It’s all going Abela’s way... and he knows it

To consistently urge Robert Abela to ‘denounce the Joseph Muscat legacy’ – as so many people (not just the Opposition) are so unwisely doing – is actually to do Robert Abela, and Labour in general, a huge political favour

Judging by the comments underneath the article, I am evidently not the only one who was struck by the Prime Minister’s nonchalant composure during that Saviour Balzan interview on Xtra this week.

Honestly, though: who would ever guess, from his performance last Thursday, that Robert Abela’s government has been rocked by a series of monumental scandals in recent weeks: including the arrest and imprisonment of former OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri… the public confirmation that so many of those previous ‘allegations’ were, in fact, perfectly true… and, much more damningly, a spate of renewed allegations that members of the Labour government may even have been embroiled in Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder?

Yet if Abela is any way rattled or perturbed by those, and other scandals… it certainly didn’t come across in his demeanour, body-language, or tone of voice. And yes, granted: it could very easily be part of an orchestrated PR stunt, aimed at deflating the sheer gravity of those accusations (the least of which would almost certainly be enough topple any other European government).

But I somehow doubt it, myself. I think it is far likelier that Robert Abela is comforted by internal, unpublished polls, suggesting that those developments have not really had much of an effect on his overall popularity at all. And even if no such polls or indications actually exist… there are plenty of other reasons for Robert Abela to breezily dismiss the notion that his party’s unassailable majority may have been even remotely dented by recent events.

Foremost among them, the undeniable fact – repeatedly confirmed by one survey after another – that politics is very much rooted in the ‘here and now’… and that, by extension, people’s voting intentions are invariably going to be influenced by the circumstances in which they find themselves in today (as opposed to two, three, four, or even 10 years ago… which is, let’s face it, when the crime for which Keith Schembri has been charged actually took place).

If so, it suggests that Robert Abela has understood a crucial political truism that seems to lie permanently beyond his opponents’ grasp. For not only is today’s Opposition investing all its energies in exposing the scandals and misdeeds of yesteryear – none of which, in any case, can realistically be lain at Robert Abela’s own door – but, bizarrely, it is even making the ungodly mistake of minimising (or, even worse, trivialising) any concern that is actually rooted in the present.

For instance: in the same week of Schembri’s arrest, Parliament convened to discuss the implementation of Budget 2022. And believe it or not, Bernard Grech’s reaction was to claim that… ‘The Budget is irrelevant’.

Even the simple fact that he was quoting a classic Eddie Fenech Adami line, from way back in 1986, is already enough to suggest that Bernard Grech (not unlike that Suez Canal cargo ship, until recently) is very firmly ‘stuck in the past’. And I need hardly add that ‘the past’ is not a very good place for any aspiring future Prime Minister to find himself stuck in… especially not when it also forces us to make comparisons with the situation that Eddie Fenech Adami was actually referring to, all those long years ago.

To put that another way: was the budget really ‘irrelevant’, back in 1986? Oh, yes. Absolutely. No doubt about it whatsoever. And not just because ‘The Budget’, back then, actually consisted in just an endless litany of millimetric price-changes to basic commodities – a 2c.5 increase in the price of corned beef, or a 5-mil decrease for a rotolo of qarghabaghli, etc. – read aloud by former Finance Minister Wistin Abela (in, it must be said, a soul-crushingly boring monotone)…

No, it was ‘irrelevant’ because the events that overshadowed it in 1986 – the murder of Raymond Caruana, the frame-up of Pietru-Pawl Busuttil, and all the rest of it – were all happening right there and then: at that precise instant.

So make no mistake: Eddie Fenech Adami was not ‘stuck in the past’, when he uttered those memorable words over 30 years ago. Very far from it, in fact: it was the government of the time – led by Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici – that seemed utterly incapable of taking cognisance of the realities of its own day. And Eddie Fenech Adami availed of that Budget debate to remind the government of where its priorities should really have been focused… with results (including a seemingly unstoppable series of electoral triumphs for the PN) that are now history.

But that was way back in 1986; and – just in case anyone out there needed reminding – we are now in 2021. The year of COVID-19, no less: when an unprecedented number of people have either lost their jobs, or suffered salary-cuts of up to 25%, or more… and when Malta’s entire business community is anxiously awaiting confirmation that – among other things – the government will renew its wage-supplement hand-outs; or enact a much-needed recovery plan, to help kick-start the economy after over a year of COVID-imposed inactivity…

So for today’s Opposition leader to even think of suggesting that all this is ‘irrelevant’ – and even then, only because of a political scandal that is in itself a hangover from the preceding administration…. I don’t know. On one level, it may just be a reflection of the comfortable socio-economic bubble people like Bernard Grech actually live in (it is, after all, very easy to minimise the financial concerns of others, when you yourself are personally unaffected.)

But on another level, it also compounds the notion of an Opposition party that is hopelessly – but hopelessly – out of touch with the present-day concerns and aspirations of the Maltese people.

And besides: in an ideal world, the Opposition leader shouldn’t really need someone like me to tell him that this approach is not only off-putting in the extreme, to the thousands of people who have been severely impacted by the COVID crisis… but it is also a sure-fire way of snatching electoral defeat from the jaws of victory.

Which brings me to yet another possible reason for Robert Abela’s smug self-assurance – if not downright complacency - in that interview. It seems to be taking his critics an awful long time to realise that, with every inch of distance that Robert Abela succeeds in placing, between himself and his disgraced predecessor… his own party is only likely to emerge ever stronger and more rejuvenated as a result.

For let’s be honest: when it does come to the next election – which cannot realistically be much more than a year away – the main protagonists of Labour’s campaign are not exactly going to be ‘Joseph Muscat, Konrad Mizzi, Keith Schembri, Chris Cardona’, and all the others whose reputation now lies in tatters in a skip.

On the contrary, it is going to be the likes of Miriam Dalli, Clyde Caruana, Daniel Jose Micallef, and others. And I am unaware of any ‘corruption scandal’ involving those people in particular… or even, for that matter, that they were in any way involved in the scandals that eventually engulfed the Muscat administration.

So to consistently urge Robert Abela to ‘denounce the Joseph Muscat legacy’ – as so many people (not just the Opposition) are so unwisely doing – is actually to do Robert Abela, and Labour in general, a huge political favour.

It only assists the Labour Party in ridding itself, once and for all, of all the political baggage associated with its former administration. And this, at a time when all Bernard Grech’s attempts to do the same for the National Party – including an abortive shadow cabinet reshuffle, just a couple of months ago – have so far come to naught.

In the end, then, the electorate will only be confronted by a choice of - on one hand - a whole bunch of new, much younger, and (to date, at least) unblemished faces… and on the other, the same old tired team that is already responsible for two crushing electoral defeats on the trot.

And this, alone, may account for Robert Abela’s apparent nonchalance, in the face of an avalanche of scandals that would almost certainly be enough to bury any other political party, in any other country, or at any other time.

For we are not living ‘in any other country’, are we? And still less are we living in ‘any other time’. No indeed: though the Opposition may not have realised this yet, we are actually living in the present: the all-important ‘here and now’, which – by the immutable laws of politics – is what ultimately governs the fortunes of any political party.

And right here, right now… it’s all going Robert Abela’s way, as far as I can see. And boy, does he look like he knows it…