The third way man | Beppe Fenech Adami

Beppe Fenech Adami rejects the conservative label, arguing that Christian Democracy represents a ‘third way’ that is neither left nor right of centre.

Beppe Fenech Adami
Beppe Fenech Adami

The creation of a new post in the PN hierarchy has suggested that this was done to accommodate the MPs who had shown explicit interest in running for deputy leader post before the leadership election was held last week: not least, the contest's runner up Mario de Marco.

However, Beppe Fenech Adami, who had said he would be standing for deputy leader and is considered to be the frontrunner in the election planned for 25 May, dismisses such talk and says the PN decided to have two deputy leaders because it was the structure which suits the party best.

Coming from what could nowadays be considered a modern political dynasty, Fenech Adami represents the soul of the party: staunchly Christian Democrat and close to the party's grassroots which his father had shaped over 30 years ago.

Yet, it might come as a surprise that Fenech Adami is not as conservative as his name might indicate. "I am neither conservative nor liberal," Fenech Adami tells me as we sit in his office in Valletta.

However, I start off with the most pressing matters. Firstly I want to know for which post he'll stand, to which he bluntly replies: "I'll be standing for the deputy leader for party affairs post."

Fenech Adami, who had publicly expressed his interest in contesting the PN deputy leader election before the nominations for the leadership post had opened, points out that his decision to contest the post was taken well before the decision to create a new post was taken.

Asked what prompted him to throw his hat into the ring, the Birkirkara lawyer says: "I gave the party my childhood, my youth, my time, my family, I gave it my all. However in trying times you realise that you can give more to the party. Humbly I offered my candidature because I believe that I can help the party in this difficult moment."

He says the PN is at a crossroads and undergoing the most radical overhaul in its structures since his father Eddie Fenech Adami was elected as PN leader in 1977, when the party was also on the Opposition benches.

"The last time the PN went through a leadership change, in 2004, the outgoing leader was making way at the age of 70, a decision taken a long time before and the party had just won a general election and secured Malta's EU accession. The leader had resigned on a high. The party was in government and it was a winning party. However, this time around the PN has just lost an election and, to use a metaphor, it's not a matter of going for a trophy but it's a matter of going for a chalice. Therefore the responsibility which will be shouldered by the new leadership is much bigger.

"I am contesting the deputy leadership because of my experience, my love for the party, my energy and because of I believe that I can help the party."

Fenech Adami says he did not contest the deputy leadership election in November because he chose to concentrate on his district where he visited over 5,000 houses. This seems to have had its desired effect as Fenech Adami achieved the third highest number of votes on a single district within the PN ranks, garnering 4,919 first count votes.

"At the time I thought it was the best thing to do and at the same time I did my part in the party's electoral campaign," he adds.

He admits that immediately after the 9 March electoral result a large number of persons encouraged him to contest the leadership race, however he decided that he would rather contest the deputy leader post.

Fenech Adami refutes the notion that the PN decided to go for a triumvirate at the helm of the party to accommodate anyone, something which the Labour Party had done in 1976 to strengthen Dom Mintoff's hold on the party.

"In politics you have fundamental principles and the functional aspect of political parties. We have not made this change out of principle but we have done so because we believe that it's the best way the party should work."

"I see absolutely nothing wrong with this. After all this leadership model is not the Labour Party's exclusive property but it is something which has been by many other parties all over the world. I refute the notion that we are copying Labour. It is also obvious that if a party has two deputy leaders, one would deal with the Parliamentary affairs and the other deals with party affairs."

Does he share the new party leader's view on this?

"I agree with the idea, the more hands on deck the better. This is not a matter of principle, but I believe that the party would be better organised if it is structured in this way."

"At the end of the executive meeting everybody agreed with the decision, following a healthy and very interesting debate. Most importantly we have to start thinking differently. If we keep thinking in the same way we have been doing over the last 25 or 30 years we would be committing a mistake. This new formula will not work if we do not change the way we think."

He adds that if the party really wants to "think outside the box", then the party also needs to change its structures and create new roles.

Fenech Adami says that there was no pressure at all, from anyone, to stop him from contesting the deputy leadership race. He insists that neither Mario de Marco nor Simon Busuttil exerted any pressure on him to refrain from contesting to allow de Marco to be uncontested in the deputy leader election.

He says that the idea must have crossed the mind of some PN councillors who voted in the leadership election and recognises the excellent result achieved by de Marco and the gentlemanly manner in which he conceded defeat.

