The Malta Independent 18 September 2021, Saturday

PN’s goal must be to win the general election - Mark Anthony Sammut

Kevin Schembri Orland Sunday, 25 July 2021, 09:00 Last update: about 3 months ago

Kevin Schembri Orland speaks to the newly appointed President of the General Council, Mark Anthony Sammut, who believes that the Nationalist Party’s goal must be to win the general election.

Sammut’s appointment to the post of President of the General Council is part of a number of changes in top party positions that have been announced, having replaced Ċensu Galea. Another PN Stalwart who will be stepping aside is Francis Zammit Dimech, who will not contest for the PN’s Secretary General role.

The PN is trailing the PL by quite a bit according to surveys, and there is a large gap between the parties. Sammut was asked how the PN intends to tackle this problem, and whether the party is going to come up with a new strategy.

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While not being able to divulge much about the strategy at the moment, he spoke about what processes are currently happening within the PN. “There are 14 clusters coming up with new party proposals, some of which have already been published. Some, after being ridiculed by the government, were actually implemented by the government.” Others, he said, will be kept for the PN’s electoral manifesto.

He added that the PN also launched a talent hub for people who are ready to contribute to the party with their expertise, for instance in terms of marketing and social media. In addition, he said that the renewal process is ongoing within the party.

“A new customer care unit was also set up soon after Bernard Grech was elected, taking up issues which people face when coming in contact with government departments, certain authorities, or when they face discrimination at their place of work - particularly within the civil service. We know of many stories of people in the civil service who, for simply liking or sharing something said by someone from the PN, are being vindictively targeted. People are becoming afraid to express themselves in favour of something which the PN proposes. We will be there for these people. We want to fight against these injustices.”

He was asked what impact he believes these structures could have on closing the gap between the two parties, and whether he believes the PN can actually win the election, or if this is more a case of trying to close the gap.

FATF greylisting

“It is our duty to work to win the next election. When speaking to people within the business community and in certain sectors, everyone understands that what this government has led us to through the FATF’s greylisting means the world is telling us that they no longer trust us.”

This situation, he said, has cost Malta in terms of investment, with the country having lost out on opportunities for investment possibly emerging from the Brexit situation, such as companies that could have considered Malta but went elsewhere. “The effects of companies that have already started to leave Malta is starting to be felt. Obviously, companies that have long had a base in the country might take time considering the situation given the expertise and knowledge of their worker base here, and hopefully they decide to stay.” There are other effects of greylisting being felt, he said.

Sammut said that the “longer the current government remains, that is the government made up of the same people who backed the system of the most corrupt politician in the world, the world will keep on distrusting Malta.” He said that the only hope for Malta to exit the grey list in a short time is to have a new government. “The PN in government, within three months, will see Malta exit from the grey list. Why? As the moment that the PN is in government, the issue of trust and credibility would be overcome. Why were we grey listed? Prime Minister Robert Abela himself said that Malta passed the Moneyval test with flying colours. Meaning that from a technical aspect, our laws in terms of tackling money laundering are as they should be. But in terms of political will, implementation and enforcement, there is no trust in this government.”

“Our goal must be to win the general election. Yes, the gap between the parties in the surveys looks big. There is still a large number of people who do not trust in anyone, so these are not people who believe the PL or have great trust in Robert Abela. These are people who the PN simply has not yet won over. I believe that if we manage to win their trust, and I think it is being felt that Bernard Grech started making some inroads… I think we can win.”

Working with a new leader

Sammut was one of the people who campaigned for change when Adrian Delia was leading the PN. He was asked whether, since Grech was elected, there has been enough change within the party.

“At the time I mostly campaigned for a reform programme within the PN. That reform process began but there is still more to do. Bernard Grech has only been there for nine months. I think the pandemic slowed down some of the changes which could have been done, even as, for example, the general council couldn’t be held.” 

He said that Grech, as a newcomer to the party, used this time wisely to analyse what needs to be done, and that the changes are now taking place.

Among other things, he said that Grech is managing to attract people who would never have considered the PN as an alternative.

Is the party unified?

One major problem the PN has had is unity. Asked whether the party today is better off with Bernard Grech as leader, if the split within the party has been solved and if the party has come together, Sammut said: “I think that we are in a much better situation than we were last year. Of course, there have been incidents of squabbles, or people who might complain about one person or another, but overall, all those who feel that they can contribute are being welcomed, irrespective of whether they supported Delia or Grech.”

