‘Politics redone, bottom-up’ | Alex Perici Calascione

PN leadership hopeful Alex Perici Calascione outlines his vision for a rethink of how the Nationalist Party does politics: from top-down imposition, to bottom-up reconstruction

Alex Perici Calascione
Alex Perici Calascione

Dr Perici Calasione: your slogan in this election is ‘Partit Rebbieh’ – a ‘victorious’ party. However, even a cursory glance at the Nationalist Party will reveal anything but that today. Why, in your opinion, is a party which used to be synonymous with ‘electoral success’, now in its current predicament?

We do definitely seem to have lost, somewhere along the way, some of the pages of our own book of strategy. I firmly believe we did write the book of strategy when it comes to winning elections.  We wrote it, we illustrated, we printed it and we bound it. But we seem to have lost a few of its pages. The slogan itself, ‘Partit Rebbieh’, states clearly where we should go. I firmly believe that the PN – love it or hate it, with all its limitations and its idiosyncrasies – was always there on the right side, when there were the most important events and decisions in our political history. So ‘Partit Rebbieh’ has also always meant ‘Pajjiz Rebbieh’ [Victorious country]. That is what we should aim for. And we should start speaking about that from now, perhaps in the most difficult of times. Because I firmly believe that it is in the most difficult of times that people need to step forward, roll up their sleeves and move ahead...

In recent years, however, the Labour Party seems to have stolen a march on the PN: Joseph Muscat has appropriated the strategy of linking his party’s success with the success of the country... and going on the results of the past two elections, public perception seems to have shifted accordingly. What went wrong for the PN?  

Well, things certainly went right for the Labour Party. There’s no denying that. We are sometimes criticised for being a party that feels it has a ‘divine right’ to rule. That aspect is there, probably ingrained in our structures... and that has led us not to be able to acknowledge the good things that the Labour Party is doing in government. Because undeniably, they are there.

But I still believe there are differences between the parties, which have to come out. My main concern is that we have failed to remain in synch with the aspirations and the realities that our families, and all people, face in the outside world. At some point, we seem to have detached ourselves from being one with those families... with the aspirations of youth, for instance.  We are now just another voice passing on its message. We need to reconnect. It might sound simplistic, but really, it starts and ends there.

There have been substantial changes in Maltese society, and not just generational [...]. the past 15, 20 years have seen a transformation of the country. And often, it is almost imperceptible. Also, in the past, our victories were often tied to big overriding issues... starting with Independence. Because really, that is where modern Malta was being built. The PN went for independence rather than Integration... even against its own internal misgivings. It was a big issue. From that decision, we developed as an independent country, and eventually joined the EU: another big issue. In between, there was a clear threat to democracy and freedom. It was a major rallying call. We don’t have those ‘big issues’ anymore; at least, not clearly. But the challenges that we now have to face are those imperceptible changes in Maltese society: which, at the end of the day, lead people to decide one way or another. From the small decisions in life, to the big decisions... including how to vote. And including voting against what one traditionally voted for in the past. People are starting to see a better alternative in what, around 10 years earlier, would have been considered unthinkable. Vote labour, when you voted nationalist... or the other way round. 

There is a danger in that reasoning, though. Part of the ‘divine right to rule’ argument also implies that ONLY the PN can be expected to get things right. The PN gambled heavily on this perception in 2013: we were told that under Labour, it would be ‘gas down gol-hajt’ [headlong into a brick wall]. That prediction appears to have gone awry. So if the only distinguishing factor is now the performance of the two parties... and Labour, in the eyes of many, is performing well... doesn’t that hamstring the PN’s chances of recovery slightly?

Quite possibly. Let’s take one of the major success stories the Labour government puts before all of us, in order to prove its worth: the economy. Undoubtedly, there are sectors of the economy that are doing, not just ‘well’, but very well. There’s also a worrying change in the composition of our traditional middle class, in terms of medium- and long-term planning. We definitely have had sectors of that middle class moving up, and joining the high earners: people who have become property owners, or become wealthy through the construction industry, directly or indirectly. At the same time, there is a sizeable section of the middle-class that has always lived comfortably, without excesses one way or another... and which definitely never had to worry about maintaining a particular standard of living.

