The ambitious Nationalist MP Claudette Buttigieg knows the competition is stiff, but the PN must face change. As for Eurovision? ‘Let the gay times begin’http://www.maltatoday.com.mt/en/newsdetails/news/interview/No-token-lady-Claudette-Buttigieg-20130522
Wednesday 22 May 2013 - 09:00 by Miriam Dalli
All is easier said than done when Claudette Buttigieg has to face the likes of MP Beppe Fenech Adami for the deputy leadership post.
Many were the voices from inside the Nationalist Party that suggested they needed a woman at the helm after suffering an electoral thumping from 35,000 voters who had switched to Labour.
With Joseph Muscat pledging to have the most "feminist government" Malta has ever seen, can a woman holding the PN's deputy leadership provide the perfect platform for the party to portray itself as representative of a 21st-century society?
All is easier said than done when Claudette Buttigieg - the newly elected MP, but you may know her as a jazz singer, Eurovision hopeful and perennial TV favourite Claudette Pace - has to face the likes of MP Beppe Fenech Adami and his grassroots support inherited from his father, the redoubtable Eddie Fenech Adami.
Still, with 704 first count votes in a district contested by the likes of Fenech Adami and Tonio Fenech, Buttigieg proved to her critics that singing love ballads on the stage of Europe's pop cheese-fest doesn't mean she can't make it the House (and let's face it, people like Ministers Evarist Bartolo and Leo Brincat and MPs David Agius and Clyde Puli all flirted with radio-DJ careers. If anything, Buttigieg can sing her PQs).
'So, freshly elected to parliament, why not try out for the deputy leadership as well?' go the wry replies to Buttigieg's bold and ambitious move.
Buttigieg says her presence in the tight contest offers a choice to party councillors. "Whether they elect a man or a woman shouldn't be the issue. They should base their vote on whom they believe will best serve the post," she says. "My feet are firmly on the ground and I am not fantasizing about anything extraordinary. But why not? I am competing against a big name, but who wins still depends on the councillors' votes.
"There are some who believe in it more than I do, and it's welcome to have female councillors say it's time that a woman formed part of the party's leadership... If you have a chipped mug do you want to continue drinking from it just because you have been doing so for years on end?"
Buttigieg claims her musical baggage is already being used against her by some opponents. But she is already positioning herself to respond to the PN's self-inflicted problem in being, at best, uncomfortable with embracing gay issues.
"They use it against me. But then again, when people attack you personally, it means they have not a single political argument left," she says, evoking the words of Margaret Thatcher.
"I did well in Eurovision and it doesn't bother me one bit. In reality, it makes me a people's person and, coupled with my portfolio as shadow minister for civil liberties, brings me closer to the gay community in Malta... Anyone who participates in Eurovision automatically becomes a gay idol."
Her road to politics was not unlike those of her fellow MPs, contrary to claims that she has parachuted into the game. She describes herself as having fought for students' rights at an early age, during the Church School feud of the 1980s (she was still a student at the time) and having entered student politics as secretary-general of the University Students' Council (KSU). A contemporary of party leader Simon Busuttil, she says her former university colleague recently told her that he remembered her as a "political animal."
"Simon couldn't understand why I only now chose to stand for politics... but at the time I chose to focus on my theatre studies, which I furthered at the University of Bologna."
Buttigieg threw her hat in for the new post of party affairs deputy leader, created to accompany the parliamentary affairs deputy post when Mario de Marco - who had lost the leadership bid to Busuttil - was apparently still unsure of running for deputy (uncontested as it turned out). His last-minute nomination left the parliamentary group guessing, Buttigieg says. "I did ask the parliamentary group whether they wanted me to withdraw from the race, to allow Beppe Fenech Adami to run alone, but they all refused it," she says.
The PN now awaits a report analysing the 9 March electoral loss, but Simon Busuttil has already taken the bull by the horns by appointing a commission to analyse the party's €8 million deficit and creating the new deputy leadership for party affairs.
"The new concept is all about teams, not about a person. The secretary-general is the one that brings together the different teams working within the party. Any decisions taken within the structure of the Dar Centrali will be taken by the secretary-general," Buttigieg says about the apparent overlapping of roles between the secretary-general and the new deputy party affairs leader.
Having already started meeting councillors, Buttigieg identifies the need to see an increase in youth participation in party affairs. "The average age of our councillors is high. But this doesn't mean we have to do away with people of certain age. What we need is a healthy mix. And it all forms part of the renewal process the party is going through."
Buttigieg has warned councillors that change also means having to make sacrifices. "Facing reality, knowing you have to change to do what is right sometimes hurts. Let us not fall in the trap and believe that this process will be a happy ride. To change you need to make sacrifices and sometimes this doesn't come without hurt. The councillors say that youth must be present... and this means that in some cases they must take someone else's place. It won't be a clean sweep, but we need to be bold in certain decisions we take."
One way or another, she plans to meet the 900 councillors who are to vote in the party election. She is currently holding district meetings where she has done away with "gimmicks" and instead opted for a cosy circle of discussion.
Now shadowing social dialogue and civil liberties in parliament, Buttigieg feels this role has placed a huge responsibility on her shoulders, especially after the PN had detached itself from various sectors. "I have to prioritise which sector is more important. In reality they all are. We were once the students' party. What happened? We were the creators of change... and along the way we also managed to change the Labour Party as well," Buttigieg claims, saying the PN's own revolution was akin to Thatcher's effect on Tony Blair.
"Labour changed because of us. And just like Tony Blair thanked Thatcher for changing Labour, Joseph Muscat must thank us. Mind you, he was very clever in realising that his party had to change," she concedes, mentioning that the PN's concentration on government left the party abandoned.
Now it's time to listen to "every single thing" the people are saying, Buttigieg adds. "We let our own people distance themselves from us. We let them hand in their party membership without stopping for a second to ask them why. Politics is about relationships... it's never black or white."