No longer being in the driving seat is a completely different experience for former prime minister Lawrence Gonzi. Although he admits that being driven takes some getting used to, he tells Ariadne Massa he is sitting back and enjoying the ride.
Box files and documents pile high in the dining room, sharing space with the multitude of framed photos of the former premier’s career highlights interspersed with snapshots of his family’s milestones.
In a corner overlooking a window, Dr Gonzi is engrossed on his computer simultaneously listening to a BBC podcast and following the casual election of his replacement as MP in Parliament on timesofmalta.com.
After a bruising defeat at the polls in March, Dr Gonzi stepped down as Nationalist Party leader and last month decided to end his 25-year career by giving up his parliamentary seat.
In a retrospective interview at his Marsascala home, Dr Gonzi seems to be smiling more, no longer weighed down by the pressures of running a country and managing a party plagued by internal strife.
After years of jetting to EU summits, back-to-back meetings and late nights, the 60-year-old’s diary these days includes a day out at sea, 90 minutes on the treadmill every day and time dedicated to his wife Kate and extended family.
“I’m enjoying life and my children. Kate and I have been together a lot more than we’ve been in the last five years – it’s wonderful, we’ve rediscovered ourselves and the family,” he enthuses.
That evening he was looking forward to attending the baptism of his four-week-old grandson Nicholas without the fear of arriving late and having to leave soon after.
Dr Gonzi looks serene and is relishing stepping down a few gears.
“It’s like you’ve been driving a fast car at full speed ahead for the past years and suddenly it slows down, but we’re finding it’s a wonderful experience. We’re enjoying it, appreciating the little bits of life which are important, but which under all that pressure we were missing out on,” he says.
No longer being in the driving seat is a completely different experience, and although he admits that being driven takes some getting used to he is sitting back and enjoying the ride.
His three children are excited to reconnect with the man they lent to the nation for the past years, but some members of his family feared he would soon get bored if he severed all ties from the political world.
“They were very worried I’d eventually become bored and everybody keeps asking how are you, are you keeping yourself busy... which I find ridiculous,” he says with a hearty laugh.
“I’m enjoying myself so much, so this theory that I should be feeling bored or frustrated is completely wrong. I’m not, I’m reading, I’m keeping up to date, I’m doing what I like, I’m taking it easy. The pressure is no longer there.”
He is also focusing on regaining his health after the stress of the last 15 months of his legislature started to rob him of sight in his right eye. At the time, his doctor had urged him to slow down, advice he could never observe as he was mired in handling rebellion from the backbench and entering an electoral campaign.
The sight is his right eye remains hazy and while treatment has succeeded in stalling the degeneration of his condition, fully regaining his vision is impossible.
“It can improve but I will never regain the quality of vision I had. But at least there’s still a level of sight so I’m lucky in that sense. Today I can better understand those who have lost their eyesight – it’s the most precious thing you can have,” he says.
I lost the election and how! But the country is doing well. That’s why I’m happy now
The strict daily treadmill regime is part of the treatment to maintain his vision from degenerating. Dr Gonzi is also careful not to exert his vision, even though he admits he is always on the computer to keep connected.
“I’m now an independent observer, keeping in touch with the party, with [Nationalist Party leader] Simon Busuttil and the rest of the team and when asked, giving my advice and following up on contacts.”
Any talk that he is planning to join M. Demajo Group as chairman is slammed as “pure speculation” and he is baffled by the theories he keeps getting wind of, such as the one that he planned to become an MEP.
Is he eyeing any other role within the European Parliament?
“I don’t know about other roles. I’m talking mainly about becoming an MEP because there was this rumour which was incorrect... all I can say is I have no intention of turning back the clock... or uprooting my family.
“I’ve given too much of my time. Not that I’m sorry about it, but now is the time to return to my family and I intend to focus on it.”
Dr Gonzi has been contacted by the Commonwealth parliamentary secretariat and is also doing some consultancy with his son David’s law firm.
A lawyer by profession, he remains drawn to his first love, but although he admits he misses practising, he does not intend going back as he has been away from the court’s halls for too long.
