Let’s get our act together | Alex Perici Calascione

Former leadership contestant ALEX PERICI CALASCIONE issues a dire warning to his own Nationalist Party. The people have delivered a final warning: the PN must get its act together, now

Alex Perici Calascione
Alex Perici Calascione

It has been a disastrous election for the Nationalist Party. What should the next step be?

The very first thing we have to do is simply take stock of the reality that comes out of the electoral result. In all honesty, the line that the party took, when faced with this result, took me completely by surprise. It was along the lines that, ‘yes, it’s a bad result… but not as bad as the surveys had predicted’. First of all, when these surveys were coming out, we always used to say – and I think it was a sensible line to take – that the ‘ultimate survey’, is the election result itself. Now, the result is out.

Objectively, these are the facts: it is the worst electoral defeat we’ve had, as a party, since immediately after the war. For the first time in quite a number of years, we also seem to have gone below that famous ‘40%’ threshold that defines our core vote. The PN’s core vote has always been less than Labour’s: composed of different types of people, perhaps; but 40% was always the mark. And now, we’ve dropped below it. So with all due respect, I cannot understand how the party could react by saying, ‘It’s not as bad as the Torca survey predicted’. At the risk of repeating an old cliché: any electoral result is a message.

So, the very first thing we have to do, is see what is behind this very emphatic result. What is the message? Is it a sign that, despite all the good intentions in the world, Adrian [Delia] is not reaching out to the various categories – old people, young people, etc – to get them back? And not only that, but we have also failed to consolidate, or at least keep intact, our core vote? Is it a sign of how people reacted to our electoral campaign…?

What did you yourself make of the PN’s campaign in this election?

To be fair, each campaign has its own pluses and minuses. But I simply could not understand why we had to say that this was a ‘referendum on abortion’ – when it was absolutely not – with all the implications of falling entirely into Labour’s hands. It suggests we were completely detached from electoral reality. Let’s face it: in European elections, we’ve always been thrashed, more or less.

So, knowing that it was likely to be a defeat – it was only ever a matter of by how much – I would never, in a million years, have said that this was a ‘referendum on abortion’. Because to anyone who has an anti-abortion platform, that does the worst disservice possible.

Another thing was the unhappy way we brought across what was otherwise a very good electoral pledge by the EPP: that of significantly increasing cancer research funds, and – perhaps more importantly, co-ordinating pan-European research. But we should never have brought that across as: ‘vote Nationalist, and we’ll solve cancer for you’. To people and families affected by cancer, it’s just not the sort of message you want to hear.

So, what was the message from the electorate? Are people telling us, ‘Listen: get your bloody act together?’

Is that how you are interpreting the message?

I think it’s a clear indication that Nationalists are telling us to get our act together, yes. The sort of things I hear from people are that they’re sick and tired of all the public fighting on Facebook; they want us all to get in a room, iron out our differences, and get our bloody act together. On the other hand, it could also be a message that people are quite happy as they are. Things are doing well in a number of sectors; people seem to be content with a number of situations. Therefore, they are not expressing what one might think is a justified reaction to certain excesses – which there definitely are. That could be a message, too. Which also means that we would have to come back with one hell of an answer. We would need one hell of a communication strategy, to get people moved enough to get them out of this comfort zone. We have to offer a vision, something the people can believe in.

Neither party can lay any claim to sanctity, or to immaculate correctness. We have long-term changes to make in the fabric [of our system], and perhaps past Nationalist governments could have done more

But everything has to begin by acknowledging that, objectively, it was a terrible result. The worst defeat since the war. That, on its own, means we can’t afford to say: ‘We don’t need to analyse the result. We don’t need to bring in the best minds possible; we don’t need experts to tell us what to do.’ Above all, we can’t say, ‘We will go to the people’ again. We just went to the people. They just gave us a very emphatic message. To ‘go to the people’ again, would be to ignore that message.

The election of Roberta Metsola and David Casa has been interpreted as an act of defiance against the party leadership. Do you agree with that assessment?

The fact that a number of people have publicly stated that they did this… i.e., that they felt the need to ‘reward’, so to speak, Roberta and David for their work; and that they also felt that did not want to vote for the rest of the party… that is, first and foremost, very painful to me. I may be conservative in the way we were brought up; but from the first election, I always filled in all the PN boxes, to make sure no vote is lost. So, for someone who is a staunch Nationalist Party supporter – if you can even use the word ‘staunch’ anymore – to say that publicly, sends a message in itself. It’s a message we have to heed.

As for those two MEPs’ work in the European Parliament: I must say I absolutely do not subscribe to Labour’s attempts to tarnish Roberta and David’s reputation. It’s never easy to stand up for what one feels is right. You have to have courage to do it. But if anyone’s causing harm to this country, it’s the present government. No amount of economic prosperity, or money in people’s pockets, will conceal the fact that our reputation has been tarnished. I work a lot with financial services; and even from my small legal office, I see the damage that has been done. I see the figures that will never appear in any statistics: the work we are losing because of our tarnished reputation.

Some of it had to do with Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination, which had an enormous resonance around the world. But it isn’t only because of that. It’s also because of the culture of impunity.

