The mother of all PR disasters...

Robert Abela should really have had enough political acumen, of his own, to pre-emptively guage how the public would react to his decisions

Prime Minister Robert Abela (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Prime Minister Robert Abela (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

I have a feeling that – in a not-so-distant future, when today’s political realities become tomorrow’s ‘history lessons’ – Robert Abela’s premiership will be held up as a classic example of: “How to single-handedly scuttle your own political career... in the space of just 16 months!”

Because let’s face it: it was in March 2022, that Robert Abela led the Labour Party to its largest-ever victory at the polls: leaving a bloodied Nationalist Party to limp away into a corner, and lick its wounds.   

Indeed, just one-and-a-half years ago, the media discussion was a lot more about Bernard Grech’s survival chances, in politics, than Robert Abela’s. And with good reason, too: for while, at the time, the PN had clearly failed to resolve all the internal feuds that had plagued it for so long... Robert Abela somehow emerged from that same election, as though coated with a thick layer of ‘Teflon’.

All the mud and filth that was thrown at him, in the months that followed? It seems that none of it ever really ‘stuck’. Survey after survey continued to confirm Abela’s ascendancy, in the trust ratings; and the deficit between himself and Bernard Gech, just kept growing... and growing... and growing...

Until... Ka-BOOM! Fast forward 16 months: and suddenly, the same Robert Abela - who had been ‘oozing with confidence’, just a few weeks before – is last seen...

... well, “speeding out to sea, on his luxury yacht, in the mad scramble to get away from the island as quickly as possible... and enjoy a little ‘family holiday’, in the peace-and-quiet of Sicily.”

And that, please note, was just one day after Robert Abela had publicly admitted – in an interview with my colleague Kurt Sansone – that it had been ‘insensitive’ of him, to attend that Girgenti fund-raising party, on the same day as the Parliamentary vote...

Right, I’ll stop there for now: because already there are clear indications that something must have horribly wrong, with Abela’s previous aura of ‘infallibility’.

For instance: it was already bad enough, that the Prime Minister was so naive as to not even realise, from long beforehand, that his attendance of that ‘Love Island’[!]-themed event – at a time when his government had only just crushed the last hopes of ‘a grieving mother, imploring for justice for her dead son’ - would have sent out the very worst possible sort of message.

But to follow that up, with the equally insensitive decision to just ‘bugger off to Sicily for the weekend’ – or to phrase that a little more elegantly: ‘not to immediately cancel his annual summer holiday, in view of the emerging political crisis’ – betrays an almost staggering level of nonchalance, towards public opinion.

Much worse than that, however: in so doing, Abela also graphically compounded the impression – so lovingly cultivated by Bernard Grech -  that he really IS the sort of Prime Minister who ‘just runs away, at the first sign of trouble’...

Now: I am the first admit that these two blunders are not, in themselves, very representative of the cause of Abela’s current political misfortunes. Nonetheless, they can certainly be interpreted as clear ‘symptoms’ of that cause: so bear with me, for a while.

What both those mistakes have in common, is that they were: a) predictable; b) avoidable, and c) utterly ‘self-inflicted’.

Let’s face it: Robert Abela should really have had enough political acumen, of his own, to pre-emptively guage how the public would react to his decisions... long before actually taking them; and without the benefit of an entire team of ‘political/strategic advisors’, to assist him at every turn (speaking of which: does anything of that nature even exist in the Labour Party anymore? Because it sure doesn’t look like it, to me...)

So the fact that he clearly didn’t have that foresight, on those two occasions, only illustrates that...

... well, one of three possibilities, really (or at least: these are the three that spring to my own mind):

1) On a strategy level, Robert Abela must be the single most clueless, ill-advised, and/or ‘out-of-depth’ Prime Minister this country has ever seen;

2) Abela’s previous successes had rendered him so over-confident, in his own abilities – or so ‘arrogant’, to use the term that was so often levelled at his Nationalist predecessors – that he DID foresee those consequences... but went ahead regardless (snug in the assumption that his ‘Teflon-coating’ would be enough to see him through this crisis, like it had with all the others);

3) Whoever (or whatever) it is, that the Prime Minister is trying to ‘hide/cover-up for’, with his dogged insistence not to hold a public inquiry into Jean Paul Sofia’s death, must be powerful indeed... powerful enough, for Robert Abela to unaccountably risk scuttling his entire political career, in order to ‘protect’...

... and not only that: but even take the rest of his party down with him, as he goes!

