[WATCH] Down but not out | Simon Busuttil

Opposition leader Simon Busuttil interviewed

Simon Busuttil, PN leader, interviewed - May 2014 from MaltaToday on Vimeo.

Video by Ray Attard

The last time I interviewed the Opposition leader – just over a month ago – Simon Busuttil was beaming with a quiet confidence that the European elections would mark’s the beginning of the PN gradual comeback.

Fast-forward five weeks, and it seems that the PN is back to square one. Despite achieving his target of electing three seats, Busuttil is on the defensive, having to explain that the PN has a long way to go before returning to its glorious best.

As we return to his office on the third floor at the PN’s headquarters in Pieta, I immediately ask Busuttil how he feels following the bruising defeat by over 33,000 votes.

“I feel like the same person I was before the election, with the same determination to get down to work. This is a result that has its positives and negatives, which I’m prepared to face with dignity and determination.”

However, I retort that it must be discouraging to face a Labour Party which is building a hegemonic bloc last seen in the PN’s golden years in the 90s.

“This shows how important it is to have a strong, effective Opposition in this country. It is doubly important for the PN to get back on its feet.”

He adds that the election produced two results: the number of seats won by the parties and the vote tally, which saw the PN trail Labour by 13 points.

Insisting that by electing three seats for the very first time, the PN has achieved its main target, Busuttil says: “We’ve never done that before. And we did it only a year after a historical defeat in the general elections.”

Describing Labour’s mammoth victory in terms of votes as a “personal disappointment,” a bullish Busuttil adds: “It only makes me more determined to break this hegemonic cycle of power.”

“This requires continuous change within the PN. I say continuous because over the past year, a number of changes have already been made but unfortunately they have not given the desired result simply because we’re still at the beginning. I am determined to make sure the party gets back on its feet, for people to feel comfortable with and within the party again.”

I wonder whether this defeat could in some way be a blessing in disguise and strengthen his hand in ringing the changes within the PN. 

“I’ve already had intense internal talks and the response was exactly that. We need to do our best to get back on our feet and I feel strengthened by this response to do all it takes to achieve this.” 

Turning back to the PN’s success in electing three seats, I note that the elusive third seat was only snatched by virtue of the way votes are inherited in the electoral process.

Will you hide behind a Pyrrhic victory or do you admit that you were not expecting such a loss and that it was a big disappointment for the party?

“I am absolutely not hiding. Like I said before, the election had two results – seats and votes. If I were hiding I would mention only the seats and I would say that I had won – in terms of seats, Muscat lost a seat and we won one. I am conscious that that alone is not enough. I know that we suffered a loss in terms of votes. However, this makes me determined to continue doing what is needed to get the party back on track.”

He adds that electing three MEPs was an honest, simple and clear goal and he achieved, “but the result in terms of votes strengthens my determination to build on this result. We have the third seat, which I assure you will be used to its full potential, in the best interests of the country, and we will use it to help the party do what needs to be done”.

In the aftermath of the election, there have been growing calls within the Nationalist camp for the removal of the party strategists, who have survived the humiliating 2013 defeat and pulled the string in this year’s lacklustre campaign.

“There is certainly is a problem of perception. The perception is that the PN has not changed. In reality, many changes have already occurred. Not enough, but many nonetheless. The leadership is entirely new. Financially, the party has once again become sustainable. The party’s statute has undergone radical changes.

“That’s why I said that we have begun to implement changes: we still have a long way to go and we need the perseverance and patience to allow these changes to take root and to grow strong.”

But what will he do to change this perception? “The perception needs to change, as there is no truth behind it. I understand that the PN is still weak in its communication of its message because its media is one of the things that need to be reformed. That is one major change I want to make in fact. The party media needs to change to become more effective and deliver our message better and therefore help to change this perception.”

He adds that in truth, the PN has changed but it does not have a strong enough means of communication to impart this message.

“We need to change the way we communicate so we can do so more effectively,” he stresses.

But I ask Busuttil whether the problem lays in how the party conveys its message or in the message itself.

“The bottom line is that the will of the people is sovereign. I would be the last person to say that the people are wrong, even when I do not agree with them. On these different issues, the PN wants to show that it understands the message enough so that where there is need for change, even in its own policies, it will happen.”

In his reaction after the election, Busuttil was adamant that he would neither be resigning nor making a report on the result. I ask whether he feels that such a move can be perceived as arrogance, or as an attempt to escape judgment.

“The easiest thing to do would be to resign; to return to my personal life, the private sector and a much higher wage than what I get now. Don’t you think I considered taking the easy way out? But I am not here to take the easy way out and I am determined to do what needs to be done.”

The PN leader adds that he took the decision to stay on last year, when he offered to take up the leadership of the party and was chosen ahead of his current deputy Mario de Marco.

“I am determined to lead the party – I will not give up at the first stumbling block. These things only make me more determined.

“One can see this in the way I’m presenting it or in another way; that I am arrogant and twisting things around. I don’t see it as arrogance but as me taking responsibility and sticking around to do what must be done. In fact, right now I feel that the PN needs its leader to stay and see that the party once again becomes the political force it once was.

“I feel this is important, so as to prevent a situation where, as you said before, the government is too powerful and hegemonic, at the expense of democracy. Our country needs a strong Opposition, and that’s the kind of Opposition I want.”

I put it to him whether the defeat, and its dimension, calls for a vote of confidence. Why is he resisting such calls? “Because I enjoy the party’s confidence and I do not feel this is necessary.”

How are you gauging this confidence?

