[WATCH] ‘Muscat’s vision has not become reality’ – Nationalist whip

David Agius says that the public have started to pressure the government to deliver on its pre-electoral promises.

David Agius is keeping all options open for the secretary-general's role • Photo and Video by Ray Attard
David Agius is keeping all options open for the secretary-general's role • Photo and Video by Ray Attard
Nationalist Party whip David Agius interviewed

Perhaps the most innovative aspect of Renzo Piano’s design for the new Parliament was the colour of the seats. As Nationalist Party whip David Agius ushers me into the plenary chamber for this interview, I remark to him that the Greens can no longer complain about being denied a seat in parliament. In fact they now officially have all the seats, including the Speaker’s…

Agius has just given me a lightning tour of the new building, including a practical demonstration of how the telecommunications devices work – ‘you insert your card, and the microphone automatically comes on, etc.’ – and the adjustments that had to be made to certain seats and desktops, so that the taller of our 69 MPs might actually fit in their places. (Renzo Piano must have read somewhere that we are on average the shortest population in Europe, so he designed a plenary chamber for hobbits.)

Soon we find ourselves seated at a table in the precise epicentre of the hall. As it happens, my first question for David Agius concerns precisely the seats he has just displayed to me… or at least one of them. The one occupied by Giovanna Debono, the former Gozo minister who has now resigned from the Nationalist Party while retaining her position as an MP.

This is not the first incident of its kind: in 2012, MP Jeffery Pullicino Orlando similarly resigned from the PN parliamentary group, which could only hold onto power by entering into an uneasy ‘coalition’ with the renegade former Nationalist. The circumstances are different today, and Debono’s resignation does not have immediate repercussions on the PN’s ability to function as an Opposition.

But to an outsider it may be interpreted as an act of defiance against a party leader who allegedly pressured her to relinquish her seat as well. David Agius is the party whip, and the matter therefore concerns him closely. In his opinion, should Giovanna Debono have also stepped down from her position as an MP, given the nature of the charges her husband faces in court?

“No,” he promptly replies, “because her seat in parliament is her own. A member of parliament is elected by the people, and the decision to resign that seat or not is something only he or she can take. It is true that MPs are elected on a party ticket, and there have been discussions in the past as to whether the seat belongs to the candidate or the party. But the way our laws work at present is that effectively, people elect candidates, and so the seat belongs to the elected candidate, not to the party. No party whip, no form of party discipline can force an elected representative to give up a seat.”

That may well be correct from a legal point of view, but there is also the issue of good governance. The controversy that led to Debono’s resignation from the PN concerned allegations of misappropriation of funds, and works given out for free by the Gozo ministry, on her watch. Is her position as an MP still tenable under those circumstances? And was there any pressure by the party on Debono to relinquish her seat? 

“I was not involved in any way in her decision… until afterwards, naturally, when she approached me as party whip to tell me that she would no longer form part of the Nationalist parliamentary group. But obviously we still speak to each other. As an independent MP she has every right to speak in parliament, so the party whips have to see to it that she is given space to speak, during the adjournment, for instance, and so on. Giovanna Debono will carry on with her work as an MP, the only difference is that she is now an independent MP and not a Nationalist one.”

As to whether Debono should have resigned on principle, Agius prefers to withhold judgment.

“I’ll have to wait to see the outcome of the court case. I have no evidence today that the allegations are true. There is a case before the courts, and if it reaches a guilty verdict, then your question would be valid. But if the verdict goes the other way, the allegations become of mud-slinging. And I don’t want to be an accomplice in that. What I can say is, let’s hope the Maltese police take steps against all allegations: including allegations today about things that are still happening in Gozo… and I’d say in other localities, too…”

Before turning to these allegations: Debono’s resignation may also have ripple effects on the Nationalist Party’s public image. Until this development, things seemed to have been looking up for the PN for the first time since March 2013. The local council elections were interpreted as the beginnings of a turnaround in electoral fortunes. Suddenly, we were reminded of at least part of the reason why the PN lost so heavily in 2013.

