Monday, 15 April 2013

Malta Today: Last man standing | Simon Busuttil

Deputy leader Simon Busuttil took much of the blame for the PN’s electoral rout on 9 March. But did he really screw up the entire campaign?
Monday 15 April 2013 - 10:05 by Raphael Vassallo

PN deputy leader Simon Busuttil

As I have had occasion to previously observe, hindsight is a useful ally when it comes to analysing election results. And with hindsight, Simon Busuttil's single-handed efforts to rescue the Nationalist Party from crushing defeat now come across as... rather tragic.

After presenting himself almost as a 'salvatur' figure for the PN (during the campaign he had literally offered himself up as a 'guarantee' that past mistakes would not be repeated), the election result appears to confirm that Busuttil may as well have not bothered relinquishing his MEP seat in Brussels at all.

And now, having apparently failed to deliver the promised 'game-changing effect', he once again proposes himself as a prospective PN leader who can turn around an improbable 36,000 vote-deficit in just five years.

To achieve this goal, Simon (he insists on first-name basis) parachuted into our offices this week as part of a drive to familiarise the media - starting with the least sympathetic to his cause - with his own personal programme as a contender for the PN leadership election next month.

His stated mission? To convince us that he does not represent mere 'continuity' of the previous Gonzi administration... as insinuated in recent MaltaToday articles (including my own, last Sunday).

"I am my own man, and I have a programme that is completely different," he insists with that trademark look of sincerity that had served him so well in European elections in the past.

But while he now presents an entire manifesto of his own, it remains a fact that he had defended the PN's record tooth and nail during the campaign. Isn't it rather rich, then, for him to turn around only now, and wash his hands of the electoral result?

Simon Busuttil however rejects this interpretation out of hand. "I did not 'wash my hands of the result'," he begins in injured tones. "I assumed responsibility for my part in the campaign. I made mistakes, and I have no problem admitting that. But at the same time I don't think it's a fair assessment that I should be blamed for everything that went wrong... bear in mind that I was not the party leader but only the deputy: the number two. You can't expect to judge me as if I were the number one..."

Busuttil here reminds me that the real leaders of the party - namely former Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi and secretary general Paul Borg Olivier - had already done the honourable thing by assuming their own responsibility for the result: both of them having pre-emptively bowed out of the forthcoming leadership elections altogether.

"So in a sense I have been singled out for blame, because the others are simply no longer there. I was the only one left..."

OK, but what about the election result itself? Number two though he may have been, Busuttil still presented himself as the main campaign spokesman. The result could therefore easily be interpreted also as a rejection of his own vision for the party, as of the party itself...

Busuttil here defends his attempt to salvage what could be salvaged of the result. Not only was it an act of loyalty to the party, but - not being leader - he had no choice but to defend a record over which he had no direct control or responsibility.

"And besides, I only got directly involved in the last few months - and people were voting on issues that went back the full five years. How can I be blamed for matters that had taken place long before I was even here?"

Fair enough, but he also authored the PN's manifesto, which makes him a direct protagonist in the campaign.

He nods. "That's true. But I don't think that the PN lost because of the manifesto I authored..."

Busuttil points out how the same PN manifesto, despite not being 'perfect', was good enough to inspire much of the contents of the Labour Party's manifesto which went on to carry the day.

"On some issues we were even more liberal than the 'progressive' PL. On gay rights, for instance, we went further than Labour did to ensure full equality for LBGT persons..."

So what went wrong? "If you mean on the issue of gay rights, I think the problem was that we had lost the trust of the LGBT community from long before. And it wasn't the only area where our credibility had suffered. We lost your trust, too..."

I can confirm that this much is perfectly true. After the 2004 election I was one of a number of people - not a large number, perhaps, but enough to impact an election result - who were shocked and dismayed by the change of direction taken by the PN under its new leadership. It was as though the party suddenly turned to its own liberal faction (which had helped it win almost five elections on the trot) and said: 'we don't want your support any more. We can do without your kind ...'

Busuttil nods in acknowledgement of my fleeting diagnosis. "And this is exactly what I want to change if I am elected leader."

Here he alludes to a factor that was curiously missing from the election campaign. He talks of his nine-year experience on the European stage, in which he often found himself negotiating between the conservative EPP and the European liberals - who are often far more radical than the sort of liberalism embraced by people like myself.

"To give you an example, I managed to convince my colleagues in the EPP to vote in favour of a resolution condemning homophobia. It was the first time the conservatives has supported this kind of motion..."

I admit this sounds a lot more promising than anything we heard in the past five years. But there is another drawback in his claims to be the best-positioned to effect the radical transformation the party now clearly needs.

If Busuttil really is the right man for the job... how is it that his efforts to turn around the PN's ailing pre-electoral fortunes proved so ineffectual in the end? Polls had indicated an 11-point lead for Labour as long ago as February 2012. Busuttil came down from Brussels last January ... yet after nine weeks of sustained campaigning, the distance between the two parties on D-day remained exactly the same.

Doesn't this mean that Simon Busuttil failed to even make a dent in the result? But first, a small question that I admit is more to satisfy my own curiosity than anything else. The PN had its own polls which were similar to ours. Yet Busuttil throughout projected the image that the election was 'winnable'. Was this mere bluff? Or was there an element of truth in that the party really did believe it had a chance to win?

"More than believing in a chance to win, let's just say that there was an element of hope which remained alive throughout the campaign. Even your own polls indicated that 30% were 'undecided'; and it remained 30% all the way down to the day of the election. We now know that they were not really undecided at all - when push came to shove the 30% split along Labour and Nationalist, making no difference to the final result..."

