Three lawyers and a doctor – all men between the ages of 46 and 73 – are contesting for the role of PN leader. We asked them a few questions to see where they stand on the issues. This is what we learnt.
1. The PN’s top priority
What’s the first thing the candidates will do once elected PN leader? Adrian Delia gave the shortest answer to the question. He said his first significant move would be “to reunite the party”. He didn’t say how. But his priority was shared by Alex Perici Calascione who said he would also prioritise the promotion of unity. He also said there needs to be a meaningful post-electoral dialogue.
The first thing Chris Said would do is organise a weekend retreat for all local committee officials to roll out a strategy that ensures the party is “constantly at the heart of society”. He would also appoint an independent think-tank to advise the party on the state of Maltese society today. Frank Portelli, the eldest of the bunch, believes the first step should be to apologise to anyone who the party hurt. “I will not be sorry to say sorry,” he said. “I will start with a clean sheet.”
2. National unity vs good governance
We asked the contenders, what should be the first order of business if eventually elected Prime Minister? “To reunite the country,” said Adrian Delia, mirroring his first response and the narrative that Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has used about his own election. On the other hand, Chris Said kept to the PN narrative: “From day one I shall seek to restore people’s trust in the country’s institutions.” Alex Perici Calascione also kept to the status quo, focusing on independent institutions, good governance and Malta’s international reputation. Frank Portelli said he’d only answer if he became PN leader.
3. Resigning if the ratings don’t change
We asked whether they would resign as PN leader if the party’s ratings did not change once elected, specifically, if the PN lost another landslide at the forthcoming MEP elections. The only one to give a categoric answer was Frank Portelli. He said that the MEP elections will be the first milestone in two years’ time and if he did not reduce the PN’s gap by 50%, he would resign. Alex Perici Calascione gave more of a vague response, saying he was committed to taking any decisions that would be beneficial to the party. Adrian Delia said he would not resign. “This is not a game and the next general election has to see the Nationalist Party united under one strong leader.” Chris Said dodged the question altogether: “I will work hard for the PN to start bridging the gap with Labour from day one of my leadership.”
4. The PN’s biggest mistake
Chris Said gave a pragmatic answer: The PN failed to convince the electorate that it would improve people’s lives. For Alex Perici Calascione says the PN failed to be fully in synch with the way Maltese society had changed. Adrian Delia also cited the changing society but added that PN lacked proper information on the ground. “One wonders how it could be possible that in Gozo around 1000 public jobs were given to people but no one from the PN had an inkling of what was going on,” he said. Frank Portelli was more to the point: negativity was a major mistake given that the only thing an Opposition Party can sell is hope.
5. Egrant’s ownership
None of the contenders were willing to put this claim to their name. “I hope not. That would be catastrophic for our reputation. I look forward to the conclusion of the inquiries,” said Chris Said. Adrian Delia said he too would wait for the magisterial inquiry. He said the circumstantial evidence put the Prime Minister’s political future in jeopardy, which is why he tried to save his skin with an early election – something he managed to do. To Alex Perici Calascione the “damningly serious allegations” were enough to justify a thorough judicial investigation. Frank Portelli suggested the question is put to Jacqueline Alexander, who was named in the Declarations of Trust transcribed by Daphne Caruana Galizia. He added more specifically: “The Prime Minister’s wife, like Caesar’s wife, should not be found ‘not guilty’, she should be above suspicion.”
6. Daphne Caruana Galizia
We asked what sort of relationship the leadership contenders would seek with the anti-government blogger who was a key and controversial protagonist at the general election. Frank Portelli said he hadn’t spoken to her since a very specific October 2012. “I do not subscribe to her methods. I do not hurt people. I like to win over my opponent, and enjoy doing so, but never wish to humiliate him or her,” he said. His was the biggest critique of Caruana Galizia. Chris Said argued that Caruana Galizia should be treated like all journalists in the country, with “mutual professional respect”. “Of course, the PN’s agenda is set by the party itself,” he added. His view was shared by Alex Perici Calascione who said politicians and journalists had their own jobs to do and should do so professionally, ethically and “without fear or favour”. Adrian Delia, who has probably received most criticism from Caruana Galizia, should treat all journalists with respect, “and demand that this is reciprocated”. He added that the PN scored its biggest electoral victories when it was leading the country’s agenda with solid arguments and its vision for Malta.
7. Gay marriage
We asked whether the contenders would seek to change the Marriage Equality Bill which the PN criticised but ultimately voted in favour of earlier this month. Chris Said was the only one to say the law should not be changed. He pointed out that he voted in favour of the Bill and re-opening something that has been voted upon was “not on”. His government would instead focus on strengthening parents’ and children’s rights. Alex Perici Calascione criticised the government for “taking advantage” of the issue and stopped short of committing not to change it, except to say that any amendments required an electoral mandate. Frank Portelli said the Bill was “rushed through and defective”. It also demoted the value of marriage between men and women and hurt the feelings of those with Christian values and principles. He did not answer the question. Adrian Delia – whose wife strongly criticised the Bill – said the PN should heave been given a free vote to ensure that the discussion was not tinged by partisan strategies.
