“When it came to the BA press conference, I actually had people coaching me beforehand, telling me exactly what to say. In that first article I wrote on 1 May in order to pre-empt the issue, I had a ghost writer.”
It is a sweltering day but Dr Pullicino Orlando arrives at Riviera della Marina looking relatively fresh. With its peaceful view of the marina, this is one of his favourite restaurants and he comes here often. Our host has thoughtfully prepared menus describing our meal so we get right down to the interview.
One way or another JPO, as people often refer to him, always seems to be in the news. Whether he was protesting against the landfill near Mnadjra, the cement factory in Siggiewi and the extension of the St John’s Co-Cathedral, or confronting Dr Alfred Sant over the Mistra land allegations during the 2008 elections and more recently pushing through the divorce legislation bill, his name crops up with regular frequency. Do you latch on to these issues because you are an attention seeker, I ask?
“If people want to say that I do these things to seek attention it’s up to them. You can have MPs who criticize everything and do nothing, but I just do what I feel should be done.”
Although it is covering old ground, I still bring up the infamous Broadcasting Authority press conference when Jeffrey appeared with a DOI press card to confront Dr Sant. Although many consider that to be the defining moment of the 2008 campaign, today he regrets his involvement in the whole thing. If anything similar had to happen again, he tells me, he would simply follow his first instinct which was just to issue a simple statement rather to become embroiled in an elaborate mise-en-scène.
“I was informed by my political party that Sant was going to start attacking me on the Mistra issue. However, I was instructed by Richard Cachia Caruana and Joe Saliba to chase after Alfred Sant whenever he spoke publicly , in order to confront him when he did mention me. I went along with it because I am loyal to the party but then it got completely out of control and it became the electoral issue. Stupidly so, I think, because Dr Sant lost all his credibility when he did not wish to face me. There was absolutely nothing to attack me on and I will keep on saying it until I’m blue in the face. When it came to the BA press conference, I actually had people coaching me beforehand, telling me exactly what to say. In that first article I wrote on 1 May in order to pre-empt the issue, I had a ghost writer.”
I ask for specific names, but here JPO draws the line with a shake of his head, “I can’t”. Jeffrey confirms something else: that Alfred Sant’s psychological profile was studied intensely by the PN to predict how he would react, and his behaviour was right on cue.
Although JPO gave the Prime Minister all the details about the rental agreement at Mistra, afterwards it was claimed he had not provided all the information. “Well, that was a complete and blatant life. The Prime Minister went on record saying that I did not try to mislead him in any way. After the elections there was an attempt by people from my own party to destroy me. I think I performed a bit too well and gained the people’s respect a bit too much so they tried to take me down a few notches. Some journalists have even said that they were specifically told to attack me.”
The first person to recognize that Jeffrey’s success was going to be his undoing was his own father. “Whenever I went on the stage during mass meetings I was getting massive rounds of applause. But my father actually told me, ‘you’re doing well and people are appreciating you, but prepare yourself for a lot of backstabbing afterwards because all the candidates who are behind you listening to this applause are certainly not happy about it’. And that’s exactly what happened.”
Understandably, the attacks on his son have dampened the fervour Jeffrey’s father used to have for the PN. “It actually got to the stage where I told him to stop reading the papers; it got that bad. It was unfair and unjust, because you had all the political forces in Malta whipping people into a frenzy over this issue. I can take it, but I was worried about the effect it had on my family.”
Another aspect to the whole JPO story is that despite being elected comfortably on two districts, he was not given a cabinet post. He insists, as he has before, that this has never been his ambition and that he is not bitter. “I really cannot understand what the whole attraction is about being a Minister. I was offered a post in the past and refused it. I’m very satisfied with my dental profession, and I try to do my bit as a father to my three children. Politics is what I do because I believe in being politically active. I was approached by Austin Gatt to contest the local council elections in 1993, and the general elections in 1996 after that and I’ve always been elected since then.”
The Mistra saga will probably go down in contemporary Maltese political history for another reason – some say that JPO won the PN the 2008 elections, but within a few weeks, the tide had turned and it was being claimed that he had almost cost the party the elections. “That’s another lie which was started just in case we lost. I’m not saying I won the elections, I’m saying Alfred Sant lost the elections because he chose the wrong tactic. He made the whole electoral issue another personal attack, this time on me, and that was really stupid. However, people from my own party had already started blaming me for a potential defeat even before the results came out as can be seen by an article which appeared in The Sunday Times the day after the elections.”
