Good things come to those who wait | Franics Zammit Dimech

Francis Zammit Dimech is one of the few serving veterans of the 1987 PN administration. His appointment as Foreign Minister may well be recognition of his own loyalty to the party, as well as his own political capabilities. But could it also be that Gonzi simply had no one else he could trust?

Foreign Affairs Minister Francis Zammit Dimech
Foreign Affairs Minister Francis Zammit Dimech

Before I knew I was going to interview Francis Zammit Dimech this week, I had started an article about his elevation to the post of Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Sadly the original has since been lost in the bottomless pit that is my computer's Random Access Memory. But if my own (far more random) memory serves me correctly, the first line was: "I may have been somewhat slightly critical of Dr Zammit Dimech in his former incarnation as environment minister... but even I have to concede he was not half bad a choice for the foreign affairs portfolio..."

OK, the argument I was about to develop may not have worked out as complimentary to Zammit Dimech as the first sentence implies. Part of the reason I think he makes a good choice is that (unlike his predecessor) he is uncontroversial in the extreme; and - no offence or anything - that also makes him a safer but ultimately less interesting bet than other, more unpredictable candidates.

Even the general lack of reaction - by the Labour Party, for instance, which limited itself only to the odd sarcastic remark about his 'new' face - suggest that there is little to actually criticise in the choice. This makes Francis Zammit Dimech one of those rarities in Malta's political scene: a politician who seems to have no natural predators whatsoever.

I meet him in his new (and rather impressive) office at Palazzo Parisio, on what turns out to be his first day at work as Foreign Minister. It is also the day before the Nationalist Party deputy leadership election - for which he doubled as Chief Electoral Commissioner - so it is fair to say he was rather busy at the time.

Still, we have time to discuss the possible reasons for Gonzi's choice. How would he react to the view that by choosing a veteran from the 1987 generation of Nationalist politicos, Gonzi is also subliminally underscoring the lack of any serious 'young blood' within the party?

"You're putting me in the awkward position of having to sing my own praises," he replies with a smile. "I naturally don't know exactly what was going on in the prime minister's mind when he made his decision, but if I were to extricate myself from the process and take an outsider's view, I think there were two main considerations at work. One involved the limited time-frame the new minister would have to work in" (here he pauses to praise our cartoon last Wednesday, which portrayed him as the winner of a 'Be A Minister For a Week' competition); " and the other was to take into consideration the items on the foreign affairs agenda..."

These items, he reminds me, included the vote on Palestinian autonomy in the United Nations. "I happened to be directly involved in these and other issues in my role as chairman of the Foreign affairs committee. It may have been for this reason that I was chosen."

Still, the fact remains that he is also one of the very few from the original 1987 parliamentary group to still retain a role in government. It will be remembered that one of the buzz-words before that election was 'reconciliation'. Zammit Dimech is himself arguably something of a conciliatory figure within the PN: and Friday's' deputy leadership was in part fought on the issue of whether of not to 'reconcile' with disgruntled backbenchers like Franco Debono.

Isn't it ironic that the party which represented reconciliation in 1987, seems to now want to close the door to reconciliation with its own members?

"If I accept to go by your analysis of the deputy leadership race within the Nationalist Party, then the 'reconciliation' option has carried the day admirably. I have myself gone on record to state that even bridges that are burnt can be re-built. Having said that, in politics as in other areas of life, we need to assert the principle that we must all carry responsibility for the actions that we commit..."

This point, he goes on, was also made by Simon Busuttil during the contest. "Moreover the party has its structures and the unanimous decision of the Executive Committee of the Nationalist Party stands. That does not mean that doors are ever closed; I for one will adhere to the maxim 'never say never'. Still, we need to also appreciate that there are moments when reconciliation requires an unequivocal signal of goodwill - manifested also through concrete action - by the person with whom one could be willing to consider reconciliation..."

Zammit Dimech points out that people who do not regret committing political mistakes, would by definition be prone to make more political mistakes in future.

"In any parliamentary democracy, the option of voting along with the Opposition to bring down a Government Minister or to vote along with the Opposition against the Budget... when even the Labour Opposition is going out of its way to say that it likes the Budget so much that it would love to implement it itself - while of course reminding us that it will vote against it... is simply not acceptable."

He had hinted much the same thing in another interview earlier this year, when he said that the PN had been overrun by the 'phenomenon of individualism'. Many will no doubt agree with him entirely, but doesn't this also imply that there is no place for individualism in the team spirit of a political party? And what does this make an individual politician, if not a glorified rubberstamp for the official party line?

Zammit Dimech however urges me not to read too deeply into the remark. "By that I meant that I was noticing an overdrive in favour of different persons offering to give us their respective individual position at the cost of ignoring a more collective form of behaviour. I used the expression 'phenomenon of individualism' with reference to a more general trend in societies worldwide, not least as a result of the misuse of social media, that is beginning to undermine the social fabric and make governability a harder task to achieve."

As long as the team spirit is maintained, he argues that there is all the necessary space and required space for individualism.

"We have just been reminded of the European fundamental value of 'Unity in Diversity' which is another way of referring to what I and others before me had, within the context of the Nationalist Party, referred to as the party representing one mosaic - where each and every colour and hue is wonderful in its own right, but the richness of the image and vision presented to the electorate results from how the different mosaic pieces fit comfortably together, to offer us a whole that is far larger than the sum of the individual components."

I admit the image is impressive - and it fits so neatly with Zammit Dimech's other cultivated image as a connoisseur of the arts, too. But leaving the aside the poetic imagery... doesn't this vision of the PN as a 'dome of many-coloured glass' contradict the message currently blaring out of the party speakers? For instance: Nationalist exponents invariably talk about Labour as the 'greater of two evils'. The mantra is that we should vote Pn because Labour can't be trusted. But doesn't that also mean that people are being asked to support PN merely as an antidote to something else? That, rather than support PN on the strength of its own qualities, we are being lumped with PN because there is no alternative?

