Opposition Leader Simon Busuttil is promising to change the course of politics in the country. After just two years at the helm of the party, he tells Caroline Muscat he is ready to win the next election.
You’ve said the Nationalist Party has learned from its mistakes. What do you think they were?
People can be reassured the party has listened because we’ve turned over a new leaf. We have a new leader. I wasn’t part of that administration so I’m free to say what was right and wrong.
People know me as the one who worked hard to get Malta into the EU, so they know my vision is to implement European standards. People know that when I spoke to them about the EU – its pros and cons – I was telling the truth even if they disagreed with me... Now, I’ve been chosen to lead the party. But I’m the same Simon who represented the country in the European Parliament for nine years.
I inherited a party with a lot of baggage. There’s a strong and positive past in that baggage, a past that changed our country. But there’s also baggage that includes mistakes. The oil procurement scandal, for example, could have been handled better. There are also situations where we appeared arrogant, like the way we handled utility tariffs.
There were environmental issues where we, as a party, did not come out well – for example, the extension of development boundaries. These are things we need to learn from to ensure the PN is grounded and doesn’t appear arrogant… at the same time I want to make it clear we should not be ashamed of our performance. I’m proud to lead this party. It’s the party that changed the country.
You referred to the extension of development boundaries under the PN. The government said we will have another “tweaking” to address the “injustices of the past”. Do you believe this is justified?
A government should always have a mechanism whereby if an injustice has occurred it can be addressed. So those who suffered any injustice should already have the means to seek redress. I don’t believe the government when it tries to use the idea of injustice to justify its behaviour.
My position is this: 10 years have passed since that decision. Let’s try to save what remains… Taking up more of the countryside by extending the boundaries is a non-starter. Any development outside development zone (ODZ) is unacceptable unless it’s absolutely impossible to use development zones… Exceptions should be exactly that – exceptions, not the rule. ODZ needs to be protected. That’s why we remain opposed to the building of a so-called university at Żonqor.
During the PN rally at Żonqor in May you told supporters that if the government wanted to build a university there “they would have to walk over us”. Yet, you seem to have accepted the compromise of a smaller campus.
Not at all. The PN’s answer is that we don’t believe the government needs to use ODZ land for an educational facility. There’s enough space in development zones where a university can be hosted. A number of alternative sites were proposed. It’s true the government will now use 18,000 square metres instead of 90,000 square metres but it’s still unnecessary. So our stand remains the same – it’s a wrong decision.
We also have serious doubts about the investor’s competence in the educational field. How can the government already say this is going to be a university before the process for its accreditation is even ready?
Do you really expect that the National Commission for Higher Education will now say this institution doesn’t qualify as a university? So the standards have been lowered to accommodate this particular investor.
The third objection is that everything was done behind closed doors. Was there a call for proposals? How does the government know this was the best offer?
We will continue to voice these objections, especially in Parliament, because this issue – including the transfer of land – should have come before Parliament. The responsibility for this decision falls squarely on the Prime Minister because it’s one he took behind everyone’s back. The secrecy already casts a shadow on the whole deal.
During Independence Day celebrations last Sunday there was a change in your discourse, from “we have a long road ahead to win back people’s trust” to “when I am prime minister”. Don’t you think the party is still seen as the one that lost the election by a huge margin?
I took on this role knowing we lost by 36,000. So I didn’t start from zero. I started from minus 36,000. The ship wasn’t sinking; it was a wreck. But I took on the challenge because I believe it’s achievable. At last Sunday’s mass meeting I wanted to show that I’m the first to believe this can be done. That’s why I didn’t say ‘if’ I am prime minister but ‘when’ I am prime minister’.
I didn’t abandon my career to come here and waste time, or to spend 10 years as Opposition leader
I believe it can be done because the PN has its heart and mind in the right place. It has a past that has changed this country for the better and it still has a great deal to give. I also believe this because we have a Labour government that is doing precisely the opposite of what it promised... I’ve made it clear I don’t want to win because of the mistakes other people have made. I want to win on my own merit...
If you look at the people behind me last Sunday, you will see the physiognomy of the party is changing radically… gender equality, gay people joining the party as candidates… these are all radical changes for the party that occurred through a quiet revolution – without me having to boast about earthquakes.
I’m not stuck in the past loss the party suffered. I have no hang-ups. I’m moving on and I want to take the party with me.
Do you genuinely believe the PN can win the next election...
...or do you aim to minimise that difference so you can remain leader?
I’m not here to lose. I’m here to win. I’m not here to waste my time. I’m here to change the party. I may seem like an idealist, or too ambitious, but I didn’t abandon my career to come here and waste time, or to spend 10 years as Opposition leader... I believe the country needs the PN not because we have a God-given right to govern the country but because we can do so much better than this government and better than we did in the past.
You’re saying that in two-and-a-half years’ time you can be the prime minister...
I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe that.
Don’t you think you’re the sacrifical lamb – the one doing the dirty work so the next party leader can ride on your success in the same way Joseph Muscat rode on the changes Alfred Sant had started in the Labour Party?
I’m not a victim; neither am I a hero. I was the one chosen by the councillors to lead this party... the moment they gave me that responsibility I left everything and dedicated my life to it... True, you don’t know how long it will last but it’s a commitment that takes up your life.
I believe success is possible not only because I believe in my ability to give it my all, but because I also believe people can see what I stand for and what Joseph Muscat stands for. I strongly believe in people’s ability to judge that.
You said before that you want to be elected on your own merit. Last Sunday you started your speech with former prime minister Eddie Fenech Adami’s signature line – “ħuti Maltin u Għawdxin” – and you’ve adopted his slogan of “is-sewwa jirbaħ żgur”. Isn’t that riding on someone else’s success?
