[WATCH] The power of conviction | Tonio Fenech

The Nationalist Party needs a leader who can convey a sense of trust and conviction; but it also needs to rediscover its Christian Democratic roots. Former Finance Minister Tonio Fenech outlines the existentialist crisis facing the PN today

Former PN MP Tonio Fenech
Former PN MP Tonio Fenech

Dr Fenech, you recently wrote an opinion piece arguing that the Nationalist Party has to ‘rediscover’ its true identity. But there doesn’t seem to be much consensus regarding what that identity is supposed to be. What exactly do you think the Nationalist Party is today... and what do you think it should be?

I think, you asked me the question: ‘what has the Nationalist Party always stood for’, the answer is pretty clear... that is why I joined the PN in the first place. I joined the PN out of choice; not necessarily because my family was always Nationalist. In fact I come from a very mixed background.

But I joined the Nationalist Party because, at the time, I was inspired by Eddie Fenech Adami in particular: whom I saw to be a great Christian Democratic leader. I am a Christian, and therefore I was inspired to offer my services to the country with the party I felt really represented my values. I believe the PN has been a force for change for the past 25 years. And therefore it hurts me to hear comments to the effect of: ‘If you’re a Christian Democrat, you’re trying to throw us back into the Middle Ages’.

I don’t think the PN in government did that; on the contrary, the Nationalist Party was always a force for change. It was a force that brought us into the EU. It actually gave us most of the liberties we have today. Clearly, Christian Democracy is about looking forwards, not backwards. However, yes, at this juncture, after two electoral defeats... the Nationalist Party needs a moment of reflection, rather than rushing headlong into any decisions. It needs to see what it really stands for; what makes it different. Because, unfortunately, we can’t have a democracy if both parties stand for the same things. Why not have only one party, and become a Chinese-style system? So, no, I don’t think the PN should just copy the Labour Party. All that would mean is that people would keep voting Labour; they will say, ‘the original is always better than the copy’... so the PN needs to have its own identity.

You talk of your involvement with the PN very firmly in the past tense. Was your decision to resign from the PN final and irrevocable?

There are some people who seem to think that, because I’m writing articles, it means that I aspire to contest the leadership election. I certainly don’t. One reason I have decided to move on is what I have seen happening in the past four years. By nature, I am a loyal person: if I’m in something, I will stick to it... even if I’m not happy with everything. I will not disturb the issue if I am part of the team.

However, I think the PN at this moment needs people to air their views. If I am part of the parliamentary group, I can air my views within that group... but then, outside that forum, I’d have to shut up. I disagree with that. I think it’s the moment we should all speak out. I would love to see the PN become a force for change in this country. I remain at heart a Nationalist. I did not abandon the PN; I remained active till the very last day. I attended mass meetings till the very last day.

I remain desirous to see the PN in government... but unfortunately, people opted otherwise. Clearly, the result shows that we need to have a serious discussion about the party. I would love to see the PN picking up the pieces, becoming strong again, and once again challenging to become a government.  If people opt otherwise, that’s their choice in a democracy. But let’s have a debate... because unless we really discuss the issues, the PN will just gear up for another election; possibly make the same mistakes; and not realise that it is not actually in touch with what voters would really like to see from it.

At the same time, however, you are talking about ‘going back to roots’. That suggests a backward, rather than forward-looking direction. Is returning to the Christian Democrat template really such a good idea, given that so many of the individual issues – divorce, gay rights, etc – are now more or less settled?

I am not talking about ’reversing’ things like the divorce decision. Divorce was introduced by means of a referendum, which must be respected. But it doesn’t mean we should just rush into every change without really thinking of the consequences. When I talk about the PN going back to its Christian Democratic roots, it’s not about reversing decisions; it’s about what we really want to instil in society. I still believe in the values of solidarity, social justice, the principles of Christian ethics, in having parameters within which to operate and order society.

These are important issues which need to be at the centre of the decision-making process... and not merely used electorally for convenience, and then put aside when in power. Besides, when I talk about values, it doesn’t mean a political party doesn’t evolve. Clearly, the PN has to evolve: no party can remain stuck in the past. But values do not ‘fossilise’ a party. A party must remain relevant to society; it must react to society... but also lead society.

I do not believe in politics based solely on surveys. In that case, we could simply do away with politicians altogether. All we’d need is a computer: everyone could click what he wants on an online survey, and then the computer would issue a bill according to what people have voted. Then the President can sign it, if we want a signature on the document. But that’s not politics. Politics is also about conviction; it’s about telling the people why they need to change...

Earlier you mentioned ‘mistakes’ made by the PN. Do these mistakes include, perhaps, a lack of conviction on the PN’s part? 

Let me put it this way: Joseph Muscat was so successful because he brought change to the Labour Party; he moved it from the Alfred Sant era, and with his convictions moved the party in a direction. This is what we need in this country: leaders, and not merely people who base themselves on what surveys say. That, to me, is a disservice to society.

Unfortunately, surveys are heavily influenced by talk. Let me give you a practical example from my time as minister of finance. Frankly, even though there was a global crisis, the economy was doing quite well. What did the Labour party pick on? Inflation. It said the cost of living was something the people couldn’t keep up with. It repeated that sufficient times, and as a result our surveys always used to say: ‘the PN is good at creating jobs, but horrible in tackling inflation.’ Because in reality, surveys are influenced by the media; by what is being emphasised... and they do not always objectively gather the information on the ground.

