Interview | Sunday, 29 November 2009

Bookmark and Share

The power of the throne

Paula Mifsud Bonnici’s ambitious pursuit of a political career recently landed her the position of President of the PN General Council, after garnering almost double of Ian Castaldi Paris’ votes. But has she just earned herself a fancy title? Interview by DAVID DARMANIN

During a short introduction, before we pitched our first questions, Mifsud Bonnici seemed well-prepared for what she was anticipating as a “somewhat spicy MaltaToday interview”. But judging by the look on her face, she didn’t see the first question coming.
Earlier this month, press reports hinted at Ian Castaldi Paris being the favoured choice of the PN establishment to succeed Victor Scerri as the President of the PN General Council. Being the head of the College of PN Councillors, Lija Mayor and Majjistral Park Chairman – Castaldi Paris undoubtedly enjoys a higher public profile than young lawyer Paula Mifsud Bonnici. Could the PN grassroots have elected her to challenge the party leadership, perhaps as a sign of protest against the wishes of the PN establishment?
Mifsud Bonnici immediately sets the record straight: “With regards to whether Ian Castaldi Paris is more popular than me – the election results have shown otherwise because it was me they elected… I absolutely do not agree with allegations that I was in any way challenging the PN leadership.”
Mifsud Bonnici sits on the Hamrun Local Council, was a PN candidate in the 2008 general elections, is a member of the party executive committee and was a member of the administrative committee for three years.
“Ironically, the criticism in the run up to the last general election was that I was the Prime Minister’s favourite and that allegedly, it was why I was being pushed. This criticism has now somehow turned the other way, and I have no idea why this has happened. Maybe it is because it was known I was actually favoured for this post and it may have been spun in an opposite way. However, they are now saying that Gonzi’s faction has won. Had I intended to work against the PN leadership, I would not have contested this election at all.”
The PN has been seen washing its dirty linen in public of late. Many PN MPs have been vocal about their misgivings, and some went as far as expressing their qualms to the media. Mifsud Bonnici is not happy with this public display of annoyance.
“There could be certain sections of the media that report such stories on purpose. Not all of them are necessarily true,” she said. “We all know that there are hidden agendas in opposing media and that sometimes certain speculations are published in order to alienate people from other controversies that are happening in their own camps.”
But we aren’t talking about Labour spin here. Members of Parliament have spoken to this newspaper on occasion, and the credibility of our reports is undisputed.
“In principle, we all have the right to express ourselves openly,” she retorted. “However, I prefer that certain disgruntlement is expressed in the right forums. For instance, if I am disgruntled with the Prime Minister, I speak to the Prime Minister.”
Then why is it that certain PN MPs have spoken to the media? Does she mean to say that they had a hidden agenda, or is it because they had already expressed their disgruntlement internally and found closed doors?
“It could be that they tried to address such criticism internally and did not manage. It could also be that some of them had ulterior motives. I don’t exclude anything. I do not mean to say that criticism is not positive, but I feel that it should be addressed in an appropriate way, so that things do not turn sour.”
Gonzi recently said that women are elected because they are capable and not because they are women. Mifsud Bonnici is the first female president of a Maltese political party. Malta also has the world’s lowest rate of women in politics. Within the PN, it is known that the general secretary runs the show, and the President of the General Council really and truly holds a ceremonial post. Could this be a token post, granted to her by PN councillors so they could elect the first female president? She laughs out loud.
“First off, I absolutely disagree with you when you say that this is a ceremonial role. The position has always existed. Victor Scerri occupied the post for ten years,” she replied. “I preside over the general council – which is made up of party grassroots. The president must be very close to the members of the general council in order to feel the pulse of the people who make up the party. Besides, the general council decides on some very important matters which do not only affect the PN but also the general public. In the last general council we passed five motions that where directly linked to issues of public concern – be it of employment, education or environment. The general council can also amend certain party structures. It is also important for the president to get involved in the administrative council which decides on administrative affairs related to the party. So it is an important role.”
Mifsud Bonnici claims that since newspapers have given importance to the fact that she is the first female president of a Maltese political party “goes to show that the political arena is still more or less male dominated… We are in 2009 and such news still amazes us. Female representation in politics here is actually at rock bottom.”
The global average of female representation in parliament stands at 19% – which is already low. In the Maltese parliament, only 8.7% is represented by females, whereas in local council it stands at 18%.
“In the last European Parliament elections, eight female candidates contested and not one got elected. I think there should be three factors that need to be considered for the problem of under-representation of women in politics to be resolved. Primarily, we must change our mentality on the woman’s role in Maltese society. Secondly, women must be more proactive. Thirdly, there should be the introduction of positive measures to encourage more women to enter politics.”
She says that she agrees with the Prime Minister when he says that women are chosen for their capabilities, and not because they are women. “I believe in equality, and also in the fact that there must be a concerted effort for women to be more fairly represented in politics.”
By statute, the president of the national council is responsible for the behaviour of the party. The PN is heavily indebted and it cannot make ends meet by membership and fundraising alone. Is it high time to start talking about party financing?