Some of the changes in the economy have not filtered down as they should have. For the first time, particularly as those families reach pensionable age, they are facing real problems maintaining the standard of living they were always used to, and which they assumed they would maintain for the rest of their lives. Apart from that, we may have been unable to actually acknowledge, as we should have, where the economy was doing very well. In so doing, we created a political vacuum which allowed Joseph Muscat and the PL to claim full success; when, in actual fact, the successes of the economy today owe their origins directly – and there is no other way of looking at this – to the PN, for having done all the sacrifices under the sun to save the economy when it was being attacked most... during the economic and financial meltdown.

So since it doesn’t come naturally to us to say, ‘Yes, the economy is doing well’... we even failed to lay claim to that part of the credit which was ours by right. When I say ‘ours by right’... it belongs to the people, at the end of the day. But we were a hell of an agent towards saving the economy, when all other European economies except Germany were faltering. Our inability to acknowledge this allowed Muscat and Labour to simply walk in and say: ‘OK... we created this.’ This is perhaps a new way of expressing ourselves politically: we have to be able to acknowledge the good that is done, no matter who does it. And we have to have the belief, and all our structures have to be geared towards that belief, that we can do it better.

At the same time, the PN appears fractured by internal divisions. The recent Marriage Equality vote in parliament pushed some of these differences out in the open. Suddenly, it is by no means clear where the PN stands on certain issues... public exponents such as Edwin Vassallo (to stick to the example) argue that the PN should ‘rediscover its Christian democrat roots’; others argue the opposite. How would you, as party leader, bridge these ideological differences?

It may surprise many people to know that historically, there were times when the PN was perceived to be anticlerical: when the clergy was closer to the British establishment. Aside from that, however: we do have an important document, ‘Fehmiet Bazici’ [Basic beliefs], which outlines this very clearly. Article 2 of our statute states clearly that our principles and values, as a political party, are inspired by Christian principles and values. But we are neither a confessional party, nor a section of the Church. We are a political party that has to propose legislation (at this stage), and legislate when in government, for the benefit of all.

We also say that we should always place the individual at the centre of our policies... without distinguishing between individuals, irrespective of race, colour, creed, social orientation, political leanings, etc. I firmly believe this, not just in politics but in life. If you look at these ‘Christian values’ – because that’s how they are presented to us – by their very nature, they are of universal application. Social justice, solidarity, everyone being equal before the law, the value of life... although they are defined as ‘Christian values’, they are of universal application, irrespective of anyone’s beliefs.

Of themselves, they are challenging values, too. The way we apply these values to an evolving society is always the subject of discussion... and that’s great. That’s absolutely great. They are values that, by their very nature, spur and invite discussion... even heated, animated or emotional discussion. At the same time, though, I firmly believe that these same values also give us parameters for convergence. That, then, should be the wisdom of leadership... to seek that point of convergence. God forbid the Nationalist Party should end up being an army of clones that just does exactly what it is ordered to do, without discussion. I would absolutely not feel comfortable within those structures; and that is not what the PN is.

And yet, for all this talk of ‘parameters for convergence’... there doesn’t seem to be much convergence at present. In practical terms, the PN still struggles to present a united front, and is once again beset by angry ‘rebels’, so to speak... 

My own concern in this particular case is not that Edwin Vassallo or anyone else requests the right to a free vote. I believe that if anyone has a serious moral objection, a free vote should be allowed without too much of a hassle. My concern is the stage before that free vote was requested: I do have serious concerns with someone requesting a free vote because no meaningful discussion happened before. The free vote is only what appears on the outside...

In fact, Vassallo used the word ‘authoritarian’ to describe the PN leadership’s handling of that particular case. It is not isolated criticism: Mario Galea likewise used the same word in a different context. So isn’t it the case that the PN’s power structures are still very much a top-down affair: with policies imposed from above by the leadership?