That is why, as the Nationalist Party, I think we need to go closer to the people on the ground. That is critical; our system remains based on that. People in their homes will give you a different perspective from what you might be thinking, possibly because of whatever strategy team you may have around you. We must listen to their concerns, their priorities, what their values are; what sort of future they want for their children. Unless we capture that, we can never be a party which gives relevant answers to those questions.

It sounds like a bit of a contradiction to me, however. On one level you talk about rediscovering the party’s forgotten roots... on another, you stress the need for the Nationalist Party to become relevant to what is, ultimately, a changing society. Separately, you give Joseph Muscat as an example of leadership: but Muscat did not ‘go back to Labour’s roots’; on the contrary, he remodelled the PL almost on the same lines as the PN...

I don’t see it as a contradiction. The reality is that Joseph Muscat has the power of conviction. He may be questioned on issues; but this election shows he was still trusted. The way he handled the Panama papers issue, for instance. I think it was scandalous, personally. But he managed to convince people that it was the right way to do it... sufficiently for them to give him a very strong majority.

Yet it was so obvious: so many independent commentators were saying that Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri should not be there, after what they’d done. But Muscat kept repeating the message that there was an inquiry going on... that we should wait for the inquiry’s conclusions... and people just accepted it. He probably took a bit of a gamble when he said that he would resign if the inquiry found anything wrong. But it paid off: people said, ‘If he’s so clear about that, he must be innocent’. Obviously, we shall have to wait and see.

But clearly, that was an element of conviction.  So in Joseph Muscat, the Labour Party has found a person who is able to sell change. He even managed to move a lot of conservative people within the PL – because the PL has its strong conservative element, too – on certain issues like gay marriage. He has the power of conviction, which is what the Nationalist Party also needs. It needs to find the right leader; one who not only has beliefs and ideas of where to lead the country; but also – in today’s reality – the ability to sell those beliefs and convictions. And people will accept even what they don’t think is the norm, if they trust the person enough to give him the confidence and the vote. This is what we are seeing today. I don’t think Maltese society is as stereotypical as it is made out to be: that ‘we’re all liberal’, or ‘all conservative’. I think we’re a very mixed society; but a society that needs leadership. When you have a leader, people will follow...

Eddie Fenech Adami was clearly a role model for you. Would you agree that the standards of leadership within the Nationalist Party have declined somewhat since he stepped down in 2004?

I can’t agree because I have a very high opinion of Lawrence Gonzi: I worked with him very closely for 10 years, and I believe he was one of the best prime ministers Malta ever had, in some of the toughest time this country passed through. The crisis of 2008-2012 was the biggest crisis we had had in 80 years – not the usual economic cycle – and I think we handled it very well. You may not agree with [Gonzi] on a lot of issues, but I would say he was a very strong leader: one I hold in very high esteem... 

And Simon Busuttil?

I don’t think Simon would not have been a good leader. Had he been given the chance, he would possibly have made a very good prime minister...

But he was given a chance, and he lost by an even greater majority...

... but I think certain mistakes were made. The first big mistake the PN made in the last legislature was that it missed out on certain key issues. I understand that Simon and the new leadership team wanted to show that this was something ‘new’. It was important: a break with the past was needed. But it was not enough to say ‘we’re new; we’re not associated with the past’.

Because in reality, not all the past was wrong. Having been 25 years in government, I think we must have done some things right... for the people to re-elect us over and over again. So while it was good to own up to past mistakes... it was wrong to try to be seen as something completely ‘new’. To stop talking about the past altogether.

What happened as a result? Joseph Muscat seized on it, very intelligently, and started saying that the PN had done nothing in 25 years. Whatever new law he enacted, he said: ‘the Nationalists had 25 years to do this, and never did’. Same with every new project. The truth, however, is that we did a lot of other things. That is how it always will be: there will be a lot of other things a future government will do, that this government never did. Obviously, because you can’t do everything.

So what actually happened was that the PN lost the opportunity to prove that it had the ability to govern. People started perceiving the PN as a party that was, unfortunately, ‘against everything’... which did not have any proposals of its own... and OK, it published several policy documents. But it never really pushed those documents forward. Instead, it limited itself to just fighting the element of corruption.

Corruption was an important issue; but alone, it can never win an election. I spoke to families which told me: ‘I had difficulty in convincing my [first-time voter] children to vote Nationalist, because they responded that the PN, in 25 years, had never done anything.’ They passed through a schooling system that was built by the Nationalist Party; they went to university, or MCAST, or ITS... built by Nationalist governments. They use a telecommunications system introduced by the PN.

But because we were absent for four years... never talking about the pre-2013 years, when we were in government... when these voters were 15 or 16, all they ever heard was the Labour Party saying we had done nothing for 25 years... and us saying nothing about it. Unless you speak about what the Nationalist party achieved in 25 years, nobody will remember it.

So the PN’s break with the past was too complete?

Yes. And this is the opposite of what Joseph Muscat did when he became PL leader. The first thing he did was go and hug Alex Sceberras Trigona, Joe Grima... all the people Nationalists regarded as ‘dinosaurs’ from the Mintoff years. But Muscat realised that, unless you have ALL the party engaged... everyone pushing for the same mission... and also showing that he was capable of bringing in new talent, while also utilising experience... then he will never regain power. And this is what the Nationalist party needs, too.