“The Prime Minister himself confirmed that the time is ripe to discuss party financing, this is nothing new – and I agree,” she said. “Because over the past years I have not been involved in the administrative council of the party – although I will be in my new role – I do not know whether this discussion is already going on internally. I would be willing to push it, though…”
While discussing a revamp of the party’s network of communication, Gonzi said that party subsections should come to an end. The MZPN, the women’s section, the worker’s section and the like would come together as one forum and then split up into different workshops discussing a multitude of issues. Mifsud Bonnici intends to back up the idea.
“The Prime Minister believes that the different structures of the party will still be in place, but that they do not focus on single issues. If you are a female in the party’s women’s section for instance, you might have children anyway, you will get old anyway – and other factors that are beyond the issue of women will also affect you.”
In Gonzi’s counter reply to the 2010 budget speech, he clearly included separated couples as the “vulnerable in society”. As the time may be ripe for the PN dignitaries to take the bull by its horns on divorce, the subject risks becoming an issue come the next general elections. Mifsud Bonnici tries to find the middle ground with her position on divorce. Will voters and PN grassroots buy it?
“I agree that one must take into account present circumstances. However, at the end of the day we must not forget our principles. We must also remember that, as a nation, we are mostly Roman Catholics. At the same time, we must realise that the situation for separated couples is difficult but we should not think of divorce as the solution.
“We need to be conscious of the pain some people are going through by creating the proper mechanisms. If there is a system that does not work, we need to improve it. There is nothing wrong in people getting remarried after separating. Let us not forget that annulment is an option that both the church and the state provide for. There is obviously room for improvement in the practicality of it. There is a huge backlog for instance, and I do not think it is fair for couples to pass through the ordeal of waiting for so long after they would have just passed through another ordeal while separating.
“There are grounds in annulment which directly relate to marriage situations. For example: one of the grounds for annulment is the lack of capability to assume marriage responsibility, meaning that if your husband returns home every night at 3am, it could be already considered as one of the grounds for annulment. This is not to say that sometimes, the interpretation of annulment laws might be too strict. In any case, I do not feel that divorce should be the solution – as we would be risking a situation where couples enter marriages with the idea that the tie can be dissolved. Annulment, on the other hand, proves that there was never a marriage.
“However, there must be a collective effort to ensure that marriages do not break down. Wider discussion will surely have to take place sooner or later.”
The PL has recently created a committee dedicated entirely to the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community. In contrast, the Malta Gay Rights Movement had said that PN was the least party inclined to legislate in favour of gay minorities: such as equal access to goods and services or kinship rights, among others.
“The PN is already discussing this issue internally. We did not form a committee, but this does not mean that there is no discussion. I disagree with the idea that the PN is the least party inclined to favour gay minorities. We might need to be more open in our discussions – as well as including the ideas of all concerned, including minorities. This would be very healthy.”
Moving on to the dreaded cost of living, Mifsud Bonnici disagrees that there is something fundamentally wrong in government’s insistence to keep hiking water and electricity prices.
“It’s not like government is increasing electricity prices because it wants to but because this is what circumstances dictate,” she says. “In the meantime, one cannot forget the fact that previous governments retained exorbitant electricity prices even when the price of oil was at its lowest. Even though the government has decided to increase electricity prices, it also ensured that the new tariffs do not put people in a lot of difficulty. In the 2010 budget, €10 million have been voted in order to be distributed to families, and there is also the voucher system from which 30,000 families will benefit – among other measures. Government is also focusing on ensuring that the workplace of the Maltese remains secure…”
Water and electricity prices keep changing without much notice, while most businesses will need to make their financial forecasts on a year-to-year basis. The system does not say much for the security of entrepreneurs who are the crucial forces behind employment.
The question is: can the president of the PN general council exert any sort of pressure on government in order to address bread and butter issues that effect employers and tens of thousands of families?
“This is where the executive committee comes in, which I also form part of. There, we address issues which may concern the parliamentary group – which could be in turn involved in the discussion. It is not the first time that issues that were brought up by the executive with the parliamentary group were resolved. Then there are of course instances where, upon discussion, we discover that government would not have any other option at hand.
“The general council can also bring up various bread and butter issues – as it has in the last one, wherein medicinal prices were discussed, among other things. We have also passed a motion on health, which addresses issues like waiting lists and emergency – in which I feel we are still quite lacking.”
Asked whether she has further political ambitions, Mifsud Bonnici first said she likes to “take one step after the other”. Soon after, she says: “I will obviously be contesting the next general elections.”

Any comments?
If you wish your comments to be published in our Letters pages please click button below.
Please write a contact number and a postal address where you may be contacted.



Download MaltaToday Sunday issue front page in pdf file format

All the interviews from Reporter on MaltaToday's YouTube channel.


Brussels, the exit-strategy


Copyright © MediaToday Co. Ltd, Vjal ir-Rihan, San Gwann SGN 9016, Malta, Europe
Managing editor Saviour Balzan | Tel. ++356 21382741 | Fax: ++356 21385075 | Email