The PN’s off-menu option | Raymond Bugeja

The Nationalist Party seriously needs to pull something out of a hat to overturn its recent electoral defeat. But can that ‘something’ be total outsider Raymond Bugeja?

Raymond Bugeja - 'If even the Church acknowledges the need to renew itself from time to time… how much more so should a political party' Photo: Ray Attard
Raymond Bugeja - 'If even the Church acknowledges the need to renew itself from time to time… how much more so should a political party' Photo: Ray Attard

If politics is an à la carte menu, Raymond Bugeja would be the sort of dish you might find chalked discreetly on a blackboard for the benefit of the discerning diner.

That, at least, is how he describes himself when we meet for this interview in the lobby of the Phoenicia Hotel. "Not in the sense that I'm a 'specialty' or anything like that," he hastens to add. "That would be presumptuous of me..."

Presumptuous or otherwise, I must admit it is a rather effective analogy... possibly more effective than even Bugeja himself intended.

In real restaurants, 'ordinary' diners will generally stick to the printed menu... and while there may be the occasional adventurous soul who might ask for the 'specials of the day', by definition these will not and cannot be the majority (otherwise, there would be no point in having a menu at all).

Translated into its new political context, Bugeja's restaurant image seems to also suggest that, while the discerning PN councillor may indeed wish to gamble on a new and totally unknown candidate for the 4 May leadership election, it is unlikely almost to the point of impossibility that the 'blackboard special' will suddenly become the most commonly ordered dish of the day. 

So how seriously is Raymond Bugeja taking his own surprise candidacy for the PN leadership? And how, realistically speaking, does he rate his own chances of success?

Instantly he moves to dispel a perception that has somehow concretised in the media since he announced his intention to run for the PN leadership a few weeks ago. Raymond Bugeja insists he is not a 'total stranger' to Maltese politics in general; and even less so to the Nationalist Party.

"I have always had a love of politics, ever since I was a child. And I always wanted to get more involved, too: you could say it was almost a vocation. But circumstances got in the way. I got married very young - I was only 19 - to an English wife, and I moved to the UK where I eventually became an accountant. Originally I told my father I'd be away for five years... it ended up being more like 40! But I have always retained an interest in local politics. And I have been active within the PN, if only in a small way..."

Much has happened since he left Malta at 19 - not least, two divorces (which make of him a rather unconventional aspirant for the PN leadership, all things considered).

However, Bugeja has worked with the Nationalist Party think tank AZAD... and he has even contributed to past PN electoral programmes: a fact which places him in more or less the same category as his much better-known rival, deputy leader Simon Busuttil.

For all this, he acknowledges that he remains an outsider in this race: though he has been quietly working in the background to raise his profile with the 900 or so party councillors who will ultimately decide the race in two weeks' time.

"I have been holding regular meetings with party councillors, and the feedback so far has been positive," he begins when I ask for more details.

Fair enough, but I respond that this in itself doesn't mean all that very much. He agrees.

"To give you a better idea: when I announced my intention to run, I set up a poll on my Facebook page. This was before the final list of candidates was known, and unfortunately I made some mistakes: for instance, I left out Francis Zammit Dimech, as at the time I had no idea he would contest. Instead I put in Tonio Fenech, and of course he didn't throw his hat into the ring..."

Significantly, Bugeja adds that he also set up a second online poll, this time exclusively for party councillors. At the time of our interview last Thursday. Bugeja found himself leading both these polls, with Mario de Marco a close second and Simon Busuttil somewhat further off.

In the general poll, Bugeja bagged 38% of the preferences against de Marco's 31% and Busuttil's 14%. (Interestingly, if you remove Bugeja himself from the equation, the results reflect our own survey last Sunday quite closely). The results for the internal councillor survey were similar, although the percentage was slightly lower.

"I don't know how scientific or accurate this sort of survey is," he admits... and I don't have the heart to point out to him that people voting in a Facebook poll would, by definition, be his 'friends'.

Still, the decision itself will ultimately be taken by a very small and closely knit community of people, and... as the financial services advertisements so often remind us: "past performance is no guarantee of future success".

So we agree to move on to the less speculative question of how the PN found itself in such a mess to begin with. Did Bugeja expect the result to be as devastating as it proved to be on 9 March?

"I wasn't surprised by the result, no; but I was a little surprised by the extent of the vote deficit..."

Asked to account for the apparent loss of trust of a national level, Bugeja puts most of it down to the sheer longevity of past PN administrations. "Being in power for so long takes its toll, undeniably. And when you think that the PN won the election by such a narrow margin in 2008, the writing was on the wall really..."

Bugeja acknowledges that the result was also in part down to the way Opposition leader Joseph Muscat played his own cards during and even before the campaign.

"I believe we conducted a campaign that was too negative... Joseph Muscat, on the other hand, brought a more positive message to the campaign: a very Obama-like message, if you ask me. But even without that difference, the Labour campaign was well-organised and well-presented. And bear in mind that many voters were newcomers to the political scene, who had no connection whatsoever to our political past..."

Harping on the past was therefore a losing strategy all along. But the question now becomes: what can the PN now do to win those voters back? 

The first priority, Bugeja tells me, is for the PN to rediscover its "forgotten glorious history".

"The Nationalist Party has a lot to be proud of. It has contributed in no small way to all the country's most pivotal historic moments. It has always boasted a tradition for having the most capable people on board - and that is something that hasn't changed, despite the election result."

Bugeja's recipe to address the current problem? To take a holistic approach to the entire question of the party's identity... an approach that views its financial problems not as separate from its political problems, but rather part of a whole that has to be reworked from scratch.

