PN deputy party leadership Q&A | Tonio Fenech

Tonio Fenech
Tonio Fenech

1. Since becoming a junior minister in 2004, you have rose fast in the ranks and become one of this government's main ministers: the Nationalist government has still failed to win any decisive majority since 2008. With your bid for the deputy leadership election and a general election round the corner, how will it be different this time around?

The situation in 2008 was no much different than it is today. The Party had lost the previous EP and local elections, and trailed Labour in the polls. During a legislature people tend to focus only on what they perceive to be the performance of a Government. The fact that many people perceive us to be too long in power tend to fell that its time for change even though generally out policies tend to be preferred to Labour's. I hope the deputy leadership contest, irrespective of the councillors choice, will serve to open peoples eyes to the fact that this party is full of young politicians, both Simon and myself are 43, as are most of Cabinet Ministers today, that can continue offer the true change this country continues to aspire to.

As elections approach, and particularly in troublesome economic times, a few, crucial issues take priority: your job prospects and security, who will deliver on the economy, pensions, health and a better future.

Time and time again, the Nationalist Party has proven to be the party to offer the solutions that have ensured financial and economic stability, translated into investment and better jobs and more opportunities for everyone - irrespective of their abilities. Europe is still deep in crisis, it is thanks to this iGovernment's economic and financial responsibility there was no need for the tough austerity measures being taken elsewhere - but unfortunately we may still be hit indirectly by such measures.

Trade will suffer, tourism will face further challenges. This is why the country does not afford to gamble with its future for the sake of change. This is why families will need a government that offers the stability, jobs and peace of mind. And the PN's role - and this is why I believe can offer a more important role if elected - will be to explain the real situation out there, and why it can continue to build on the successes achieved so far.

2. The polls show the PN trailing behind Labour. Can the PN win the next general election? How can you - a finance minister who has to take responsibility for such unpopular issues such as energy bills for one - swing back voters who have already decided to vote Labour?

I am convinced the PN can still win the election if it can manage to convince the electorate that only we have the credible solutions to the real challenges.

The Labour Party has managed to maintain a lead in the polls, for the promises it makes, which when challenged are not backed up with any substance. It is promising everything to everyone and bases its public pronouncements on perception surveys. It would have been very easy for Government to simply ignore the realities of high energy prices for a couple of other years, but that would have made out of Malta another Greece.

These are the issues we will need to explain in an electoral campaign - during which we will hopefully see what Labour has to offer. In that context, I am confident that we will be able to expose more clearly the risks that families would be taking with their future by voting Labour into power.

My role in all this - will be precisely to spell out Government's vision for these turbulent times. Throughout the past five years we have consistently come up with solutions. Solutions that have saved jobs, created new opportunities, attracted investment.

While at the moment every issue seems important as we get closer to the election and voters come to cast their vote, people vote for the security of their job, who will better the economy, keep investing in the education of their children, safeguard pensions, health and and so on. We have been the party that consistently delivered on these concerns, working in tandem with the Prime Minister, I believe that we can drive this message home in the forthcoming election.

3. The PN harps on about jobs and investment. But your government's trust is tarnished by such episodes as the honoraria saga, or the way decisions in public procurement seem to benefit PN benefactors: in part, this disillusionment has driven voters to Labour, so how will you convince them otherwise?

The PN in Government has never presented itself as the party that has never made any mistakes, on the honoraria issue this decision was reversed, even though in all fairness, Opposition MPs do not have issues in being paid for their full time jobs (in some cases a Government job) while receiving the Parliamentary honoraria too. But that's an argument for another day.

I do remind you that Labour's frontmen have much more to answer to, and to this day have refused to apologise for the moral (and physical) damage they have inflicted to this country and its people during the dark days of the Eighties

I disagree with your comment on public procurement, which as a Government we have strived to ensure that this is a very transparent process with absolutely no Ministerial involvement.

Yet, as I said above, elections are about the future: once again the PN will come up with fresh, energetic, innovative proposals in its electoral programme that will serve as the backbone towards continued stability on our islands.

4. What would you say was the single most successful achievement of the Nationalist government since 2008, and the biggest regret it could have done without?

Even though it may sound a cliché, managing to safeguard the 5,000 job at risk in the midst of the economic crises in 2009 was the most successful achievement. Many may think it was just an issue of sitting down with these companies, splash some money and the deal was done. It was much harder than that. Many of these companies had taken the decision - internationally - to drastically reduce their European operations... some because of lower cost elsewhere, others because their primary markets shifted in other continents. Persuading them to stay in Malta involved long meetings with their CEOs, offering the right tailor-made incentives, training and investment support to ensure that they not only remained in Malta.

And this is the biggest satisfaction, that these same companies have now invested further and actually increased employment numbers.

I think that the most regretful episodes relate to the lack of loyalty shown by a small minority of Government MPs. Without loyalty we cannot have Parliamentary stability and proper governance. Imagine a Parliament where on every issue, every MP voted to his or her own preferences, we would simply have chaos and no Government would be able to implement its policy and strategy.