He laughs as he recounts how his decision to become a lawyer was sealed after the machinations of his great-uncle Archbishop Michael Gonzi to join priesthood failed.
So intent was the Archbishop on seeing his grandnephew become a priest that he pushed to have the young boy taken out of St Aloysius College and enrolled at the Seminary.
Eventually, when Lawrence finished his secondary education at the Seminary, the Archbishop called him to the palace and asked if he had decided what he wanted to be.
“I said I wanted to become a lawyer – but the words simply slipped out and I had never actually given the idea much thought. I keep asking myself to this day why I blurted out those words,” he says.
Few people will believe this but I never wanted to enter politics
“I remember that after looking at me in a very serious disapproving way he said: ‘Well, anyway, if that’s what you want, God bless you, you’re going back to the original roots of the Gonzi family’, who according to him were notaries.
“I remember leaving his office, going down the steps of the palace and thinking: ‘My goodness now I have to become a lawyer because this guy will kill me... but I don’t know how to become a lawyer’. That’s how it all started,” he adds with a laugh.
Two framed paintings of his great-uncle hang on the walls of his dining room-cum-office, but Dr Gonzi denies that Archbishop Gonzi had huge influence on him.
The Archbishop did follow the young man’s profession closely and Dr Gonzi heeded his advice when he dissuaded him from entering the Attorney General’s office.
“He had sent for me and told me: ‘Don’t you dare accept, you’re still a young lawyer and you have a future ahead of you’,” he recalls.
It was a decision that sealed his future and paved his foray into politics.
“I still love law. I had numerous rewards from the profession. It was an experience which eventually helped me to enter politics better prepared. I think it was my major asset.
“Today I miss it, in the sense thatit was the conduit of keeping me in touch with people, social problems, family life. But times have changed,” he says, with a self-effacing chuckle signalling he is at peace with what life has thrown at him.
“My experience has taken me through so many different phases. This is a new phase. It cannot be about turning back the clock, it’s always about the future,” he says, refusing to dwell on the nostalgia of the past.
After unsuccessfully contesting the 1987 general election, Dr Gonzi spent his first eight years in Parliament as Speaker, winning the respect of both sides – a unique achievement in Maltese politics. He went on to become Leader of the House, Social Policy Minister, then Deputy Prime Minister, and later Prime Minister – “few people will believe this but I never wanted to enter politics; I loved to follow it but I never wanted to take a front line”.
Each role brought different challenges and Dr Gonzi and his wife had to adapt to the “enormous changes” in their lives.
“But we are used to it. This is another change and it’s a good change. At least this phase in our lives is not subject to the tensions and pressures we faced in recent years,” he says.
As he looks to future projects, he hopes to find a reasonable way to maximise on his social expertise and experience.
Having been the first chairman of the National Commission for Persons with Disability, Dr Gonzi remains interested in social aspects of family life and those facing enormous challenges. A man with strong Christian values, Dr Gonzi believes these served as his guiding light in whatever he did, even though critics have bashed him for his seeming reluctance to separate State from Church on numerous issues.
“Look, I understand those who disagree with me. I believed there were a set of values that guided me when I’m taking decisions, whether they’re personal or national,” he says.
“On immigration it was my values which guided me in taking the decisions I took, even in the economy and the restructuring of the drydocks – it’s all about the common good.
“And the common good means you have to take tough, sometimes unpopular decisions, because they’re necessary. It would be totally against my values to take a decision that is simply popular but wrong. That is where values come into it.”
It was these same values that led Dr Gonzi to remain steadfast in his stand against the introduction of divorce and the lack of a clear policy on gay rights, issues that were both highlighted in the long list of reasons that led to the PN’s defeat.
He stresses that in both cases he had the common good in mind, although he concedes that the PN dragged its feet in granting rights to the LGBT community.
“Yes, I think we should have given more urgency to the law regulating civil unions because our society needed it, and it needed it years ago. But it was always a hot topic and an extremely delicate issue, which required a certain amount of explanation to introduce without shocking the system,” he says.
“It took us a long time and what was frustrating for me is that when we had everything nearly ready with the law regulating civil partnerships, we were suddenly faced with the divorce law. Circumstances forced us to go down the divorce debate and leave that on civil unions pending.”
