‘We are ready for a June election’ | Hermann Schiavone

From gender balance in Parliament, to the state of the PN four months into Grech’s leadership, Nationalist MP HERMANN SCHIAVONE is confident that the Opposition is finding its feet

Nationalist MP Hermann Schiavone
Nationalist MP Hermann Schiavone

Let me start by quoting an editorial headline in this newspaper: ‘Gender quotas should be part of a holistic electoral reform’. Do you agree with that statement? Isn’t the gender-balance mechanism, currently under debate, just another case of tinkering with the electoral system, to guarantee a pre-determined result?

Yes, I do agree; and not just with regard to gender balance. As it happens, my doctoral thesis was precisely about Malta’s electoral system. The reality is that we have been ‘patching it up’ for many years.

The Single Transferable Vote, which has now been in place for exactly 100 years, was originally designed to fragment the party system; in fact, the concept of ‘political parties’ was introduced only after the perverse result of 1981.

That was when we began to ‘patch up’ the system: first to ensure majority rule; then to address the issue of relative majorities… then to ensure proportionality by allocating additional seats… and now, we are introducing gender quotas, along the same lines, without taking into consideration the broader picture.

So Bernard Grech’s appeal – and also mine, in my public statements – is: let’s get together and discuss this further. Apart from the fact that this law, in its present state, is flawed in several important aspects: on its own, it will not solve the problem of low female participation in the political process. This is why the Nationalist Party is proposing a more holistic reform…

You have criticised the proposed law for being too grounded in a bipartisan system; but another problem is that it places the onus of gender balance on the Constitution… rather than on the political parties themselves. Wouldn’t it make more sense to simply compel political parties to field more female candidates?

The problem is not that the parties themselves are unwilling. It’s that they are unable.

In my thesis, I interviewed both Dr Alfred Sant and Dr Eddie Fenech Adami, and I specifically asked them about the issue of female candidates. The reality is that both parties can go down on their knees, and beg women to contest with tears in their eyes… but it’s useless. They don’t find enough women who are willing to go into politics. It’s as simple as that…

And yet, according to my research, when women do take the plunge… they fare as well as men: actually, around 2% better. So the real problem is not, as many people assume, the electorate. It is at candidacy stage…

This is also visible at the European Parliament, where Malta’s gender balance has always been around 50-50. Also, parties seem to have no problems attracting female candidates to contest European elections.  Could this simply be because the remuneration package (and other perks) are so much more attractive?

There’s another reason: in European elections, the ballot list is much shorter. In an election where only six MEPs are elected, it makes no sense to field hundreds of candidates, as we do in general elections. You end up fielding only around 12 candidates… which makes it a lot easier to find women – or just good candidates, generally - who are interested.

Another reason is that the European Parliament itself is a very different ballgame. Elected MEPs have their own staff, their own resources… and the work is very different. It is much less confrontational: because European politics is all about consensus, and temporary coalitions. The same, obviously, cannot be said for Malta.

But yes, part of it is also about the conditions.  Not just money: but the timing of sittings; the lack of family-friendly measures – we don’t even have a childcare centre here – and even just the fact that local MPs are part-timers. This affects women and men alike: everyone has other commitments – profession, the family, etc. – and their job as parliamentarian invariably comes after all that. You cannot do serious work as a part-time MP. It should be a full-time job…

Ultimately, though: if we are going to discuss a new law, it is useless to just increase the number of parliamentary seats by another 12. How is that going to attract more women to politics? They’ll just say: ‘Who cares? I do want to be in politics: just not under those conditions, that’s all…’.

So I don’t think this law, on its own, is going to serve its function at all. Because what we all want is more women contesting elections… not more seats in Parliament.

Let’s face it, however: a political party doesn’t need a33 law to impose its own gender-balance quotas… what is stopping parties from doing that?

We could do that, yes. We could set a self-imposed quota. But the issue here – and it has more to do with the electoral system, than with the parties themselves – is that: let’s say we had a 30% quota at district level, so we’d need seven men and three women in a particular district. We get them. Then, at the eleventh hour, a particular local [male] doctor would turn up, asking to contest. And he’d w able to get at least 500 first-count votes in that district. But we’d end up having to turn him away, just because the quota had already been met…

Hang on, but that’s true of quotas in general. In fact, it echoes a line of criticism often directed at the quota system (not only when applied to gender): that it is ‘unmeritocratic’. Yet both Nationalist and Labour Parties agree with a quota system for women.  How do you explain the contradiction?

