‘I am simply a facilitator’ | Louis Galea

PN grandee Louis Galea’s reputation as ‘fixer’ of a party who helped reform in very different circumstances 40 years ago, is at stake. He himself says that he will simply be taking the horse to the water, and not making it drink. But what if that horse refuses to drink?

Louis Galea
Louis Galea

By coming to his beleaguered Nationalist Party’s rescue, the evergreen Louis Galea, 71, erstwhile minister of education and party secretary-general, has given new hope to disillusioned veteran supporters who fondly remember his role restoring the party’s fortunes in the late 1970s.

But does this blast from the party’s past risk creating an even greater cacophony of voices in a party already riddled by factional divides?

Louis Galea’s appointment by embattled PN leader Adrian Delia on the eve of a confidence vote to oversee party reform, in his new role as president of the Nationalist Party’s think-tank AZAD, has been unanimously approved in the party’s executive committee, which includes both loyalists and rebels.

But how can he succeed in his bid to rebuild the party in a veritable minefield of factional divides and loyalties?

Galea immediately makes it clear that his role is not limited to writing a report to be prepared in a year’s time. “The words used were very clear... I was invited to lead a process of party reform and I will engage in this process hands down, irrespective of all the rubble there is, and my sole aim is to build, with the aim of making the party relevant, and to improve organisational structures,” the PN grandee, a former member of the European Court of Auditors, says.

Galea insists that the final report will reflect his work during the next year. “I intend to meet people from both within and outside the party and to organise focus groups to come up with concrete proposals.”

Topping his agenda is the pertinent question of party identity, which he says “needs to be redefined.” 

“But I will not prejudice any issue by expressing myself now on how the party should define itself. I have to listen to what others have to say,” he insists. “In this process I want AZAD to once again become an incubator of renewal and ideas which reaches beyond the party’s boundaries.”

Dealing with the factional divide

Party insiders speaking to MaltaToday believe that by giving a carte blanche to a grandee respected by rival factions, Adrian Delia is showing goodwill to all. They point out that Delia has shown that he harbours no grudge towards Louis Galea, who chaired an ethics committee before the 2017 leadership contest which concluded that Delia had failed to clearly explain the existence of a Jersey bank account in his name, its use and the legality of funds transferred through the same account.

Others from rival factions in the party think that Delia may be simply playing for time, in the hope of weathering the storm, and having his power consolidated before Galea even finishes his work in a year’s time.

In fact, some even fear that Galea may bring ‘legitimacy’ to the leader they ultimately perceive as the root of the party’s problems.

Oldtimers point out that Galea tends to be his own man and cannot be easily pigeonholed in the current divide, being ideologically distant from Delia’s social conservatism. But his way of doing politics is alien to the shenanigans of some of the rebel MPs.

Galea himself is keen to emphasise that his role has nothing to do with mediating between Delia and those who want him to resign. “My role is not that of mediating on the leadership issue. One has to let that issue take its course”. 

Neither does he harbour any interest in serving as an interim leader if Delia is removed. Indeed, he is very categorical. “I rule out that immediately,” he replies when asked on this possibility. “I am a simple facilitator. My task is to take the horse to the water not to make it drink.”

Still he sees a role in “nurturing an atmosphere of reciprocal respect, reducing the acrimony which induces emotional reactions,” Galea says, aware of the bitterness inside the PN divide.

“I hope against hope that within 12 months we will restore the cohesion, unity and sense of civil normality in the party.”

He also warns against the externalisation of dissent and on the social media. “The externalisation of the disagreement on the social media does not inform or educate but only serves to create cacophony and confusion, which is not conducive to the good of the party.”

But he also insists that the party must strengthen its decision-making bodies to ensure that decisions reflect different sensitivities in the party. He recalls “numerous occasions” when he himself disagreed with party decisions under previous leaders. 

“But there has to be a decision moment after which everyone has to pull the same rope… While I believe that there should be full liberty for people to express themselves while playing at home before a decision is taken, one cannot have the same liberty while playing away after a decision is taken. One cannot have both.” 

When faced by a concrete example of rebel MP Jason Azzopardi speaking in parliament against the Dragonaro Casino concession extension, for which his party had voted, Galea prefers to speak generically on the importance of proper decision making. “We have to ensure that internal organs work properly to ensure that constructive discussion takes place within them before a common position is adopted. It is important that proper discussion takes place in parliamentary group meetings.”

