Living up to expectations | Simon Busuttil

Newly elected PN leader Simon Busuttil freely admits that the Nationalist Party media failed to live up to the party’s high standards. But his expectations from Joseph Muscat are higher still

PN leader Simon Busuttil
PN leader Simon Busuttil

I never noticed it on any of my previous visits to the PN headquarters in Pieta, but the building is almost entirely composed of empty space. What passes for a 'hallway' is in fact a vast arena of nothingness encased in glass. The 'corridors' upstairs are more aptly described as gargantuan architectural thoroughfares punctuated by doors opening onto equally massive (and mostly empty) open-plan offices. And Simon Busuttil's office in particular has a footprint large enough to quite comfortably accommodate a medium-sized maisonette and still have space left over for a small garage.

Yet nearly all this space looks and feels vacant, creating the illusion that the entire building (not unlike the party structures it houses) is actually still under construction.

The impression is greatly compounded by the sight of Simon Busuttil himself: he is not exactly the largest-framed man to begin with, but when we meet for this interview he seems dwarfed to almost minuscule proportions by the sheer enormity of his immediate surroundings, as if to suggest that he has stepped into a position that is several sizes too large for him to fill.

Hence the inevitable first question: two weeks ago, Simon Busuttil inherited a party that was bruised and bleeding, fraught with internal bickering, crippled by debt and facing imminent insolvency. What has he done since then to at least start addressing these and other problems? And what are the most pressing priorities he has lined up for himself in his first months as PN leader?

"In the first two weeks I have concentrated on the two most important developments facing the party: appointing the shadow cabinet and revising the structures to have two deputy leaders..."

The shadow cabinet, he continues, was important for the party to be able to get on with the business of fulfilling the democratic functions of the opposition, a position the PN has not found itself in since 1998.

And the second priority? "I felt it was important to send out the message that the party leadership is not composed of just one man - that there is not only a leader but, more significantly, a leadership team."

Fair enough, but in splitting the leadership roles Busuttil may have unwittingly (or wittingly) sent out other messages, too. He might have indirectly expressed a lack of confidence in the only candidates who at the time were running for the post of deputy leader. More cogently, the new post also signalled an entirely understandable ploy to keep a possible rival (in the form of Mario de Marco) firmly within the fold.

But in the immediate aftermath, the decision also seemed to contradict other choices made by the party in the past two months.

For instance, when it came to his own election to the party leadership, the PN had rejected calls to widen the voter pool to include all cardholding members (as opposed to the more limited pool of 900 delegates) on the grounds that 'the statute could not be changed.' Yet Busuttil's first decision as leader was to amend the statute in order to appoint a second deputy leader, which arguably served a wider political purpose. Isn't this a case of two weights, two measures?

Busuttil disagrees. "Not exactly, no. In the case of extending the voter base, it wasn't simply that the statute couldn't be changed. There was a much more important reason: the electoral process was already under way at the time... you can't change the rules of a race once the starting pistol has already gone off."

But had it really gone off? At the time, the election date hadn't even been fixed.

"But the moment Dr Gonzi officially announced his resignation as leader, the race had technically already begun. The media were already naming possible contenders. People were already jockeying for position."

Busuttil contends that a change to the statute at that moment would have been seen as an attempt to influence the election outcome, but he has not ruled out any such amendment in future.

"Am I against the proposal in principle?" he muses. "No, not at all. In fact it is one of the points to be discussed by a commission I have appointed, to be chaired by Francis Zammit Dimech, which will go over the statute and, where necessary, upgrade the party structures to 21st-century standards."

Busuttil also acknowledges that some decisions cannot be postponed indefinitely and others are required with urgency. In particular, the widely publicised financial problems facing the PN cannot exactly be ignored, given that PN employees have not been paid for two months. I ask Busuttil to comment on the figures being floated by the media - namely, the sum of €8 million reportedly owed to the PN (but which unconfirmed sources suggest may actually much higher, with some claiming it is closer to €20 million).