At this point, I have to tell him that this seems to be a recurring theme in the party which he still forms part of – people are used and then disposed of when they are no longer needed. He is careful how to reply, “I would say that it’s all political parties who do this, and it’s also done abroad. But it’s not right.” The successful Yes vote in the divorce referendum unleashed the attacks on JPO once again, and he points out that it is for the same reasons, “I don’t slot into their scheme of things. All I did was to present a bill to suggest that we discuss divorce in the year 2010! If I hadn’t done it, we would have never had divorce in Malta. It was not to put spokes in the wheel, or to attract attention as some like to say.”
When I ask what made him take the plunge, he says what really angered him was the controversy which arose because of the Papal Mass. “My partner and I don’t really go to Mass, I’m not a practising Catholic, so I wasn’t keen on going. However, one of my colleagues from the Labour Party, who is also separated and living with someone else, was offended that he was invited alone. When he went to the Archbishop to ask permission to bring his partner to the Mass, and the Archbishop refused, I couldn’t understand it. Especially when there were people who were divorced and remarried who had been invited with their new wives. That was the straw which broke the camel’s back. I felt it was cold-hearted to refuse someone who was pleading to go to Mass. He was treated in a very shoddy way.”
I clear up a few misconceptions with him – no, he did not discuss it with his ex-wife (and Labour MP) Marlene Pullicino Orlando before presenting it in Parliament, and no he did not present the bill because he “hates” her so much that he couldn’t wait to be divorced from her. Then there is the other wild rumour flying around – that Jeffrey’s critical stand of his own party on a number of issues means that his next step will be a defection to the Labour Party. “I would never do that,” he states firmly. “I won’t switch sides and I will continue doing my duty. I was elected as an MP with the Nationalist Party and I will respect the constituents who elected me. I would find it very weird to switch sides and I would feel very uncomfortable doing so.”
Have you ever been approached to switch sides? “I was approached by Alfred Sant to contest the elections on behalf of the Labour Party in 1995. At first I thought it was a prank, because someone saying she was his secretary called me, saying he wanted to meet me, and I didn’t believe it. Then I see him walking towards my house,” he laughs at the recollection. It was not such a farfetched idea – after all, Jeffrey’s maternal grandfather, Guze Orlando, was the secretary general of the Malta Labour Party before the war, and had been arrested for his socialist beliefs. “I’m very proud of that fact.” In fact, the Orlando which he tags on to his name is a tribute to his mother’s maiden name since she has no surviving brothers to carry on the family name.
It is still rather unbelievable that the party he is still a member of continues to treat him so abysmally. I point out that the same people who gave him such huge backing and support are now effectively trying to destroy his career. He nods in rueful agreement: “For example, someone was spreading misinformation about the David Guetta party which I attended. I was not drunk, my partner Carmen was right next to me, and I was not leering down any woman’s dress. The people in the photo are all friends of mine and unfortunately, they too have been dragged into this. I was simply sending an SMS which is why I’m looking down, but someone was taking photos of me, and it was obvious that I was being set up. It is sad that all this is happening and those who are instigating and organising these attacks must lead very sad lives.” His theory is that the success of the divorce campaign has given him a lot of credibility again with voters, hence the attacks.
What do you think your chances are of being re-elected? “I’m 100% certain that I would be elected, if I had to contest again, but I have not decided yet because I’m feeling a bit uncomfortable – this is not the party I felt I was in. The level of attacks against me and colleagues of mine are now becoming unacceptable.” His obvious tone of dismay leads me to ask the inevitable question: Don’t you ever wonder whether you really need all this hassle? “Yes, every day! Ever since I entered politics I have asked myself what on earth I am doing. One of my greatest pleasures is touring Sicily, and eating a plate of pasta in peace and quiet. But there are 18 months left, and I will continue to do my duty.
“A young man recently asked my advice about entering politics, but is worried because of what he has seen happening to me, since he too is the type to question everything. I told him if he wants to live a quiet life he should stay out of politics, but on the other hand God forbid that people like him don’t get involved just because they’re not yes men! I’m there as an MP to question, otherwise all we would need is the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. MPs are answerable to the people. We are in such a sorry state that there are MPs who are just doing their job but trying not to shine or excel because otherwise they will be subjected to personal attacks. If you feel you are going to be a maverick and ask difficult questions, go ahead and enter politics, because that’s what we need.”
