MaltaToday | 10 August 2008

INTERVIEW | Sunday, 10 August 2008

Of wine and vinegar

Jason Micallef insists that he has learned from his mistakes and that a politician, just like a good bottle of wine, only matures with every day that passes. In so doing he is now prepared to serve Joseph Muscat’s new wine. But will it turn sour in a bottle whose wine had turned to vinegar before last March’s election?

After a 30-minute wait in a gloomy-lit room with large internal glass windows, which apart from the comfortable sofas and air-conditioning is reminiscent of airport cubicles where people are detained before interrogation, I was greeted by a cheerful Jason Micallef.
No, it was not my punishment for describing him as an albatross around Joseph Muscat’s neck on last Wednesday's edition of MaltaToday Midweek. He was simply late because of a previous meeting.
In his inimitable style, which earns him a couple of brownie points, Micallef is able to absorb your criticism while keeping a smile on his face. He seems to be above it – respecting the media’s prerogative to grill politicians.
Surely he does not belong to that class of politicians who harbour resentment towards their media critics.
“This is a first time for me being interviewed by someone who had just criticised me... surely your agenda is very clear,” Micallef remarks with a smile.
Surely Micallef’s mood is not altered by the general consensus on the Wednesday English papers that his re-election harms the prospects of the MLP.
“It is clear that certain people in the independent media had embarked on a campaign to ensure that I am not elected. Surely the absolute majority of delegates do not share this feeling. I am more interested in the latter and am satisfied with that.”
In his first term in office Micallef managed to make his party more media friendly. Does his re-election risk endangering his one durable achievement?
“Well, my relationship with the media will remain the same irrespective of anything,” Micallef promises.
Micallef harps on defending the legitimacy of his election when asked on what sort of message his election sends to the middle-of-the-road voter whose hopes for change were dashed by his re-election.
“The conference has spoken loud and clear… I had stiff competition. I started off at a disadvantage because I formed part of a team which lost the election. I acknowledge this and I promise to redress any mistakes I had committed.”
I point out that while 370 delegates voted for Micallef, 467 voted for the three other candidates. If the contest was simply a referendum on whether to keep the incumbent in his place, Micallef would have been ousted.
But Micallef was quick to point out that “those who voted for other candidates did not vote against Jason Micallef.”
So what will Jason Micallef change in his second reincarnation as MLP secretary?
“I will keep better contact with the various structures and branches of the party… This is far from easy. We have to give every help to the people on the ground.”
He also acknowledges that some people felt neglected during his term in office.
Jason Micallef now finds himself leading the same administration which is expected to discuss the report on the MLP’s defeat and to implement its recommendations.
Micallef points out that the delegates had voted for him after reading and discussing the report.
“I have received feedback from the local committees who held special sessions to discuss the report. I would not even imagine the Nationalist Party embarking on such an open discussion.”
But doesn’t Micallef have a conflict of interest presiding a discussion on a report which performed an autopsy of an election defeat in which he had a significant role?
“I will not be leading this discussion. I will be simply listening. And all that is recommended in the report will be implemented.”
On Tuesday, hours after being re-elected, when asked about the criticism made by various party officials in his regards, Jason Micallef declared that “whatever was said of me is forgotten.” What about the comments made by Micallef on other people? Does he expect them to forget?
He remarks that leftist parties are always prone to wash their dirty linen in public.
“Rather than discussing problems internally to find a solution we end up exposing them in the public square. Delegates appreciated that Jason Micallef did not reply in public against the lies said about him. But I went to all district and local committees to explain the truth and defend myself from the mud thrown against me.”
I refer to Leo Brincat’s allegation that when he told Micallef that his position was untenable in view of the defeat report, he simply told him not to dare congratulate him after his re-election. Does he regret saying this to Brincat?
“In politics, if one does not mature with every day that passes, one does not deserve to be called a politician.”
For Micallef, his words to Brincat must be taken in the context that “this was like an electoral campaign on a national level. There were jokes and emails making the rounds… It was completely different from the election for the PN general secretary which was not even discussed in the media.”