"But naturally this does not mean that the deputy leadership contest should be cancelled and I repeat that at no time did Mario de Marco contact me, directly or indirectly, to pull out of the race."

Did Simon Busuttil contact you to convince you to pull out? "I did not speak much with Simon since he became leader and there was absolutely no mention on his part of this. So much so that he has publicly encouraged anyone who is ready to serve the party to come forward. And I follow suit in inviting anyone to contest me or any other post; if you win well and good, if you lose it's not the end of the world."

Did it cross your mind to take a step back?

"No, because I do not believe that the runner-up in the leadership race should automatically become deputy leader; otherwise I would have contested the leadership race myself. In fact, I consciously declared that I would be contesting the deputy leadership election because I wanted to concentrate solely on the deputy leadership vacancy. Vice versa, it does not mean that whoever contested the leadership election should not contest the deputy leadership election."

He insists that nobody within the PN executive, including himself, Busuttil and de Marco, had the intention to accommodate anyone by creating a new post.

"The underlying purpose of the executive committee discussion kindled by the new party leader, was that of starting afresh. Let's get things done, because we have a lot to do."

Reacting to criticism levelled at the PN's decision to create a new role by former MP Jean-Pierre Farrugia, Fenech Adami says: "Rest assured that I did not lobby or try and convince anyone to create a new post to accommodate anybody's son."

But how will things pan out in the new PN structure? Fenech Adami explains that the statutory amendment will demand that the deputy leader for parliamentary affairs must be an MP, however the deputy leader for party affairs post will be open for all.

"It would be a mistake to exclude MPs from contesting the deputy leadership for party affairs post. There are valid arguments for and against. Personally, I obviously see nothing wrong with having an MP as deputy leader for party affairs, otherwise I would not contest."

He points out that there is no direct correlation between electoral success and MPs holding administrative posts, such as secretary-general.

"At the end of the day, it's about what you make of the job. It's about who occupies the post and the qualities of the person. Apart from having a strong structure in place, it's about the persons occupying the posts." 

Moreover, Fenech Adami believes that the role of the PN leader and deputy leaders should be well defined in the party's statute, in the same way as the secretary-general's role is.

"We must realise that we must change the way the party functions. If everything remains the same there will be overlaps between the duties of deputy leader for party affairs and the secretary-general. What worked well yesterday does not necessarily work well today."

He adds that the roles of the secretary-general and the deputy leader of party affairs would be defined well given the vast competences that will fall within their remit.

The PN's main shortcoming, apart from the inevitable problems related to the PN's longevity in office, was its inability to play a central role in the social, economic and quasi-spiritual life of the country.

"The task to organise the party centrally is as large as the challenge we have to organise the party at a local level. The PN's biggest challenge is to return to having a central role in people's lives in each and every locality.

"I'll give you a very simple example of this, during Easter, thousands of people attended the Good Friday processions. A few days later Tenishia held a party where thousands were also present, and I, Beppe Fenech Adami, knew next to nobody in both events and I think this is represents the absence of the party in the country. We alienated large sections of the electorate."

The PN's colossal disadvantage in the second, third, fourth and fifth electoral districts, where Labour elected 16 MPs to the PN's four, can only be overcome by having a strong local presence, Fenech Adami says.

"We cannot expect one MP to match the efforts of four MPs. However, we can go one notch up by having a PN deputy leader present on the ground in these localities."

So what would be your vision for the new role?

"The new PN deputy leader for party affairs, together with the leader, has the primary responsibility to reconnect the party with people at a local level."

What about the secretary-general? "The secretary-general will have a lot on his plate," he says adding that the party's administration should transform the PN's local branches into educational and recreational centres apart from being a contact point for the electorate.

"We must offer a service to communities beyond politics. Personal contact remains invaluable. Even in the context of social media and new methods of communication, nothing can replace personal contract, especially in a country of our size," he says, adding that the PN must move reach out to the people through activities which go beyond politics. "It's not only a matter of opening our doors wide open, but the big challenge lies in knocking on doors which have been closed for us."

How can the PN return to winning ways? "We must reflect the people's aspirations. People will not return to us and say sorry for voting Labour. People will only return if they recognise that we have changed and if we represent their aspirations."

However, it would be a terrible mistake if the PN becomes "all things to all people", which Fenech Adami believes will be the Labour government biggest problem in the coming months.

"You cannot promise everything to everyone, especially when you promise opposing things. The biggest error a politician can commit is trying to win power at all costs, and even tactically it will come back to haunt you."

