Riding the perfect storm | Mario de Marco

Mario de Marco acknowledges that the Nationalist Party was hit and sunk by a ‘perfect storm,’ but sees opposition as an opportunity for reform.

PN leadership candidate Mario de Marco
PN leadership candidate Mario de Marco

These are no doubt difficult times for the PN. Yet curiously, even at its lowest electoral ebb, the Party seems to also be experiencing one of its most exciting moments in years. With four contenders now lining up for a leadership election due in two weeks' time - and each campaigning on the strength of his own ability to turn around the Party's ailing fortunes - the prospect of renewal now seems inevitable.

Still, questions arise: what sort of change does the Party really need at present, and which of the four contenders is best-placed to deliver it?

If you pretend not to hear a certain rumour that the race has long been decided anyway, Mario de Marco seems a likely enough candidate. His surname alone is currency in the PN, and at a glance he is less immediately associated with any of the more unpopular aspects of the last Nationalist administration. Yet everything about his own candidacy also suggests a certain reluctance to actually compete. De Marco was openly hesitant about throwing his hat into the ring, a fact which, incidentally, also chimes in with criticism occasionally levelled at him when he was still a cabinet minister, to the effect that he sometimes finds it hard to take decisions at all.

So, what eventually made him take the plunge?

"I got the white smoke from my wife," he replies, evoking papal symbology. "Sharon was reluctant at first... and possibly so was I."

De Marco acknowledges that it wouldn't have been an easy decision for anyone with two small children aged five and eight. But in his case there was an added factor, too: "Being the son of a politician makes you more sensitive to the needs of the family. Politics has to be a balance, and ultimately I also had to consider my other responsibilities, too..."

On the subject of his family, How much of a shadow does the late Guido de Marco still cast over his son's political career? Did Mario feel  in any way pressured to contest this election in order to live up to a dynastic reputation?

"'Pressured' is not the right word, but you do get a sense of expectation, yes, especially from my father's supporters."

He pauses. "It's a difficult thing to explain, because it can be so easily misunderstood. But I am different from my father. I don't mean it disrespectfully; if I anything I say this out of utmost respect. I sincerely believe my father was unique. My character is different, however. I resemble my mother more. I am less of an extrovert. My father spoke to everyone; he had this unique ability to make anyone feel important, the centre of attention, even if-" here he breaks into an unexpected laugh, "even if he sometimes didn't really know them at all."

The same ability does not come naturally to the son, who almost sighs as he admits how his own reservedness may sometimes give the opposite impression. And there are other differences, too. "My father had a different approach to politics. I don't want to say he was impulsive, but he had a way of taking a decision first and then dealing with consequences as they arose afterwards. I tend to take the opposite approach: I like to weigh all possible outcomes and eventualities first, and then decide..."

Certainly many decisions will have to be taken by the incoming leader of what is ultimately a fractured, bruised and financially crippled party. Now that I've interviewed all four contenders, one thing I've noticed  is how each seems identify the same point (though they all expand on it in different ways) as the single overwhelming reason for the PN's dismal electoral performance. They all say that the Party had lost touch with the people.  I can't help finding that a little simplistic, though. Surely there would also have been decisions taken, mistakes made, policies introduced or retained that would have helped push people away.

So let me put the question more specifically this time: what, in de Marco's view, did the PN do, not do or do wrong, that caused the voter fallout?

Taking a deep breath, de Marco describes the conditions before the election as "the perfect storm". "There was a multitude of factors. Let's start with the most obvious: time was an issue that worked against us. Time, and a reluctance to change."

He points out how this is the very first time the PN has found itself in opposition in 15 years, since the Alfred Sant administration. "And if you exclude that, we had been in government 25 years. I know it's also an obvious thing to say, and I'm not saying it to justify our performance, but that militated against us. The truth is that many people, for the right or wrong reason, absolutely wanted change. They had had enough of the Party in government... and probably even if we changed all officials and candidates, people would still have wanted change. They felt that the Party had passed its expiry date."

But de Marco argues that the sheer longevity of Nationalist government had other, less obvious effects. Being in government for so long hindered the Party from embarking on certain internal reforms that were urgently needed.