He also recognises that MPs also represent constituents and not just the party. “MPs have a special place and are also entitled to their own views on fundamental matters of conscience.”

Labour may well be smelling another opportunity to pounce on the PN’s internal divisions, with Galea being presented as just another chef spoiling the broth, probably welcoming the prospect of another discordant voice in the cacophony which Galea himself is set to harmonise.

Indeed, Galea’s uncharacteristic openness to the media may well be exploited by Labour. Predictably Labour’s One TV pounced on Galea’s declaration in an interview where he personally disagrees with the way the leader is presently elected by rank and file members. For Galea’s declaration may well be interpreted as one questioning Delia’s legitimacy as the choice of party members, even if the reform was actually enacted under predecessor Simon Busuttil’s leadership.

Galea insists that on this matter he was speaking his mind and expressing a personal opinion. “If I find that the majority of party members and organs prefer this system, I will not propose any reform of the way the leader is elected.”

When asked whether his view contrasts with what is taking place in most European parties where members have a greater say in electing party leaders, Galea replies that he is not “against party members informing the decisions of party organs. What I am questioning is the method used.”

Galea’s curriculum vitae

Even in Labour quarters, Galea cannot be easily dismissed as a lightweight who is past his expiry date. Sure enough, young voters barely remember Galea and his appointment may amplify the perception of a geriatric party. But Galea may still have the acumen to understand social change in Maltese society and the ability to translate this in political action, a quality which has been very much lacking in the PN in the last decade. 

In fact, Galea comes to the party’s rescue with an impressive curriculum vitae. Throughout his career he stood out as a visionary, a shrewd strategist and organiser but also as constituency heavyweight. He also found himself at the centre of allegations of political patronage, which back then he denied, notably in the Auxiliary Workers Training Scheme and the renting of machinery used in the scheme, something which may jar with the party’s anti-corruption crusades in more recent times. 

Part of his success was derived from the fact that he defied his own party’s historical “elitism” and his ease in communicating with a southern and more working-class and rural audience, incidentally that very category which has abandoned the PN in droves in the past decade.

Back in 1968, Galea was one of the organisers of the Campaign for Better Housing in a country ravaged by speculation and rising property prices. An acolyte of the philosopher-priest Peter Serracino Inglott, Galea identified with left-leaning elements in European Christian Democracy, and was instrumental in persuading the PN to accept the welfare state and other social reforms enacted by Dom Mintoff.

As secretary-general of the Nationalist Party from 1977 to 1987, he was instrumental in setting up new party clubs throughout Malta and Gozo while founding its youth and women branches, as well as a workers’ secretariat.  

Internally he was also perceived as more socially liberal than Fenech Adami and Lawrence Gonzi, participating in the first pride march organised by the Malta Gay Rights Movement in July 2004. 

Party insiders even recall his scepticism – never made public – on the agreement with the Holy See which gave the Maltese Archdiocese first recognition on decisions made by the Ecclesiastical tribunals on marriage annulments. He was also popular in southwestern localities like Mqabba and Siggiewi where the party is currently in full retreat. Yet he only came a distant third in the leadership contest in 2004, which may well have been a reflection of the fact that it was Lawrence Gonzi, not him, who had secured the support of the party’s establishment. 

And after being elected in seven consecutive elections since 1976, his political career was abruptly terminated in 2008 in a campaign where the party deliberately side-lined old-timers to drill home the ‘GonziPN’ message. He was pipped to the House by newcomer Franco Debono.

But he still left a mark on that 2008 electoral campaign, by coining the “repeater class” mantra, to denigrate Labour’s reception class proposal for primary school pupils. Galea’s reaction to his exclusion from parliament, telling a PBS interviewer that he would dedicate his time to piano lessons, was testimony to his stoicism. 

Yet the political animal in Galea was not extinguished.

In contrast to his reticence in opening up to the media when he was minister, Galea now seems to relish the limelight from his new role as party reformer. Perhaps this is because he now has little to lose, despite walking into a political minefield.

What may be at stake is his reputation as a ‘fixer’ of a party which he helped reform in very different circumstances 40 years ago. With no leadership ambitions of his own, Galea can only hope that his proposals are carried forward by a leader who is willing to listen and enforce.

After all he himself says that he will be simply “taking the water to the horse” and not “making it drink.”

But what if the horse refuses to drink?