And if so, isn't that really just a lazy pretext that allows the PN to be as mediocre as it likes, snug in the knowledge that people will vote for it regardless?

It seems to be a day destined for many metaphors, and Zammit Dimech replies with another one.

"I always appeal to voters to use the weighing scales metaphor. They need to factor on each side of those scales the good and bad of both parties, and see which is the Party better suited to govern the country for the next five years. Hence it is hardly a comparison of evils..." (here he insists that this was my choice of word, and not his - which of course is perfectly true) "it's more a question of having two candidates for the position of Prime Minister and making sure that you select the better candidate, just as you would bother to do if you were appointing the CEO of a company... except that in this case you do not have the luxury of dismissing the person chosen before the expiry of his full term of office."

Zammit Dimech warms to his theme, pointing out that: "A general election should not be treated like a lottery ticket."

"If I can expand on that argument: look also at the teams flanking both candidates for highest office in the country, and examine their track records. Moreover, I can assure you that the PN is certainly not snug that the people will vote for it regardless. Hardly!  All polls indicate the direct opposite of that, with Labour enjoying such a comfortable lead (so far) that its exponents already behave as though they are in power!"

The PN, he adds, has to overcome two mistaken conceptions: "(a) that we are having it so good as a country simply because this is Malta and that it will always will be like that irrespective of who is in government; and (b) that change, even if it is for its own sake, is always healthy. We would all do far better when deciding whether or not to change our mobile phone or any electronic gadget. Surely choosing Government deserves a more rational approach!"

No doubt. But some people might question how rational support for the PN really is, in view of its own record. Owing to his own sheer longevity in politics, Zammit Dimech can surely appreciate another misconception that needs to be revised. The PN view of history is that it somehow rescued democracy from the clutches of the Labour administration of Mintoff and KMB 25 years ago, and immediately set about putting all wrongs to right.  

And yet recent experience shows that the spectre of political violence has never been fully exorcised. I ask Francis Zammit Dimech to comment on what appears to be a growing culture of violence in the country today. Not perhaps of the same calibre of the violence of the 1980s, granted. But it was only last Wednesday that a sitting MP (Franco Debono) claimed in Parliament to have a received a death threat. Another MP (Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando) had to have police security just because he did what is considered perfectly normal in other European democracies, and voted against the party line. We have seen government critics being savaged on blogs which are really just vehicles for incitement of political hatred. Doesn't he think we deserve a little better, from a party that had once promised to rid us of this atmosphere of political vindictiveness once and for all?

"Without any reservation, I deplore violence and even the threat of violence. I will always be all out for the most thorough investigation by the police of threats against MPs or for that matter against any John Citizen. I would of course be anxious to see that the investigations lead to the apprehension of whoever is responsible and to that person being brought to justice.  I am proud of the fact that the Nationalist Party in office has always and will always maintain this principle, not only because this principle is one of our core values which is already a good enough reason, but also because over the years it was the Nationalist Party and its supporters that suffered severely as a result of the most vile infringements that have been committed against it."

Zammit Dimech remains to be convinced about whether Labour has really changed. "I just hope that that era and type of regime is really over but there are occasional signals from the Labour Party camp that should be giving rise to concern and at least triggering alarm bells. The fact that Government has no problem to offer security to its harshest critics whenever they feel threatened in any way should stand to the credit of Government. Again I unequivocally condemn all threats that simply should not take place.  I also dislike the use of some blogs for personal attacks or disseminating any form of hatred. Yet here we also need to tread very carefully - the value of freedom of expression as a most important fundamental human right and also as interpreted over the years by the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg needs to be upheld by one and all. That Court has established that persons who choose - like myself! - the political path must understand that they must remain open to more criticism and outright journalistic attacks than anyone else since the latitude of criticism against them by journalists, bloggers, analysts, etc., is far wider!"

He concludes on a slightly more personal note. "Incidentally I should know because immediately after my being appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Facebook pages of well known persons in the Labour camp were rife with vicious attacks, most of which were aimed at me on a personal basis. When asked by my closest friends as to how I should react, my response was: let them be. Let their true colours shine. Let the people be the judge both in my regard and in regard of those who have launched the attacks."

The 'vicious attacks' centred largely on Zammit Dimech's age - and this leads him to a Parthian shot of his own.

"One last point: back to your question regarding 'old faces' - this is not a question of chronology or drawing up a birthday list. Eddie Fenech Adami, at the age of 70, saw Malta joining the European Union and fulfilled a vision shared by the vast majority of young people in Malta. When that happened, Joseph Muscat, now aspiring to become one of Malta's youngest Prime Ministers, was hardly 30, and yet unlike young people in general, he was alongside Alfred Sant (with whom he has now struck a deal about membership of the European Parliament) advocating Malta's staying out of the European Union - advocating 'Partnership' and even celebrating its 'victory'... despite the people voting against it."



This is revolving-door politics. Once he got his 9000euro pay-off he should have been automatically excluded from the ministerial reserve. But not in Gonzipn's Malta. Such obvious things just don't occur to this idiot government.
This was not a change in responsabilities but a promotion 5 years late after serving under other gonzipn/pn administrations as Parl.Seg and Minister. Francis shouldn't feel proud or fulfilled but the other way, as the cork that was needed to close a hole.Good things come to those who wait, what is good being a minister for barely more than a month with executive powers and probably three months as a figure head minister.If he is refering to four months of increased wages than I would have to agree.