"When you're in government you don't have the luxury of being able to concentrate on your own party's needs. There are other more pressing things on your plate. And the Party needed to change. We had acquired a reputation for extreme conservatism, and even if that's not what the PN is ultimately about, it's true that we failed to update ourselves to certain realities."

Before turning to these realities, I put it to him that some people do think the reputation was deserved. De Marco himself was directly involved in one relevant issue: censorship. In fact, it fell to him (as culture minister) to salvage a potentially very embarrassing situation for the PN, by relaxing the censorship laws at the eleventh hour. Without meaning to churn up individual cases in detail, the fact is that the Nationalist Party did align itself very closely with the island's most extreme conservative forces on this issue, and even more so on divorce, in which case it even  statutorially fused itself with the "No" lobby just eight months before the referendum.

De Marco nods. "Yes, I'm not denying any of that. We were anything but perfect. What I meant is that the Nationalist Party is not, in itself, an exclusively conservative party. It never was to begin with. Even under Eddie Fenech Adami, who was socially conservative, the Party's main inspiration was Fr Peter [Serracino Inglott]. Fr Peter was anything but conservative. He was actually quite liberal."

De Marco has meanwhile publicly called on the Party to ditch its "conservative" label, and he admits when asked that he has since encountered resistance. Some Party officials, he concedes, may be worried at the proposed change in tack.

"I'm not saying we should abandon our core beliefs. Believing in values does not make you conservative. Values are in themselves humanistic things. Take religion. When we say that the PN's values take inspiration from religion, we don't necessarily talk about being Catholic; and even if we refer to Christianity, it is an emphasis on the humanist values of Christianity, which are not unique to any one faith."

[Here I am compelled to point out that the word "humanism" may give rise to complex misunderstandings, as secular humanism has implications involving a rejection of all supernatural perspectives, but de Marco specifies he uses the word in a broader sense, as in "emphasising the value and agency of human beings".]

Even political values such as solidarity, he continues, which has a special place in the Nationalist Party's DNA, are derived from a humanist perspective.

"This is why it makes no sense to brand ourselves as a conservative party and especially to present ourselves as a model or an ideal of how society should think or act. A political party must also reflect the current needs and realities of society. You are not betraying your values by acknoweldging that these needs and realities change over time."

Stripped of all its political connotations, the word "conservatism" implies aversion to change in other areas too. Interestingly, de Marco attributes yet another of the frequent complaints about the PN - its perceived arrogance - to the many years spent in government. The same narrowing of its focus that kept the PN from reinventing itself internally also made the Party structures more introspective over the years. In time the entire Party proved incapable of seeing its own faults.

As de Marco puts it, "Sometimes it takes an outsider to come into your house to tell you that there are cobwebs on the ceiling."

One cobweb that surely escaped the Party's notice was the way it obstinately ignored the profound changes taking place concurrently in the Labour Party. While the PN chose to purge itself of a small but influential liberal faction, the PL under its new leadership was quietly (and sometimes very loudly) repositioning itself on the sidelines to lap up the refugees.

De Marco acknowledges that some aspects of its metamorphosis went beyond the mere cosmetic.

"One mistake we made during the campaign was to underestimate how the Labour Party had reinvented itself since the Sant days and made itself more attractive to the type of voter who had always voted Nationalist in the past. The truth is that even while most of the change was superficial, Labour still did enough to make itself a less scary option for people who wanted the switch, but who in the past had never been comfortable enough to risk voting Labour. Why? Because while we were only talking about the PL changing the colour of its ties, the really significant change was that for the first time in the past 25 years there was no real major policy divide between Labour and PN."

Here he almost startles me by suddenly quoting an immortal Alfred Sant line.

"Of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. We have yet to see how truly the Labour Party has changed. But for the moment let's just say that it changed enough to win the election. At face value, Joseph Muscat avoided repeating the same mistakes of Alfred Sant. On foreign policy, he didn't threaten to reopen the negotiated package; on the economy there was no real policy divide either. The same is true for  education... Well, before the election at any rate. Now it seems their policy is slightly different. But at the time, the only real difference between our education policies was the ridiculous isue of whether to give out tablets to year threes or year fours. From a policy point of view there was no serious risk factor in switching one's vote."