I see your point, but I’m talking realpolitik here. Our electoral system is such that: whoever gets the most number ones, governs. Simple as that. It’s a be-all or end-all scenario.  So as long as the electoral system remains unchanged, in that respect, it’s not something you can afford to ignore…

Coming back to a point you mentioned earlier: confrontation. You yourself hinted that women may be ‘put off’ by the intensity of local political tribalism. Yet the Opposition is not doing very much to tone down the confrontation, is it? Hardly a week goes by without an intensely divisive issue, tearing the two sides apart…

… but you can’t exactly expect politics without confrontation, can you? What would it even mean: that we have to keep our mouths shut about everything? That if the government does bad things… the Opposition keeps quiet?

No, but there are other ways to express disagreement; and some people out there may have expected a different approach, from a newly-elected party leader who had started out by expressing disagreement with tribalism…

I agreed with Bernard Grech at the time; and I don’t think he has changed that opinion in any way. But Maltese politics is confrontational; it would be futile denying it. Whether it is too confrontational to attract more women – or good people, in general – perhaps, yes. But the real problem, as I see it, is not the confrontation that takes place in Parliament. At that level, it is still a clash of ideas.

The real problem is on the social media. Yesterday, Minister Edward Zammit Lewis made a good speech about this in Parliament: he argued that personal attacks on the social media are putting people off politics… not just women, but people in general.

And he’s right. It is on the social media that people are getting destroyed; witch-hunts are taking place; people’s families are being targeted… and I’m not saying this is happening only on one side. Let me clear.

What I’m saying is that, unfortunately – because there are a lot of gains to be made from social media – it has ended up pushing people away from politics…

On to a slightly different topic now: our most recent survey yielded the best result for the PN since Bernard Grech took over in October. Yet while the gap has been reduced, it also shows that the Nationalist Party would still lose an election by around 30,000 votes. Is the PN ready to face Abela’s Labour at the polls?

Actually, your polls – to which I give a lot of credence – placed the difference between the parties at around 26,000. Now: am I satisfied with that? No, of course not. I think that the gap should be much closer; and I also think the aim should be to beat Labour, whenever the election is held. And it’s doable…

Our survey suggests the opposite however…

Does it? I’m not so sure. One of the most positive results of that survey was that – for the first time – the PN has overtaken Labour in the youths demographic. I don’t want to get too optimistic about it: we have to wait and see if the results will be repeated, before we can call them a ‘trend’. Up to now, it’s not a trend… just a one-off.

But there are other trends: that Bernard’s trust-rating shooting up, is a trend; that the PN’s retention rates are growing, is a trend. It’s also a trend that the PN is gaining more and more ground in the North Harbour Area. So the survey does give us a lot reason to be optimistic.

But there are other factors, too. The natural cycle of Maltese politics is for the ruling party to show signs of electoral fatigue around mid-way through its second term. We are in the eighth year of the cycle, and these signs are now showing. Robert Abela is not Joseph Muscat: we have a prime minister who is making very basic mistakes; not admitting his flaws; who thinks he knows everything…

On the other hand, the Nationalist Party under Bernard Grech – who’s only been in the job for four months – is already achieving positive results… and the parliamentary group is united behind him.

Is it really, though? What about all the tesserati who tore up their PN membership cards… and – if I may add a more personal note to that – as someone who was a firm supporter of Delia yourself… how do you reconcile that with your present loyalty to Bernard Grech?

First of all, Adrian Delia remains part of the team, and he is contributing…

He certainly contributed a lot to L-Istrina this year… and again, wasn’t that just a stunt to remind us that he’s still a thorn in Bernard Grech’s side?

[Shrugs] That was blown out of proportion. But let’s not go into that. The point is that these people you are referring to as Adrian Delia’s supporters... in the last three months, they are beginning to see results. And I know, because I am one of them. It wasn’t easy for me to turn to Delia and say, ‘Listen, I think it would be better if you were no longer PN leader’… but the simple reason I did it, was that the figures were showing us that we stood no chance at all.

Was it his fault? Probably not. But in my position, I had to keep my feet on the ground. I had to tell him, to his face: ‘Adrian, we’re not going to make it. You have to step down, and give somebody else a chance’.

And I damaged my own political career by doing that. I could have stayed quiet, kept a low profile, and waited until the inevitable election defeat. And I would have probably been elected straight away.

But the interests of the party demanded otherwise. The interests of the country demanded otherwise. What we needed was an Opposition that could present itself as a credible, alternative government.

And the numbers we are now experiencing – four months down the line – are bearing me out. I know a lot of people were angry with me for taking that stand: understandably, because of their love for the party leader.

But today, they are seeing things differently….

Meanwhile, rumour has it the next election may be next June. Do you think the PN can realistically turn things around by then?

Yes, we are ready. Everything’s set to go. We already have 70 candidates already approved. We are discussing our policies as we speak… and once the whistle is blown, we will put together an electoral manifesto, the like of which has never been seen before...