Turning the PN into a ‘factory of ideas’ - Chris Said

In the PN’s new pantheon of leaders, which also includes two deputy leaders, Chris Said wants to give greater political relevance to the role of secretary-general. Will he succeed in elevating a role abolished by Labour and obscured by internal dissent during his predecessor’s term in office?

PN secretary-general Chris Said
PN secretary-general Chris Said

In the PN's new pantheon of leaders, which also includes two deputy leaders, Chris Said wants to give greater political relevance to the role of secretary-general. Will he succeed in elevating a role abolished by Labour and obscured by internal dissent during his predecessor's term in office?

From having enjoyed the status of one of the most popular and accessible ministers in the last administration, Chris Said has moved to a post mostly associated with party bureaucracy and political troubleshooting.

But the former Gozo mayor and, until recently, justice minister's political stature perhaps only gives greater relevance to this post, the first to be occupied by a Gozitan, whose daily hardship means leaving the sister island at 5:15am and catching a 10pm boat back home. No mean feat. "On the ferry I talk and listen to people... This means that as party general secretary, I will not be cut off in my office."

It is fitting then that it was Said who first proposed in 2011 a tunnel link to Gozo, a pre-feasibility study of which suggests that it could cost up to €492 million to build. With a tender for a full feasibility study still ongoing, Said says he thinks a tunnel will have the least impact on the environment. But despite having resurrected the proposal of a permanent link, last spoken of back in the 1970s, Said is wary of Labour's new memorandum of understanding with a Chinese company to build a bridge to Gozo.

"The feasibility study will compare the various options, including that of a bridge, to determine which is the least environmentally damaging and the most financially viable option. Why conduct another study on the feasibility of a bridge when this is already being assessed in another study?" Said asks.

Pointing out that the study is being conducted by professionals chosen through a tender and not by a directly selected company that is itself involved in building bridges, he questions why the study was offered for free by the same Chinese company. "If the government finally opts for a bridge, will this company be precluded from competing with others in a tender for the bridge? If the answer is yes, one can understand why this company has offered its services for free."

But in reply to my reservations about the environmental impact of both a tunnel and a bridge, Said insists he firmly believes in the need for a permanent link. "In my opinion a sub-sea tunnel option is environmentally better than a bridge, as it has no impact on the landscape.  But this can only be established in a full feasibility study like the one which was started under the previous administration."

Said's justification for a permanent link is that it will improve the quality of life for Gozitans who have to study, work or receive medical treatment in Malta. "I personally spend nearly four hours to travel to work and back home every day."

Would it not make more sense to introduce a fast ferry service linking Gozo to Valletta to decease this hardship? Said admits that something has to be done now, even before any permanent link is established.  "But had we not commenced studies on the permanent link we would not be in position to have the information to guide our decisions. We cannot keep on postponing."

Back to matters political, Said mulls over "the worst result in 50 years" for the PN, concurring with me that one of his party's major problems was the lack of a 'larger-than-life' issue like political independence in the 1960s, liberty and democracy in the 1970s and 1980s and EU membership in the late 1990s and 2000s. "We did not face any big issue. On the contrary there was widespread consensus that the economy was performing well, even if we had some problems. This should have worked in our advantage, but this was clearly not the case."

So what does he make of a recommendation by the PN's commission which analysed its 2013 defeat to have elected officials serving for no longer than two terms? Would this not mean that Eddie Fenech Adami himself would not have been able to continue leading the party after 1996? "It's just a recommendation, and it still has to be discussed... but the feedback from the majority of people involved in party structures is that they are against it.

"I personally believe that after a number of years people should move on. I personally did not contest the post of mayor after nine years. Previously I had moved on from the Gozo Football Association after being its president for eight years.

"If we impose such term limits, consistency demands that we should propose a constitutional amendment to impose term limits at a national level. I also think it is automatic for somebody not to serve more than two terms as opposition leader."

As he considers the great party leaders that came before, the likes of Fenech Adami and Dom Mintoff, Said says that the idea of having a leader of a party serving for three whole decades was no longer fitting to present circumstances. "In the next years I expect leaders to serve for shorter timeframes."