Except on MaltaToday, which prominently revealed the intrigue surrounding the contest between Paul Borg Olivier and Charlo Bonnici, I point out to Micallef.
But was it proper for Jason Micallef to be so arrogant towards Leo Brincat?
Micallef simply repeats that “whatever was said about me is now forgotten... this is what I call political maturity.”
But what about the things he said to others? I persist in asking.
Micallef denies having ever spoken against anyone.
But does he regret telling Brincat not to bother to congratulate him if he was re-elected?
“If someone comes to my office for a private chat between two gentlemen, it goes against any sense of political maturity and gentlemanly manners to reveal in public what was said in private. But I insist I will be everybody’s secretary-general.”
But significantly Micallef himself admits that being everybody’s secretary-general is still a challenge for him.
“This is a challenge… an important challenge to become everybody’s secretary-general.”
But how can Jason Micallef be George Abela’s secretary-general when he was the first one to criticise him for daring to contest for the party leadership?
“I have made a public apology to George Abela for saying that. I hope you recognise that very few politicians are ready to say sorry for their mistakes.”
Well, at least Jason Micallef’s relationship with George Abela has now evolved from the non-verbal stage of communication to the verbal stage.
“I am on speaking terms with George Abela. The last time I spoke to him was just before I voted in the conference on Monday.”
Former deputy leader and present day MLP spokesperson on home affairs Michael Falzon has made it clear again that despite Micallef’s re-election, he is not willing to work with him. Does this not go a long way in proving that the MLP’s secretary-general remains a divisive figure in his own party?
Micallef simply repeats the mantra: “I am everybody’s secretary-general.”
Without elaborating on how he plans to enforce his authority on Falzon, Micallef hints that “this will be decided by other internal party structures.”
Micallef also refers to “the party’s statute and code of ethics which apply to everyone.”
On the aftermath of Micallef’s triumph, Evarist Bartolo told MaltaToday that the only hope for the party is that Micallef changes his attitude. Will he heed Bartolo’s advice?
“I will be everybody’s secretary general with all my virtues and defects. Wherever I was mistaken, I am willing to change. It is very easy to irritate people in politics. Even the Pope irritates some cardinals and bishops with some of his decisions. One has to be humble enough to apologise. This will be my attitude in the future.”
Upon being elected leader Joseph Muscat promised an earthquake in his party. How can one speak of an earthquake when the party’s top officials were retained in their post?
Micallef is quick to point out that some changes have taken place namely the election of education secretary Aaron Farrugia, treasurer Joseph Cordina and former Foreign Minister Alex Sceberras Trigona.
He also dismisses criticism that Sceberras Trigona reminds people of Old Labour times.
“Should we simply dump these people? Shouldn’t we allow these people to make a comeback?”
Once again Micallef defends the legitimacy rather than the wisdom of the delegates’ choices.
“We have a democratic party where everybody could speak and present himself for election… These are all democratic decisions expressed in a secret vote.
“We cannot let ourselves be conditioned by those who do not accept the validity of a secret vote. I hope you are not questioning democracy?”
Still, knowing that he as an incumbent he had a natural advantage over the other candidates, Micallef could have decided not to contest again, thus saving his party the embarrassment of keeping him at the helm at a time when the general public was expecting change.
“Whatever they say, most delegates and party volunteers recognise that I did a lot of good to the party in the past years. I took many hard decisions which were not always accepted and I even suffered for this. The most crucial factor is that many still trust me.”
But what prompted him to contest again was his belief that he has still much to offer to the party. And his belief was reinforced after meeting every single delegate in the run-up to last Monday’s contest.
Surely apart from listening to delegates, Micallef has also wined and dined them in various receptions held during the campaign. Wasn’t he buying the affection of delegates?
“Every candidate is free to choose his style of campaigning. I did not send leaflets and posters to delegates as other did.”
Micallef also claims that he paid all the expenses of his campaign from his own pocket, denying using his incumbency to project himself.
“Despite my official role as secretary-general, I stopped participating in official party activities in my role as an official. I was not appearing with the leader. At the same time I was on the receiving end of various attacks from which I was unable to defend myself. This was an injustice. I think that delegates appreciated my prudence.”
