The PN’s rejuvenation is a ‘work in progress’ | Michael Piccinino

At 26 years of age, newly-elected PN secretary-general MICHAEL PICCININO arguably represents the younger, more forward-looking elements of the Nationalist Party. But can the party as a whole claw itself out of its current predicament, in time to mount a serious challenge at the next general election?

PN secretary-general Michael Piccinino (photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
PN secretary-general Michael Piccinino (photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

In recent years, polls have consistently shown that the Nationalist Party still struggles to regain lost ground since the last election. Our latest survey in fact places the PN in almost exactly the same situation it was in June 2017. How do you account for this? Why is the Nationalist Party finding it so hard to regroup after that defeat?

Part of the reason is that there were three years in which the Nationalist Party, internally, lost its focus on the country as a whole. I don’t think it’s the fault of the leadership, or of this or that person; but the reality is that, those internal arguments detracted the party’s attention from what was happening on a national level. And that, I think, is also where we gave space to other actors, to step in and focus on certain issues…

But it also depends on how far you go back. Between 2008 and 2013, for instance, you could almost say the opposite happened. At the time the [Nationalist] government led by Lawrence Gonzi had a one-seat majority; and because of this, the PN arguably neglected its own, internal party affairs.

So after 2013, I think the party needed to do the opposite: it needed to focus more on itself as a party, before formulating its own political vision for the country. But with everything that was happening at the time –including the Panama papers, etc. – I think it simply didn’t have enough time to put its house in order.

On top of that, the leader at the time – Simon Busuttil – focused his attention mainly on issues such as corruption and good governance; and perhaps did not focus enough on more ‘bread-and-butter’ issues. Then again, however: the truth is that, just a couple of weeks after Adrian Delia took over [in October 2017], Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered – and that changed the face of Malta completely.

As such, the party went through a certain period of soul-searching. And it was in this period that the survey and poll results were… let’s just say, less positive that we had hoped. Even if, according to the most recent polls – the gap between the parties has in fact decreased, between now and this time last year…

Perhaps, but it is still in line with the 2017 election result: i.e., the worst-ever defeat in the PN’s history. And the next election cannot realistically be more than a few months away…

Yes. But the situation in the party itself has changed, too…

Has it really, though? Because those ‘internal arguments’ you mentioned appear to still be in full swing….

I don’t deny that there are still internal issues; but what I meant was that we now have a team of officials in place – including new, but also experienced members – and our focus is now totally on the next general election. In a few weeks’ time, the Nationalist party’s vision for the country will come out clearer than ever: so as to convince those who – while sceptical of today’s government – are still not convinced that the PN really does represent the sort of change they want.

That, I think, is our main challenge at the moment: to convince those people that… the change we are proposing, is not merely a change for its own sake. It will be a change that will really allow this country to move forward….

You pre-empted a question I was going to ask anyway.  Right now, the Labour government seems to be facing internal issues of its own. The Marsaskala marina project, for instance, has outraged residents of that [traditionally Labour-leaning] locality; as well as officials of the Labour Party itself. And yet, the Nationalist party seems incapable of truly representing this cause: by, for instance, coming out directly against the project. Why is this?

I think that the PN’s position, on this issue, has been rather clear. Before even considering any public project, which is going impact a particular group of people, the first thing you have to do is consult the people who will be affected.  This is why Bernard Grech he said that, for starters, the proposal must be withdrawn; then, we must consult the residents of Marsaskala, and see what they themselves want for that locality. That, in a nutshell, is the position of the Nationalist Party.

Nonetheless, there is a perception that both the Labour government, and the Nationalist opposition, are really ‘on the same page’ when it comes to environmental issues. Both seem over-eager to appease and favour the same old commercial interests – which, ultimately, also denies the electorate any real choice. What, for instance, is the PN offering, to people who truly want to see a ‘different way of doing politics’?

I understand the sentiment of what you’re saying; that there are a lot of people out there, who hold the environment dear, and who expect a clear political direction on where the PN stands… and this is also what I meant earlier, when I said that political change should not be just for its own sake. If there’s no difference between the parties, what’s the point of even choosing one over the other…?

You’ve done a good job of rephrasing the question, but… what’s the answer? Why should the electorate choose the PN over Labour, anyway?

I think that, with the administrative team we have today, we are in the process of answering that question. As we speak, we are working on a new political vision for the party; and I am convinced that, in the coming weeks, Bernard Grech will announce a new direction that will take into consideration, not just the environment, but a host of other issues as well…

I can’t help but note, however, that your answers are all framed in the future tense. You are talking about all the things the Nationalist party ‘will do’. But an Opposition party is also expected to speak out about things happening in the here and now…

You will understand, however, that I’ve only been in this role for less than a month...

True; but Bernard Grech has been PN leader for almost a year now.   And to mention but one (admittedly minor) example: on cannabis reform, he told us that the party would come up with its own proposals ‘within days’. That was last May. Why is it taking so long, for an Opposition party to formulate basic policies on national issues?