This is the concept of a political party: to discuss strongly in its internal structures but then collegially defend positions taken in Parliament. Unfortunately, the undermining of party loyalty to me amounts to undermining the democratic process.

5. Nine ministers are supporting your candidature: if you are not elected, will this mean the party will remain divided as it already is now?

If nine Ministers have supported my nomination I believe that this is a sign of unity and not division. The PN is not a divided party. That three MPs have decided for their own reasons to go their own way and disobey the Party Whip does not make a party of thousands of members and half the population as its supporters is far from divided. When the Executive decided not to allow those three MPs from contesting the forthcoming election, the decision was unanimous and in the interest of the electorate.

When people vote for a party to be in government they expect it to get along with it programme and assume that the people they voted for are committed to the party and its programme, if not they will simply vote for who will give them more certainty.

Moreover, any supposed "divisive faction" had every opportunity to bring forward their candidate when Lawrence Gonzi put his Leadership position open to challenge. No one did. Councillors could still have abstained. Yet, the vote was overwhelming in favour of Lawrence Gonzi. That's not a sign of a divided party.

The current contest is about further renewal in the party- it is not a contest between any faction - in fact I can assure you that there are no Tonio Fenech-faction or Simon Busuttil-faction in the party. Actually, most councillors admit to having a tough choice amongst two valid candidates. We are all working for the same goal - winning the next election in the country's best interest.

6. You are generally considered to be a 'conservative MP', at least from your faith-based pronouncements during the divorce debate. Won't your election scare off a more liberal section of voters who have already been disappointed by the PN recently?

I have no difficulty in re-affirming my Christian-Democratic principles. I am a politician who genuinely believes that a politician needs to be guided by his beliefs whilst being open and tolerant to divergent views.

I did not shy away for being open on my beliefs against divorce, but once the people voted for divorce in the referendum, I abstained in Parliament in respect of the people's choice. I must remind readers that while the Labour Party did its best to impose its views, the PN allowed a free vote in Parliament and to its supporters, which certainly made a difference in the fact that divorce was eventually introduced.

7. As a member of government you hardly bring anything new to the line-up: the Prime Minister already talks about the job and the economy and the government's successes in safeguarding jobs. Does this not send out the perception that you are essentially already close to the leadership and 'more of the same'while Simon Busuttil is essentially 'new blood'?

I completely disagree, I am part of the new line up, being five years as Minister and four years as Parliamentary Secretary at 43 surely does not make me old, what it makes me is a young Minister with experience, which is paramount to continue steering this country in the troubled economic waters that surround us.

It is the Opposition that really faces this problem, a party which boasts on being new, but who in Joseph Muscat has a leader with no experience, and insists in putting forward Ministers from Mintoff/KMB and Alfred Sant's days.

Both myself and Simon have had important roles during this legislature. I have been entrusted by the Prime Minister to manage one of the most delicate ministries - economy and finance - during some tough, international times. Simon, has been appointed as the PM's delegate aimed at breaching the gap with civil society.

At the same time, while both of us have played an important role, we are both relatively young at 43, and have been less than 10 years in our respective parliaments. This is indeed the change that the Party brings about.

8. You are a minister but Simon Busuttil says government has not been successful at listening or communicating better with the electorate: how do you expect councillors to trust you with the second most important post in the party, when you are part of this government that does not communicate well with the electorate?

In reality, this government has made a significant effort to listen to the people and translate the people's message into its policy actions. No major decision is taken without a proper consultation...think about major reforms carried out lately, whether rent reform, local council reform, every single budget. They Were all subject to weeks of consultation where the voice of the general public was given its space.

But then, decisions need to be taken. And when you take decisions, you are bound to affect someone negatively. Our efforts should now focus on explaining why certain decisions needed to be taken, but more importantly what we can offer to this country to make it a better place over the next five years.

9. You come with serious political baggage: your private secretary was convicted of taking bribes for the JPM construction firm; the same firm carried out renovation works in your house; and your freebie Arsenal trip tarnished the perception of your sense of ethics. (i) Don't you think this sends a warning sign to councillors being asked to vote for you? Aren't you a sitting duck for Labour? (ii) How will you reassure them that you can be an ethical minister?

I have made my position clear on each of these issue very clear. My former private secretary admitted in court that such actions were carried behind my back. For the rest of the story, I trust that by now councillors trust that this was all a political conjecture by the Labour Party.

The person that made up this whole story is a prominent Labour activist that decided to transform an issue that probably most families have passed through in their life - dealing with property renovators who fail to do their job properly - for political expediency and financial gain.

I am currently pushing forward two libel cases on the issue, against the Labour media and the Party itself and I have presented all my arguments before the courts. I trust that PN councilors have by now acknowledged that it is Labour's agenda to rebut their opponents not by arguments but by trying hard to tarnish their personal reputation, this is not the first time they did it and I will not be the last victim either.

