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Simon's Back

Alone in a car with Malta's Opposition leader

This is a big month for Malta's Opposition leader Simon Busuttil. After weeks of relative silence, he’ll soon face the annual Independenza mass meeting. 

But it’s also the month his partner Kristina Chetcuti and her young daughter Pippa are moving into his Lija home, which he currently shares with his 19-year-old son Greg.

“We’re taking the plunge,” he tells me giddily as we walk into his house and he starts calling her name, unsure about whether she’s home or not. 

“Kris? Kriiiis?”

She’s not. Busy taking her daughter to ballet. 

Simon’s other son, Zak, 16, still lives in Brussels with his mother. But he spent the last few weeks in Malta.

“I took some time off to be with my family. Kristina and I took all the kids to Greece and then I took the boys to Denmark. I had to take some time to switch off and be with them, which is why it’s so cheeky for the Labour Party to have spun this whole leadership spin,” he says.

He’s referring to recent articles in the press hinting at discontent among the PN rank and file.

It doesn’t take long for Simon to label government as “rotten to the core”.

But there’s a lightness to his tone that suggests he’s not as fearful or insecure as he might have seemed in the past. 

“Mark my words, this is the calm before the storm.”

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“The leadership battle took place three years ago. And I have been given a mandate for five years. I will respect that till the very end.”

The interview takes place in a car, with Simon at the driving seat. It’s our little ploy to distract him into being himself. 

He does look refreshed. 

Recharged, he says. 

He also seems oblivious to the rampant questioning of his leadership by people at all levels of his party. 

“Do you think it would have been easy for anyone to get into the shoes of Eddie Fenech Adami and Lawrence Gonzi,” he asks with an air of serenity. 

“I always knew this was a marathon run,” he says.

“The leadership battle took place three years ago. And I have been given a mandate for five years. I will respect that till the very end.”

“The ultimate objective for me is to make sure that this country goes back on track and it’s only the Nationalist Party that can do that.”

And then what? 

“I want to see mediocrity thrown out of the window. I want a country that achieves the highest levels.”

“I think people feel betrayed by this government and the way it is behaving. And because they had lost trust in the previous administration they are now losing trust in politics in general. I want to change that. And I’ve given up too much not to do it.

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To be fair, Simon has given up a lot.

Six years ago he was earning a cool €84,000 and living in Brussels with his wife and two young sons.

Then his life came crashing down. 

His wife left him. And the party he had spent a decade working for was at its lowest ebb.

So he began separation proceedings, left his youngest son behind, relocated to Malta with his eldest, and braced himself for the most difficult election campaign of recent times.

“It was obviously a very difficult time, certainly for me and I suppose also for my former wife.” 

“But I decided to do it because, I had to decide if I was in politics for myself or for others. And it was a call of duty, so I responded.”

“I think many people go through a marital breakdown and you just need to pick up the pieces and get on with your life.”

WATCH the interview here

(Disclaimer: No people were harmed by the Opposition leader's three-point turn. Stunt was carried out under strict supervision.)

“I think many people go through a marital breakdown and you just need to pick up the pieces and get on with your life.”

Today Simon Busuttil finds himself at the helm of a party that lost the worst political defeat since Malta gained Independence. 

Turned out he wasn’t the good omen everyone thought he would be. 

Or perhaps his destiny got overtaken by that of his arch-nemesis Joseph Muscat.

“I do acknowledge that Joseph Muscat and his team are great at spinning and communications in general. But I think politics is not just about communicating and propaganda. It’s also about substance. And that’s where I want to beat Joseph Muscat.”

Simon says the Prime Minister’s legacy will be the “Dubai-ification” of Malta. Tell that to Lovin Dubai!

“The environment is something very important for me. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to join the EU, and we’re still in time to save it.”

“I am against excessive skyscrapers, and I am against locating them in certain places where they are at odds.”

Simon has driven us to a spot in Mtarfa that showcases the view from Mdina to Mriehel.

“This view is going to be ruined forever. We are still in time to stop that and it’s up to the people to decide whether they want to do it.”

He lays the blame squarely with government.

“We have a government that is clearly tainted by corruption and this is something we really need to address. The fact that the economy is doing well, doesn’t mean that it is justified to have people in Castille who are clearly tainted.”

“I do acknowledge that Joseph Muscat and his team are great at spinning and communications in general. But I think politics is not just about communicating and propaganda. It’s also about substance. And that’s where I want to beat Joseph Muscat.”

