Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando says he is still close to the Nationalist way of thinking and that he understands what Nationalists aspire to. He shares his political views on the party with SAVIOUR BALZAN
I was looking forward to the meeting. Nowadays I am usually always on time. But I knew precisely what I was going to ask the man who, in terms of media lexicology, is considered to be ‘hot’.
Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando may not be in the good books of GonziPN, the concept authored by the Nationalist Party to pit Lawrence Gonzi as their winning card in the 2008 general elections. No, Pullicino Orlando is no longer in the good books of Pietà grandees after that election. But then again, Pullicino Orlando was not made by Mistra. His past was carved by his activity with numerous civil society groups and grassroots campaigns protesting against the cement plant in Siggiewi or the dumping sites by the Mnajdra temples, and other projects captained by his government. His panache for straight talking was understandably rooted in his upbringing. He used his outspokenness, at times to highlight how backbench MPs were not being consulted by the Fenech Adami government; or to champion the environment, for which he was awarded a ‘green politician of the year’ award by Nature Trust. In politics he came to be one of Lawrence Gonzi’s rottweilers.
And then came March 2008, and everything changed. Right in the middle of the elections, Alfred Sant reveals that Jeffrey had leased out the land he owns in Mistra. Pullicino Orlando was despatched to face down Sant and confront him on the allegations. In the end, despite the allegations, the Nationalists scraped through with 1,500 votes – and Jeffrey was re-elected from two districts. It was a victory that had broken all the rules.
Pullicino Orlando, or JPO as he tends to be called in the media and political circles, arrives, smiles, asks how I am and shakes my hand. JPO has sued me for libel me over a commentary I passed on Mistra so I avoid raising the issue for the time being. We instead talk of our schooldays together – we lived next to each other for years. Like me, he points out that he wasn’t politically inclined – or a Nationalist – before the Mintoff years made him dive into politics.
Soon enough we come up to date, where the backbench MP now contemplates his political career after that crazy electoral week that went on to change his political career, perhaps forever. He looks hurt, but not like a man on the brink of resigning. In fact, JPO says he has no intention of “giving up”.
“I am here to stay, I was elected, and I will do my job in parliament to the best of my abilities,” he says. “I am a party activist first and foremost and I feel comfortable with grassroots Nationalists,” he says, when I ask him why he still feels part of the Nationalist party. After all, JPO is not exactly a darling of the party establishment.
“I feel comfortable working with those who in the last 30 years worked and suffered in and with the Nationalist party. Through thick and thin they have given me all the support I needed. We are sort of brothers in arms, if you would like to put it that way. I understand their pains and know what their aspirations are. I meet them and I know what they are feeling. That is our problem: that many seem not to know what our supporters, our soldiers, are feeling.
“But there are some people who have had it good… they should have been with us in the 1980s.”
He is of course referring to Simon Busuttil’s comments. The MEP was asked by MaltaToday last Sunday what he thought of the fact that Pullicino Orlando was throwing a party for MEP candidate Alex Perici Calascione on his Mistra land – right in the middle of the elections. Busuttil replied that he thought it was “in bad taste”. Pullicino Orlando hit back hard, saying he would not be judged by Busuttil, citing his publicly refusal of the Prime Minister’s offer to become secretary-general.
I ask him if he thinks the Nationalist Party today is close to the party members.
“In my view one of the main problems in this election is that the government is detached from the party for a number of reasons, some serious, some less serious.”
The 2004 MEP elections had delivered a blow to the Nationalists with a 39% vote share and two of the five seats in the European Parliament. Then came the mea culpas. How does this election compare with that of 2004?
“In 2004 there was a particular large segment of people who had decided to vote for Alternattiva Demokratika. I would hear this from party activists, activists who were attending parties held for Simon Busuttil and other MEP candidates. My concern is that this time round the vote for the Greens will not be as high as last time. I can feel this. In a situation where the Greens will not attain a good result and the divide between the two parties is 5%, or over that, is very worrying. This is my view.
“In other words if Labour gets an absolute majority, and AD does not replicate its 2004 result, I consider the result as very worrying.”
I put it to him that in the last European elections, the PN had asked Godfrey Grima to write up a post-mortem on the election campaign. One underlining factor mentioned in that report was the recurring comment regarding ‘arrogance ‘ in the PN’s media machine. Does Jeffrey believe this was remedied?
“The one thing, or one of the most significant steps that will have a bearing on the result is the way the Prime Minister and Austin Gatt introduced the water and electricity tariffs. They managed to bring together the constituted bodies and the unions against the government, like on no other occasion. This was unprecedented.”
While Pullicino Orlando notes how the PM and his investments minister had angered the social partners, it was he after all who was the most vocal about controversial issues such as the planned extension to the St John’s Co-Cathedral – which turned out to be one of Labour’s mid-year campaigns as soon as it realised that EU funds had been earmarked for this project. Wasn’t JPO’s vociferous stand linked to his present dejected status within the party?
