In his first interview since the PN’s heavy election defeat, BERNARD GRECH speaks to Jacob Borg about leading the PN, the party’s woes and Jason Azzopardi…
JB: It’s been a month from the PN’s massive election defeat. Have you started to figure out what went wrong?
BG: There are various reasons. We need to reflect on what we could have done better. You also have the factor in our opponents, and the tools they have at their disposal. We have done a lot during the year-and-a-half since I became leader. We addressed numerous issues, but this was always going to be a long-term project.
BG: Everyone is responsible, me included. Without a doubt, if the party had focused solely on its effort to improve over the past five years, the probability of narrowing the gap would have been greater.
We must appreciate that in the summer prior to me becoming leader, there were serious internal problems. Therefore, you cannot just compare with the 2017 numbers. You also must factor in that the party slid further down in the polls, then slowly recovered.
JB: The gap has been there since 2009. What is so wrong with the PN? Why is it so unappealing?
BG: We need to really change our attitude. Not just me, but everyone. I have managed to introduce big changes. The party needs to keep regenerating. Not only by introducing news faces, like we have in the parliamentary group, but by a true change in attitude. We cannot look down on people. People have spoken. We need to take notice. The decisions I have taken and will continue to take are difficult ones, that need to be taken. Otherwise, we will remain stuck in the same place.
JB: You mentioned looking down on people. Do you feel the party is out of sync with what people are feeling and want?
BG: The party cannot keep on thinking it has all the solutions. If there is one thing that distinguishes me as a politician, it is my admission from day one as PN leader that I do not have all the solutions. This is the change in mentality. We cannot keep thinking we are the be-all and end-all of everything. We need to listen to people, with humility. We need to enter their homes, meet social partners and NGOs to formulate a way of doing politics that impacts everyone.
We are still not doing enough on the micro level, at community level, to reach people and understand their problems. I am confident with the new energy injected into the parliamentary group. We will be in direct contact with people.
JB: What does this mean in practical terms? Are you going to be encouraging your MPs to carry out house visits all year round?
BG: Home visits should not stop. We should continually be present among people. They cannot be ignored.
On the other side of the fence, you have an entire Labour machine, including ministerial staff, who are geared towards such efforts. Therefore, any shortcomings on our part will appear much larger.
We need to address this by being in constant contact with people, meeting people face-to-face, not just on social media or through other media channels.
JB: The PN is heading into a general council. You are up for re-election. Are you expecting anyone to contest you, and secondly, do you see this as a five-year project, or will you re-assess your position after the European Parliament elections?
BG: First, if anyone wants to contest against me, I invite him or her to do so. It is better than just hiding in the shadows to do harm. We cannot afford more people working against the party.
JB: Can you name anyone?
BG: Names are not important. These things do happen. You have people who do not want others to succeed. When someone does this, it means they do not give a damn about what Nationalists think, what Maltese and Gozitans think, and it also denies the party the possibility of strengthening to become an alternative government. There needs to be more maturity in this regard.
JB: And on the question as to whether this would be a five-year project or would you re-assess your position after the European Parliament elections?
BG: The target is the first two years. We need to work at improving the situation. I will be doing everything possible for a good result in these elections. If we remain in the same position after two years, it will continue to be a huge failure in what we are doing.
JB: Are you saying you are not necessarily glued to the leader’s seat if the election result is even worse in two years’ time?
BG: No, I am not glued to my seat. I contested the PN leadership a year-and-a-half ago. The day after the general election, for the sake of stability and continuity, I declared I would be running again, because I believe the project is just starting to bear fruit. As I have said, I would welcome someone else contesting the leadership now. At the end of the day, I believe it will strengthen the process, if managed properly, to have another contestant or contestants.
If a new leader is elected, he will have my full backing.
JB: Everyone has been speculating that Robert Metsola could be a potential future leader. Are you looking over your shoulder, and do you feel somewhat overshadowed by her and all the attention she is getting?
BG: Robert Metsola managed to become president of the European Parliament, she deserves all the attention she is getting, and is doing a lot of good work.
However, I think if we are going to keep speculating about who the PN leader should be, and whether there are better options, what I have to say is: The leadership contest is now. Whoever really wants to lead this party, and thinks he or she can lead it better, now is their chance to contest.
JB: Are you hoping for some fresh blood in the deputy leader position? Is David Agius going to be re-contesting?
BG: I am assessing the situation. Right now, I am focused on the leadership contest. I believe there are various options of people who can do good, in tandem with me.
Everyone has the possibility of contesting. So far, David Agius has not declared an intention to re-contest. Seeing that he has yet to declare his intentions, it would not be fair for me to rule him out.
JB: You have just appointed your shadow cabinet. Three former ministers from the Gonzi era were excluded. Has the Gonzi era suddenly become toxic?
BG: It is my prerogative to appoint the shadow cabinet. I appointed the people whom I, and the electorate, want pushed forward. This does not mean the people who were not included in the shadow cabinet are being excluded from other roles within the party.
JB: So, this was by design? You wanted to give a push to people who were not in the Gonzi cabinet?
BG: I’m saying that I am ready and intend to make use of the individuals who were not included in the shadow cabinet, if they are willing to do so.
JB: How come you gave such a prominent role to your predecessor Adrian Delia?
BG: Firstly, he decided not to be part of the previous shadow cabinet. Now starting a fresh page, entering a new legislature, Adrian Delia is not the ex-leader of the party, but an MP. I gave him this opportunity and I’m sure he will do a good job. He seems ready to work.
