The PN needs a new electoral base | Hermann Schiavone

Suspended following a private meeting with Yorgen Fenech – the owner of 17 Black, a company implicated in the Panama Papers leak – Nationalist MP HERMANN SCHIAVONE was this week exonerated by an internal PN commission. But is this really the end of the matter?

Hermann Schiavone
Hermann Schiavone

The investigation into your meeting with Yorgen Fenech concluded that you did nothing wrong. Do you think that will be enough to allay suspicions to the contrary?

To set the matter straight: I was the one who suspended myself, and asked the party to investigate what happened. The party took four months to delve into the matter, and reached its conclusions. I have no issue with the party publishing the full report of its investigation; but it chose to only issue a statement with the conclusions. I don’t feel I should say more than the party said in that statement…

Sorry, but I’m asking you, not the Nationalist Party. My understanding is that the official purpose of that meeting was to rent out a hall for an event. Yorgen Fenech is the CEO of the Tumas Group; as such, it is not normal for him to get involved in such a minor matter. Were you surprised to see him there when you went in for that meeting?

Yes, I was. In fact, I was expecting to meet someone else. Let me explain: the intention was to organise a conference on knife-crime – the guest speaker was a retired British lawyer, whom I happen to know; he is an expert on the subject, and often gives public talks. Unfortunately, however, the conference never took place. I feel this is a pity, because I am sure we could have learnt something from the experience… but that’s just an aside. At the time, the idea was to organise this conference in, or around, Paceville: which would have been ideal, because of the subject matter. Originally, we thought about holding the event in conjunction with the [St Julian’s] local council. But then, the election was approaching; and I thought about making it a bit bigger. So, I asked to meet someone [from the Tumas Group] to discuss the possibility of the Hilton offering us a conference room. What I didn’t realise – in fact, I only found out on the day itself – was that Yorgen Fenech is also the CEO of the Hilton… which I must admit was a surprise. Had anyone asked me who the Hilton CEO was, I would have guessed someone in the catering business. It never occurred to me that it would be Yorgen Fenech himself…

All the same: given that your party had turned its guns specifically on Yorgen Fenech… didn’t it occur to you that approaching the Tumas Group, out of so many options, would appear suspicious?

No, because the party hasn’t got any issues with the Fenech Group. We regularly organise events at the Dolmen, and other venues owned by the same company. Besides, when I considered organising the conference at Hilton, I was comforted by the fact that the party had used the Hilton for the Net Awards event only a few months earlier. Because let’s face it: the Fenech Group is not just Yorgen Fenech; there are other people and families involved… with whom the party has no issues whatsoever.

The question, however, is whether the Tumas Group has any issue with the Nationalist Party. Why do you think Yorgen Fenech would have muscled his way into that meeting? What did he want from you?

No, no, it wasn’t like that at all. As a matter of fact, the meeting was very, very short. We barely had time for the coffee…

Is that because you realised the awkwardness of the situation, and wanted to leave?

No, it was because Yorgen offered us a conference room at the Dolmen [in Qawra]: which wasn’t what we wanted. We wanted something in Paceville. Now: I could have ignored all the ensuing controversy… but I didn’t…

Could you really have ignored it, though? What many Nationalists saw was a ‘secret’ meeting between Adrian Delia’s closest aide, and the owner of 17 Black. Isn’t it fair to say that their suspicions were legitimate?

What can I say? It was an unfortunate incident. It was never my intention to meet Yorgen Fenech…

Fair enough, but this ‘unfortunate incident’ may have further damaged the PN. A substantial chunk of PN voters still suspect collusion between the PN leadership, and the so-called ‘Panama Gang’. Hasn’t this episode only strengthened that perception?

The investigating board had the privilege of looking at all the evidence; and it took four months to conduct its investigations with serenity. So, while I appreciate that some people out there may not agree with their conclusions… I did what was expected of me to do: I offered my suspension, and asked for the investigation… and that’s what Adrian Delia expects of all of us: especially those close to him. So, I took a step back from the parliamentary group for almost five months: also because I didn’t want to be a hindrance to the party during an election campaign. And if, God forbid, anything like this happens again, I will take the same course of action again…

Meanwhile, the decision to absolve and reinstate you also seems to chime in with

Delia’s reconfirmation as party leader. Those Nationalists who wanted you out of the party, also tried (and failed) to topple Delia as leader. Can he really claim to be the leader of the PN? Or is he only the leader of that 67% faction that supported him against the other 33%?

First of all, those 33% who did not vote for Adrian Delia’s confirmation, are still Nationalists. They still love their party. I have full respect for each and every one of them. And I’m sure that Adrian will open his arms, and his ears, to listen to their concerns. And he is already doing something about this: he has appointed Louis Galea, to lead a much-needed reform of the party. All the councillors are very much needed; they can still contribute, and they will find all the space they need. This is what is important: that the party creates space so that everyone feels comfortable to criticise. There should be space for everyone to discuss our different views.

Those 33% may still be Nationalists, but the same cannot be said for the thousands of former PN voters who turned their back on the party at the European elections. And it is voters, not councillors, who determine the outcome of any election. Doesn’t this make the PN unelectable under Delia?