No surprises for guessing his answer. "I should hold back on commenting for now, because there are commercial interests that could be affected by anything I say. I don't think it is the right time to discuss the issue in detail, but... I do concede it is a big challenge, and I intend to address it head on."

OK, but the question is how. Busuttil reiterates his plan to appoint a "small group of experts" to look into the matter and report to the party.

"I will not take decisions before speaking to experts. Not just because I value expert advice, but because I am applying the view that a party leader should not be high-handed and decide from above. There are some decisions that do need to be taken in the short-term, and some medium- to long-term decisions are also envisaged. But I am not one to shoot from the hip."

It seems, however, that on at least one aspect of the PN's financial meltdown, Busuttil has already indicated a change in tack, even if the way this was presented seems to have nothing to do with finance at all.

I refer to the PN's cash-strapped media empire, which is rumoured to be among the largest continuous drains on its finances. Just the day before this interview, Simon Busuttil emerged from a meeting with his opposite number, in which it was apparently agreed to 'tone down' the partisan content on the party-owned TV and radio stations. I was not exactly surprised that Joseph Muscat would instantly agree to this proposal: after all, it is in the government's immediate interest to have a less aggressive opposition media breathing down its neck.

But it was surprising to see the proposal come from the PN in the first place. Surely, it is not in the Nationalist Party's own interest to let the government off the hook in this way. So what really lurks behind the decision? Is this the beginning of a climb-down that will see the PN eventually divesting itself of media interests that it cannot really afford to keep?

Busuttil shakes his head. "I disagree entirely with your interpretation. One of the first things I said when elected party leader was that I hope to contribute to building a better political climate. This also includes addressing the issue of excessive partisanship in the political media. I think this form of broadcasting ultimately does a disservice to democracy... from this point of view, toning down the overtly political content is a good way forward."

Above all, Busuttil doesn't disguise his view that the Nationalist Party media may also have contributed to the falling out with PN voters, so evident in the last election result. "If the idea was to reach out to discerning voters, we must admit that our media was not effective. In fact it had the opposite effect. Too many people simply stopped believing us. So I can't agree that, being in opposition, we need to be more partisan in our media. I think there is much more credibility to be gained by changing the approach and, like I said, toning down".

He also insists that "it takes two to tango."

"My idea for the PN media is also intrinsically linked to the government's plans to reform broadcasting. It will be very interesting to see what Muscat is actually proposing here."

Busuttil outlines his view that any proposed reform should tackle PBS but also extend to the Broadcasting Authority which has a constitutional obligation to act as regulator for all media - not just the state-owned media.

"As we all know the BA interprets its obligations in a way that excludes the party-owned media. It interprets 'impartiality' as a case of two parties balancing each other out, and that simply means that the authority has not managed to put the situation into any order. I hope that any reform will also address this anomaly. From my end I am prepared to do what I can, even if the PL does not play ball. I am willing to lead by example. The PN after all can and should live up to higher standards."

However, he rejects any notion that he is looking to 'get rid of' the party's media concerns. "I am not saying we will do away with Net TV altogether. Precisely because we are in opposition, we need a good strong voice in the media."

Busuttil is emphatic on this point and deflects questions regarding the financial state of Net TV by pointing towards the panel of experts that shall shortly be dissecting the situation.

Meanwhile, there are apparent contradictions in other aspects of Busuttil's first decisions as PN leader, too. For instance, he almost immediately made it a point to state that the Opposition, under his stewardship, would be participating in "all parliamentary committees" - unlike the previous opposition, which walked out of a select committee in protest against the Justyne Caruana incident in 2011.

Yet in almost the same breath, he also rejected the government's offer to form part of a bipartisan Action Committee on Economic Growth. Doesn't this send out mixed messages, I ask? Not according to Busuttil, who argues that while the two issues seem to mirror each other, they are not actually comparable on a like-with-like basis.

"I make a distinction between parliamentary roles and roles pertaining to the executive. Participating in parliamentary committees is part of the functions of being in opposition. Failing to do that would be a dereliction of duty. But the same is not true of the executive arm of the state. It is up the government to run the executive, not the Opposition. In fact the Opposition cannot be part of the executive without betraying its own role in a functional democracy. If we did accept that offer, how could we then freely fulfil our role of scrutinising the government - when we would be part of the government ourselves? It would undermine democracy."