Dr Gonzi is not very comfortable with the way both the Nationalist Opposition and the Labour Government are now championing liberal causes and he is wary of doing something simply because it is the liberal way of doing things.
“We need to really discuss in depth what we are doing and make sure decisions are taken in accordance with our values and our principles. If we take decisions outside the parameters of our values, eventually we will have to pay a very high price,” he stresses.
This brings him back to his stand on immigration when he was Prime Minister and he reiterates his disappointment at the Labour Government’s threat last month to return a group of immigrants to Libya without giving them the chance to make their case.
“We have international obligations, we have signed conventions and anybody landing on our shores should be given the opportunity to make their case.
“If they’re not entitled to refugee status, then we send them back, but we would have given them the opportunity to explain. You don’t shove them on an aeroplane and send them back to Libya.
I admit we were stupid, too focused on the economy
“I believe this was a major mistake by the Prime Minister. I’m extremely sorry about it. I feel ashamed that we, as Maltese, the Prime Minister and his ministers have shamed the country in the eyes of the international European community. I sincerely hope we have all learnt from this unfortunate situation.”
Dr Gonzi concedes that sending those immigrants who are denied refugee or humanitarian status back to their country of origin is an encumbered process – these people had no travel documents and their country of origin was usually some place in Africa where Air Malta did not fly to.
He reveals he had been in talks with European Commission president José Manuel Barroso and EU prime ministers to help Malta repatriate these immigrants using military planes.
“I told them I know this is a hot potato, but there are a number of immigrants in Malta who are not entitled to refugee status and who we need to send back; we have the right to send them back, but we have a logistical problem.
“So I told them, come to Malta, use your military planes and repatriate these immigrants for us. This is according to international law. But even there, we didn’t get the results we would have liked.
“A number of countries promised they would help out by making use of their own military facility, their air force, but they never delivered the goods. We should make this point more strongly. It’s one area where we can get concrete results,” he says.
The PN’s stand on irregular immigration was another reason listed in the party’s lengthy defeat report, as was the accusation that Dr Gonzi surrounded himself with a clique (klikka) during his tenure, leaving little space for the voices of others to be heard,
Is this fact or fiction? Did he trust very few people?
“The answer is yes and no, in the sense that you always have your inner circle. You always have your closest advisers and then, inevitably, there are others in the outer circle who are still extremely valid, whom you listen to, but who are not always au courant with the details necessary for you to take a decision and this is the reality,” Dr Gonzi replies.
“But the word klikka has a negative connotation. And if that is the case, I refuse it completely.
“There was no klikka in the negative sense of the word – there was a group of advisers who were very close to me and who knew, every single minute of the day, what we were going through and therefore were very conversant with some of the decisions being taken, but I refuse in the strongest manner this argument that there was a klikka.”
Dr Gonzi does not dwell on the negative aspects of the defeat for long, preferring to focus on the results his government achieved for Malta – the success of the economy, the island’s competitiveness, tourism, the environment.
“We were a good team. But we lost an election and we lost it with an enormous amount of votes and we have to respect that. It means the people wanted change,” he adds in a reflective tone.
Although the pre-election surveys always indicated an enormous gap, Dr Gonzi never dreamt it was too big to bridge.
“When you consider the number of undecided voters we faced in 2008 we still managed to win the election [by a whisker with 1,500 votes]. So we always harboured the hope that we could persuade the majority of undecided and new voters that the best choice was the PN,” he says.
Dr Gonzi says that, notwithstanding his party’s defects and mistakes, the country had still managed to create jobs and be the exception to the rule in the international economic crisis, when the rest of Europe was faltering.
“We expected the electorate to understand this. Well, obviously, we were wrong.
“It wasn’t just about the economy and this is the biggest lesson we should learn. There was a politician who said: ‘It’s the economy stupid’, well my answer to that is: ‘It’s not the economy stupid’... and in our case, I admit we were stupid, too focused on the economy.
“But I prefer to lose an election and see my country avoid what others went through. Well that is what happened – I lost the election and how! But the country is doing well. That’s why I’m happy now and serene in what I’m doing.”