Egrant was ‘devastating’ for the PN | Clyde Puli

The outcome of the Egrant inquiry has severely impacted the Nationalist Party; resulting in an apparent split that threatens to tear it apart. PN secretary-general Clyde Puli argues that the only way forward is to abandon the ‘old way’ of doing politics

PN secretary-general Clyde Puli
PN secretary-general Clyde Puli

Clyde Puli INTERVIEW from mediatoday on Vimeo.

From an outsider’s perspective, the PN seems to be split into two warring parties: one led by Adrian Delia, and a rebel faction supporting Simon Busuttil. ‘Quo vadis, Partit Nazzjonalista?’ Where does the PN go from here?

I wouldn’t say that there is a split between two parties; but there are still circumstances, from before the last general election, that remain unresolved. Starting with the most obvious: the change in leadership. The new leader took over when the PN was already facing serious financial challenges. He has to rebuild the party’s organisation from scratch. He also has to talk about his own vision: his own ideological ‘quo vadis’, the slant he wants to give the party. Adding to that, on top of all the work that needs to be done, in the last months the issue of Egrant has once again surfaced. This is certainly not an issue connected to the present leadership: but it has serious implications for this leadership too; because we exist today, and therefore, yes, this creates moments of difficulty – challenges that have to be resolved, in the best interests of the party and country, without focusing on individuals. Because otherwise, we will remain stuck in a bubble, and we won’t be able to move forward...

But the PN is stuck in a bubble. Delia asked Busuttil to resign; and Busuttil – the former leader who hitched the party to Egrant in the first place – refuses to go. How can the PN detach itself from Egrant, under these circumstances?

A year ago, there was an election, which had been called early precisely because of the Egrant allegation. The Prime Minister at the time called for a magisterial inquiry [...] and the magistrate, who enjoyed the trust of all parties, reached certain conclusions: i.e., that Egrant did not belong to whom it was alleged to have belonged. To this day we don’t know exactly whose it was; but we know that the magistrate found no proof to establish it belonged to [Michelle Muscat].

Actually, the magistrate found more than just that. He also found evidence that the declaration of trust had been falsified. That is evidence of a crime having been committed...

Yes, and in fact that makes matters worse. This was a fabrication. And as a party, we feel we have respect for the institutions; respect for the magistrate; and we need to accept the conclusions of that inquiry. Fullstop....

But that’s not what’s happening, is it?

...along with that inquiry, there were others that are still ongoing. There are other cases. This was said from day one: we still don’t know the full extent of what happened [...] In the past few days we even had the deputy prime minister coming out and saying: ‘Listen, don’t be too quick to claim victory on those two accounts [Hearnsville and Tillgate], because there are still ongoing inquiries’. Now: to answer your original question – I am convinced that the Nationalist party had a lot of valid points it could have used, but it made a mistake – definitely a mistake from a strategy perspective. It reminds me of the fable of the dog with a bone in its mouth, which saw its own reflection in the water, and thought that ‘the other dog’ had a bigger bone... and therefore dropped the bone it had in its mouth.

It’s a good analogy...

But that’s what happened in the past. From now on, what should happen? How are we going to safeguard the credibility of our party? At the end of the day, the PN does not only have an obligation towards itself. It has an obligation towards the country. If there is no serious Opposition, then this government will really keep steamrolling over everybody. And credibility is... I don’t want to say ‘it’s more important than the truth’; but it is, almost. Because people act on what they believe, not necessarily on the truth. What I’m saying, then, is that our credibility as a party – not mine as Clyde Puli, or Adrian Delia’s, or Simon Busuttil’s – the party’s credibility has to remain intact. [....] When it comes to our credibility: we have to say, yes, political responsibility must be shouldered. And the PN shouldered its responsibility...

Hold on: ‘the PN shouldered its responsibility’? When? How?

We shouldered responsibility by accepting the magistrate’s report.