The scenario of everyone keeping their head down for fear of reprisals is starting to sound uncannily like the Mintoff years. “The pressure is made in a different way, but yes, the situation is similar. Frankly I prefer someone like Lorry Sant,” Jeffrey claims. “Once during a students’ protest he was going to punch me, but I prefer someone like that whom I could see coming at me, rather than someone whom I think is a colleague but who will not only stick a knife in my back but use me as a dartboard. Everyone knows where I stand, what you see what you get. I can’t hide my emotions, which is a great disadvantage for a politician.”
“Once during a students’ protest he (Lorry Sant) was going to punch me, but I prefer someone like that whom I could see coming at me, rather than someone whom I think is a colleague but who will not only stick a knife in my back but use me as a dartboard.”
The reference to his emotions leads me back to the Mistra story and how I was not taken in by his famous tears under the Mosta tinda. He insists the tears were genuine. “You have to realise that, since I was contesting two districts, I had never worked as hard as I had in those five years prior to the 2008 campaign. Then someone like Alfred Sant comes along, lies about me during mass meetings and tries to destroy everything I had worked for. I consider myself to be a pretty tough person, but I’m still a human being, and I had just come from those two gruelling meetings in which I was being coached. As I walked into that tent, in my mind I thought people were believing everything Sant was saying and I expected dead silence. When people started clapping and giving me support, honestly I couldn’t stop crying. Now that will probably rank as the most embarrassing moment of my life, because most men hate to cry in public, but I just could not stop. It was overwhelming and I simply had this huge sense of relief. The day before I had attended a Labour mass meeting waiting for Sant to attack me – it’s not easy, but I did it, with Labour supporters all around me, offending me to my face.”
JPO is one of those public figures who provokes diametrically opposed reactions – people either admire him immensely or frankly can’t stand him. “I care what the people around me think, but I do not care about those who might have a myriad of reasons for disliking me. I’ve never had any problem with voters or any of the campaigns I’ve spearheaded. Around 20,000 people signed the petition I had organised against the cement factory; they were not supporting me but supporting the issue.”
But some claimed outright that despite agreeing with divorce, they would vote No simply to spite you. “Well, if they did then they really must have a pea brain.” I ask him whether he has simply stopped reading what is said about him. “Well, people end up telling me anyway, so I’d rather read it for myself, because sometimes it’s over-inflated.”
Last year the Prime Minister appointed Jeffrey as Chairman for the Malta Council for Science and Technology – was this done to shut you up? “You will have to ask him. This is a very interesting post, because we are in charge of research and innovation in Malta and we have built up an excellent team of people.” Asked how he juggles his various roles, his answer is that he only sleeps four hours a night, “plus I’m hyper active.” He dismisses the need to attend each and every Parliamentary session, “to go there and listen to MPs regurgitate speeches which others have said before them, is a complete waste of time. I’m not going to punch in, and punch out either; I go when I have something to contribute, as I did with the committee meetings on divorce. There were 24 hours of meetings and I did not even miss five minutes of them.”
Do you think the PN will win in 2013? “Were I a gambling man I wouldn’t place any bets on it. And to be absolutely honest, I think, even though it will be disappointing, the PN should look at the bright side. If you use your time in Opposition well you can re-organise yourself and there are a number of areas where this is needed. There is a lot detachment between the party and what is happening in the administration.”
Was Gonzi’s biggest mistake voting No against divorce? “That was his prerogative. I prefer someone voting ‘No’ than someone abstaining. I still cannot understand the fuss which was made. Our first Parliamentary group meeting after I presented the bill was to me an eye opener. Some of my colleagues’ attitudes on this issue were to me sincerely shocking.”
Persuasive and with a natural ability to switch on the charm, it is easy to see why Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando became a politician, and why he does so well at the polls. No matter what happens in 2013, it is clear that the man is a survivor.
We certainly have not heard the last of him yet.
What we had for lunch
Local goat cheese in sesame seeds served with pear chutney
Home-made ravioli stuffed with crab and grouper
Grilled fillet of red mullet with prawns and stir-fried vegetable
Home-made liqueur made from prickly pears
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