So what direction is the PN about to take? On certain aspects the electoral loss analysis report suggests that the party alienated the electorate on planning permits and through its so-called "anti-racist" stance on immigration. Should the party now satisfy all and sundry, right-wingers and all, to win back power? "Definitely not.... the report simply lists a number of issues which lost us votes. There were many other issues," Said says.

I point out that despite a number of controversial decisions between 2008 and 2013, there was less pressure on the environment and outside development zones with MEPA acting less cosy with developers than in previous years. So will the PN succumb to pressure from those who were alienated by this stance? "We have already made it clear that we are not willing to change positions simply to get more votes. On MEPA we have to address the problem of bureaucracy, but this should not mean a liberal policy on granting permits, which would effectively mean turning back the clock at the detriment of the country."

Said also questions whether the Nationalist government did enough to voice Malta's concerns with larger European countries to share responsibility on immigration. "Surely we will never move an inch from our duty as a nation to provide assistance to whoever is in distress or asking for protection..."

But one positive development in the PN is what Said says was the "mature" leadership renewal that has seen Mario de Marco and Beppe Fenech Adami join leader Simon Busuttil as his two deputies. "Never during the contest for the leadership did any of the four contestants attack his rivals."

So doesn't this leadership triad, with a secretary-general and possibly a chief executive officer, now risk becoming top-heavy?

"On the contrary. The more people contributing to this renewal, the better for the party... this is not just reflected in the leadership but also among the grassroots. The positive sign is that there has been already an increase in volunteers who are offering their help. The challenge for us is to channel all these new energies and ensure that they are able to give their maximum to the party."

But wouldn't a new CEO, mirroring the same Labour move, lead to confusion with his own role? "In this party there is a lot of work which has to be done. Because there is a lot of work to be done it is important to delegate work among different people. This is what we intend to do. We want people to focus on different aspects."

Said says the creation of a deputy leader for party affairs post, a move widely believed to appease leadership rival Mario de Marco through a guaranteed and uncontested post for deputy leader for parliamentary affairs, will give Busuttil assistance as leader of the party (while de Marco ostensibly tends to Busuttil as opposition leader in the House).

"Even with Fenech Adami's and a CEO's appointment, my workload remains a 24-hour job, which in itself creates the need for further delegation of power. We need to involve more people in our structures to get the work done."

What is clear is that the party has adopted a different leadership model. "Busuttil made it clear from day one that he is not interested in taking over all power in his hands but that he intends to share responsibility in what he has described as Team PN."

Is this an admission that GonziPN - the 2008 winning slogan that ultimately was Lawrence Gonzi's undoing - was a mistake?

But Said does not concede that GonziPN was a rallying cry for those excluded from the Gonzi inner circle and instead turns the tables to Labour, saying the taghna lkoll slogan would also come back to haunt Joseph Muscat. "Slogans used in electoral campaigns are bound to come back to haunt party leaders. If we had won the election on the basis of the slogan 'work, health and education', any shortcoming on any of these themes would have been magnified by reference to this slogan."

The PN claims Labour is not honouring its 'Malta for all' pledge, but doesn't the appointment of PN-leaning personalities like Lou Bondì to a government committee prove that Labour is in fact honouring its pledge? "They're only a handful. This pales in contrast with the appointment of hundreds of Labourities in various positions... It is clear that these appointments are being used to compensate those who helped Labour, like those who appeared on its billboards or spoke in mass meetings and other activities. It is also clear that some former Nationalists who defected or helped Labour in its campaign have also been rewarded. It renders Malta taghna lkoll a joke."

Franco Debono, the former Nationalist MP who effectively brought the government down in December, is co-ordinating the forthcoming constitutional convention. Will the PN participate in the workings of the convention?

So far no decision has been taken, Said says, adding that the party has yet to be invited to participate in the convention. But will the PN boycott the convention because of Debono's appointment? "We're in favour of a discussion on amendments to the Constitution as this forms part of our electoral manifesto. Therefore we agree that a mechanism should be established for this discussion to proceed. We have already made it clear that this process must be agreed upon between the two parties represented in parliament because most of these changes have to be subsequently discussed and approved by parliament, some of which requiring a two thirds majority. The starting point should have been an agreement."