10. You have adopted a hardline stance on the ban of Franco Debono and the other backbenchers - how can you bring reconciliation with the alienated voters that Simon Busuttil is appealing to?

There is absolutely no relationship with reconciliation with Franco Debono and alienated voters.

Franco Debono's issue was a personal issue of his, were party loyalty was betrayed. In our party, there are a number of structures for debate, where we can - and many times do - express divergent opinions...but when a position is taken, we stick to it. If that were not the case, the Party would lose its scope.

Permitting Franco to contest the election would send a wrong message to the electorate - it would be: should we be elected, prepare yourself for more of what you have seen over the past five years.

The issue of alienated voters is a different story altogether. One has to see the reasons for their alienation. Difficult decisions that have been perhaps not well explained. Or otherwise not finding too much time to talk and listen to the people.

I believe there is still time to reach out to this particular constituency, to explain why certain decisions - even if unpopular - had to be taken; to listen to their frustrations and concerns, and to explain that voting Labour would ultimately not solve any of their problems. Rather, they would be throwing the country 20 years back, to be managed by Ministers that the last time they were entrusted with power, were responsible for thousands of jobs and businesses lost.

My role in this - could be facilitated through my experience in taking difficult Ministerial decisions which necessitated sitting down with different people, consulting, explaining, convincing and ultimately reaching an agreement. I am ready to put forward this experience to the benefit of the party.

11. In 2008, the PN brought in new blood and won the election. Joseph Muscat has brought new blood to Labour and is now trouncing the PN at the polls: how can you counter Muscat's appeal?

Precisely because elections are not about appeal. Elections are about which party can offer the best solutions for the needs of the country and its families.

Evidently, having new blood is an important consideration - but think about it: Joseph Muscat may be new, but what about his frontrunners for potential ministerial posts?

I repeat all political relics from the 70s and 80s Cabinets that have brought havoc in our employment markets, that have crippled freedom, democracy and any form of entrepreneurial spirit. To the contrary, the PN leader's experience is backed by the youngest Cabinet ever - none of us have been in the 1987-1992 Cabinet. I think that the Deputy Leadership context is also shedding light on this important difference, and whatever the result i believe it will do the party alot of good.

12. What is your stand on the following issues: do you agree or disagree with (i) gay marriage or civil partnerships (ii) IVF and embryo freezing (iii) a detention period for asylum seekers that is less than six months?

On all these issues this Government has taken a clear position, a Government in which I am a Cabinet Minister has presented bills in Parliament and adopted the present policies on detention of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers. On the issue civil partnerships, I believe that the bill that we have presented give a number of rights persons of the same sex in a relationship have never had. On IVF it is all about the right of children and ensuring that life is protected and not abused, even here I believe that what we have presented in parliament and amendments that are being considers will bring both order and protection and as a bill is an important step to ensure that couples that want to start a family will have the necessary legal protection to do so. On asylum seekers, as a government we have always emphasised that we will leave no stone unturned to save the lives of those facing difficulties at sea, but clearly Malta cannot afford to carry the burden of hosting these people alone.

Agreed. Malta cannot afford to carry the burden of illegal immigrants alone. But as this is a European problem and as the EU is unwilling to help us carry the burden, except for a few token gestures, is Malta going to carry an ever increasing burden? How many of them are we expected to carry? Is 100 000 enough? And do you save lives by telling people that you will always go to their rescue or do you encourage them to keep coming?
Agreed. Malta cannot afford to carry the burden of illegal immigrants alone. But as this is a European problem and as the EU is unwilling to help us carry the burden, except for a few token gestures, is Malta going to carry an ever increasing burden? How many of them are we expected to carry? Is 100000 enough? And do you save lives by telling people that you will always go to their rescue or do you encourage them to keep coming?
Tonio Fenech has done a swell job as Finance Minister, despite what some have said re growing debt levels etc. One needs to understand his work in the context of the absolute mess all around us in the EU. However tomorrow the PN Councillors should not be thinking about such issues. They should be seeking to make a choice that correctly interprets the sentiment of its wider electorate, because never in recent times has the Party needed to do precisely that. The PN needs to reconnect with the coalition that has stood it in good stead all these years, a colaition that favours inclusivity, diversity and respect. To achieve this they need to give a clear vote in favour of change within, because that is what the polls are clearly telling them....that is what the PN's wider electorate wants. They all know which candidate represents change that truly favours inclusivity and respect for diversity. They all know which candidate represents the greatest hope the Party has of reconstituting the broad, diverse but united coalition that has been the bedrock of the Party for all these years. Thinking councilors should and will respect the wishes of the PN's wider electorate. It is what the Party needs. It is what the country needs and wants!
Dan xjahbat? kull mistoqsijja li saritlu biex jahrab minna idawwara fuq il Labour. Biex jidher sabih mal kunsillira forsi? Ghax ma jghidx li kemm ilu ministru tal finanzi faqa lil Malta bid dejn. U kemm hasibna cwiec bhal ma haseb lid dirigenti ta Air Malta.