Let’s be honest about this: part of it is cultural. We have to admit this. We are small; if I don’t know you personally, I know your parents, your brother, your sister, your dog or your cat… so we all tend to somehow accept this culture of wanting a clientelistic government [‘gvern li jaqdi’]. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t the rule of law. The minute we send out the message, from the highest authority, that the rule of law depends on who you are, or whom you know…

Yet all the rule of the law issues you mention (and raised by the PACE report, among others) were there before 2013. And as various election results have now shown, the people simply don’t trust the PN to tackle these issues. Isn’t that also a message from the electorate?

I understand that sentiment. Neither party can lay any claim to sanctity, or to immaculate correctness. We have long-term changes to make in the fabric [of our system], and perhaps past Nationalist governments could have done more. But the urgency today is different. There are two sides to this: one is having the power. The other is how you use it. ‘Excessive power’ wasn’t invented by Joseph Muscat; he inherited something that had been there for a very long time. But to a very large extent, the excessive power which was always there, had in the majority of cases, been used well. It was not used almost as a tool of impunity. Personally, I am less worried about the Prime Minister’s power to appoint a Police Commissioner, than about the fact that the police commissioner, once appointed, does not investigate cases; and instead hides a damning FIAU report in a drawer...

Back to the leadership issue. Delia’s removal will surely not solve the immediate problem, so long as the factionalism itself remains unresolved. How can these two factions be reconciled?

Again I’d say, first take stock of the reality. This all started with the 2017 result, and possibly even before. During the leadership campaign, the discussion degenerated into absolutely unacceptable levels. Here, I have to say that nobody, absolutely nobody, from my campaign team ever passed one comment about any other candidate, or their canvassers. I only had one complaint about someone in my campaign office, who had shared a negative comment about a candidate. The moment I verified the claim, I asked that person to leave.

Other than that, what I was observing was extremely disheartening and disappointing. Truth be told, it was the first ‘Facebook-fought’ internal campaign. Social media has made a huge difference. It’s an old maxim that, as a people, we think that – over four cheesecakes and two coffees in a Valletta café – we can solve all the world’s problems: from what the Liverpool coach should do, to what the Pope should do, to what Donald Trump should do, etc.

Take that concept, put it onto a social media platform… and it’s free for all. Once a word is spoken, once hurt is caused, once an insult is hurled… if that is done in writing, it’s public; and it leaves scars. Those scars have never fully healed. Unity is never ‘one side joining the other’; it can only be achieved by a movement from both sides. But that’s just an observation.

The reality today, as I see it – and maybe I have a little advantage, in that I communicate with everyone, under this rainbow – is that the perception of ‘two factions’ is an illusion. It’s not the case. We have other pockets of disillusioned voters, who, for whatever reason, are unhappy with the PN. They are not unhappy with one side or the other; they criticise both. There are at least two or three of these, let’s call them ‘mini-movements’.

Taken together, all these people are dissatisfied with the situation as it is at the moment. The reality is not ‘anti-Adrian’ or ‘in favour of Adrian’…

It certainly looks that way, when PN exponents publicly call for Delia’s dismissal…

There are certainly a small number of detractors who don’t like Adrian, and have said so from the beginning. But then… ‘welcome to life’. Simon Busuttil had them, Lawrence Gonzi had them, Eddie Fenech Adami had them; and from what I read of the party’s history, George Borg Olivier had them too. They come with the job. It is part of the package. If one acts wisely, over the years they will tend to shrink.

On the other side, there are those who were caught up by Adrian Delia’s fiery presentation. He has the gift of the gab; a very forceful personality; and he has a lot of very good qualities. A lot of people were excited by that; and that’s good. At the same time, however, there is a whole chunk of people in the middle. I would qualify them as people who have never needed anything from the PN; but who, for various reasons, have always identified with the PN, and who are concerned. By talking only about those ‘two factions’ we run the risk of losing the others…

Looking to the future. The PN has been redimensioned by this election, and AD and PD have been practically wiped out. This seems to rule out even the coalition possibility. Has the party resigned itself to its ‘minority’ status?

The small parties’ result was a bit of a surprise to me; I honestly thought PD would do better. I thought that, if we had a protest vote, a good chunk of it would go there. But it didn’t; and even that is very indicative. I may be wrong; this is just an off-the-cuff reaction. But my gut feeling tells me these people still want to vote Nationalist. They are just waiting… for a sign from Heaven, perhaps.

That, on its own, puts a hell of a responsibility on our shoulders, to all forget about our own individual ambitions, and get our act together. The message we have been relaying for the past two years is just not getting across. It is not exciting people; and it hasn’t even kept our core vote intact. The message has to be different. At the same time, however, people are also telling us: ‘we did not go elsewhere’. To me, that is a sign of hope for the future. But it places an enormous responsibility on us today. What needs to be done, has to be done… now.

Do you agree with Gonzi’s call for Delia to submit himself to a new election? [note: this interview took place before Delia ruled out that option].

I agree, for sure, with the leadership subjecting itself to a vote of confirmation. Because we always say that ’the people are sovereign’. Now, the people have given us a message. It’s not just a ‘wake-up call’. It is almost a final warning. We were given a warning in 2013… for totally different reasons, granted, but a warning all the same. We were given another warning in 2017. And now, we have been dealt the worst electoral defeat since the war. This time, if we yet again miss that bus… I don’t want to be dramatic, and say it will be the ‘point of no return’. But what we do now, will definitely set the mark for what we are, and what we may become in the years ahead.

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