JB: As far as we know, the magisterial inquiry into alleged cash payments between Yorgen Fenech and Adrian Delia is still ongoing. Doesn’t that bother you?
BG: I respect the process and ongoing investigations. Once this process is concluded, we will see the outcome and take it from there. It is not right to sideline someone because of on an investigation, I think it is important to use everyone’s abilities. I will obviously take the necessary action based on the outcome.
JB: Isn’t that setting a lower bar than Robert Abela? He has shown a willingness to sideline people under investigation.
BG: I disagree with you. Robert Abela only applies the rules when it suits him. I am not here to discuss Robert Abela. I am concentrated on working with my parliamentary group.
JB: Jason Azzopardi. Glad to see the back of him?
BG: Jason Azzopardi gave a lot to the country, and to this party. If he wants to keep on contributing, the door will remain open to him, but not as an MP, because that is what people decided in the general election. We need to be cognisant of what the electorate is saying. The electorate wants politicians who respect their will. We need to present the electorate with a style of politics that will improve their lives, while still remaining vociferous when it comes to corruption.
JB: He said he was sidelined by the party. Is that true?
BG: Let’s be fair, generally anyone who is not elected or did not do well seems to blame the party. I fear that the blame game shows a lack of humility, which is needed from all of us.
We need to respect what the electorate is saying. No one has the automatic right to make it to parliament. As leader, I have the right to promote people whose style of politics is in line with the party’s direction and strategy.
If you are comfortable working in this direction, you will have the opportunity to make it with me.
JB: So, Jason Azzopardi wasn’t one of these persons?
BG: Jason Azzopardi contributed a lot, but like I said, we need a strategy that is followed.
JB: Janice Chetcuti’s decision to sit out the casual election, safe in the knowledge she would be elected via the gender mechanism, has been criticised. You spun it as a positive move. Can you understand the criticism?
BG: Yes, of course I understand the criticism. When we debated the gender mechanism in parliament, I said that while we would be voting in favour as a party, the mechanism is not the solution, because any system can be abused.
Women do not need help or quotas to get elected. The problem is not the number of women who get elected, but the number of women who contest elections and remain in politics.
The time has come for reforms not only when it comes to party financing rules, but reforms to the resources and salaries of politicians, from the Prime Minister, to the Opposition leader and MPs.
We cannot continue in a situation when a company CEO is paid €160,000, and the CEO of the entire country is paid €50,000-€60,000.
The prime minister and ministers all have staff providing them with backing. When it comes to the opposition, the Opposition leader gets a driver and Opposition MPs juggle all their work without any technical backing from the state.
JB: What are the PN’s main battle cries and issues going to be in the coming months and years.
BG: Corruption will remain an issue, and we cannot shy away from speaking out about it.
There are other serious issues like the cost of living, which is already posing big challenges due to substantial, and frequent price increases.
We will also continue pushing for the creation of new economic sectors, as outlined in our election manifesto.
JB: On corruption, what’s your reading into the fact that many who were battling on the frontline did not do as well as they expected?
BG: Corruption is an important issue. It is affecting people, and the country’s reputation.
For some reason, people are tired of hearing about corruption. I think the electorate wanted to send a message to this effect.
We cannot, on the one hand, say we want to listen to people, and on the other say the electorate was wrong to send that message.
JB: Will certain lines of inquiry like the Electrogas hearings in the PAC continue in this legislature?
BG: We are starting a new legislature, so it is the government which first gets to pick the topics, the opposition is open to all possibilities.
We have no problem, if need be, to continue investigating deals we already have suspicions about, or others that may crop up.
JB: The Electrogas one was cut of halfway through, Konrad Mizzi was still testifying. Surely you should be able to give a commitment now as to whether it will continue or not?
BG: We have to see which subject the government will be choosing [in the PAC]. From our end, we have no problem to continue asking questions, where necessary.
JB: So, will the opposition be pushing for that?
BG: We have no problem continuing in that direction. We want more serious answers.
JB: The PN had proposed 12 bills in response to the Daphne Caruana Galizia inquiry. The government rejected them. Will you continue pushing there?
BG: The government, and Robert Abela, need to put words into action. We want this country to have proper laws in place, along with institutions that safeguard and uphold them. We once again need to push for these bills to be implemented.
JB: How do you explain the lost votes? PN lost 12,000 votes compared to 2017, Labour 8,000. How is an opposition party losing more votes than a scandal-ridden government?
BG: While the Labour government went through many scandals, the PN had other difficulties.
They were not scandals, but internal difficulties that manifested themselves externally. Obviously, this did damage.
People’s apathy towards politics impacted both parties. What worries me is that it impacted PN more than Labour.
It means we have an even bigger responsibility to turn this result around.
JB: Have you understood why? Was it simply a failure to mobilise supporters?
BG: There are many reasons. There could be an element of protest votes too. A year-and-a-half ago there was huge infighting about the party leadership.
Our party machine is still not as strong as Labour’s. It could also be that the tone we struck was appealing enough for people to get out and vote.
There are other factors too, such as the power of incumbency. Receiving cheques on the eve of the election, signed by the prime minister, is much more powerful than the Opposition leader promising you something in the future.
Everything has an impact. This is not sour grapes. This is a reality. If we do not take notice of it, we will keeping having these large gaps.
This interview was lightly edited for clarity and concision.