8. Improving gender representation in Parliament
Chris Said was the only contender to accept quotas as a “temporary resort” but argued that education to fight stereotypes from a young age was key. Alex Perici Calascione questioned whether gender representation was a problem given that all MPs “represent their constituents equally”. Frank Portelli said “females have to appeal to other females to gain votes”, seeing as until the last election women voters outnumbered men. Adrian Delia had this to say: “The easy way out would be to propose quotas in order to address the imbalance, but this in my mind is discrimination by definition. Rather it has to be a process whereby from an early age we need to educate our citizens to embrace a mentality of tolerance, equality and participation in politics.”
Seen as a perpetual red line for politicians in Malta, we asked the PN contenders whether there were any circumstances in which abortion could be justified. Chris Said gave a “clear and unequivocal no”. Frank Portelli said it was a red line: “I believe God giveth life and only he can take it away.” Adrian Delia also said no. He acknowledged that there are people in society facing difficult situations and these must be helped to choose life over death. Alex Perici Calascione said he was “against abortion in principle” but added that he was certainly not being judgmental, “as life has certainly taught me to be otherwise”.
10. Recreational cannabis
The next liberal frontier for Malta doesn’t seem to be a major concern for the PN candidates. We asked whether cannabis should be legalised for reactions use, on par with alcohol and tobacco. Frank Portelli is the least in favour, saying he agreed with using drugs for medicinal purposes but it was “a very dangerous path” to do so for recreation. He pointed out that controls were increasing with alcohol and tobacco and the same should be done with drugs. Adrian Delia also favoured stricter controls: “Drawing the line on personal choices is an exercise in responsible government. Opening the door with marijuana means allowing space for eventually also doing the same with other, or any kind of drug.” Alex Perici Calascione and Chris Said were both more moderate. Perici Calascione said he understood the arguments in favour but urged for legislation to take into consideration what drug abuse victims had to say. “This is not about legislating to come across as modern or indeed hip in approach. This is about people’s lives.” Chris Said admitted to not having a strong opinion on the matter but said it was time to engage in the discussion t curb abuse, strengthen education and “not ruin someone’s life because of a joint”.
11. Have YOU ever taken drugs?
We asked a point blank question, whether the candidates themselves have ever taken drugs. Alex Perici Calascione, Chris Said and Frank Portelli all gave a very clear “no”. Adrian Delia gave a more nuanced answer: “Doing drugs is not something I have sought during my life. Unfortunately I have seen many who went down that road only to regret it because they ruined their life and in many cases the life of their loved ones. My drug is my family and my work. I am totally addicted to both and I intend to enter politics with the same passion I have for them.”
12. Building on Outside-Development-Zone (ODZ) land
We asked if this could ever be justified. Frank Portelli said only “in rare and exceptional circumstances” but did not specify. Chris Said argued that it should only be permitted to “provide a service to society which cannot be offered elsewhere”. Alex Perici Calascione said there would always be instances of public need or undeniable national economic interest which might justify an exception but the problems arise when the interpretations are stretched beyond the limits of decency and respect of one’s intelligence. Adrian Delia avoided the question altogether and instead focused on over-development which he said was “never justified”. He said: “We are seeing a total neglect to planning policies from the planning authorities. This is insane as it is already coming to haunt us let alone in the future. My party is not innocent in this regard. We have, in the past, let people down as regards the environment but also the common citizen by making it virtually impossible for them to affect minor developments . My job as party leader will be that to come up with a solid position against over-development while pushing for the planning authority to cut through bureaucracy as regards citizens at large.”
13. Can PN win the next election?
All contenders seemed confident of this but none gave a specific measure of by how much. “I don’t participate in races I know I cannot win,” said Chris Said, perhaps referencing the leadership race too. Frank Portelli said: “I can guarantee that the Nationalist Party can win the next General Election if I am leading the Party, and if you don’t mind I will tell you ‘I told you so’ when it happens.” He added: I will give you the number on that day in case the underdog asks for a recount.” Adrian Delia said the PN will win again and he explained why: “People want a better present and future without the need to feel dependent on politicians or the parties. This is my dream, my vocation, to bring back normality in the political life by building on people’s aspirations. With a new way of managing the party we need to convince people, with our actions more than with our words, that we are trustworthy.” Alex Perici Calascione was perhaps the most cautious: “I can assure you of one thing,” he said, before a 111-word explanation with minimal punctuation: “It is my full and firm intention and determination that both I as well as one and all within the Nationalist Party, without exception, will draw on a rich legacy which has always seen this Party on the right side of history in the Malta and Gozo’s most important political developments; will continue working on the good that has been done in the past four years and, given a due process of sincere and open evaluation and assessment, give our utmost in the years to come for the Nationalist Party to be once again the driving force behind the continued, sustainable and principled economic, social and environmental development of our country.”