I believe the PN had the benefit of great leaders who were visionaries. Eddie was one of them but there were others who faced huge challenges and made a difference. Nerik Mizzi, who was detained and deported, George Borg Olivier who gave us independence… Lawrence Gonzi handled the country during the worst economic crisis… the party had the right men at the right time. Time will tell if I’m the right man at the right time.
What I can say is I’m completely committed to reviving the party – not as an end in itself – but because I believe the PN is the best party to take this country forward.
I want to do away with the idea that you need to beg a politician for what is rightfully yours
What’s your vision for the country?
We need to adopt a European mentality. It’s not enough to be part of the EU. We need to become European – adopting high environmental standards, having culture as part of our everyday life, living a healthy lifestyle, implementing a social market economy, having a social model where those in need are supported, ensuring high standards of public service.
Joseph Muscat has taken us back in time. He encourages a mentality that is anti-European, dominated by selfishness, clientelism and mediocrity.
Are you suggesting that we can eradicate clientelism in this country?
The time has come to clean up politics. To do that, we need to take radical action. You will always find corruption and mistakes because we are human. But the question is: do you really have politicians who have the will to fight corruption? Do you have institutions that are strong enough to stem corruption?
Are you convinced the people you have around you have the political will to fight corruption? And how would you change institutions – such as the planning authority – strongly criticised for decisions being taken? That criticism also stems from the time the PN was in government…
The people around me know where they stand with me. I can’t vouch for anyone, but they all know where I stand and what my reaction would be if they, or anyone associated with them, are out of line.
The institutions, on the other hand, need to be truly autonomous because they are there to serve the people not the party in government. Since this government has filled these institutions with people chosen because of their loyalty to the party, they can’t serve the people. They face a continuous conflict of interest.
How can Mepa act in the public interest when it receives a letter from Joseph Muscat saying a permit is needed to put a gas tanker in Marsaxlokk? He has obliterated the autonomy of these institutions so they serve the party’s agenda not the people.
I will restore their autonomy. Public appointments need parliamentary scrutiny. It’s one step towards cleaning up politics so we can have good governance.
Clientelism is also tied to party funding. Developers, for example, shifted to the Labour Party and took their money with them. Can you become prime minister without their support? And if you accept their support, can you deliver on your promises?
Yes, I can. I was elected MEP by 70,000 votes and was never paid by anyone. I have no commitments to anyone. In the same way, I can become prime minister with no strings attached. Those who want to donate to the party should do it according to law, knowing the payback is good governance not personal favours.
This is difficult, but the PN is showing it’s recovering. Do we have the same resources as the PL? No. But every time people look at the PL’s billboards they ask what price Joseph Muscat had to pay for the party’s glitzy campaigns. I have no doubt that people prefer a party with less marketing resources but with more substance and commitment.
People have lost faith in politics. I want to restore that trust.
So, you’d rather not be prime minister than be one with a list of favours to grant…
On the contrary, I will be prime minister because I’m not someone who can be bought.
Many say you’re naïve. Does that bother you?
No. It means the message that I want to clean up politics is getting across. This message will get stronger the more people are disgusted with what is taking place. We’re living in a country where, in just one year, the government issued 14,000 residence permits. You may accept that, but that’s exponential growth. People will say ‘enough is enough’ when they see that corruption is widespread; that [former PL treasurer] Joe Sammut’s case is just the tip of the iceberg. People will draw a distinction between Joseph Muscat governing and my idealism. I have no doubt they will prefer my idealism.
The government is saying the “racket” with residency permits goes back at least five years. The PN was part of the problem.
That’s Joseph Muscat’s spin. The truth is he set up Identity Malta. It’s his mess, let him clean it up.
You’re talking about principles and taking a stand. Yet you were criticised for not taking a stand in the spring hunting referendum. You preferred to avoid the controversy.
I did take a stand. I said that while the PN would not try to influence people, I would vote in favour. I was part of the negotiations for Malta to join the EU. The package we negotiated included a short, strictly-controlled spring hunting season. Do you think we would have joined the EU without this; with just 53 per cent in favour? That was too big a risk to take. Once this commitment was made, I will not abandon my promise… For me, the issue wasn’t about whether or not I’m for birds, but about the value of my promise. I kept my word even if 75 per cent of my party’s supporters were against spring hunting. They know their party’s leader is true to his word.
Muscat encourages a mentality that is anti-European, dominated by selfishness, clientelism and mediocrity
On a personal level, are you in favour or against spring hunting?
I’m personally not in favour of bird killing. I believe there should be controls. I was not voting as Simon Busuttil. I was voting as the PN leader.
So you voted against your principles.
No. I didn’t. My primary duty was to keep my promise to the people. That’s my principle.
You’ve repeatedly promised to publish guidelines for the PN once in government. They include a ‘ministry for complaints’, a move that was not well received.
Before the year’s end I will announce a ‘good governance package’ including concrete proposals on how to clean up politics. The complaints’ ministry idea was a misrepresentation of what I said. My idea is a citizen’s rights ministry so an individual wouldn’t need to go to different ministries when rights have been breached. There would be one place to address these infringements. The ministry would then follow your case to ensure your rights are respected.
I want to do away with the idea that you need to beg a politician for what is rightfully yours. It does away with the idea of clientelism. You’ll get what is rightfully yours, and if you don’t deserve it you’ll be told why. If we don’t attack clientelism, we end up with the corrupt political system we have taking us back to the Mintoff – Lorry Sant era.