That’s not how it looks to me. Adrian Delia said he accepted it; but almost half his party disagreed...

I don’t think that’s the case. [...] Adrian Delia took the decision he had to take, i.e., that he stripped Simon Busuttil of the good governance portfolio [...] Now: consider the difference between Adrian Delia and Joseph Muscat. If [Busuttil] was a minister, he would have lost his portfolio. Isn’t that right?

But isn’t that the exact same excuse used by Muscat to retain Konrad Mizzi at the very start? He stripped him of the energy portfolio...

Not quite; he changed his portfolio... it was a game of musical chairs. In our case, there were no musical chairs. [Delia] stripped [Busuttil] of his portfolio. He wasn’t given another... Busuttil was removed from the shadow cabinet, and Mizzi was retained as a Cabinet minister. There’s a world of difference between the two cases...

All the same, Busuttil is still in the parliamentary group. Given how much the PN invested, under his leadership, in an issue we know was based on a fabrication.... shouldn’t he resign from the party?

The reality is that Simon Busuttil made some mistakes. But let’s be honest: it’s not as though he opened an account in Panama. It’s not as serious as the case of a minister who opened an undeclared overseas account...

Really? Some might argue it’s more serious. It could be interpreted as an attempt to overthrow a government, and destabilise the country, on the basis of what has turned out to be – in your own words – a fabrication. That’s a crime against democracy. I get the impression you are trying to minimise the seriousness of the issue...

No, I’m not minimising the seriousness. But I don’t think it’s as you suggest. If you tell me, ‘an error of judgment’, I’d agree. But I don’t think there was the criminal intent to destabilise the country. If anything, Busuttil adopted someone else’s story...

But it was a story intended to overthrow Muscat’s government. You yourself said he called an early election of that basis. Even though (incidentally) many Nationalists disagree with that analysis...

That he called an early election because of Egrant?

Yes.

[Shrugs] I think that’s the case. Muscat still had a year to go... and obviously, he used [the early election] to – because this is where the malice and cunning really come into it – Joseph Muscat wanted to wash away the rest of his sins, not just Egrant. That gave him the strength to go for an early election, when the Nationalist Party was not prepared for an election. We were not prepared for an election a year early; that much is clear.

But even if we accept that it was an ‘error of judgment’: it resulted in the PN facing an election for which it was not prepared, and which it lost by a historic margin. And to this day, no one has taken responsibility for this ‘mistake’.

No, I think responsibility was shouldered when the leadership resigned en masse after the election; and the second instance where responsibility was shouldered is that Adrian Delia removed Busuttil’s good governance portfolio. Joseph Muscat didn’t do this. He retained the people around him.

Either way, we are left with a situation where Adrian Delia’s leadership is undermined by a faction within his own parliamentary group. Next year there will be MEP elections; and a general election in 2022. How can the PN face these challenges, at the helm of a party we can all see is divided?

I think Adrian Delia took a very important step; he took his share of the responsibility, he took the decisions he had to take. But then, he also used political compromise. Politics is the art of the possible; it is the art of compromise. In today’s circumstances – even for the good of the country, not just the party – it would make sense for the party to remain united...

But it isn’t united...

I think the ingredients are all in place, so that the PN will not just ‘reunite’, but will remain united. But obviously, everyone has to shoulder his own responsibility. It’s like having a football coach, who sooner or later has to decide who’s playing in what position. In this case, he decided that a certain player is no longer good for that position; at least, until others matters are cleared up. It’s not a decision taken for the good of the player or the coach... but in this case, for the good of the party and country.

To extend that analogy further: what if the player not chosen by the coach insists on playing all the same... and half the team rebels against the coach? Wouldn’t the coach [Adrian Delia] emerge weaker from that scenario?