“It was given to me last year and was reaffirmed this week during our internal discussions, and I am not prepared to turn away from the leadership of this party.”

Is anyone within the party dissatisfied with your leadership?

“I know that the media wants me to resign and disappear but the response is the same. The easiest thing for me to do would be to resign but I am determined to stay. Ask the question any way you like – the answer remains the same.”

Last week’s defeat was the latest in a string of heavy defeats for the PN. Over the past five years, Labour has scored four impressive victories and the PN seems to be stuck in a rut. Will Busuttil stay on if he suffers another defeat in the 2018 general election?

“In every instance, I have and will always shoulder the political responsibility,” is his terse reply.

Since being elected party leader, one of the most controversial decisions taken by the Opposition was abstaining on the vote on the civil unions bill. In a clear attempt to highlight party unity, Busuttil failed to take a stand or at least grant his MPs a free vote. Was this a good decision?

“The decision was taken, that chapter is closed. I choose to look forward,” he replies. 

But would he do the same if the party were faced with a similar dilemma, say on hunting or the decriminalisation of soft drugs?

“I choose what, in my understanding and that of the party, is the best decision for the country, as I have already done on the civil unions issue. I will always try to have a clear stand on such issues.”

But I insist: would he be prepared to give MPs a free vote?

“It would depend on the case. In those circumstances, that decision was taken. I can assure you that I am ready to face every case, issue and situation, and not avoid it.”

Undoubtedly, the European elections campaign will go down in history books as the epitome of mediocrity, however one memorable event was the publication of the mock ‘sticker album’ as the PN upped the ante on government’s lack of meritocracy.

However, the album included PN sympathisers who had been first appointed by Nationalist administrations, Labourites who were put in positions of trust and other prominent persons, including former PN employees Lou Bondi and Anton Attard, who were omitted despite being given appointments under Labour.

On a number of occasions, including the citizenship scheme and meritocracy, the PN has over-played its hand. I ask Busuttil whether the ‘sticker album’ was a mistake and whether he had approved it, to which he replies, “If there was one mistake in the PN campaign, this was it.”

Who will shoulder responsibility for such a blunder? “We are taking responsibility collectively and I am taking personal responsibility too. That’s why I’m here – to take responsibility. But in substance, we all agree that appointments were not based on merit, on a number of occasions.  You used the word ‘overplayed’ and I think this was one such case.”

Perhaps, Busuttil says, “we could have said it in a different way – meritocracy, for example, did not always prevail, even when the PN was in government.”

The PN, he argues, should not shy away from the argument because of its past errors, but it should go ahead and show that what is happening now “is wrong, and what happened in our time was wrong too, and things need to be done right once and for all. In my view, the government has not only failed to fix the problems present when we were in government but went to worse extremes than before. Are we not to mention that? Yes, we need to talk about it. But we must talk about it with more credibility than we have now”.

How can the PN overcome the lack of credibility? “This is why I said all along, that we are still at the beginning. If I’m building the foundations, it is pointless to complain that the house is not built. I’ve only been at it a year and in this year, I’ve been working on the foundations. We should not throw our work away because this party is needed, not only because of its long history but because it achieved a lot for the country and continues to do so today.”

However, I ask him whether contemporary Maltese society is interested in meritocracy. “That is a question that requires a thesis to answer – a study of what guides the Maltese voters. There is no doubt that this government believes that you gain votes by buying people off – by sending them a lower energy bill a week before an election, by giving transfers or promotions a day before the election, by giving refunds on vehicle VAT a week before the election. The government is clearly working on this premise.”

MaltaToday surveys consistently show that Prime Minister Joseph Muscat enjoys a 13-point advantage over Busuttil in the trust ratings, and at a time when the political landscape is transforming itself into a direct contest between party leaders, how does Busuttil intend to overcome this disadvantage?

“First of all, one must accept reality. Muscat began on a high of a 36,000-vote majority. It stands to reason that he has such a high trust rating. The PN leader, whoever he was, was going to have to start from zero. From zero, I have progressed slightly but am still far away from Muscat.

“This is another obstacle I am determined to overcome and I assure you that part of the changes the PN needs to make addresses this issue specifically. Again, this is tied to communication – a weak communication reflects on the image of the PN leader. One thing is tied to the other. I am conscious of this and am determined to do what I can to improve it.”

Busuttil admits that the PN was and remains disconnected from the people. He adds that overcoming this handicap has been the “biggest difficulty” he faced since becoming leader. 

“This was and remains my platform – to make the party the people’s party. One has to earn the trust of the people by working hard and I have started to do this. I have visited people in their homes and visited different sectors to listen and understand how we can change. By listening to how people have felt hurt, abandoned or let down by the party, we can learn how to make changes that will help to regain their trust. One year was obviously not long enough to change people’s minds. In the long run, this might be enough. This is something we still need to tackle.”

He says Muscat operates by being “everything to everyone” but Busuttil and the PN will not go down that road.

“In life, it is difficult to be everything to everyone while remaining honest – to be everything to everyone you would have to say yes to the environmentalists and yes to the hunters…till today, my message – simple and honest – has not hit home but in time, it will.”

Back to the direct contest between Muscat and Busuttil, the PN leader says that although the prime minister has so far proved to be a better salesman than he is, “the people need a statesman.”

In the past year, the government has been in campaign mode – handing out goodies in the last week before the election, making a budget in election mode, campaigning every weekend. That is the challenge the PN is up against, this sort of salesmanship. But we are not giving up. We must be good statesmen, which is the most important thing to me: a real people’s party and better salesmen than we are now. Muscat definitely wins in marketing so far.”