As deputy leader, Simon Busuttil “put loyalty first” and simply stuck to the script. But now it is time to clean out the Nationalist Party stables and use his knowledge of Joseph Muscat against him, he tells Bertrand Borg.
What are your best, and worst, qualities as a politician?
I only played in injury time. Others played for the full five years in government
My greatest qualities are my loyalty and my sheer determination to get to the bottom of something and doing it. My worst? Maybe I’m a little bit too honest at times.
Independence, economic independence, EU membership and the euro, what’s Malta’s next frontier?
Ensuring Malta is a model in the Mediterranean. We were already moving in that direction: EU Mediterranean countries haven’t handled their finances as well as we have, and southern Mediterranean countries need democratic models to look towards. This is an objective that, in the post-EU membership scenario, we should aim for. It’s eminently achievable.
The PN haemorrhaged a lot of votes in the last election. Does any particular voting faction merit special attention to win back?
No. If you look at the scale of the defeat you’ll realise this isn’t about any one particular sector. Our outreach programme has to be really focused. And I would lead by example, knocking on doors and bringing the party back to the people.
What about Franco Debono or Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando?
Those are closed chapters for the party. They’re pretty much Labour Party activists now, so there’s no point reaching out to them. We should focus on where the energy needs to be channelled.
You’re probably the closest thing Lawrence Gonzi has to a protégé.
Is that an unfair assessment?
I wouldn’t describe it as an insult – far from it. But though I’ve always been loyal to Lawrence Gonzi, I don’t think I am Lawrence Gonzi. I’ve disagreed with him in the past: the bus fares, the departure tax, maternity leave, the service pension issue. Where I felt needed to say no, I did so.
But the perception out there is that you’re the understudy. Do you think that caused some resentment?
I’d say it ruffled a few feathers when I was appointed as the Prime Minister’s special delegate. But it’s not something I asked for, and I’ve tried very hard to work very closely with everyone, including former ministers.
You’ve said you weren’t aware of the state of the Nationalist Party’s finances. Do you stand by that?
Yes. At the time I wasn’t. I am now, a month after the election. I think it’s a very challenging situation, but I didn’t want this to be an obstacle to putting my name forward for this election.
You’ve said that when you became deputy leader, the electoral script had already been written. Did you know that before you contested?
No, how could I? But I imagined that the election campaign was already being prepared. I’m not alien to the party.
If you were to win, what would you do with those scriptwriters?
I would be part of them and discuss things with my party colleagues. We have a full five years to chart a way forward now.
Would you chart it with the same people who drafted the past one?
There are two questions here. How would I chart it? I’ve prepared a political programme with five priorities to regain trust. As for the people, the people who were there are now out. We’re looking to build afresh.
Are they all out?
The party today is pretty much empty. People are changing and people involved in the campaign are also changing.
Even behind the scenes?
Even behind the scenes, for sure, yes. I would want to build a new team with fresh ideas.
You told this newspaper before the deputy leader campaign that you’d bring a “change in substance, style and performance”. Did you?
As deputy leader, I put loyalty first. I did not ask before contesting, or before the election, whether it was in my personal interest to do it. The past five years have shown that loyalty is no longer a common currency.
Councillors voted you in on this platform for change, but now you say your job was to follow the script loyally. Don’t you think they may feel misled?
I think councillors can see the truth for what it is. I could easily have said no. But there were just two people who put their names forward out of loyalty to the party: Tonio Fenech and myself. I did my best in that campaign. I only played in injury time. Others played for the full five years in government.
What change did you bring?
I certainly changed one deputy leader of the Labour Party.
And in terms of policy and strategy?
You do not change policy during an election campaign. There’s a message that needs to be followed, and I followed it loyally. I may not have agreed with it entirely, but it wasn’t the time or the moment to change it, and I don’t think any other candidate tried to change it. You don’t change the strategy when you’re fighting the war.
Even when you’re 15 points down? Isn’t that almost a kamikaze course?
It’s easy to say that today, with the benefit of hindsight. But we were trying to focus on the 30 per cent of voters who said they were undecided. It turned out they weren’t really undecided, but at the time, we felt it was the right strategy.
What would you have done differently?
The campaign was too negative for my liking. But it was the Labour Party itself which started the mudslinging with the oil scandal. I would have kept it clean and not have the parties throwing mud. But in a campaign, things happen and you need to respond.
You’ve said you want to open up the doors of the party, that you want a more liberal PN, and that you want to be constructive in Opposition – though your criticism has been vociferous. That sounds an awful lot like Joseph Muscat a year ago.
He said so many things while in Opposition... I can only speak for myself. I want to bring a more European dimension to politics. Strong in opposing but constructive in agreeing when there’s scope to do so. We voted in favour of the Budget and will vote in favour of the Budget Measures Implementation Act. We are not afraid to say yes, and this is a first. But when things are wrong – and there are things which are deeply wrong with this Government, we’ve just had someone elected to the European Parliament while facing criminal charges – I’d be the first to stand up and say this is shameful.
If the PN’s election post-mortem report were to find that you were to blame, would you step aside?
I have no doubt in my mind that I’m not to blame for the defeat, having joined in the last three months – in injury time. If I were to blame, then that would rule out other candidates, because they were ministers. But if the report did, then I would step down. I have absolutely no problem shouldering responsibility where I make mistakes.
What makes you the right man to beat Prime Minister Joseph Muscat?
The fact that I worked with him in the European Parliament means I know how he works, I know how he thinks, I know his strengths and his weaknesses. I would be able to stand up in front of him and counter his arguments.
Would you beat Joseph Muscat in a debate?
You’ll have to put me to the test.
You’re confident you would?
If fellow PN leadership candidate Mario de Marco were to win, would you contest deputy?
No, I would take a step back. I’ve already committed myself to that. But I would give my full and unconditional loyalty to Mario as a leader.
Would you ever contest a leadership position again?
I would hope there’d no leadership election in our party for some time, don’t you think?