“This is not the first time that I have opposed government backed projects!” Pullicino Orlando replies, referring to the respect he cultivated out of his opposition to the waste project next to the Hagar Qim and Mnajdra temples, and Charles Polidano’s planned cement factory at Siggiewi.
“On the St John’s Cathedral extension the whole issue escalated simply because of unnecessary and personal comments passed in my regard. And it started off after a rather dry parliamentary speech I had delivered in parliament and this was very much a reflection of what people were expressing.”
I put it to him that the criticism he had for St John’s was rooted in the fact that he had been left out of the loop, and that he not been consulted or better still, ostracised from any form of discussion concerning the matter.
He does not fully agree. He says he was not alone when it came to St John’s; there were other colleagues in the parliamentary group who shared his views and he reiterates that the Cathedral foundation reacted to his comments about St John’s in a roundabout way and became personal.
“I speak my mind, I always have,” Pullicino Orlando. His comments on the Cathedral has indeed become problematic for the future of the project, as a groundswell of discontent against the effects of the excavation project risked making the government more unpopular than it ever was. It was clear that Pullicino Orlando’s words had now become rather discomforting for government.
I take him back to the election of 2008. The events at Mistra led to many factors that had finally determined a victory and defeat at the polls for the Nationalists and Labour. The electoral difference between the two parties was a mere 1,600 votes and Pullicino Orlando was elected with 5,131 first count votes from two districts. He contested two districts because his original district had been dissected into three. Two ‘new’ districts. An unprecedented result for a backbencher who had been close to cost his party the election. Not even Cabinet minister Louis Galea survived the dismemberment of his districts.
“Many feel that without ‘Mistra’, and the way the party and I handled it, the PN would not have won the last election and that is a fact,” Pullicino Orlando says, referring to how he was pushed into confronting Alfred Sant at his press conferences, to chase him and coming across as having been the victim of Sant’s mudslinging.
“It is not me saying this but Joe Saliba,” he says about the former secretary-general. “He said this after my appearance on TVM to confront Alfred Sant. He said that this encounter won us the elections.”
It was in fact, the Broadcasting Authority press conference in which Pullicino Orlando was despatched with a hastily-issued press card to confront Sant. The Labour leader refused to start the press conference and eventually walked out. He recounts to me that he was asked by the party to trail Alfred Sant, and he did as he was told. “I was literally flitting from one place to another.”
Later on, the BA press conference was held without JPO’s presence but the whole episode – JPO sat besides journalists asking incessant questions to Sant, who just sat down and ignored him and then walked out – had relayed the intended message. Somehow Sant’s departure was seen as a weakness on the Labour leader’s part, a sign that he was unwilling to face JPO with his accusations, and it sent a burst of sympathy for Pullicino Orlando and the PN. Pullicino Orlando’s boldness paid dividends later when he was re-elected.
“After that episode I was inundated with phone calls, from so-called disgruntled voters who said they would now vote for the PN. One hunter from Rabat, for example, told me that he had 100 voting documents from hunters and that he would be seeing that they definitely vote in this election.”
But then, exactly two days before the election, the whole Mistra episode was dumped by the PN media machine and Pullicino Orlando was not mentioned any longer. Sant had failed to milk Mistra any further on the Thursday press conference with Gonzi – on Friday the silent day came and went, Saturday the people voted. Mistra was no longer on the agenda, it seemed.
“If I was such a problem, as some party officials chose to claim after the elections were won – for their own particular reasons – then why did the party, until the very last day before the election, the very last minutes before the election, assign me five helpers in a room with telephones to personally phone up and talk to voters who were thinking of not voting in the last election? Voters from all over the country…”
“During those last days, I acted according to the instructions I received from a person in the party,” Pullicino Orlando says.
And who gave you these instructions?
“It was Mr Richard Cachia Caruana,” he says, pointing at the Permanent Representative to the EU, who was brought in to help the ailing PN government. “He would always give the instructions. The Prime Minister told me to follow his instructions to the letter. And I did.”
But did he not think that he could have tackled the whole Mistra question in a different manner?
“On a personal level yes. It was not in my interest to inflate the issue, more so when the matter was such a trivial issue. The whole issue had been blown out of proportion. I have done nothing wrong.”
That may as well be Pullicino Orlando’s opinion – many surely don’t agree with him. But others still follow the backbench MP. So what will his next move be in the months and weeks ahead?
He grins and leaves me with some intriguing parting words: “Watch this space…”
Status: Separated with three kids, Jenny, Greg and Marija; in a relationship with Carmen for the past seven years
Previous posts: MP since 1996, head of MPs’ delegation to Council or Europe, two years president of CoE parliamentary assembly; member of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association
Favourite destination: Sicily
Last book read: ‘Union Street’ by Pat Barker
Favourite song: ‘Iris’ by Goo Goo Dolls
Likes: Long walks, reading, snorkelling