The only way is up | David Agius

Recent polls have suggested the beginning of a turnaround in the Nationalist Party’s electoral fortunes. Will the upswing be enough to turn the tables on a Labour Party in deep crisis? Deputy leader DAVID AGIUS has no doubt that the answer is ‘yes’

Nationalist Party Deputy Leader David Agius
Nationalist Party Deputy Leader David Agius

Let me start by asking you for a reaction to Chris Fearne’s comment, to the effect that the Nationalist Party will ‘never win another election’ for as long as he lives. Placed in the context of the current leadership’s widely known problems… isn’t it true that the PN is finding it hard to return to its previous winning ways?

In politics, I always try to act with respect. Personally, I don’t think that comment was very respectful towards the Nationalist Party. But everyone makes mistakes. And I think Chris Fearne made a mistake there.

May I remind my friend Chris Fearne – and I wish both him and Robert Abela luck in next Sunday’s election; I’ve been through the same process myself, at vice-leader level, so I know what it means. But Fearne needs reminding that after this leadership election, there will be the country to take into account. And if he looks at the latest surveys – including MaltaToday’s – the trend appears to be the other way round.

The Nationalist Party is on the rise; Labour is sinking. Are we there yet? No, there is still some way to go. But are we on the right track? I’d say, yes, we are.

So I think that, in politics, sometimes, the less said the better. To me, Fearne’s comment was unnecessary …

It is true that surveys indicate an upswing for the PN, but Labour’s advantage remains strong: stronger, perhaps, than one would expect under the circumstances…

But it’s not just surveys. It’s also the feeling we’re getting at street-level. Where before, people would almost cross the street not to speak to you… over this Christmas season, we got a very different feeling from the people we met and spoke to. There was a lot of enthusiasm for the proposed renewal programme that the party is now committed to; there was a lot of positive feedback from our 15 proposals for good governance.

I also think the recent publication of the Egrant report made a difference. As PN leader, Adrian Delia successfully went to court to obtain a copy of the report; and he didn’t keep it to himself, but made it available to the public… including yourselves, the media.

So I think that, yes, there has been a change in perception: people are beginning to take notice of the PN again, and are realising that we are right on many things.

But the Egrant report also rekindled memories of when Adrian Delia demanded Simon Busuttil’s suspension over the initial conclusions… and the internal split is still there. Meanwhile, the NGO Repubblika has hinted at a new political formation – and AD has entered into a coalition with PD. Doesn’t this mean that the Nationalist Party’s ability to muster a national majority has decreased?

No, it means that there is a strong anti-Labour coalition. That’s a good thing…

But ‘anti-Labour’ doesn’t automatically translate into ‘pro-PN’….

It could. Let’s wait and see…

…and those political groupings – AD, PD and maybe soon Repubblika – are in not just in competition with Labour, but also with the Nationalist Party

Not really. They’re against Labour; they’re against the corruption, and the bad governance displayed by the Labour Party in government. I think that, on the issue of corruption, civil society and the PN are speaking with one voice…

Are they really, though? Both Repubblika and Occupy justice have called for Adrian Delia’s resignation, too. Don’t you see that as a problem?

I don’t think so. I believe we are all united in our desire for better, cleaner governance. There is no disagreement with the 15 proposals we have just published, for instance. So I believe that, in time, even NGOs like Repubblika will be united with us, in our struggle against the most corrupt government in our country’s history…

By your argument, the PN exists only to oppose the Labour Party. Does it stand for anything else?

Of course, it does. We have our principles, enshrined in the ‘Basic Beliefs’ document, and in our statute; we are not just a Christian Democrat party, but the party which paved the way to new rights and liberties for the people of Malta and Gozo. Wasn’t it the PN which achieved Independence? And EU membership? We cannot forget the past…

Nor can you over-rely on past achievements, like you seem to be doing now…

But you have to have solid foundations, to build a strong, stable edifice. The strength of the PN’s foundations permits us to keep building, as a party. Joseph Muscat, on the other hand, built his house on sand. And now it’s collapsing. Now, the man who was supposed to be ‘Invictus’ will no longer be either prime minister or Labour Party leader in just a few days’ time.

If, on the other hand, we remain rooted in our basic principles – our belief in good governance; the economic model we believe in; our policies regarding the health and education sectors, and so on – I have no doubt that the PN will manage to win over its present critics.

Let’s turn to the PN’s proposals. The party is proposing a second interconnector to solve Malta’s current energy crisis. Wouldn’t this merely increase our reliance on other countries for our electricity generation needs? What would happen if there’s a problem on the supply side over which we have no control?

Who says we don’t have control in Europe? The EU cannot close the energy tap. On the contrary, the advantage is that, by connecting to the European grid, you can choose where to buy your energy from. There is no bigger option than that…

For the time being. But what if the circumstances change? What if war breaks out in Europe, for instance?

What would happen today, if we can no longer import gas? Let’s not forget that we are still reliant on factors outside our control. Because Joseph Muscat’s energy strategy has placed us at the mercy of the private sector. BWSC is owned by Siemens. The Electrogas power station is also privately owned. So what happens if there’s a collapse in the private sector?

This is why our proposals are not limited only to a second interconnector. We must look at other options, including alternative sources of energy…

Speaking of which: when the PN was last in government there was talk of ‘deep-sea windfarms’… which never materialised. What are you proposing, specifically, for renewable energy today?

At present we are looking into what other small islands like ours have achieved. There could be options which might cost a lot of money in the beginning, but which would deliver in the long term. 