[...] A sense of leadership does not mean having the strength to deliver a knock-out blow. Adrian Delia today has the firm support of the party structures. If he wanted to take that decision, rest assured that he could have taken it, and taken it successfully. The decision not to go down that route – or rather, the decision not to persist... because his own position did not change since his first statement: to be perfectly clear, there was no progression to any another decision. This is important to understand. We didn’t move forward; we kept to what had already been stated. But if he wanted to take that decision to move forward, he would have had the necessary support. And there were many people telling him to move forward; just as there were others telling him, ‘it’s not wise’. Adrian Delia’s decision as a leader – and this is its greatness – was not to safeguard his own position; because if he did take the decision many were expecting him to take, he would have emerged as a very strong leader. Nobody would have been able to withstand him; he could have forged ahead. But he looked to the future of the party; the future of the country. And he saw that he had to make a compromise; otherwise, this government would have become too strong; and it’s not the kind of strength the country needs for democracy to function properly.

You mentioned that Delia enjoys support in the party structures. He doesn’t seem to have much grassroots support. A survey this week suggested that the PN today would only get 16.5% in an election. Other statistics suggest that Busuttil’s faction is capable of getting 56K, while Delia’s only 36K. How do you respond to those figures?

To be honest, I don’t set much store on those calculations.  There are party hardcore supporters who would have voted for Busuttil, and the two deputy leaders, simply because of the position they held. As for the survey, it seems to have been an innovative way of conducting a scientific poll. But what we can certainly say is that, a year later, Egrant has had a devastating effect on the party. We have to be clear on this; it had a devastating effect. [...] But to move forward: I think it’s not just a question of the people concerned, and their validity. I think it’s a question of the method. The method has to change. That’s why Adrian Delia said ‘A New Way’; because the old way failed; and a year later, it came back to bite us again. So definitely, Adrian Delia had nothing to do with that method. He wasn’t even there. But still, the method has to change. How? First of all, because of this story, [other things are being ignored]. Yesterday, statistics about poverty emerged:  72,000 people are living in poverty, at a time when the economy is doing well. The Labour government felt comfortable not holding a press conference about a 5c increase in fuel, when it had held a press conference to announce a 1c decrease. Then there’s the case – I won’t say ‘corruption’, because the matter is in court... but a huge building in Rabat, over which a high-ranking official in the education ministry is now facing charges: now, all of a sudden, it’s all being forgotten: ‘washed away’ by the Egrant inquiry report. So [...] we need to find a way: we need to rediscover a sense of empathy with people. Along the way, we seem to have lost that.

It may be hard to reacquire, though. Recently you were accosted at a restaurant by a Nationalist activist. As part of the Delia faction, you are on the receiving end of harsh criticism by Nationalists. How can you hope to get those voters back on board?

With regard to that incident: I take such things in my stride. But – and I say this in all humility – I feel that that kind of mentality is wrong. It does no good, because it reduces political discourse to certain levels. And I think that, unfortunately, in recent years – for whatever reason – it’s become fashionable to think that this sort of thing makes you look ‘cool’. [...] It’s OK to disagree, it’s OK to debate: but a certain basic sense of respect towards the other person – if not to the opinion – needs to be retained. Perhaps it is partly our fault as politicians; maybe we can do better in this regard. But unfortunately, I have seen this trend emerge...

All the same, she did make certain points. Let’s face it: there were allegations concerning Adrian Delia, too. Are you confident that Adrian Delia is the right person to lead the PN, especially when it comes to fighting corruption?

I do have faith in Adrian Delia, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. When those allegations surfaced, I asked him directly, because I wanted to know. I will not get dirty on my own account, let alone on someone else’s account. Let’s be clear. If I had the tiniest doubt that there was any truth in those allegations, you can rest assured I would not be here today. You can rest assured. But in that campaign, I saw so many untruths emerging, that I was disgusted. Unfortunately, there were people who – like that young lady – believed those untruths, and made them their own. And I don’t exclude that there are others like her. But, as the magistrate himself pointed out: ‘a hundred suspicions don’t amount to one truth’.

 

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