This is partly why Busuttil now proposes the resuscitation of a law passed by the Fenech Adami administration in 1996 and duly scrapped by the Sant administration between 1996 and 1998, which would have granted the Opposition the right to nominate its representatives on specific government boards.

Turning to another area where the different pillars of the state seem to have been blurred somewhat, I ask Busuttil for his views on the recent controversy surrounding the Malta Community Chest Fund, especially allegations that the President of the Republic proposed diverting funds to finance a Master's degree being undertaken by the CCF's secretary (who also happens to be related to the President through marriage).

The revelation has arguably embarrassed the office of the President and may even have dented the credibility of the CCF itself. But all along, it has evoked public calls made by Voluntary Organisations Commissioner Prof Kenneth Wain, who argues that CCF acted outside the law by refusing to sign up to the VO Commission, as all charitable institutions are legally obliged to do.

"My first reaction is to make an appeal to people to continue supporting the Community Chest Fund," Busuttil replies without a moment's hesitation. "The beneficiaries of those funds are too important for society to end up treating them to the wrong end of the stick."

Busuttil also views the experience as an opportunity for all concerned to "learn from mistakes."

"Without passing judgement on the actions of the President, I think we should make every effort to enhance transparency at all levels and at ALL entities..." (very heavy emphasis on 'all') "...which deal with public funds. Without clear rules people will question the use of such funds, and this can damage the reputation of the entity concerned, which in turn can only work to the disadvantage of the beneficiaries. I think the incident also sends out another message, about the importance of avoiding conflicts of interest at all costs, especially where family is concerned."

On the subject of the Presidency, Abela's term is now drawing to an end, and he has already ruled out a second term, if this were even possible. This means a vacancy will arise very shortly for the highest appointed position in the land. Abela, a former deputy Labour leader, was appointed by a Nationalist prime minister. So does Busuttil now expect Muscat to return the compliment? And if so, how would the PN leader react to a proposal (hypothetical, at this stage) along the lines that the President should always be chosen from the ranks of the Opposition, as a means to ensure a balance between the two sides?

"Indeed I would consider [the appointment of a Nationalist president] as appropriate. Lawrence Gonzi's decision to appoint Abela was both positive and bold - and it was a decision for which Gonzi paid a high price, having been criticised for it by members of his own parliamentary group. It remains to be seen what sort of decision Muscat will take in his turn. Personally, I am waiting with trepidation to see if the Labour Party which was elected on the promise of Malta taghna lkoll will live up to the enormous expectations it has built up for itself. If he does appoint a president from the other side, he will be cementing a custom which would be difficult for future prime ministers to disregard. I would consider it a positive development."


If one gives the PN an inch they will grab a mile,the government should be weary of those who see nothing good in this administration,we had 22 years of arrogance, corruption and holier then thou attitude.It was only a few months ago when they called labourites Jaqq and diseased.
It will be a good to nominate a respectable person outside the political party and that means not from PL but also not from PN. When Gonzi nominated Dt Abela he did so after a victory of 1500 votes. According to Simon Gonzi paid for this. So we do not expect that Dr Muscat would do such a thing and pays high price for it. If Gonzi did that it was his mistake
Simon Busuttil has two huge tasks ahead of him. One to put together the house that the previous PN administration managed to topple down. The second is to find a way to prove that he is the leader to win over Joseph Muscat. This time Joseph Muscat has a five year head start and if he plays the cards right he will be a challenge for Simon Busuttil. His main task is to bring back those lost votes back into the PN fold. But again it all depends on how and what Joseph Muscat does in the next five years. Simon Busuttil has his work cut out for him.
Yes it is time to stir the post of president away from political controversy: How about a respectable professional devoid of past political involvement? I suggest retired Justice Giovanni Bonello or meritocrat Professor David Attard for President... but any respected high profile wise academic person would do... May be it is even time (again) for a female president!
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