When a Prime Minister fails to ‘read the room’

The more Robert Abela vehemently claimed that he has nothing to hide and that he is waiting for the outcome of the magisterial inquiry so that those responsible would be held accountable, the more the public refuses to believe anything he says

A grieving mother is asking for a public inquiry to be held about the tragic death of her son at a construction site. One would think that this fact alone would be enough for the powers that be to agree to her request, let alone that she has singlehandedly whipped up public support to the tune of over 25,000 signatures (at the time of writing) for her petition. 

Isabelle Bonnici has won everyone’s hearts for obvious reasons: every mother, every father, and even non-parents look at the photos of her with the son she lost at such a tender age and think ‘there but for the Grace of God, go I’. We could all potentially have a relative who is killed through no fault of their own because of a building which collapses. 

So many lives have been lost at construction sites, most of them migrant workers, which is tragic enough. Even as I write this, two more men have fallen off sites, and one of them is fighting for his life. The health and safety standards to protect these workers has not improved despite countless incidents and subsequent magisterial inquiries - there are so many that, I’m ashamed to admit, I have lost count. 

But there is something particularly poignant when the victim is an indirect casualty. Over the years, construction works taking place next door have led to several buildings collapsing and have claimed several lives, leaving behind devastated families.  Mary Zarb and Nadya Vavilova who were killed in 2004 in St Paul’s Bay; Rita Vella killed in 2000 in Sliema; and, most recently, Miriam Pace killed in 2020 in Santa Venera. 

But the story of Jean Paul Sofia in December 2022 is heart breaking on a different level; he had gone to the Kordin construction site just to deliver some tools when the building collapsed. Five other workers were seriously injured in the incident, but as news spread that the young man was missing the country held its breath. His lifeless body was found 15 hours later buried underneath the rubble. He had only been inside for about eight minutes… a horrific example of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. 

The difference in this case is that the boy’s mother would not be mollified by the usual platitude of “a magisterial inquiry is underway”. She demanded more answers about this dubious building site at Kordin which she insists can only be provided through a public inquiry which investigates the shortcomings of the administration and public authorities. 

Her determination and tenacity not to give up have captured the public’s imagination and they are behind her all the way. The Jean Paul case has become the tipping point for a nation which cannot take the laissez-faire attitude towards human life anymore. 

And yet, the vote on Wednesday evening had all the Labour MPs toeing the party line and voting no to holding a public inquiry, which unleashed a stream of anti-government vitriol on social media. 

After the build-up of these last few weeks, we could all see it coming… you could practically feel the crackling tension in the air as the anger continued to swell.  The only ones who apparently failed to ‘read the room’ were precisely those MPs who had the power to grant Isabelle Bonnici her wish. 

The harsh criticism and uproar clearly rattled the Prime Minister because on Thursday he went live in an interview with the editor of this paper, Kurt Sansone, to try and justify why he has dug his heels in about the request for a public inquiry. 

However, from the reactions both online and off, I think his attempt at damage control came much too late. 

The perception out there has solidified from mere suspicion and conjecture to the concrete, unshakeable conviction that the Labour government is covering up for those who are in some way culpable for the collapse of the Kordin building which claimed the life of 20-year-old Jean Paul. 

So, the more Robert Abela vehemently claimed that he has nothing to hide and that he is waiting for the outcome of the magisterial inquiry so that those responsible would be held accountable, the more the public refuses to believe anything he says. 

Every time he was asked why he is resisting so much, he kept insisting that only a magisterial inquiry can bring criminals to justice. When it was pointed out that a public inquiry by its very nature will be public, whereas the evidence and conclusions of a magisterial inquiry is kept under wraps, he countered by saying that he will publish the conclusions of the latter. 

This sheer bloody mindedness is inexplicable to me for the simple reason that he could have squashed all the allegations and accusations which are swirling around by simply saying yes to a public inquiry. 

“Well, mhux ovvja, it’s because he is protecting someone!” is the general sentiment. But surely, he should have learned his lesson from Joseph Muscat’s ill-fated attempt to protect Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi? Months and months of refusing to sack them and where did that get him? 

He ended up having to resign himself. I’m just wondering how much this protection (if that is what it is) of developers and other people behind the scenes is worth the grief for Abela? Is he actually willing to screw up his own political career for their sakes? 

And if it is eventually revealed that he is somehow connected or involved with those who were given the concession to this public land and that the State was directly responsible for the tragedy, he won’t survive the fallout anyway. Avoiding a public inquiry (which would establish these facts) will simply prolong the inevitable, but only temporarily. Once again, the Muscat debacle is a case in point. 

Meanwhile, the PM keeps refusing to acknowledge the zeitgeist and by doing so, keeps perpetuating the impression that he and his colleagues lack any shred of empathy towards a mother in mourning.  This whole story has been riddled by a series of what I can only describe as “optics mistakes”. 

While Isabelle Bonnici was gathering signatures to seek justice for her dead son, Lydia Abela and her young daughter invited the cast of Love Island Malta to a private lunch at the Prime Minister's official residence in Girgenti.  So, wrong, on so many levels. 

In his interview with Kurt Sansone, Dr Abela said that he was at loss for words about what to say to Isabelle Bonnici after the vote, so he just kept on walking. “What can you possibly say to a mother who has lost her son?” he said during the interview. But what to him was an attempt to be stoic, just came across as heartless and cruel. 

The next gaffe was that evening’s concert at Girgenti which he attended. Ok, granted, it had been planned a long time ago, but when you are in his position you cannot ignore public perception and how things look. Frankly, it smacked of insensitivity. He admitted that he should not have gone - but as they say, troppo tardi. 

If he has completely lost touch with the public mood, he is heading down a downward slope and fast. By underestimating what many (including Labour voters) are feeling and by failing to realise just how many have turned against him, he is simply repeating the mistakes of his predecessor. 

Finally, a word about whether the Opposition is using the plight of Jean Paul’s mother for its own political expediency. Well, let us put it this way: if the shoe was on the other foot, and Labour was in Opposition, while a Nationalist government was ignoring the pleas of a mother who has lost her son, what would it do?  Let us not kid ourselves - it would have latched on to this burning issue with all its might, seeing an opportunity to chip away at the support of the government. 

Ironically in this case, the Opposition is not having to do much work, because the PM and his fellow MPs have shot themselves in the foot all by themselves.