As for the earlier question, he rejects the view that his own efforts were completely in vain, arguing that the margin of defeat might have been greater without him. "You are overlooking the fact that I got the highest number of [PN] votes in this election. After Muscat it was not Gonzi who came second, but me. This fact was sidelined by the media..."

To illustrate the 'Busuttil effect' on this election, he explains how he found himself behind the perspex at the counting hall during the casual election that would elevate Marthese Portelli to parliament.

"I could see as the votes were being counted that many people had voted Simon Busuttil number one, and didn't continue onto any other candidate. Would these people have voted at all if I hadn't contested? Bear in mind that I managed that in just three months before an election. I'd like to think that in five years before the next election, I'll manage a lot more."

One last question about the election campaign before moving on to his leadership bid. Busuttil came in for scathing criticism over his apparent lack of tact. Perhaps the pivotal moment came when he described Labour candidate Deborah Schembri as having 'the face of a Nationalist' on live TV.

Considering that the Labour Party had invested nearly all its political capital into accusing the PN of creating culture of political polarisation, wasn't this a rather unfortunate thing to say? (And the same could be said for his now famous 'we will fight them at the grocer's' remark...)

"I readily admit that it was a wrong choice of words," he replies with a gloomy look. "I could have been more careful in how I phrased the 'wicc ta' Nazzjonalist' comment... but Labour also took it out of context and distorted the message..."

Here I butt in to remind Busuttil that the context was a political debate... and you can hardly blame Labour for seizing on a mistake made by the opposition during the campaign.

"Granted, I'm not complaining. What I meant was that, while I used the wrong words, the overall image was still accurate. It's true that Labour had packaged its electoral product very well to disguise its actual contents. But now the mask is falling off, and we can all see the difference between what Labour promised before the election, and what it is offering now. Look at the first wave of government appointments. We were told these would be made on the basis of meritocracy. But it looks more as though, to get appointed to government boards, you have to have endorsed the PL before the election... to have addressed a Labour mass meeting, or appeared on a Labour billboard, or be a One TV journalist, or a GWU militant... what happened to the 'meritocracy' part?"

He also defends his television appearances against criticism that he had failed to meet high expectations. "When the spotlight is on you, you do make mistakes. And I admit I made a few. But then again it's only people who never take a step forward who never make any mistakes at all."

Here he points towards other TV appearances where his contribution was widely praised. "When I confronted the PL's deputy leader Anglu Farrugia on a debate, the common consensus was that I won that debate. The same is true of the debate with Louis Grech..."

All along he seems to be insisting that the Simon Busuttil of the election campaign was not the 'real' Simon Busuttil' at all: it was the Simon Busuttil who was brought over from Brussels to make the best of a bad deal. And while he is proud to have stood by Lawrence Gonzi through thick and thin, he makes a case not to be judged on the basis of Gonzi's record. "I have been loyal to Gonzi... but I am not Gonzi. I am myself..."

And to illustrate, he alludes to the many times he played the part of a thorn in the government's side from the European Parliament: waging a campaign on air pollution, for instance, or on departure tax... among other instances where he tried to hold the Gonzi administration to account as an MEP.

Yet at the same time, I put it to him that his ascension after Gonzi (just like Gonzi's ascension after Eddie) has been more or less predicted for years... some might say it is a foregone conclusion, that he is the 'anointed one'...

"Really?" he interjects with a genuine look of surprise. "I refute the claim that I have been hand-picked. Don't forget that when I entered my nomination for the deputy leadership race, the entire Cabinet ganged up against me, with the exception of Joe Cassar. So how can anyone claim that I was 'the chosen one'? And how can anyone say that I was part of a 'klikka', when so many people had worked against me within the party? Which is the real 'klikka' here...?"

Apart from encountering so much resistance within the party, Busuttil also laughs off the suggestion - made repeatedly by Franco Debono, among others - that he was all along part of the 'oligarchy' now blamed for the PN's downfall. "How I can suddenly be considered part of an oligarchy, when I wasn't even in Malta for the past nine years, is something I could never understand..."

Over to the forthcoming leadership election, and the way things are shaping up seem to be proving Simon Busuttil right on at least one point. His ascension, even if likely, is no longer a foregone conclusion, in the sense that there are four candidates in all - including one veteran MP who was part of the original '87 parliamentary group, and another who is considered a heavyweight among PN ranks. (To complete the picture there is also a total unknown quantity, who turns out to be unknown even to Busuttil.)

"I can't comment on Ray Bugeja because I simply don't know enough about him. But what I would like to say about Francis and Mario is that, with their decision to enter the race, it is the Nationalist Party that will surely come out the winner no matter who gets elected. The PN needed a strongly contested election. The worst thing that could have happened was to have another uncontested race. That would have meant the opposite: that the party would have emerged a loser. But as things stand, there is a real choice facing the councillors. So whoever wins will have added legitimacy for having won against serious competition."

Assuming Busuttil himself goes on to win... how does he intend to face up to the financial crisis that has befallen the PN?

"I recognise this to be huge challenge, but we have to distinguish between short-term cash-flow problems and long-term financial difficulties. My proposed recipe is to divide the political from the commercial aspects of the party... I would appoint a person specifically to run the commercial arm, and ask a group of experts to come up with recommendations..."

Lastly, I ask Busuttil how he envisages persuading 36,000 voters (more, if he intends to win) to trust the PN in time for the next election.

"The good news here is that many of the vastly different groups of people who voted Labour this time were on our side only five years ago. Even more of them had voted PN in 2004, when we won by 17,000 votes. We have since lost those people, true; but we had them to begin with, and I believe we can win them back."

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