Abela should set the tone with his new administration

Prime Minister Robert Abela should use the first six months ahead of him to enforce the big changes that have eluded all premiers in this country, but without being distant from the press

Prime Minister Robert Abela
Prime Minister Robert Abela

Few had expected Robert Abela to win that January 2020 leadership contest. The MaltaToday survey had realised Abela had pipped Chris Fearne to the top towards the end of the campaign. But to many political observers, it seemed Abela was an unknown quantity, despite his role as Cabinet assistant to Joseph Muscat.

It turned out that initial impressions that Abela was nothing but an extension of his father George, the man who lost out to the 2009 leadership election against Muscat, were wrong.

Even though possessing the shrewdness of his father, Abela has proved he is his own man.

Abela was meant to go headlong into a whirlwind of public protest in the wake of the unbelievable scandals and forced resignation of Joseph Muscat after the revelations implicating his chief of staff Keith Schembri. Protest having been the order of the day in the weeks running up to the resignation of Muscat, there was clearly going to no end to that front.

But COVID-19 presented Abela with a first test, perhaps fortuitously dampening the resolve for protest and giving the new PM a break from the civil soceity onslaught as the rest of the country came to grips with the real threat of COVID.

Abela now had to turn to deal with sustaining the economy, as the momentum of justified anger against the Labour administration subsided in the wake of new realities. Still, Abela found time to address Labour’s problems of Konrad Mizzi, whom he sacked, and Chris Cardona, who resigned his seat – both were intrinsically linked to the Muscat administration and both were forced out with pressure from third parties. Many other MPs not suited to the Abela administration were shown the door to make room for the new PM’s team in a bid to cut the umbilical cord with the Muscat administration.

COVID allowed Abela to make the necessary reforms to implement governance issues, and bring in grey matter to the Cabinet with chief of staff Clyde Caruana taking up the post of finance minister; and MEP Miriam Dalli becoming energy minister.

Labour’s playbook throughout COVID was squarely opposed to any notion of austerity, with a massive outlay that served to safeguard jobs and keep consumption buoyant. The Opposition in the meantime failed to make any sort of political recovery, even when Abela faced any incidents of impropriety inside the government team, retorting to such instances with his quip that everyone would have to shoulder responsibility for their actions: former police commissioner Lawrence Cutajar, parliamentary secretary Rosianne Cutajar, and education minister Justyne Caruana found a cool reception to their troubles. Abela knew well that winning the next election meant effecting absolute change.

With his chances of winning the next election with a majority close to that of 2017, his advisors were content with a reduced majority of 25,000 for Labour’s third consecutive landslide. But Abela in 2022 was truly aiming to beat Muscat’s record landslide.

In a campaign which never ever referred to Joseph Muscat and only extolled the virtues of Abela alone, the underlying message was that this was to be an Abela administration free of the Muscat tentacles. When on election day, the first numbers for the 2pm turnout indicated an incredibly low percentage, Labour’s well-greased machine pressed the panic button and thousands of phone calls went out exhorting Labour voters to get out and vote. It worked. At least 10,000 more votes were brought out to prevent that majority from falling to 29,000 with total votes for both parties falling right below 2013 levels.

The end result was that Abela won with an astounding 39,000 majority as both Labour and the Nationalists saw their vote counts drop drastically – the PN’s down to a pathetic 123,000.

That victory offered Abela his golden opportunity to make the changes he needed to make. He demoted anyone with baggage or poor ministerial performance by not renewing their Cabinet post: they included Edward Zammit Lewis, Deo Debattista, Michael Farrugia, Alex Muscat, Carmelo Abela and Chris Agius.

The electorate had already solved his problem with other former heavyweights who he had had problems with: Evarist Bartolo was too single-minded for Abela’s foreign policy outlook; Joe Mizzi and Anthony Agius Decelis simply did not make the grade; and Josè Herrera, who never seemed to be in Abela’s good books, was also out thanks to the Labour vote.

Armed with new faces in his team, Abela could have the opportunity to govern in his own style with some vigour and determination. He has signalled that he can be ruthless and resolute about where he wants to go. And he seems to have everything on his side: a weak opposition, a super-majority, a track record, visible deliverables, a style which leaves the press and adversaries wondering what he is going to do next, and the element of surprise – an asset in politics which is, somewhat uncomfortably, a plus.

With some foresight, he should use the first six months ahead of him to enforce the big changes that have eluded all premiers in this country, but without being distant from the press.

A new Constitution for the Republic, reform of work practices in the public sector, raising salaries and allowances for MPs, the electoral reform that would make Malta’s parliament more representative, the need to reform public broadcasting once and for all and do away with political stations, setting new standards in environmental protection and inculcating a culture of paying taxes to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and last and not least building a new image for Malta beyond our shores.

If Abela misses this chance, he would have started on the wrong foot. Few premiers have had such a brilliant occasion. Now is the time to seize the moment.