This is a very good point you raise. What is a Nationalist? I come from an area, in the south, where many of the former Nationalists who chose not to vote, did so for reasons that are different from other Nationalists elsewhere. There could have been 101 reasons for them not to vote Nationalist this time round. It could be that they are still hurt by actions taken by the last Nationalist legislature: people who had problems with MEPA, for instance. Or hunters and trappers. Never mind that the Labour government deceived them too; at the moment, hunters and trappers still feel they were deceived by the PN.

So the sort of reasons I am given, when I meet with constituents in my own district, are very different from what you hear in places like Sliema, for instance. So I cannot attribute the same reason across the board. Still, we have to – and this is something I have suggested internally – find a different electoral base as well.

Delia is very likeable to a certain segment of the population, which is not necessarily ‘Nationalist’. So we have to accept the fact that there is a segment – small as it may be – which will never vote for Adrian Delia; but there is another, much larger segment which the party should start focusing on. I’m talking about the Pale Red vote….

I can see the strategic sense in that; but what it also means is that the PN would be telling those ‘pale blue’ former voters that it is simply no longer interested in representing them. Is that the case?

No, not at all. What I’m saying is that we have to consolidate as much as we can of the blue vote: whether it’s ‘pale’ or not. Because most Nationalist voters, across the board, are pale blue anyway... in the sense that it is easy for them to shift their vote. But the point is, if there are a couple of thousand who – and we have to recognise this – will not vote for the Nationalist Party at the next election… we cannot afford not to replace those few with a different support-base. There is an entire segment of pale red voters out there, to whom we can reach out. I believe we should; in fact, I believe in this strategy so much, that yesterday I asked Adrian Delia to consider assigning my shadowing duties to someone else, so that I can concentrate on working on the ground in the southern districts to maximise the party’s share of votes... possibly winning for the first time hundreds of pale red voters.

This raises the question of how the PN can appeal to the pale red vote, when it has alienated moderate voters (of all hues) so much. Delia has been PN leader for two years now; and on the so-called ‘progressive issues’, he has been no different from Lawrence Gonzi or Eddie Fenech Adami before him. How, then, can the same Delia suddenly reverse everything he said in the past two years, in order to convince traditionally Labour voters to vote PN?

It’s not like that; and I’ll tell you why. The party, with its liberal policies, has alienated a section of its own voter-base…

Sorry to interrupt… but did you say ‘liberal policies’?

Yes. I think we disappointed some of our voter-base by being lax on the civil unions issue, for instance. Whatever reforms the party has to go through, it cannot divest itself of that part of its identity that is Christian Democrat. It doesn’t mean you don’t move forward. But you can’t forget where you’re coming from…

You’re referring to Simon Busuttil’s shift on the issue of gay rights as a mistake…

Not a ‘mistake’, no. But it did alienate a segment of our voters. We can’t deny that. I can confirm it myself, from the feedback I get from constituents.

But just a second ago, you were talking about the need to reach out to pale red voters. Now, you seem to be reaching out to the arch-conservative, ‘deep blue’ disgruntled Nationalists instead...

The Nationalist Party needs to adopt a balanced approach. And the balance takes the form of people contributing with their different ideas. But the first thing we have to do is remove hatred from Maltese politics. This is what Adrian Delia has been trying to do from the outset…

You yourself have been the target of political hate campaigns; and like Delia, the criticism levelled at you comes from people who used to vote Nationalist. This has been going on for two years… and it seems to be intensifying, rather than diminishing. How, exactly, do you ‘remove hatred from Maltese politics’, under such circumstances?

As for the criticism levelled at myself: I can only say, ‘if you can’t handle the heat, your place is not in the kitchen’. I accept all criticism, whichever form it takes. But there is a culture of hatred here; and it has existed for a long time. We have to fight it. How? We just have to be patient, and try to convince people that the Adrian Delia project is the right one for the party and country, at this time. That will continue to be my mission. If you ask some of those who were at the forefront in the recent confirmation election… I spoke to them; I sent them messages… all before the result was known. I told them, ‘This party is yours. Let’s see how best to contribute, because we all have the Nationalist Party at heart…’

You say that ‘you all have the PN at heart’… but which PN? Do those people really believe in a party led by Adrian Delia? And does Delia himself really have a vision for the party… or is it more about his own short-term political survival, at all costs?

First of all, there is only a small segment, which is very vociferous, which does not accept Adrian Delia as leader. But we have to be realistic here. What’s the alternative? Who told those people that, if Adrian Delia were to step down, there wouldn’t be an even bigger faction who’d say… ‘Hey, we had a democratically-elected party leader, and you didn’t even give him a chance. So we won’t be voting PN again’? This is what I hear from voters in the south, where I live, every day.

And besides: who told those people that all those Nationalists who supported Delia – who voted for him, and who genuinely like him – would all simply accept the new leader who took his place, without even giving him a chance?

And this is my concern. Adrian Delia is a personal friend of mine: he is my party leader; I like him; and all that. But much more than that, I love my party.

So, with hand on heart, I can say that… if we are going to remove this democratically-elected leader of ours… what will become of our democratic credentials? That is the message I would like to get across, if I can.

Even to those who may be against Adrian Delia – who don’t like him, for whatever reason, but still love the Nationalist Party. Not voting PN will make the party weaker; so whoever comes in after Delia, when his time is up, will inherit an even more fractured party.

Is this what we want, us Nationalists? Or do we want a stronger party, that can challenge the government of the day? The only way to strengthen the Nationalist Party, is to get behind the only legitimate leader we have. That, I think, is the way forward.

More in Interview