The curious story of Manwel Cuschieri

Abela’s rebuffed and discarded militants, aides and colleagues – though they might not be very vocal now – could someday return to haunt him when times get bad

Inset: Manwel Cuschieri
Inset: Manwel Cuschieri

I have the impression that not many would have noticed that Manwel Cuschieri’s long-standing radio programme on Labour’s One Radio had been cancelled.  

It’s a curious story for political followers, even though the summer lull ensures it went unnoticed. Naturally, those in Labour circles, know. 

Cuschieri is certainly adored by the Labour hardcore, and is equally derided by opponents both in and out of Labour.  

What must be said is that such a decision, from party administration, to snub Cuschieri, a radio and party mainstay since the 1990s, could have ramifications. Perhaps not now, but certainly later. 

Beyond this seemingly innocuous incident, there is a story to tell. Jason Micallef, former Labour secretary-general and outspoken chairman of One Productions, said on Saturday that he had not been involved, let alone consulted on this decision.  

He paid tribute to the former radio presenter: “Cuschieri is one of One’s best communicators of all time. He was there in the good times and bad since the very beginning. He worked hard for what he believed in, his Labour principles. And he never requested any form of payment for the programmes. I thank you from the bottom of my heart.” 

Micallef made it clear that the decision to axe Cuschieri’s programme was taken at party level, and not sanctioned by him. Enough said, I guess. Because if the decision was taken at party level, by the political administration, then it was a decision sanctioned from the very top. 

Now what must be said is that Cuschieri, like many others who were party insiders, were openly behind Robert Abela when it came to the hotly-contested party leadership with Chris Fearne in 2020.  

Cuschieri, like many others, saw Fearne as a threat to the Muscat family and Joseph Muscat’s own legacy at a time when the political fallout from the Yorgen Fenech arrest had clear consequences for the prime minister at the time.  

So Cuschieri put his weight behind Abela, openly appearing with him before the leadership election. So did other ministers who broke ranks from the Cabinet wave in support of Fearne – like Michael Farrugia, one of the few ministers to have backed Abela.  

Yet Farrugia no longer has a place in the new Cabinet.  

Even the Muscats themselves, and Jason Micallef, placed their bets on Abela, with Michelle Muscat actively canvassing activists to back Abela in the 2020 contest. 

I can see three take-aways from this kind of ‘minor’ development inside Labour. 

The first one is that at this very moment, with all the fiscal cushioning and financial injection from the government throughout COVID and the ongoing spillover of the war in Ukraine, surely enough nobody will give a flying hoot. Nobody would bat an eyelid had Cuschieri been sent off on a mission to outer space without any chance of return. After all, it’s what is in people's pockets now that counts. So everyone is happy as long as everyone eats cake. 

Secondly, this cancellation is in itself a break from tradition when you consider that Maltese parties tend to protect their own kind, especially loyalists who back them through thick and thin. I’d say it’s been synonymous with all administrations – their soldiers are always looked after.  

Perhaps to be fair to Robert Abela, there have been times when he did make a differentiation between what was correct and what is inappropriate, and indeed acted on this. So in that respect, Abela may not have always followed the party maxim to just back any party loyalist no matter what they do.  

But thirdly, it is evident that Abela’s massive electoral majority – relative always to that high abstention we saw in the last election – seems to have allowed him to be high-handed with the kind of chaps who are also inveterate Muscat loyalists.  

But beware hubris: if his luck runs out, politics can be cruel, and old wounds tend to fester, and as time goes by, the brooding losers could return to haunt him, with a vengeance. 

Cuschieri cemented his legacy as a darling of the Labour hardcore glued to their radio sets. His listeners harbour the memory of Mintoff, KMB and Alfred Sant; they live in Labour heartlands, many depend on pensions to eke out a living, and may have few pleasures in life.  

They seem to be the ones who, just like Cuschieri, think the Nationalists will always give Labourites a rotten deal. Love them or hate them, they are the heart of old Labour, the so-called ‘soldiers of steel’ (suldati tal-azzar), who justify Labour’s claims to be the party of the emarginated, the working class, or the underprivileged. 

In reality, they are a flipside to the upwardly-mobile, staunchly middle-class, and aspiring Labour politicians whose children are educated in private schools and whose pleasures are expensive holidays, and hobnobbing with business magnates. 

While Cuschieri used his monotonous voice to fire up listeners with his repetitive diatribes against anyone who dared question Labour and its leaders, with invective that – truth be told – belongs to the past, his audience has witnessed the transformation of Labour from a party of militancy into one of flashing lights and expensive spectaculars and American-style electioneering. 

But although Labour has changed and seems to enjoy invincibility at the moment, it has not realised that the further it sails from its port of call, the more of its own will stop recognising it. And Labour’s success will persist as long as it also keeps together its different niches and segments orbiting in the same environment, while the only opposition is the disjointed and tattered party down at the Stamperija. 

It is popularly said that the Labour diehard never gives up on their party. Yet nothing is sacred, and this kind of legend may be somewhat of a fallacy. Maltese politicians can be adored blindly in times of good, but it’s when people are served, sometimes with the most selfish or unjustified of ways, that loyalty is kept. As long as those times of plenty remain, no politician need to worry when they suspend the Manwel Cuschieris of the world or even run roughshod over Labour darlings such as super-consultant Joseph Muscat. 

I’m sure Robert Abela is very aware of this. But both he and his advisors should know, that Abela’s rebuffed and discarded militants, aides and colleagues – though they might not be very vocal now – could someday return to haunt him when times get bad.