What went wrong in the last five years? "In a nutshell, we lost the high moral ground, which might have also been a consequence of the PN's longevity in office. When you have two parties talking in an almost identical language, the only difference is the high moral ground. With two parties agreeing on most of the major policies discussed, the electorate was asked to choose the party they trust most."

What about the party's stand on divorce in 2011? Did the party's opposition and leader Lawrence Gonzi's decision to vote against the bill in Parliament despite the country's clear verdict harm the party?

He believes that the PN was right in taking a position during the divorce referendum campaign in 2011, because every political party had a duty to take a stand on civil right issues. But the PN was wrong to take a holier than thou position, which the MP said was "more radical than the Church's."

"With hindsight the mistake was in taking a position was holier than the pope. The PN should have emphasised that the traditional family model was the ideal model and should not have painted an apocalyptical picture in the eventuality of the divorce referendum going through."

I ask whether the divorce referendum exposed the struggle within the party's soul between the confessional and liberal currents.

Fenech Adami however, prefers to describe the PN's political platform as a "third way." He says that the PN is "neither the conservative party nor the liberal party in Malta. It is a Christian Democrat party and Christian Democracy has the replies to difficult questions."

The PN, according to Fenech Adami, was always shown to have the right answers in diverse issues, stretching from the liberalisation of media to the emancipation of women.

"We are a Christian Democrat party, neither conservative who would maintain the status quo even if things need to be changed nor a liberal party which might be tempted to change things when there is no need to. There is a middle way and I think the party was successful for such a long time because it took the middle road and changed what needed to be changed and did not change things which did not need to be changed."

In a few weeks' time, Fenech Adami, son of the PN patriarch Eddie, who certainly was no liberal, might become one of the leaders of a party which is proposing civil partnerships for same sex persons and led by a man who voted in favour of divorce.

Does he feel comfortable in party which is slowly moving away from its traditionally conservatism?

"I take an active role in such internal debates and I must admit that I am more liberal than most would think. The PN was the party which first agreed with the concept of civil partnerships. It is unacceptable to have persons of the same sex living together and having no legal rights. What sense does it make to have your partner in hospital and not being able to visit because you are not married or related? What sense does it make to hold a transsexual women in the male section in prison just because there is no official legal recognition of her sex change?"

He agrees that certain people's fundamentalism should not deny other persons their rights. Fenech Adami says that in principle the party is in favour of the introduction of a civil union as proposed by the Labour government.

But he goes further and argues that the gay persons should not be denied to adopt children or having children through surrogate mothers. The only "no go" area for Fenech Adami is abortion; however he says that the party should be prepared to face with an open mind other issues such as legalisation of drugs, biological wills and other thorny issues which he believes will inevitably hit our shores.

Emmanuel Mallia
Its what you do with your daily life at work and play that makes you Christian, not attending church, so people can admire you !
Emmanuel Mallia
PN supporters claim to be CHRISTIANS. The word CHRISTIAN has lost its meaning. Does a Christian insults Franco, with low level language, as they did ? Lest we forget.
How can a highly conservative Christian Democrat confess now that they have lost the people faith that he is neither conservative or liberal. You have burnt all your bridges with other party members who have disagreed with your policy now you tell us that you have changed make up your mind you cannot stand on the wall. Sounds like a wolf in sheeps clothings.
Emmanuel Mallia
Your father believed in dialogue and he did put it in practice, but you, Beppe, did you use dialogue , when confronting Franco ?
Hope Beppe makes it. If he doesn't, the PN will not be inclusive and will be full of liberals. Might as well vote labour in that case.
"third way’ that is neither left nor right of centre." i.e the LOST WAY OF THE LOOSER
Wishy-washy. All the substance of a wet fart.
Emmanuel Mallia
A so called Christian, or Fidei defensor ? The language he used to confront Franco still echoes on and on !! Was it a christian, or better a catholic way ?
I wonder what he has to say NOW about his party having two deputy leaders, when he along with his new leader could not stop from mentioning the fact for the PL. Now his party will have a similar set-up. One wonders if his party is "foolish" now to have such set-up. I'm afraid he is much like his father at throwing mud to muddy the water...
The PN resembles the tv serial Dynasty the difference being on TV its fiction in the PN its real!
Emmanuel Mallia
CHRISTIAN democracy ?? Christian, the way they treated Franco, with personal insults- LEST WE FORGET !!!!!
Emmanuel Mallia
The man, who is far from being a man of dialogue, like his father. Just confrontation, as he has done with Franco !!! A yes man, and anointed of the back helm duo !
If one cannot dazzle with brilliance....