for a ride.Unfortunately, politicians like him at present there are few around , and can only do harm to our nation
Mhux hekk qalu "Ghalina u ghall Uliedna". The Fenech Adami, Demarco, Mifsud Bonnici and now the Gonzi Dynasties". Flimkien kollox Possibli.