On the campaign trail with Lawrence Gonzi, Ariadne Massa gets an insight into the Prime Minister’s regrets on Arriva, his ailing eyesight and dislike for make-up.

Grabbing a quick cup of coffee, Lawrence Gonzi hops into his official car at 8am and is whisked to Mater Dei Hospital for an unscheduled eye appointment.

I’m not comfortable with all this. I hate having to overtake traffic

For the past months, his right eye has been giving him problems and his vision has become hazy, a consequence of the stress he has had to ride out in the past five years.

The occasional injection helps to ease the blur, but doctors’ advice is to slow down, counsel that Dr Gonzi believes is impossible to abide by during an election campaign.

Is he not worried about going blind in one eye if he ignores doctors’ orders?

“Yes, the thought scares me, but I’m hoping that once things calm down the vision will return to normal,” he says with a sigh.

Being sick is a pesky nuisance Dr Gonzi tends to ignore and the only time the germs won and knocked him out was one day in 2008 when he was flying back to Malta and his fever was so high he was delirious – “that was the only time I stopped for 24 hours”.

Dr Gonzi does not dwell on his health for long and is quick to share the experiences of courageous patients who shared their stories when he paid an impromptu visit to the hospital cafe to kill time before the first official engagement of the day.

“Notwithstanding the pressures on the hospital, the people’s appreciation of the service was extraordinary,” he adds, sliding into the backseat of the BMW 7 Series, driven by his loyal driver Patrick Grech.

Just before 9.30am, the car pulls over outside Eurosport in Birkirkara. The management, trailed by journalists, give him a tour of the premises where he greets employees, discusses future investments and examines all the sports gear on display.

He looks wistfully at a pair of football boots. An avid Inter supporter and previously a keen player, Dr Gonzi admits he had to stop playing after he tripped and injured himself 15 minutes into a game five years ago.

He usually tries to stay fit by working out on the treadmill for 45 minutes each morning, but the campaign has thrown his routine out of sync and the most exercise he gets is during some walkabout or other.

The nine-week-long campaign has failed to tire him out; if anything it has energised the 59-year-old Prime Minister to mobilise his team in the hope of securing another win for the Nationalist Party.

He is not deterred that this time he is up against a much younger Opposition leader – Joseph Muscat is 20 years his junior, while in the 2008 election, which the PN won by a cat’s whisker, Dr Gonzi was in the race against his contemporary Alfred Sant who was recovering from an operation to remove a malignant tumour.

“Age is not an issue,” Dr Gonzi says, adding that the campaign is nowhere near as stressful as overcoming the recession, EU summits, or standing up against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime during the Libyan crisis and refusing to return the two fighter jets of the regime’s pilots who defected.

“Those were the moments that led to several sleepless nights. What increases during a campaign is the public speaking,” he says.

“This election is exciting, but challenging as we’re the underdog,” he adds, consulting a folded paper with some scribbled words before the car stops outside Villa Arrigo at 10.45am for a televised party event with women.

Ushered upstairs, Dr Gonzi has a 10-minute private meeting before he emerges for the dreaded part of the day – make-up.

“I can never get used to this, but I’m resigned. I bite my tongue and accept it,” he says, as the make-up artist dabs on foundation, finishing off with a fine dusting of powder.

With a few minutes to spare, Dr Gonzi puts on his reading glasses and scrolls through his iPhone 5. His security man, Mario Busuttil, comes in with a sheaf of papers to sign – “Government business has to keep going” – and then it is time to appear on TV, alongside his wife Kate.

At 11.30am the event is wrapped up and all smiles he wades through the crowd. Just as he gets to the front door, he is cornered by a woman who asks him to intervene as she is worried about the livelihoods of her husband and son who work as gas distributors.

When he does make it to the car, he reaches out for some facial wipes to remove the make-up. The next appointment is at the National Cancer Screening Centre in Valletta at noon.

Forty-five minutes later, the event is over and journalists are waiting to corner him about party financing.

He appreciates they are doing their job, even if “they’re sometimes rude”, but what he detests is when he is “reported unfairly” or made to look tired, something he admits reporters of both political stations tended to do.

Journalists are also questioning party leaders about comments made by former Labour leader Anġlu Farrugia in The Sunday Times about contractors getting too close to the Labour Party.

“Labour is playing to those who are proposing unacceptable projects; the people who we’ve told cannot develop in ODZ,” he says, joining his private secretary Charles Bonello outside.

Dr Gonzi is persuaded to ditch his car and make the most of the bright, crisp day by taking the lift to Upper Barrakka Gardens, located just a two-minute walk away from his Castille office.

As he gets out of the lift, he stops to take in the breathtaking views of the capital’s restored gems.

“We’re taking all this for granted... We may lose it all,” he says, when it is jokingly pointed out that Castille will be fully renovated in time for the Opposition leader to step in.

At 12.55pm, Dr Gonzi walks up the Castille steps and immediately removes his jacket and tie once he is the warmth of his office, then tunes in to Sky News.