Bear in mind that, for all the year that Bernard Grech has been leader, the PN was faced with those internal issues I mentioned earlier. So first and foremost, I would argue that it was actually his duty, at that time, to pay more attention to the party’s internal affairs. There were also processes that had to be undertaken; even with regard to the structures of the party.

But yes, the time has now come to present our vision. And when I say ‘in the future’… I’m not talking about some distant future, many years from now. I really do mean, ‘in the coming weeks’…

Besides: I don’t think it’s entirely fair to say that the PN has not come up with any proposals at all. In the last few months alone, we have taken stands on a wide variety of issues: on the situation in prison, for instance; on energy; on climate change; on education…

Traditionally, the PN has always prided itself on being a ‘broad church’. But surely there is a limit to how many different – and often conflicting – opinions can co-exist within it. Wouldn’t you agree, for instance, that the PN is often incapable of taking certain stands, precisely because of internal (often ideological) disagreements?

Obviously, as you say, the PN is home to a wide variety of different – and yes, even conflicting - opinions. And it is true that, in the past, the party has sometimes held back from discussing certain issues – especially where civil liberties were concerned. But the reality is that the party must first have its own, internal discussions on such matters, before it can come up with a position of its own.

I am not saying, of course, that whoever disagrees with that position, will have no further place in the party. But the discussion has to take place internally, before we can advance to the level of national policy…

Civil liberties are a good example. Labour also had its own internal qualms about issues such as, for instance, gay marriage. Yet it somehow managed to overcame those ideological barriers. The PN, however, doesn’t seem to have crossed that threshold yet. Don’t you think the time has come to reinvent the PN as a more modern, issues-driven, evidence-based political force… as has happened with other conservative parties all over Europe?

I won’t talk too much about the past; because I am obviously now here to move forward. That is my role, now that I’m secretary-general. What I’ll say, however, is that I think that the PN can no longer carry on avoiding certain issues. If a topic is being discussed in the country, it cannot be that the Opposition party simply turns its head the other way, and pretend nothing has happening. It has to discuss those issues; reach its own position, within its internal structures…  and then, discuss and defend its position on a national level.

But that’s not really happening, is it? And besides, you said it yourself: ‘why should the electorate vote PN, and not Labour?’ What answer would you give a voter to that, today: i.e., before this ‘new political vision’ is even announced?

I would say there are many and various reasons to vote for the Nationalist Party today. First of all – and I’m not saying this as a cliché – when Bernard Grech spent such a long time arguing that ‘the individual should be placed at the centre of all his policies’: what does it actually mean? That the common good must come first in all our policies and decisions….

… sorry to interrupt, but that does sound a little cliché. Alfred Sant, for instance, used to say ‘Ic-Cittadin L-Ewwel’. What’s the difference?

OK, it’s true that political slogans ‘come and go’. But they’re not necessarily ‘meaningless’. The issue of Marsaskala is a classic case in point. What is our policy? That if a project – any project – is to be undertaken there: we must first ask ourselves, in whose interest is this project being carried out? I would like to think it’s in the interest of the residents of the locality, and its surroundings. So we have to first talk to those people, and arrive at a conclusion based on what they would like to see in their own locality.

And I mention this example, as an indication of what I feel the Nationalist Party should be – and is – doing with regard to all issues. Instead of having four people in a room, deciding on this, that or the other project… we have to identify the people who will be affected, sit down with them, and collectively find a way forward…

Earlier, you mentioned that ‘other actors’ stepped in to fill the political void. I presume that’s a reference to certain NGOs which – apart from taking over some aspects of the Opposition’s role – are also highly critical of the so-called ‘Adrian Delia’ faction’. Do you share the concern, felt by many Nationalists, that this tug-of-war threatens to split the PN into two?

No. I think that, where NGOs and civil society are concerned, they have their own precepts of what constitutes ‘good governance’; and I don’t think anyone can deny that the Nationalist Party shares those basic precepts completely. There are, naturally, internal divergences of opinion when it comes to how, exactly, this common aim – this shared belief in the need for a political change – can actually be achieved…

But the existence of different opinions - and even different factions – does not add up to a ‘split within the party’. Eddie Fenech Adami also had to contend with different factions, when he became Prime Minister in 1987. There were also people, within the party, who had very different opinions from his own.

It doesn’t mean, however, that he wasn’t also capable of bridging that divide. He still managed to unite the party, and move it forward…

But that’s what I’ve been asking all along: Eddie Fenech Adami managed to do all that, in the past. Why isn’t Bernard Grech succeeding today?

It’s a work in progress. A continual process. And you certainly can’t say that Bernard Grech ‘isn’t capable’ of succeeding… when the process itself is still underway.

But if we are to succeed, we shall also have to be careful not to allow ourselves to be distracted from our mission. To return to your earlier question, about why everything is framed in the future tense… we’re actually agreeing here. As secretary-general, it is my role to insist that the PN’s political vision has to come out today, not tomorrow.

This doesn’t mean that there is no room for different opinions; but we cannot allow those opinions to keeping getting in the way of the one thing we need to focus on most: a forward-looking political vision, that offers the Maltese people a better standard of living.