Not standing for the sake of it, but to win | Tonio Fenech

In the wake of declaring his decision to stand for the deputy leader contest within the Nationalist Party – together with Simon Busuttil – Finance Minister Tonio Fenech remains adamant in his drive to ensure that the PN remains ahead of the political game… with Lawrence Gonzi as its leader.

Tonio Fenech
Tonio Fenech

I meet Tonio Fenech at the Ministry of Finance on Saturday morning. It has never been easier to get an interview with the Finance minister.

In the wake of him accepting to contest the PN deputy leadership race alongside Simon Busuttil, I ask him: "I believe that you had an inkling of the support that existed within the structures of the party before you took such a decision. Is this the case?"

He says that obviously a few weeks ago, when Tonio Borg was nominated as Commissioner, he discussed the issue with the Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi, who said that he should consider standing for the deputy leadership.

"I must say it was not an easy decision, because of my responsibilities as Minister of Finance."

Did Gonzi not only anoint Simon Busuttil but in more than one way, pushed him to become more visible in the public eye?

Fenech says: "In public, there is this perception. I made it very clear that if the party had decided that Simon would be deputy leader, then I would not contest. The PM clearly assured me that this was not the case.

"Simon is playing an important role - he is the link to civil society."

Indeed, this very role has angered ministers who have seen him take diametrically opposed stands on various issues.

"This is a role that could not have been taken by a Minister of Finance... the PM has encouraged me, with others, to take this step."

But did he check to determine whether he did in fact have the necessary support he needs, among councillors, and whether they would want to see him as deputy leader?

"I discussed the matter with a number of colleagues in Cabinet, as well as councillors. Yes, I have found them to be supportive - even more than I had expected. I have had 130 nominees, which gives me a true challenge for this post. I will be contesting in full respect for Simon. He has given a true contribution - we work together - but unfortunately there is a contestation. It is very important for the councillors to be given a choice.

"I have worked very well the PM and serve the party well to ensure continuity and at the same renewal.

"We have to see that the party is a party for tomorrow, to build on our successes and to be relevant."

Apart from his proven record, where does he see the PN in the next 10 years? What is his vision?

"I believe the party does have a vision. The only reason that the PN has remained in government for quarter of century is because it has managed to renew itself. At present we have a new generation of ministers. This is the most beautiful thing: that Lawrence Gonzi has the youngest team of ministers ever.

"The people we have on board enable us to look into the future. I am able to bring a lot of ideas together and to provide a consensus. There are different thoughts within the party - and something that I'm able to do is bring people together. That is very important, and it's a crucial ingredient when it comes to planning for future."

Fenech appears to be sure of himself as he says:

"I listen a lot and mould one's own belief."

I tell him that many people perceive that he has capabilities. How would he face the new challenges and the new society?

He goes about answering the question in a roundabout way:

"Society is changing rapidly- I believe that the party has its values... if we do away with them we will become irrelevant."

What if he is overtaken by events, such as was the case with divorce?

"On divorce, everyone knew what I thought. I made it very clear in parliament. I would have loved divorce not to come into my country, but I abstained to allow democracy to take its own course. My principles will not be moulded by surveys.

"I'm talking about politicians... yes, within the Labour party I see certain candidates worrying about surveys not about their beliefs.

"Now more than ever, we need to make it a priority to ensure that our country is advancing, and keeping abreast latest technologies, which will allow us to break down frontiers. Where I think we have delivered is for all to see in aviation, gaming, financial sectors which have grown. Though I would not like to take all the credit for this..."

He goes on: "I was also entrusted to take on Vision 2015. There are social realities that we have tackle, and we have to outreach too and to remain relevant.  In no way have I made choices that are not respectful of other people's decisions."

When I point out some the serious mistakes of this administration, he is at the ready with the classic answer: "The only people who do not make mistakes are those who do nothing. Every decision taken was taken in good faith." 

I remind him that when local politicians talk to constituents, they complain about the €500 a week increase to Cabinet ministers, they refer to the high cost of living, they question certain reforms (about red tape... and about being forgotten).

"This government has engaged in 25 years of reforms - I carry out home visits, I listen to the good and the bad. I have just talked to a woman who returned to the island after a 10 year absence - to realise that she returned to a far better Malta."

Then what are people not seeing, I ask?

"People tend to forget that we have low unemployment rate and economic stability.  When economy is not the issue, they start to look at the other issues. In reality, a nation can only handle a number of reforms. There are a lot of more pressing issues that need to be tackled, and that will be tackled, as our electoral programme will indicate. And we have always learnt from mistakes."

I remind him that in 2004, Lawrence Gonzi spoke of "a new way of doing politics". I failed to see any of it, I mention meritocracy as an example.

"If you see the people who are being appointed, you will note that there are several new faces. We have more women in directorships. Unfortunately the real disgruntlement comes from those people who want to be reappointed. This has left Lawrence Gonzi suffering."

But would he appoint someone with Labour leanings to a board?

"That appointed person has to have the same vision of the government, you cannot have someone who has an opposing view. Competent people should be appointed, especially in the management segments. There needs to be distinction between the directors and the management."

On political dissidence - with respect to Franco Debono and Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando - did he find their 'lament' justified, or does he think it's rooted in political pique?

"I would not like to judge people, personally. I believe we need diversity - but I strongly believe that the discussions should be carried out within the structures of the party. This exists within every structure. At Cabinet, we do not agree about everything - but once you take a decision, it should be supported by everyone. This is what some members do not seem to appreciate anymore. I uphold the decision by the party not to allow them to contest, but we did not expel them. They simply lack the ability to remain in a team."

This subject has been afforded more attention than it deserves.

And so I turn to the budget.

Will the budget be a pre-election budget which will depart from the requirements we expect from a cautious one?

"I think that we live in a complete structure that did not exist before - as you know I have been discussing for the eighth sitting on the fiscal union with former Labour prime minister Alfred Sant. The budget has a strong dose of pre-evaluation - we have to present to the commission - as to what we are seeing in terms of economic assumptions.

"If the commission's judgement would have been negative in terms of the deficit for the next year - it would have asked to introduce measures to reduce that gap. That would have meant taxes - it would have been impossible for me to contest.

"This now allows me to plan a budget with a certain tranquillity. It will still be a credible budget." 

If the commission would deem the budget unacceptable, the PN would be hard hit.

It will have the same focus on growth, but it will financially viable? The opposition has always accused every budget of being a pre-election budget. We only have an election early next year.

Did he expect the budget to pass?

"No. Very likely it will not, but the government has a responsibility to present the  budget."

There are legal provisions in the eventuality that a budget does not pass and an election is called.

"A new government would have to present a new budget and in that case, I would be very curious to see Joseph Muscat's budget..."

In the event that he wins the contest, is he aware that the councillors, the PN activists and the electorate will not only see him in his role as deputy prime minister - they will also begin to view him as a potential replacement to Gonzi.

I ask him if he is aware that the councillors are not looking at this as a simple vote for a deputy leader.

"First of all, we have to appreciate that this is the first time that the party is organising a deputy leadership just before the election. This is a post for a five-month period. I offered my services because at this point in time, the party needs the best effort to win the forthcoming election.

"I am convinced that people out there perceive me as being hard working and therefore by being close to the PM, I am putting across the message that we are concerned with bread and butter issues such as the creation of jobs.

"I will continue to put forward that in the Nationalist party, we have the right leadership. But it is a post for the deputy leadership - not for the leadership. We have a leader, and that man is Lawrence Gonzi and it is my job to see that he is elected Prime Minister in the next election."