“There are many people who had supported Delia who are today part of the party structures, of the executive, and are volunteers working within the party. So I believe we are in a much better position than we were in a year ago. Obviously, there are still some individuals who do not feel completely comfortable or content, but there is a lot of outreach being carried out, even by Bernard Grech himself, so that these people will continue feeling comfortable within the party, keep on contributing and remain valued.”

A new generation

Asked what the changes happening in top posts of the PN means for the party, he said that there is a new generation of up-and-coming politicians who are ready to lead. This includes people new to the party, as well as others who have worked in the party for a number of years gaining experience in terms of party structures and politics, who are ready to take on more responsibility, he said.

“There are also many new young candidates, some of whom joined the party recently, others who have been in the party for years and even local councillors who are putting their names forward as candidates for the general election.”

“What this essentially means is that the PN is preparing itself so that in the future it will be ready to lead the country. We want to be a party that is ready to govern, and not just be a party ready to be a strong opposition.”

New people, he said, are also helping others view the party differently, as a more open party.

Changes close to an election

Concerns have been raised as to the timing of these changes in top leadership roles, so close to a general election.

Asked about this, Sammut said: “ideally this would have happened earlier. This past general council was planned for last year but was postponed due to the pandemic. This council is kind of closing the renewal process that began when we approved the new statute after the reform process led by Louis Galea. So it is almost a year late. However, even though it would have been preferable for this to have happened earlier, I think we are still in time... There is time to push new ideas. There is a fighting chance for the PN to be ready to be in government.”

Some people argue that the PN does well when it has a focused mission and that it seems to have lacked one in recent years. An example of such a mission would be when Malta joined the EU. “Does it have a current mission in that sense?” he was asked.

“The most important and immediate problem to solve is regaining the country’s reputation and regaining trust in Malta as a country.”

Regaining trust

He said that when being voted out of government in 2013, the PN left behind a respected country. “Eight years later and the world is looking at us as an untrustworthy country. The first mission a PN government should have would be to regain the trust as it had done in the past, for the country to become respected by the international community.”

“This would lead to more investment, more quality, better paying jobs, and we would be partners with other countries, where telling someone abroad that we are from Malta would not lead to them first mentioning the Panama Papers and the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia.”

“Aside from this, we need to continue making Malta more European in every sense. We entered the EU as we believed in certain political standards, ethical standards, environmental standards and in improving the justice system... We need to make a strong cultural shift so that, as a people, we will aspire to be like others and not use the excuse that we are a small country. Even though we are small, we still deserve the same standards that others have.”

“The party is also working to launch its socio-economic vision for 2030, in terms of how we want to see the country function better, and what kind of economy we want.” This will be launched closer to the general election, he said.

There has been criticism over the years by people within the PL that the PN has been too outspoken abroad which resulted in damage to Malta’s reputation, he was told. Responding, he said: “people outside of the country follow the media and what is happening. So the PN doesn’t need to speak in order for the EU to know that in Malta a minister was found to have a company in Panama, to know that a journalist was killed. I don’t think Joseph Muscat won the award for the most corrupt politician in the world because the PN spoke.”

“The PN speaks so that these institutions and foreigners do not start to think that Malta falls completely under the bracket of Joseph Muscat, the PL, Konrad Mizzi or Keith Schembri. We speak to show that in Malta people do not accept these things and want to change them.”

Getting the message across

One challenge the party still faces, is getting its message across. 

“The biggest shift we need to make is in terms of how we are managing to get our message across.”

“For many people who follow the news in detail we would win the political argument. They know that we are right in what we say. However, when we go to grassroots level, we are not always managing to get our message across. Part of this is due to us competing with a propaganda machine that not only uses party resources, but government resources as well, such as through the army of persons of trust working with the ministries and departments whose job is to campaign for government rather than public service. It was confirmed by the Commissioner for Standards’ report that public funds were also being used for advertising and there was need for an inquiry into the Cabinet members on the use of public funds on social media. So we are competing against all of this with very limited resources. Nonetheless, there are still innovative things we can do that would not cost exorbitant amounts of money for our message to be better understood by the man in the street, especially in terms of how big issues, such as how Malta’s greylisting and getting off it is going to affect people’s day to day lives.”

Other examples, Sammut said, include “how fixing the electricity bill system implemented by ARMS and sorting out the Electrogas contract will improve electricity bills, and how our policies will lead to lower fuel prices.”

 

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