A third consideration is what de Marco terms "the Franco issue" (I still prefer "Franco factor," but that one's been patented). "For whatever reasons - including ulterior ones - Franco Debono did what he did. I don't want to get bogged down in the rights and wrongs of it, but the effect was that everyone could see how criticism and dissent was no longer coming from the opposition. People on the outside looked in, and what they saw was a divided and consequently weak party."

OK, but isn't this again a direct consequence of the PN's own decisions? Take the one about preventing Franco Debono from contesting, but not expelling him from the Party. What choice did that actually leave Debono but to bring down his own government?  Quite apart from the fact that the same government had spent the last two years of its term in office without a majority in parliament anyway.

"I was coming to this as another reason for the defeat... We took far too long to call the election. The situation was untenable, and stretching it out only made things worse."

When would de Marco have called the election if the decision had been his to take? "Much earlier. I would say around January of last year."

Another mistake frequently attributed to the PN was the way in which real or perceived dissenters were sidelined and in some cases hounded in recent years. The obvious example would be John Dalli, who found himself antagonised on all fronts after unsuccessfully contesting the 2004 leadership race. There is an unspoken danger that this mistake may be repeated after the 2013 election. If successful, would de Marco consider accommodating former rivals in official positions, as Eddie Fenech Adami did in his father's case? And if unsuccessful, would he expect to be accommodated himself?

"If there is one thing that is certain, it's that the Party can't afford any further divisions in future. We definitely cannot afford to come out of this election with any more factions. Without being able to predict the future, what I can say is this: whoever wins the election must make unifying the Party his number-one priority."

Turning to the 1977 leadership race as an example, he argues that Guido de Marco was known to be aligned with the faction sympathetic to George Borg Olivier, but Fenech Adami's decision to appoint him his deputy was more than just a conciliatory gesture. "The two leaders also complemented each other, even in their differences." He breaks into another sudden laugh. "Almost like a married couple. There was a certain chemistry; their differences strengthened the Party and kept it in balance."

Paradoxically, de Marco reasons that being in opposition also means that the Party is better placed  to heal its own rifts. "Opposition is also an opportunity. We are no longer the establishment. In a sense this also means that our political message has to change automatically. Take our media companies, for instance." (As it happens I had intended to ask how he would tackle these from both a propaganda and a financial angle.) "Up until recently they were reaching only to a limited hardcore audience of the already converted. We were not reaching out to a wider, more discerning audience. So we couldn't grow."

Now that the landscape has changed, and the PN media feel empowered (ironically) by their new role of keeping the government in check, de Marco is optimistic that the Party can do much to overturn both its overall image with the electorate and address at least one part of its ailing financial fortunes.

But even as we speak, there are compelling indications that the balance may not be so easy to maintain this time round. Some divisions run deeper than others. Earlier I mentioned John Dalli - and it has not escaped notice, not even overseas, that the Nationalist Party has been eerily quiet while foreign MEPs (including socialists and greens who had been critical of his appointment to the Commission) have defended Dalli after doubts were raised about his forced resignation last October.

Does the PN have nothing to say about this at all?

"Without entering the merits of the case itself, it must hurt John tremendously, even as a Maltese, to see... well, not support, really, because it's not an issue of support, but not to see any level of concern publicly raised as to the investigation, the [OLAF] report and its conclusions. Obviously the implications of this report are serious. But equally serious are the concerns raised by MEPs. Ultimately what's important is that justice is done, and is seen to be done properly.

Emmanuel Mallia
Demarco, and indeed all top PN politicians and officials are hiding an important issue, in a lawyer's like diplomatic way, well known withing PN circles. Are the two, so called advisers, one for Gonzi and the other, who steered the PN electoral campaign, not to blame for the landslide defeat ? Why are they being kept a very low profile or not mentioned at all ? I fear they are waiting for the next opportunity to strike again, or are still steering behind ever bodies back. After all, it seems that the candidates for PN leadership are the anointed ones, again ! !!!