‘Busuttil broke code of silence’ – Opposition MPs

Opposition MPs told MaltaToday the party’s chances of winning the election were dealt a heavy blow by Simon Busuttil’s gamble, which exposed the extent of ties between big business and politics

PN leader Simon Busuttil has made too many enemies in the business community, an MP warned.
PN leader Simon Busuttil has made too many enemies in the business community, an MP warned.

Opposition leader Simon Busuttil’s decision to expose the “threat” he received by SMS from the CEO of db Group, Arthur Gauci, in which he was asked to pay back donations given to the party, not only demystified party financing but also saw the PN leader break a code of silence.

Party faithful are questioning the wisdom of Busuttil’s move and a number of opposition MPs told this newspaper that exposing db Group’s request on live TV can seriously jeopardise the party’s chances of having a fighting chance in the forthcoming election, due in about a year.

One of the three MPs who spoke to MaltaToday said Busuttil jumped the gun in revealing the private correspondence with the CEO of a company which had a very close relationship with the party for many years.

Busuttil not only did the unthinkable in breaking the code of silence on party financing but also opened a Pandora’s box after the upset developers revealed the extent of their relationship with the party.

In a somewhat late reaction, the PN denied that the company owned by former PN militant Silvio Debono paid for the substantial salaries of the PN’s secretary-general and the CEO of the party’s media company. 

However it confirmed receiving €3,500 in donations from the developers during 2016, while its media arm Media.link Communications had “commercial relations” worth €70,800 with two companies linked to Silvio Debono.

These revelations have shed a light on the intricate links between politics and big business and exposed the open secret that political parties depend on financial support from leading entrepreneurs.

For too long it has been suspected that this unsavoury symbiosis was behind a number of very controversial policies and decisions and Busuttil has consistently tried to distance himself from this unholy alliance between the big parties and big business.

Yet, Busuttil’s claims of independence from big donors are unconvincing on two counts. Firstly, Busuttil himself admitted meeting Debono on a number of occasions and it has been claimed that it was the PN leader himself who asked for the money.

Secondly, and more significantly, Busuttil is delusional if he believes that the PN can survive on small donations from supporters alone. The PN employs some 60 people, runs a huge media organisation and organises costly political events and campaigns.

These operations cost the party millions every year and cannot be sustained without the financial backing of big businesses.

The PN leader gives an impression that he looks on the business class with a jaundiced eye and his anti-business rhetoric has echoes of Alfred Sant in it. Although the former Labour leader won the 1996 election on a similar anti-corruption platform, the MPs told MaltaToday that the party is making too many enemies in the business community.

“How can you expect businessmen to continue donating big sums of money when the party leader has gone out on a limb and exposed one of its biggest donors? The trust is gone. What guarantee do potential donors have that they will not be exposed?” one MP said.

With the general election just months away, the party is ever more dependent on donations from big businesses to fund its electoral campaign.

Party insiders warned that if donations dry up, the party – which traditionally has very strong ties with the business community – will find it very hard to match Labour’s well-oiled and better financed campaign.

The PN leader’s judgement is also being questioned from a strategic perspective as his gamble has harmed the opposition’s chances in the election earmarked for March 2018, and demoralised many within the party’s structures.

Following the well-attended demonstration organised last month, the PN was on an upward trajectory and Busuttil’s anti-corruption battle cry was in synch with the people’s anger over the government’s poor record in governance and Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s persistence in defending his right-hand men Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi despite their secret companies in Panama.

But many in the PN now fear that Busuttil’s gamble has backfired and cancelled any inroads the PN may have made with the electorate.

Busuttil has obstinately stuck to his anti-corruption discourse despite it now being publicly known that his party and many of his MPs have strong ties to big businesses, which curry favour with both parties, especially with the party in power.

PN deputy leader Mario de Marco’s involvement with the db Group did not shock anyone because it is a known fact that MPs, especially those on the opposition benches make a living by working for or providing services to big businesses. 

Although de Marco’s position in the party has been weakened, it could backfire on the party if he is expunged or humiliated by Busuttil’s faction or other factions which could be biding their time before assaulting the leadership.

De Marco still enjoys support at grassroots level and his level-headedness, loyalty and cross-party appeal remain an asset for a party which is desperately still trying to regroup after the 2013 drubbing.

While any attempt to oust de Marco is highly improbable to succeed, the party cannot afford any signs of disunity on the eve of an election.

Another MP said that Busuttil should not have gone on live TV to reveal the contents of the SMS he received. Instead, the MP added, he should have replied confidentially and met up with representatives of db Group to patch up any differences in private.

Busuttil did not need to wash dirty linen in public and while he could have kept up appearances by publicly opposing db Group’s St Julian’s project, openly severing ties with the company only showed the extent of the relationship the party has with business rather than showing how independent it is.

Busuttil’s gauche reaction has also raised questions on the people around him and how sound their advice is. Many outside his strict circle of confidants fear that Busuttil is heavily influenced by Malta Independent columnist and blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia who still holds a grudge against the de Marco family following her ousting from the Times of Malta in the mid-90s. 

For the past few weeks, the blogger has intensified her campaign against both de Marco and Silvio Debono and an MP said this has influenced Busuttil’s thinking and his actions.

“Busuttil should be wary of this because Caruana Galizia is not representative of the electorate which we need to win back,” the MP said.

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