But is it not positive that discussion is widened to include civil society?

Said agrees. "Everyone should be involved because constitutional amendments are the most important of legal changes. In government we involved civil society on normal bills of legislation, let alone amendments which impinge on the supreme law of the country."

Another example of taghna lkoll - former PN minister and European Commissioner John Dalli offered his services to the PN's new leadership and to the new government. A few days later, he accepted an appointment by the Labour government. Was Dalli's offer ever considered by the PN? "We are in opposition. Unlike the government, we could not offer John Dalli an executive position. Anyone who wants to contribute to the party from the opposition is free to do so. Everyone is welcome. The door is open."

Turning to the party's alleged multimillion-euro deficit, Said says he wants to see the party's asset base of political party clubs and see how these properties can be used as well as possible, by strengthening the PN's presence in towns and getting a return from these premises. "Unfortunately a number of these clubs are either used exclusively as bars; others are effectively closed."

By the end of July, the party's financial commission will be offering some sort of solution. "Beyond the financial importance of these clubs, the most important thing is how to use these assets politically."

Further problems at the Stamperija are unpaid employees waiting for their salaries. A small fundraising marathon in which volunteers collected "small donations from thousands of people" has given the party some breathing space, Said says. "There are still some problems but the situation has improved and is nearly in order."

The major challenge is to ensure the sustainability of the party media, "a  financial burden" in Said's words. "We have to start with breaking even and then see how best to use these assets to pay the accumulated debt."

I take Said back to the last years of the Gonzi administration, where the PN itself as a party was sidelined by government: rarely involved in the formulation of policy, largely reactive and invoked only in emergencies dictated by backbench unrest or issues like divorce. The former minister does not comment on this, but still declares that he wants to change it. "Having more people in a purely administrative role will enable me to take a more political role. I want the party to react more and turn it into a factory of ideas, propose policies from the opposition with no hang-ups over the risk that these will be taken up by others.

"It is inevitable that the party will face situations where different people have different positions on issues and this requires constant dialogue. We are the party which introduced the concept of dialogue in the country but lately we tok this for granted. We have to go back to basics, opening our doors not just to our grassroots but to civil society and the public at large."

Paramount then is the PN's task to get a proper snapshot of Maltese society: "Our leader has made it clear that we need a group of experts to provide us with a picture of what Maltese society looks like today and how they expect it to change in the medium and long term... In this way we can update our policies and become a factory of ideas."

Now he looks forward to attaining a self-imposed benchmark, to elect three MEPs to Brussels, something not done since 2004, even though the PN starts the 2014 campaign as the underdog. "This is our aim and we are already working hard to achieve it. I know it is difficult. We elected two MEPs out of five in 2004 and out of six in 2009. With the appointment of a new vetting commission, I have to say that we've never had so much interest as this time in contesting an MEP election. I'm frankly baffled. I find it hard to understand how after such a knock-out defeat, there is so much interest in the first electoral test the party will be facing. This is a very positive sign."

Fabbrika tal-hmerijiet ried jghid, lol.
A Factory of ideas that waisted its human and financial resources and those of the country for the last years, Ideas yes but what kind, surely not from the same Klikka that are still there pulling strings to their interests
Emmanuel Mallia
yes, like governing without a majority. Dr Said, you were a part of it ! This is your so called democracy !
Will the new factory of ideas produce the same billboards and ideas that sent the PN crashing gas down straight into the wall? If so, better shut down the factory as it will produce a bigger defeat next time.
Dr Said, tinsiex taghmlu c-cumnija fil-fabbrika u hafna ventilaturi.
What sort of Ideas?????????????? Like what the Population has been through? What sort of Ideas? like what thousand have been through, vindictive transfers, frame ups, lack of overtime for those who doesn't pay the PN subscription? what? Can you enlighten us Mr President of the nationalist Party? Or you were thinking of how to bankrupt Maltese coffers once again, or how many millions in consultancy you are going to spend the next time around The Almighty God forbid.
PN factory of ideas?. Yeah, good one. They had 20 plus years to come up with good ideas and nothing came of that. I don't think, with the current clique running the show, that good ideas will be forthcoming.