Is the party concerned that this interlude will have an effect on its ability to recover in time for the elections?

“If you look at the local council election results, you will see that there was a considerable shift. If I take my own district: Attard, Mosta and Balzan. We had three local elections in which we increased votes in all three localities. Plus, we increased a seat in Attard, while Labour lost a seat. In Balzan we are now four [councillors] to one, and there was a 600 increase in number one votes. And in Mosta, where we were very close the last time, we won with a 52% majority. This shows that we are taking strides; that we are still there, and that we might have a good chance ahead of the next election...”

That is precisely why the reminder of cases like this may have come at a bad time for the PN. One thing the case seems to illustrate, for instance, is that the culture of political patronage is still very much alive and kicking. The PN itself is currently finding fault with the government over very similar issues… so doesn’t this damage its credibility as an alternative government-in-waiting?

Agius acknowledges that the PN’s inability to tackle issues such as political patronage may have contributed to its defeat in 2013. 

“The reality is that political patronage has decreased, but it is still there. As a party that spent a number of years in government, we decreased the level of dependence on politicians. But it has not been eradicated. The problem is that nowadays, it is on the rise again. The fact that you have over 4,000 people employed by the government; the fact that you have a Labour Party MP telling you, ‘listen, employ my good friend’… these are worrying indicators.

“The number of promises made before the election, and the number of people who now expect delivery… the signs are there. We’re beginning to see a trend whereby these things are escalating. Don’t forget that in the last local election, 7,000 voters invalidated their vote. 7,000. Why? What was the reason? And when you have a number of ministers who change their mobile number, or don’t take calls… why is that? It’s because there is pressure from people, so that they deliver on promises made before the election...”

Earlier he mentioned allegations that should be investigated today. Could he give any examples?

“I can tell you… and in the near future we’ll have a lot of information about this… about the things we found in the St Paul’s Bay local council. In the first days since the council switched from a Labour to a Nationalist majority, we saw the executive secretary step down. He no longer wants to carry on with his work as secretary after losing the council… the question arises: why?”

From the information given so far, there could be many reasons, and not all of them necessarily suspicious…

“In time, we will bring out the reasons. There were a number of things that were not at all to my liking when these were brought to my attention. I have requested that everything is put in order, and that reports are made to the police where necessary…”

Agius alludes to abuse of council data, and “people who were paid when they shouldn’t have been”. But he is reluctant to go into any more detail. “Very soon we will be informing the media, and also the residents of St Paul’s Bay, of exactly what’s been going on in that council.”

Meanwhile, all this merely adds to a growing popular perception that it doesn’t really matter who wins elections, because the same pattern inevitably unfolds regardless of whether Labour or the PN is in government…

“But you have to remember what the Labour Party had promised before the election. What did Joseph Muscat say then? That all the bad things that happened under the Nationalists would not happen on his watch. He promised meritocracy, transparency, accountability… ‘Malta Taghna Lkoll’… that ‘you can disagree with us but work with us all the same’…

“Look around you today. Has any of this materialised? Has Malta really become ‘taghna lkoll’? Is there meritocracy? In some areas, perhaps. But look at what’s happened in just two years. You have the Café Premier scandal. AFM members who get promoted several grades. The Police Commissioner was changed three times. You had the case of former minister Manuel Mallia. 4,000 employed by the government. We’ve seen all this in a very short time. The Nationalist Party spent 25 years in government. These have only been in power for 25 months. And already people are beginning to see through the government. What they were promised has not been delivered. The vision conjured up by Joseph Muscat has not become reality…

Agius however concedes that the aura of disappointment may not be all-pervasive. “Some promises have been kept. There have been positive developments under this government, I’m not saying that everything has been bad. But people are realising that a lot of things could have been done much better…”

Some might argue that people made the same realisation before the last election, hence the result. In what ways has the Nationalist Party changed since then?