You’re asking the right person, because you’ve happened to touch on the main pivotal point of my entire political programme. What we need is a rethink of our philosophy, to ensure that politics ends up being a bottom-up approach. Sometimes it is easier to demolish a building and build it up again, than to change frames of mind: ways of doing things that have become ingrained. That is exactly what I intend to do: and I firmly mean it. A bottom-up approach. And the changes in society that we mentioned before demand this.

There is absolutely no way that I, or anyone at the Dar Centrali, sitting around our impressive table – it seats around 24 people – can meaningfully propose policies for youth, without these having been proposed to us first by our youth movement. The same goes for our policies on small and medium enterprises. These have to come first from the people who are directly in the field. We already have these structures; and in the four years of Simon Busuttil’s tenure, these structures have been increased.

We spent the first two years amending the statute, setting up new structures... right down to this contest, being at the end of the day a choice for the party members: for the first time in our, and any local political party’s history. That was a hell of a statement... a brave statement. But the plan was never reasonably going to be a four-year plan: it will take slightly longer than that. There are still things that need to change. But what I definitely want to impose – it’s my vision, that I’m presenting to the councillors, and hopefully even to the members – is politics redone, bottom-up. The local committees are there not just to play bingo, and raise money for a marathon... though I’ll be the first to say that that is absolutely necessary... they are there to give you the politics of the locality; the reality on the ground. 

On the subject of fund-raising: the PN is known to face more than just identity issues... there is a financial dimension to its current situation. You were party treasure after 2013; how much control did you actually have when it came to reforming the party’s financial structures?

What I did have immediately was a hell of a problem to tackle. And I want to be clear: it wasn’t all negative. We found investment... but we did find a very big financial problem. It was such that it couldn’t be tackled by just one person’s vision; we needed a group of people. First of all we had to go to a team of professionals to analyse the situation. We needed to ensure that we had a structured plan. Then there were changes I wanted to introduce, and which we discussed.

It was a multi-pronged approach. First off, we had to confront the structured loans head-on. That was a role which Anne Fenech took forward. Then there were the internal structures that had to be amended to ensure greater accountability: so we set up the ‘Finance PN’ team... we pushed forward what, in a private company, would be called an ‘audit committee’... Then, very strenuously, we had to move towards getting as much money from our people, in one activity after another...

As well as by means of the ‘Cedoli’ scheme...

The Cedoli scheme was part of a 15-year plan – we are now in its second year – and it is being adhered to quite strictly...

Perhaps, but isn’t it also a case of borrowing money to service debt? The money raised through Cedoli will have to be repaid with interest. Hasn’t it therefore simply increased the PN’s financial burden?

Not really: it’s part of a refinancing process. The Cedoli scheme was not just a knee-jerk reaction to get money. It was planned from before, and introduced when it had to be introduced...

It was also severely criticised for being anonymous. Were you comfortable with the lack of transparency involved?

Totally.  We are talking about loans: personal loans which people give to the PN. They are covered by a specific agreement, as all loans should be. There were handled exclusively, in terms of meeting the people involved, by Anne Fenech and myself... naturally, there is the privacy of the people concerned...

But the identity of the donors, as well as the amounts involved, was kept secret. Doesn’t this raise money-laundering suspicions? What guarantee do we have that none of the money derives from criminal activities, for instance?

There was a due diligence process carried out on each person. All the money accepted came from bank deposits... there were no cash transactions. It was all money that was already in the system. And I assure you of one thing. Ordinary people like you and me came forward with their money to give to the party. There was no one incident of any one huge businessman coming in...

But there were large individual contributions...

Absolutely not. There was one exception: which came from a pensioner, at the end of the day. But he had his savings, and we were also offering a good rate compared to what the banks were giving anyway. I actually went to this person’s house twice: less because of the amount involved, than because I wanted to make sure this person was not getting carried away by emotions. [...] This is the level of detail we went into. It is perfectly regulated by law; the Labour Party did try to make a hassle out of it; they tried all aspects, but the fact remains that it is perfectly legal. We’re doing things by the book.