Micallef would not even admit that his re-election has turned off middle of the road voters who associate him with the Alfred Sant days.
“These questions were raised before Joseph Muscat was elected as our leader. Survey after survey showed that Joseph Muscat would not be able to win an election or that Muscat did not appeal to floating voters. Muscat has already proved the doubters wrong after a short time. I will do the same.”
Micallef appreciates that his leader remained neutral throughout the campaign.
“We have been friends for a very long time. But I sincerely do not know who he was supporting because he rightly chose not to interfere. What’s sure is that some of the most prominent people who worked in Muscat’s personal campaign to become leader were supporting another candidate and not me. This shows that it’s not true that the party’s machinery was working for me.”
Jason Micallef’s main brief is winning the next election. What’s his plan?
“This is a long mission. One day in politics is a long time. We have to respect the manifesto on which our leader was elected. His style together with that of Toni Abela and Anglu Farrugia, is helping us attract those categories we did not manage to convince in the last election.”
For the past weeks the MLP leader was speaking about divorce and democratic reforms at the same time when dockyard workers were being bullied into submission by the government. Is there a risk that the party ends up disorienting its core supporters in its bid to attract the middle class?
Micallef acknowledges that the MLP has been prudent on the dockyard issue because of “the national interest.”
“We are keeping the national interest in mind while defending the rights of dockyard workers and their families. Let’s never forget that these workers are not sheer numbers. These workers have families and children. God forbid that a socialist party in a Catholic country like ours forgets this.”
But for Micallef it is useless to raise one’s tone simply to prove a point.
“This is not a question to determine whose voice is most forceful. We prefer to discuss things around a table to find the best solutions in the national interest. This is our new style. Wherever the government needs the support of the opposition to move forward we are ready to give it.”
He also praises the government’s “political maturity” for heeding Joseph Muscat’s advice to appoint a select committee to discuss reforms on party financing and electoral reform.
During the past months Micallef repeatedly clashed with Xarabank presenter Joe aka Peppi Azzopardi who repeatedly blamed Micallef for not even knowing that the amount of new voters in the last election was 35,000 not 17,000.
Despite these clashes, Joseph Muscat’s first decision was to appoint Azzopardi on a committee entrusted to draft the Labour media’s ethics.
Ironically for Micallef, Peppi’s rehabilitation represents Muscat’s earthquake more than any change in the party’s administration.
“This is what Joseph Muscat means when he speaks about political earthquakes. An earthquake does not entail cutting people’s heads or stopping me from contesting for secretary general. Having someone who is not necessarily liked by party delegates and activists appointed in a party structure is in itself an earthquake. ”
Micallef describes Azzopardi “as someone with many good qualities and others which are not so good,” adding that “nobody can doubt that he has very good qualities when it comes to the media.”
Micallef considers his growing appreciation for Peppi Azzopardi’s qualities as a sign of his growing political maturity.
He even reveals that one of the last persons who phoned him to wish him well before the result of the contest was announced was Peppi Azzopardi.
“I really appreciate his gesture. He phoned me on Monday morning and I had a long conversation with him. I believe that his gesture was sincere. I am saying this without his permission. Perhaps he will be angry with me for revealing this as I am sure he was genuine… I have to express my appreciation.”
Micallef even reveals that he shares many of Azzopardi’s views on the local media.
So what are Micallef’s views on the media?
Micallef laments that many TV stations, including One TV, are not doing enough to cultivate free and open discussion and to elevate political culture.
“The media should not embark on character assassinations.”
But wasn’t that what the Labour media has been doing for the past years when it picked on government figures like Tony Abela who featured in news bulletins for entire months?
“That’s different. We had a tangible case which we picked on. But now it is better to look at the future.”
It is now Jason Micallef’s turn to promise an earthquake.
“The MLP’s media will pass through a big reform… an earthquake. It will introduce a new way of breaking news and a new style of how to run a political station.”

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