“We are changing,” Agius assures me with confidence. “We have opened up the party, made new movements, enlarged our general council from 900 to 1,500 people; we have changed the statute. We have a new shadow cabinet. Obviously there’s been a change in leadership. We have new policy groups. There’s been a complete transformation in the past two years… we have sorted out our financial situation, In-Nazzjon, NET television…”

It is news to me that the financial situation of the PN has been ‘sorted out’. Does this mean the party’s debts have been paid?

“No. What I meant was that where we previously were losing money in the normal running of the operation, today at least we break even or make a profit. This way, the debt you mention can be slowly whittled down. But today, [PN media] employees are getting paid. We worked hard to achieve this: MPs, councillors, card-holding party members… they all helped financially, in the organisation of activities. We obtained results financially, and also in terms of votes. And these came in the local elections…”

Again David Agius stresses the importance of these elections for the party morale. “Imagine we didn’t achieve those results. Then, we would be in difficulty. All the changes we’ve been through, all the different policies, the image of the party, the new people… if none of that worked, then yes, we’d be in trouble. But that’s not the case. The feedback we’re getting even from house visits is that there’s a good feeling out there for the Nationalist Party at present…”

One other interesting repercussion of Debono’s resignation is that it has indirectly opened up a vacancy for PN secretary general, as Chris Said will be stepping down to ‘concentrate on Gozo’. Agius has been mentioned in connection with the post. Is he interested?

“I will leave all my options open. I have been in the party for a number of years, I know how the party works, I am familiar with the internal structures of the party… as a whip, I am in the executive as well as the administrative council… so I know that it’s a big, big job to do. It’s not an easy decision. I will wait, I will analyse what’s best for the party, and eventually I will decide.”

Let us, for argument’s sake, assume David Agius does put himself forward for the post, What would his top three priorities be as secretary-general?

“My first priority would be to continue on the positive wave we have today, and ensure that the PN is ready to administer this country. We have to give the people enough evidence, enough policy that we are ready to take on this job. Secondly, we have to strengthen the party by going to each and every locality, as we have been doing in the past weeks. I would like a party that is much, much more of a people’s party…”

Priority number three concerns the aforementioned financial situation. “The new secretary general will have to continue the work that Chris has started with regard to the sustainability of the party, with its media, with its employees… that has to be also on the agenda of the secretary general…”

At the same time, couldn’t the job also be interpreted as a poisoned chalice? On paper, the PN’s chances of overturning a 36,000 vote deficit appear small. So wouldn’t the new secretary general take the blame for what many consider (perhaps prematurely) to be an inevitable defeat?

“We are all in the same boat. It’s not a secretary general who would lose; it’s not the leadership of the party that would lose… we would all lose, because we all work within the Nationalist Party. In my opinion we all have to strive to get back each and every lost vote, and to win new voters over. This is not a job for the leadership of the party, or the secretary general.

“It’s a job for all of us… including Gianna Borg who lives in Attard. Gianna Borg, who is a Nationalist, must help us to win the next election. And she has to feel it. If Gianna Borg doesn’t feel it, then we’re lacking. If Gianna Borg feels like we can win, then we will make it. Because Gianna Borg will go to the supermarket, to the green grocer, to everybody, and say: ‘I believe in the Nationalist Party. I believe it can win…’ That is when the Nationalist Party will win.”

I put it to him that his fictitious stereotype of a Maltese housewife is reminiscent of Simon Busuttil’s memorable quote during the election campaign, when he urged voters to start arguments at the grocer’s…

David Agius smiles wryly. “Maybe we didn’t go to the grocer often enough before the last election. Maybe Joseph Muscat went more often than we did. And maybe the Labour Party’s people wanted to win much more than ours did. And they managed. Credit to them.

“I believe that if the Nationalist Party works well together, just as we achieved positive results in the local council elections, we can carry on riding the crest of the wave by remaining close to the people. It was one of the things we were criticised for most in the weeks, months and last few years before the last election: that we were disconnected from the people. We have learnt from our mistakes since then, and we are now obtaining results.”