But this doesn’t mean discarding the option of a second interconnector. You have to bear in mind that it cost us 480 million euro to build the Electrogas power station. With European funding, the cost of an interconnector is around 180-200 million euro. So two interconnectors would cost roughly the same as the one power station built by Joseph Muscat… and which turned out to be beset by problems anyway. Not to mention all the associated corruption. And don’t forget that the agreement binds Malta for a full 18 years…

Another aspect is that Joseph Muscat’s economic model was based on increasing the population. More population means higher demand for electricity. The stark reality is that this government had no real plan to reach the energy targets that the country needs to operate.

Part of Muscat’s model involved the controversial IPP scheme, which – with all its flaws – pumped billions into the Maltese economy. The PN is committed to discontinuing this scheme…

Definitely, one hundred percent.

So what do you propose to replace it with?

There are a number of other alternative investment schemes we are looking into, which do not devalue the citizenship of our country. We will be giving more details at the right time.

All the same, the IPP scheme was instrumental in Malta’s economic turnaround, from deficit to surplus. How does the PN intend to address the loss of associated revenue in future?

The financial gains have to be counterbalanced by the much more massive drop in the reputation of our country. If we manage to install a new government, composed of different people who can restore the confidence Malta has lost… I am convinced that we will succeed in attracting new, dependable investments, as we used to in the past: leaving Malta with enough financial resources to continue guaranteeing jobs, and to ensure that our GDP continues to increase.

After all, we are still an attractive country to invest in. We are still, as we always used to say, a jewel in the Mediterranean: endowed with all the advantages – stability, peace, safety, tranquility, etc. – that investors look for. I see no reason for people not to invest in Malta: provided that we take all the steps to repair the reputational damage.

I don’t think our country needed to resort to this kind of scheme: which literally reduces the value of Maltese citizenship.

Your hopes are predicated on a new government – presumably a Nationalist one. Yet as of next Sunday, we will technically have a new administration under different Labour leadership. Would you agree that, under the circumstances, fresh elections should take place to renew the mandate accordingly?

The decision to hold an election rests with the Prime Minister. I am on the pitch to play the game… and the game could always involve the new prime minister blowing the whistle, and going for a new election in six weeks’ time.

So, my position is that the Nationalist Party should always be ready to face an election in six weeks’ time, regardless of the circumstances. That, in my view, is how you have to operate: because a prime minister can call an election at any time. So the Opposition must always be ready…

How ready is the Nationalist Party today?

Let me put this way: you can always be better prepared… even financially…

This brings me to this week’s appointment of Robert Arrigo as interim PN treasurer, after no permanent candidate was found. Is this a reflection of the dire financial straits the party is rumoured to be in?

I must correct you there. There have been no difficulties finding a new treasurer. I must emphasise this point: as a party, we took a decision that – until we effect the changes and reforms we are now committed to, which will take place in next March’s general council – we will not appoint a new treasurer. The appointment will be made during the council, as part of the same process of reform.

But the PN has been without a treasurer since last October…

That’s because it was last October that the party executive took the decision to postpone elections for party positions [including treasurer] until next March: to give us time to carry on with the ongoing party reforms.

While the internal discussions spearheaded by Louis Galea are still under way, we felt it would be better to make the official appointments at the same time as implementing the reforms… but I have to be careful here, because part of the ongoing reforms include certain changes in the way the party operates…

Are you suggesting that the role of treasurer will be abolished?

I’m not saying that; but there will be changes. So it didn’t make sense to appoint a treasurer just for a few weeks…

Coming back to the ongoing reform process… do you think the changes will be enough to dispel the doubts that clearly exist surrounding Adrian Delia? Will the newly reformed PN, under the same leadership, manage to turn around its current electoral fortunes?

I am confident that, yes, we will succeed. And I say so because it is a choice between the Nationalist Party, and the Labour Party as it is today… and even as it might be tomorrow: because both Chris Fearne and Robert Abela were also part of the crisis that engulfed Muscat’s government.

One [Abela] was the Prime Minister’s lawyer: in other words, the lawyer of the most corrupt politician in the world… as voted by international journalists.

The other [Fearne] was Joseph Muscat’s deputy prime minister. Now: I am the deputy leader of the Nationalist Party. If I had even the shadow of a doubt about Adrian Delia’s integrity… I would resign.

But many people do have doubts about Delia: enough to call for his (and therefore, by extension, your own) resignation…

To those people, I say: speak to him. Ask him. I myself asked for an explanation, when there were questions about his tax situation. He showed me all the papers; he explained that he had contested a tax bill; won the case, and paid what he really owed. And the issue is now closed: nobody even mentions it anymore.

So I would argue: let’s find out the full truth about a person before forming an opinion. Let us consider what Adrian Delia has actually done, in his two years as PN leader: he won his case for the publication of the Egrant report; he opened a case into the Vitals deal – a corruption scandal amounting to almost billions. He fought, and won battles in Parliament. He started a process of change within the party, that is ongoing as we speak.

So to all his critics, I would ask: where was he wrong, in all the things he has done in the two years since becoming Nationalist Party leader?

But I think, as your polls suggest, that people are beginning to see this. Where, until recently, we were scared to even think about the next general election… now, we are talking about the Nationalist Party’s new proposals for when it is next in government. Now, we’re talking about Adrian Delia as a possible future prime minister.

Naturally, there is a lot of work we still have to do. But at the moment, I would say that things are looking up.