"What I can bring to this discussion is my experience and maturity," he asserts. "I have a lot of experience in international finance, and - just as the business world learnt many of its own lessons from the military world in the past, politics today can learn a lot from business. Business is a great teacher. It tells you a lot of how the world works..."

Bugeja appears confident that the expertise he has acquired in his own professional capacity can be well applied to the PN's internal problems: many of which are now spilling over on the outside for all to see. 

"In my view there are two key priorities to be tackled - two red lights flashing in the control room, as it were. On one level the party has lost touch with people... and that is a communication problem... and on another, its structures urgently need to be reviewed and modernised..."

Though he initially talks of these as 'two red lights', they very quickly merge into one.

"We need to re-open up the party structures to reach out to people who feel they can no longer identify with the party at all. As I said in recent weeks I've been meeting a lot of people within the PN... what I found in those meetings is that there is still a high number of people who feel they are not participating in the party at any level..."

OK, so far Raymond Bugeja seems to be echoing pretty much the standard mantra one would expect from any prospective leadership candidate. But how does he intend to actually solve any of these problems in practical terms?

Let's start with the PN's financial situation, which is rumoured to be dire. Here Raymond Bugeja can perhaps bring with him a few unique insights that other candidates may lack. After all, in his own professional capacity as an investment manager he has handled budgets of up to €7 billion (now reduced to €5 billion, he tells me, because of the recession): and these are figures that are comparable to Malta's entire national debt (let alone the PN's debt, which is estimated at 'only' around €8 million).

"That is the amount reported by the party management," he begins, with the look of someone who has seen far worse financial situations in his own career. "I asked for the party's financial statements to get a clearer idea of the situation... but, understandably enough, I was not given them."

Even without access to the actual figures, Bugeja can take a reasonable guess at the source of the financial haemorrhage. One possible cause, he explains, is a tendency to approach commercial issues from a political perspective, and vice versa.

"Politics is an emotive thing - it has to be emotive: a party has to have a spirit, am identity, a popular dimension to be successful..."

Success in the business world, however, requires a completely different approach. 

"I bring a businessman's perspective to this scenario, and my first instinct is to look at what's making the losses," he continues: outlining the age-old assets/liabilities tandem from any old Economics textbook, which he argues is just as applicable to political parties as to any other venture.

The party, he continues, must distinguish between its purely political functions, and the commercial nature of certain operations it undertakes.

 "Let's take the kazini [party club-houses] as an example. Does the PN really need to own its clubhouses? Would it make more sense to sell off properties which it doesn't need to actually own, and then lease them off the new owners?"

Hence the emotive-rational divide: approach this question from a purely emotive point of view, and you might be tempted to retain the properties for reasons of pride. Reason like a businessman, however, and it makes much more sense to sell them off.

A thornier version of the same concept takes the form of party ownership of television and radio stations: an issue that has not only eaten heavily into the Nationalist Party's (possibly also the PL's) profitability as a broader commercial entity in its own right; but which has also severely distorted the local broadcasting and media landscape.

Bugeja reasons that the PN's attitude towards this issue is symptomatic of its difficulty in distinguishing between the emotive/political aspect of the party's identity, and its function as a commercial player on the market.

"The two things have to be kept apart. If something is a political concern but not a commercial one, then it is a case of merely 'wanting' that something... but not actually 'needing' it. So does the PN 'need' a television station? The answer depends on whether you're looking at the question from a political or a commercial viewpoint."

Politically speaking, he argues that having a station does fulfill a need - the need to get one's own message across in a competitive propaganda environment. Commercially, however, it is a completely different story: the cost of running a TV station is arguably crippling the party (though again he stresses that he would need to see the financial statements to have a clear idea of to what degree), and from this point of view the ownership of NET TV becomes a liability.

"So the party must decide once and for all from which angle it chooses to look at this issue. If it only wants a TV station for the political advantage it might bring, then the current ownership model is not the right one for the party. It makes no sense to run a political asset along purely commercial lines."

Applied to Medialink, this would presumably entail stripping the core operation down until it covers its own costs and no longer makes a loss for the party. Much the same consideration would also have to apply to other commercial entities owned or otherwise operated by the PN.

"But that's just one possibility. There are many different ways a company that is in debt can turn things around. Another very simple strategy to go back to the shareholders to bring in fresh capital. Consider this broad calculation as an example. If the PN's debt is €8 million and there are 20,000 tesserati [card-holding Nationalists]... the total debt could be paid off in just five years at a rate of only €80 a year..."

Here I voice a small doubt as to whether there really are 20,000 Nationalist Party tesserati in total... but he waves this aside.

"Mine was just an example. And I'm not saying this is necessarily the right solution for the PN's present problems, either. I'm just putting the financial situation of the party into a context."

Coming back to the TV issue, he adds that the PN may wish to revise not just the present ownership model, but its own rapport with the same station... and ultimately how it perceives itself.

"If you're going to run the station along commercial lines, the Nationalist Party will have to start looking at itself as a client of that station. If it wants a certain service from the station, it should pay for the service like everyone else..."

Whatever path it chooses to go down, Raymond Bugeja reasons that the party needs to reinvent itself completely to get back into the driver's seat. But isn't this also a case of emotion versus reason? If the party has such glorious roots, isn't it understandable than the party faithful will resist change?

Raymond Bugeja shrugs. "The party needs to adapt. Even the Church, under Pope Francis, is updating its structures. If even the Church acknowledges the need to renew itself from time to time... how much more so should a political party which is now in opposition, but wants to be in government?"