Because this is perhaps the single most astonishing aspect, of this entire saga. When Simone Cini – whom some of us remember as the ‘public face of Labour’, back in the days of Super One - came out lambasting the government over this case... she didn’t limit herself to saying: ‘I wouldn’t want to be even a single hair, on Robert Abela’s body’.

Oh, no. What she actually wrote was: ‘I wouldn’t want to be a single hair, on any of the the bodies... of ALL 39 GOVERNMENT MPS!”

And if Simone Cini, no less, feels so disillusioned (if not ‘nauseated’) by the government’s insensitivity, that she took to Facebook to personally give them the mother of all ‘hasliet’... I shudder to even think what so many other former Labour Party supporters (outside the rapidly-diminishing sphere of diehards, anyway) must now be muttering about the Labour government, in the privacy of their own homes.

For make no mistake: this really is ‘the mother of all PR disasters’, you know. And I mean that quite literally: because this is where we finally get to the part that pissed off so many people like Simone Cini – and Evarist Bartolo; and Moviment Graffitti; and the Christian Worker’s Movement, etc.... basically, all the country’s left-leaning, socially committed, and ‘labour-oriented’ civil society forces...

One other thing the Prime Minister also failed to predict – and which, it must be said, was far more predictable’, than those other PR disasters - was how the general public would react, to the truly shocking way in which his government was seen to be treating Isabel Bonnici – who, I repeat, is a ‘grieving mother, imploring for justice for her dead son’ – since last December.

Let’s go over it again, shall we?

Ever since Jean-Paul Sofia lost his life in that fateful tragedy, his mother has been steadfastly demanding a public inquiry, to investigate the ‘systemic administrative’ aspects of the accident (as distinct from the ongoing magisterial inquiry, which only looks at criminal culpability).

Now: even if we concede (and I, for one, don’t) that the Prime Minister may have had valid, ‘procedural’ reasons, to refuse that request... he was still faced, at that precise instance, with a politcal decision that should all along have been a ‘no-brainer’, really.

Viewed purely from a PR angle... there shouldn’t have been even a micro-second’s hesitation. Robert Abela was looking into the eyes of (I repeat once more) ‘a bereaved mother, demanding a public inquiry into the death of her only son’... in other words, an image of ‘maternal grief’: you know, the sort of emotional ‘weapon’ (for such she would predictably become, in the hands of Abela’s political adversaries), that is so ultra-powerful – and so universal, in its ability to instantly ‘tug at all humanity’s heart-strings’ - that Michelangelo once made a marble statue in its honour (it’s called the ‘Pieta’, and remains one of the most moving, and ‘tear-jerking’, works of art ever created...)

At which point, a certain question becomes inevitable. Is it even possible, that the Prime Minister took one look into that mother’s tearful eyes; and failed to instantly realise, there and then, that...

a) The general public would never – not in a million years – condone (or even understand) how their Prime Minister could flatly refuse such an eminently justified request;

b) The image of that geiving mother would be instantly expolited, to depict just how much of a ‘heartless monster’, our Prime Minister has become... and;

c) That even if Robert Abela were a master political strategist, of the calibre of Henry Kissinger, or Alastair Campbell (which he isn’t, by a long shot)... this would still be a political battle he couldn’t possibly – ever, under any circumstances at all - be realistically expected to WIN.

Well... I guess not. For what did Robert Abela actually do?  Why, he repeatedly slammed the door shut in Isabel Bonnici’s face, every single time. And the entire country watched on, in rising levels of horror and disbelief, as the same ‘grieving mother’ suddenly became the target of often incredibly hateful, and hurtful comments, by his own supporters...

... and still, the Prime Minister heartlessly persisted; eventually reducing that woman – and the rest of her family – to tears... only to be comforted, of course, by none other than Roberta Metsola herself! (You know: the PN’s ‘Queen of Hearts’, versus Robert Abela’s ‘Knave of Spades’...)

I mean, honestly: is there any way to interpret all of that – any way at all - that doesn’t translate into ‘absolute disaster’, for both Robert Abela and the Labour Party?

I don’t think so, myself. And when you also consider that – just like that ill-fated Girgenti party, and that enduring image of ‘Abela fleeing to Sicily’ – all this was entirely ‘predictable’, ‘avoidable’, and ‘self-inflicted’...

... it almost makes you wonder how many other ‘unforced errors’ the Labour Party will continue to put up with, before finally showing Robert Abela to the door...