His chef Toni Caruana has prepared lunch: freshly squeezed orange juice, chicken broth with vegetables, chicken roulade with spinach and ham (he only eats half the portion), and chopped banana and a peeled tangerine for dessert.

Dr Gonzi’s way of coping with his busy schedule is by splitting the day in half, and after lunch he rests for an hour on the sofa in his office; time which all his team know is sacred for him.

“If I don’t rest I can’t function and I get annoyed if I’m deprived of it... and the expression on my face normally gives me away.”

What drives him?

“It’s certainly not about the money. It’s hearing about people’s positive experiences to the changes you helped implement. The beauty is that you can really make a difference to people’s lives and future.

“Will it win me the election? No, but at least I can say we did a good job,” he says.

If the electoral result is not in his favour, Dr Gonzi may consider returning to his legal profession, but he quickly discards this thought and says: “I don’t intend to leave politics. If I win, I’ll remain; I consider myself to be one of the youngest [yet longest-serving] EU leaders.”

Reflecting on the past five years as he picks at the chicken roulade, Dr Gonzi admits he “has a lot of regrets that come with the benefit of hindsight”.

Top on his list is the honoraria debacle, where in 2008 Cabinet had approved ministerial pay packets but only announced this decision in 2010.

The second is Arriva, which took over the public transport reform in 2011, and led to never-ending complaints, criticism and constant alterations to problematic routes.

“I should have sensed it... changing a service people had been using for years so drastically could have been handled much better,” he concedes.

The divorce issue was another challenging moment, which had taken him completely by surprise.

He recalls how in July 2010, as he was having lunch in the same spot, he received an SMS informing him that his MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando had just presented a Private Member’s Bill in Parliament.

“I could have at least been warned. But when I confronted him [Dr Pullicino Orlando], he said if he had warned me I would have tried to stop him,” he says.

Would he?

“I don’t think so because I respect an MP’s freedom to act, but he should have first used the party structures not short-circuited the system.”

Eventually, Dr Gonzi had called a referendum, which “he never dreamt would pass” and was then “unfairly criticised” for voting against divorce in Parliament, despite giving a free vote to his MPs.

He was so adamant that he would not violate his values that he was prepared to put his job on the line.

“I would never have blocked the law. But if I had found myself in a position where my vote against would have affected the end result, I would have resigned rather than go against my conscience,” he discloses, as he arranges his tie and prepares to leave Castille for a meeting at PN headquarters.

It’s 3.30pm and Dr Gonzi is in the car catching up on the day’s news through timesofmalta.com and scrolling through his e-mails. He receives about 400 a day – some 30 per cent of these are reactions and suggestions, another 30 per cent are problems, and the rest is Government business.

Changing a public transport service people had been using for years so drastically could have been handled much better

An hour later, Dr Gonzi is escorted to Mater Dei for an official visit to the Medical Illustrations Unit, which means police drive ahead of his car to clear the traffic.

“I’m not comfortable with all this. I hate having to overtake traffic,” he says, shaking his head.

He insists that being Prime Minister has not changed who Lawrence Gonzi really is. “Experiences have enriched me, but the day I realise politics has changed me is the day to move on.”

At 5.15pm, with the sun setting and a fine chill in the air, his team decides to head to Villa Francia in Lija where Dr Gonzi will have 45 minutes to catch up on his work before the party’s evening rally in Attard.

Sipping tea, he groans when he realises the make-up artist has arrived. At least this time applying make-up was not a quick stop in the car parked in the middle of nowhere, he laughs.

At 6.05pm the car pulls out of the villa. He pops a lozenge and as he checks the weather on his phone, his driver alerts him to acknowledge a man waving energetically at the car.

At 6.15pm the car pulls over at Attard, where Dr Gonzi is welcomed with loud cheers, warm embraces, infectious chants of “Gonzi, Gonzi” and a handmade card, scrolled with “I love PN” from a young girl.

An hour later, energised by the crowd’s enthusiasm, Dr Gonzi sits back in the car seat. He is about to remove his make-up when his private secretary urges him to be patient and keep it on for the next meeting with Enemalta employees at the Excelsior, which would be televised.

The meeting runs for more than an hour and as he gets into the car at 9pm he lets out a yawn. The evening is not over yet and he has one more appointment left – meeting all those who took part in the Maltasong festival.

At the office he relaxes for a few minutes in his office, sipping a Grouse whisky on ice before joining the reception.

At 10.40pm he is finally back home in Marsascala and he is famished. As he walks in, Mrs Gonzi pops her head through the kitchen door to greet him. Tonight soppa tal-armla is on the menu, and Dr Gonzi will wind down by watching Discovery Channel or the Food Network – no politics.

“I never set foot in the kitchen and I have no wish to cook so Kate is baffled why I watch the Food Network,” he laughs, adding he hates washing the plates more than cooking.

By midnight he is in bed and dips into one of the 15 books by his bedside. Tonight it is the biography of Steve Jobs, and after a few pages he is off to dreamland, before the alarm goes off again in the morning.

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us