Nationalist Party leadership contender Mario De Marco stands by his record as Environment Minister and tells Christian Peregin that politicians must choose their battles strategically.

What’s your best quality and biggest weakness?

Contractors need to realise that the times of big construction booms are probably over

I have an ability to listen to different opinions, reconcile the differences and forge ahead.

And your biggest weakness?

I try too hard not to disappoint people. Some may see it as hesitance but I think it’s a matter of having a pragmatic and realistic approach to things.

Do you mean decision-making?

When it comes to decision making I want to have a good landscape. This is like playing chess. You have people who try to play chess very quickly but then lose and people who take their time to see the whole scenario but then win the game.

What do you think was the worst part of the PN campaign?

The negativity in its billboards and the fact that it allowed itself to be taken over by Labour. I totally detested the billboard portraying Lawrence Gonzi with a blue face and Joseph Muscat with a red face, especially when Dr Gonzi was the Prime Minister of Malta, not just PN leader.

And Labour’s campaign?

They set the pace by holding press conferences with different topics every day... It was a glitzy and positive campaign so I think yes, hats off, it was a great campaign.

What is your most innovative idea as candidate for leadership?

More than innovative, I think we have to get to basics – listening and talking to people. If you look at the Taħt it-Tinda activities, we were preaching to the converted. It was a totally artificial set-up and forum.

You give the impression of being a reluctant politician. How much do you want to be PN leader?

I want to help this party in whatever role the councillors may decide. The role is secondary.

You said you were undecided until the Thursday night – the nominations closed on Friday at noon – but by Saturday you already had a logo and manifesto. Was everything done on Friday?

Undecided is the wrong word. I was very much decided about not contesting. But there were a lot of people trying to convince me otherwise. I was convinced it would be a mistake for my family but at 9pm my wife told me to go for it because I would not live with my conscience if I did not.

So were people preparing the artwork behind your back?

I had a team of people, who were probably also trying to push my wife to make me contest, running at a parallel in the hope I would contest.

People also wanted you to contest for deputy leadership. Recently you said you didn’t because you thought it was too late to turn things around. Shouldn’t you have tried? Were you afraid of getting your hands dirty?

In life you fight the necessary battles at the right time. A politician has to also be a strategist. At that time I was more than convinced that the two contestants very clearly satisfied what the councillors and the public wanted.

I also told the Prime Minister I had reservations on having a deputy leadership contest before the election. We needed to focus our efforts on mobilising people to go and vote in the election and there was a risk that a hotly contested campaign would create certain divides.

But once former deputy leader Tonio Borg was appointed a European Commissioner, somebody had to replace him. Shouldn’t Simon Busuttil be rewarded for his loyalty at a time of need?

Absolutely! Nobody is saying he should not be rewarded. He thought he could contribute as deputy leader of the PN and I have no doubt he did. I recognise the loyalty of Dr Busuttil and I would be the last person to ever criticise him for standing up to be counted.

Is there any decision you took on Mepa which you now regret?

There are always things you feel you could have done better but in life you cannot have your cake and eat it. If you want a Mepa which is more environmentally aware then you will have less development and more contractors grumbling.

Do you think you can win back the developers who left the party because they feel you stifled development?

I think contractors need to realise that the times of big construction booms are probably over.

If you are elected leader but the PN’s defeat report blames you for the loss, would you step down?

I was asked to implement the Mepa reform document, not draft it. Since it was approved by Cabinet I think we took a collective decision to steer Mepa in one direction. And I am convinced it was the right direction. Was there a price to pay? Yes, and we knew there would be.

You are on the board of the Strickland Foundation, the majority shareholder of Allied Newspapers. How much has this exposed you to internal criticism?

People think that whoever sits on the Strickland Foundation somehow controls the editorial policy of the Times of Malta. As a journalist, I think you can answer: how many times have I ever called you about any article?

It seems there are councillors who expect you to do that.

But do you confirm that I never called you, ever?

We’ve spoken on certain stories.

But did I ever ask you to...

You’ve never given me an order and I wouldn’t have taken it.

Or did I suggest any direction?

But what criticism do you get?

No, please answer that, did I ever suggest a direction to you?

No, but I’ll ask the questions. What sort of internal criticism are you facing?

More than criticism I think people mistake the foundation for Allied Newspapers, which it is not. The Strickland Foundation organises conferences and helps students with bursaries and traineeships, not only with Times of Malta but all across the media, including l-Orizzont, Nazzjon, Malta Today, TV or radio.

Has your position exposed you?

It’s a matter of a wrong perception and some people had an interest in fuelling the wrong perception. I am simply one member out of six on the Strickland Foundation which does not set the editorial policy of the newspaper.

Not even the directors on Allied Newspapers apparently have any influence on the editorial policy. At the Times of Malta, I’m reliably informed, the editor is king, and so it should be.

Do you envisage a situation where you step down from this position? Would being leader of the PN’s media create a conflict of interest?

First, I am not a shareholder of Allied Newspapers. The members of the foundation are fiduciaries... But yes I would seriously consider stepping down, not for reasons of conflict but time management.

You said you wanted to open up the party. Will you stick a no-entry sign for any groups of individuals?

Everybody is welcome.

Including people who left the party like former backbenchers Franco Debono and Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando?

I think they crossed the line and sometimes there are certain lines which are too hard to cross back. Rather than talking about individuals, I would much rather talk about the factions of society we lost.

But you don’t rule out working with them in the future?

At this point I rule them out because the wounds are too fresh.

Are you the right antidote to Prime Minister Joseph Muscat?

That’s for the electorate to see.

Who would win a political debate: you or Joseph Muscat?

Again, that’s for the electorate to see. We both have our strong points and weak points. One of my weak points is that I talk too much.

If you lose this election, will you ever contest for leadership again or do you rule that out?

I hate crossing bridges until I have to cross them.