Labour’s choice

Whether Muscat will ever regret having helped Abela to succeed him is for the future to decide – but the possibility is certainly there

The result has led to a situation where the majority of the Labour Cabinet and parliamentary group supported the losing contender – something that could, in fact, be a disadvantage for Robert Abela
The result has led to a situation where the majority of the Labour Cabinet and parliamentary group supported the losing contender – something that could, in fact, be a disadvantage for Robert Abela

The opportunity for a Maltese political party to choose a new leader is not a very common occurrence. Theoretically it comes after every general election, with the leader of the winning party being enshrined in his post and the leader of the losing party having to face the music; having to resign or seek his confirmation as leader once again.

The circumstances in which the Labour Party found itself were unique: having to choose a new leader as a successor of the ‘venerated’ Joseph Muscat, who had no option but to resign in shame. This was a historical first.

The election of the candidate more popular among the party grassroots than among the higher ranks took many by surprise. In the run-up to this election, I had met a number of people who had the right to vote for the new leader and I noted that Robert Abela was more popular than Chris Fearne among the simple card-carrying members, while the situation was different among the higher echelons of the Labour  Party.

Fearne was considered as lacking empathy and being too rigid – one Labour stalwart even told me that if he were to be Prime Minister, Fearne would be a dictator! On the other hand, Abela was considered to be more affable and even having a populist streak.

Abela sold the ‘continuity’ slogan and this was more than popular within the Labour circles that were stunned with the way Muscat’s sandcastle had collapsed. More so as they wanted some reassurance that the party can recover and retain the confident winning streak that Muscat had so enthusiastically infused in the Labour Party.

Some say that behind this ‘surprise’ victory there was Muscat’s hand. This is undoubtedly a possibility. Fearne had become deputy leader against Muscat’s wishes and his attempt to go up the next step and become Muscat’s successor was probably resented by Muscat.

Whether Muscat will ever regret having helped Abela to succeed him is for the future to decide – but the possibility is certainly there.

The result has led to a situation where the majority of the Labour Cabinet and parliamentary group supported the losing contender something that could, in fact, be a disadvantage for Robert Abela.

Robert Abela needs to overcome this hurdle as soon as possible as otherwise his days as Prime Minister are counted. Muscat could always be credited with his two incredible general election landslide victories to subdue any internal dissent – until everybody learnt of his chief-of-staff’s involvement in the attempted cover-up of the Daphne Caruana Galizia assassination.

It was only then that Muscat lost the trust of the Cabinet and of the parliamentary group. By contrast, Abela has to win this trust practically starting from scratch, considering that he was not the preferred choice of most Labour MPs.

The effect of Muscat’s decision not to resign from Parliament and remain a backbencher on the government’s side is also an unknown. He could want to be in a position to create problems for Abela, rather than help him.

Memories of Dom Mintoff haunting Alfred Sant come to mind.

One only hopes that Joseph Muscat is not that foolish.

Abela’s choice

What surprised many even more than Abela’s election to the Labour leadership post, was the Cabinet set-up that Abela announced on Wednesday evening.

It is obvious that Abela’s ‘continuity’ buzzword was somewhat misleading. However, the message from this set-up should have been welcomed even by those who do not support the Labour Party.

Many criticised Abela’s decision as it created Malta’s largest Cabinet ever. Obviously, the more ministers and parliamentary secretaries an administration is made up of, the more expensive is the running of the day-to-day affairs of the government. This is a Cabinet with a €1.5 million annual wage bill. Is this expense justified? That is certainly a valid point. Much more valid than In-Nazzjon’s reaction last Thursday alleging that the make-up of Robert Abela’s Cabinet reflected some sort of punishment that the Prime Minister meted out at ‘Fearne’s faction’.

The PN does not need to resort to such nonsense to criticise Abela’s decisions.

As a result of the news about the new Cabinet, we discovered that Chris Cardona is no longer a minister – allegedly after he refused a different portfolio that he must have considered as a downgrading. This speaks volumes.

Moreover, the fact that Joe Mizzi and Anthony Agius Decelis are no longer minister and parliamentary secretary respectively also indicates a positive streak in Abela’s mind. To put it mildly, they were certainly no shining stars in Muscat’s firmament.

I was struck by the fact that all the ministers responsible for those areas where the country needs a change of direction were moved away from their previous portfolio or completely left out.

Consider the ministers whose portfolio was changed. They include areas like rule of law, justice, environment and Air Malta. There is no doubt that new policies are needed in these areas. Can the same ministers who had run their portfolio in a particular way change their way of doing things – or even reverse established policies – just because they are now under the direction of a new Prime Minister? Isn’t it better if the minister responsible for an area where a change of direction is sorely needed is a new person without any baggage in that same sector?

I think that the message Abela is sending with regards to moving ministers away from their old portfolios is one indicating that the direction of those portfolios is going to change. Hence it makes more sense for a different minister to pilot this change.

In this sense, these changes are an indirect indication of the areas where Abela agrees on the need for important changes of direction. Which means that popular criticism and discontent in the way these areas were run have not just been acknowledged by Abela: he has also taken concrete action.

These changes, therefore, vindicate the stand adopted by the Opposition and Civil Society groups on the way certain ministers managed their responsibilities.

I may be wrong, of course. But, if I am, it will only mean that Labour has not learnt anything from Muscat’s fall from grace.

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