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“We have a government that is clearly tainted by corruption and this is something we really need to address. The fact that the economy is doing well, doesn’t mean that it is justified to have people in Castille who are clearly tainted.”

Simon insists he’s in nobody’s pocket and never will be.

Later he boasts about the PN’s cedoli scheme, which enables members of the public to loan sums of €10,000 to the Nationalist Party in return for a better interest rate than those offered by the banks.

“We were paying interest rates of 8%. With this we managed to bring down those interest rates to 4%. We restructured our debt and it’s working.”

“And the best part is that if someone comes asking me for a favour, I can just write them a cheque of €10,000 and tell them to leave.”

In many ways, that’s what Simon said he did when he spoke to the Gasan and Tumas families over the five skyscrapers approved on the same day by the Planning Authority last month. 

He resists criticism that his party was not vocal enough. 

“We voted against on both occasions,” he says. 

“We did what we had to do at the right time.”

As usual, that didn’t seem to be enough, I thought. 

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Simon doesn’t give much away in terms of policy. He simply promises that he’s not more of the same. 

“Over time, the Nationalist Party had become disconnected and I am reconnecting the party with the people.”

But towards what aim?

Quality of life is what he labels as his “basket of issues”. 

He’s talking about roads, infrastructure, traffic, transport, cranes and lots of other related topics that ultimately make up our environment today. 

“So what we need to do now, and this is where my vision of excellence comes in, is to think of future alternative modes of transport. Should we consider an underground in this country? Should we consider a tram?”

“So what we need to do now, and this is where my vision of excellence comes in, is to think of future alternative modes of transport. Should we consider an underground in this country? Should we consider a tram?”

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“If we go on at this rate this place is going to become immobile, paralysed.”

He also wants to make people proud of being Maltese. 

“I believe our identity has changed these three years, for the worse. We’re not quite sure, today in 2016, what makes us Maltese.”

As we reach our destination - the Mġarr square which is surrounded by fenkata restaurants - I ask Simon if he thinks he’s the best bet for the Nationalist Party. After all, the PN needs to put its best foot forward if it is to defeat a government that by his own admission is great at communications and leading a strong economy. 

“The party councillors answered that question three years ago,” he says. 

He also believes they would do the same if they were asked today. 

“They gave me a mandate. I’m fulfilling it. I will be here till the very end and I’m here to win.”

“I believe our identity has changed these three years, for the worse. We’re not quite sure, today in 2016, what makes us Maltese.”

As he walks to Wistin, his favourite fenkata spot, somebody stops Simon outside to introduce him to a “suldat” (soldier). 

“I tore up my Labour membership,” the old man tells him.

I don’t eavesdrop too much but it seems this happened 10 years ago, judging by the mention of Alfred Sant. It’s also unclear whether he had any genuine reason to quit the party.

“I’m sorry but that doesn’t make you a soldier,” says Simon deadpanning the man.

“You’re a sergeant or a commander,” he jokes, bursting into a massive smile and laughing heartily at his own quip. 

Once he finishes the small talk, we eventually sit around a table to eat some freshly chopped Maltese sausage and galletti, followed by chips tan-nanna, hobz biz-zejt and some delicious rabbit. 

“I wouldn’t be able to take all the small talk,” I tell him. “How do you do it?”

“I hated it too at first. I’m a reserved guy, I don’t like schmoozing around big crowds. But I learned to enjoy it. You have to in this job. You’re going to be doing it anyway, you might as well enjoy it. The house visits are especially interesting.”

“But what do you say for example to people who tell you they’re leaving the Labour Party for a ridiculous reason, like because they didn’t get what they asked for?”

“We smile and nod. That’s what Labour did to us. The good thing about those people is that they’re doing it to pay Labour back so they know you don’t owe them anything. They don’t come asking for favours.”

As he says this, a man whose face is weathered by the sun approaches Simon to ask about the scarcity of water in the country. The man looks deeply concerned.

“Is it because of what they’re spraying in the air,” he asks Simon, referring to chemtrails. 

Simon takes some time to explain climate change. 

A marathon indeed, I think to myself as I gorge on what’s left of the rabbit, chips and Ħelwa tat-Tork.

Luckily, Wistin quickly emerges from the kitchen with a big basket of fruit and vegetables, distracting the men from their conversation and bringing an end to our quick pre-dinner snack. 

After some photographs and goodbyes, Simon packs the basket into his car and we begin driving back. 

Thankfully, he won’t have to eat all that fruit and veg alone. He’s now got a full house to return to. 

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Watch our interview with Prime Minister Joseph Muscat

Written By

Chris Peregin

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