The strange case of Dr Robert and Mr Abela

It is indeed ‘a strange case’ to have two such totally antithetical human beings rolled up into one Prime Minister: a post that now appears split between ‘Dr Robert’ – who for the moment seems genuinely concerned with reconciling the differences that we all know exist – and ‘Mr Abela’: who gave the Labour audience precisely wanted it wanted to hear, for as long as it took to get elected…

At first, I thought Chris Fearne was merely throwing a strop.

Not attending Robert Abela’s inaugural speech as Labour Party leader; conspicuously absent at his swearing-in ceremony as Prime Minister; sending his driver to pick up his belongings at the Health Ministry… only to later (somewhat grudgingly) accept to remain part of Robert Abela’s Cabinet… it all looked to me like a classic – albeit understandable – case of ‘bad-losership’.

But after a week of witnessing the new Prime Minister in action, I’m beginning to see things from Fearne’s point of view.

For one thing, Robert Abela seems hell-bent on setting a new world record for the sheer number of U-turns a prime minister can possibly make in his first seven days in office.

Let’s go over a few of them. Before the election, Robert Abela told us that he saw no need for a Cabinet reshuffle. Three days later, he announced a major shake-up to his team of ministers: replacing three old faces with new ones, promoting junior ministers to strategically sensitive portfolios… and above all, pandering to previous criticism by not appointing Chris Cardona – or even talking to Konrad Mizzi, it seems – while moving Owen Bonnici out of the Justice Ministry.

Any more of a reshuffle than that, and we would be looking at a whole new deck of cards. And like some of Abela’s other public appointments – for instance, his chief-of-staff – the changes seem mainly geared towards appeasing critics of the previous administration (you know, the same critics he had side-lined and pooh-poohed until the day of the election).

Meanwhile, prior to last Sunday, Robert Abela had also said that the Venice Commission’s proposals should not be adopted “lock, stock and barrel”: adding that “there are proposals which do not make sense for our system… we have to pick and choose what to implement from it.”

Yet within hours of his appointment as Justice Minister, Edward Zammit Lewis claimed that ‘implementing the Venice Commission proposals’ was ‘top priority’ for his government. And Abela himself said: “A number of recommendations have already been implemented and I am committed to continue with the rest. I will not prolong, and we will make the necessary changes in the coming days and weeks…”

Elsewhere, Robert Abela had also earned rebuke for his (pre-election) claim that, while ‘tolerating’ public protests, he viewed the ones organised by Repubblika and Occupy Justice as a form of ‘provocation’. Last Thursday, however, he gave his assurance that the wreaths and candles would not be removed from the site of the Daphne Caruana Galizia monthly vigil (as was the policy of the previous administration)… earning brief applause even at the vigil itself.

Small wonder Chris Fearne would be so pissed off. Those were all his own promises in the same PL leadership campaign; which Robert Abela ended up winning by promising the clean opposite.

You could, I suppose, take it as a cautionary tale for politicians: always patent your own campaign proposals. For had Fearne been an author instead of a Labour leadership contender… he would at least be able to sue Robert Abela for copyright theft.

But there are other literary analogies that can be made: like the one I so shamelessly plagiarised in the headline. It is indeed ‘a strange case’ to have two such totally antithetical human beings rolled up into one Prime Minister: a post that now appears split between ‘Dr Robert’ – who for the moment seems genuinely concerned with reconciling the differences that we all know exist – and ‘Mr Abela’: who gave the Labour audience precisely wanted it wanted to hear, for as long as it took to get elected… in other words, who capitalised on those very differences, to achieve power for himself.

As with the classic Robert Louis Stevenson novella, it raises the question of how long these opposing alter-egos can conceivably co-exist, before one gets the upper hand. And if the book is anything to go by, the answer is likely to depend on forces beyond either Dr Robert or Mr Abela’s control.

For the moment, however, it must be said that the transformation has worked spectacularly to Dr Robert’s advantage. So far, the unexpected volte-face appears to have successfully disarmed (or at least surprised) all but his most ardent critics: including some who had very recently endorsed a street graffito comparing the new prime minister to ‘canine excrement’.

(Which reminds me: Repubblika’s open letter to Robert Abela this week should really have started with the words: ‘Dear Dogshit’… if nothing else, it would have got his attention right away.)

Naturally, this doesn’t mean there is nothing left to complain about: for while some of their demands have been met (e.g., the removal of Police Commissioner Lawrence Cutajar), others (e.g., the Attorney General) have not… while even more crucial ones remain squarely on the table: including criminal action to be taken against everyone implicated in the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

But there have been other developments in the meantime: some unrelated to the political crisis chugging along in the background. In his reshuffle, Dr Robert also placed ‘environment’ back with ‘planning’ under the same ministerial portfolio: possibly signalling a review of the 2016 MEPA reform which had originally divorced the two, leading to a glut of ODZ approvals.

The Cabinet gesture alone is unlikely to appease any real environmentalist angst – not, at least, without any corresponding policy changes – but after the reassurances of ‘continuity’ given to the business class during last Sunday’s inaugural speech, it may well be an indication that that, too, was just part of the transformation act.

At the very minimum, it raises hopes that Dr Robert may already be gaining the upper hand over Mr Abela… at least, on this one issue.

In fact, now that I think about it… hardly any trace of Mr Abela has been seen, anywhere at all, since Dr Robert became prime minister seven days ago. It could be, perhaps, because unlike Dr Jekyll before him, Dr Robert had learnt to fully master the effect of the transformation potion before actually drinking it; but perhaps also because the forces which originally gave Mr Abela his potency – and which propelled Dr Robert to victory in the first place – haven’t had their say in the matter yet.

How is this transformation going down, I wonder, with those Labour Party delegates who elected Robert Abela last week, on the basis of a totally different set of expectations? And more to the point: how many more unexpected reversals will they ‘tolerate’ (ahem) in future… before finally taking Dr Robert aside by the ear, and reminding him, in no uncertain terms, that they actually elected Mr Abela instead?

Nor is this the only factor entirely outside the Prime Minister’s control.

His apparent appeasement strategy – expected or otherwise – depends largely on the acceptance of the people he is trying to appease. So far there have been mixed reactions from the organisers of recent public protests… but, given the enormity of what they are protesting about, it is highly unlikely that they will be so quickly (and easily) placated.

After all, the grievances run a lot deeper than a few wreathes and candles here and there. Dr Robert has inherited the reigns of an administration that has a lot to answer for: and so far, we have only really been given assurances that ‘answers will one day be forthcoming’: and even then, by only one half of our shapeshifting Prime Minister… who (let’s face it) might just as easily transform back into Mr Abela, as instantly and unpredictably as he’s already done it the other way.

In all likelihood, then, organised protests – or at least, public discontent – will continue for a long time to come. And the more concessions Dr Robert makes, without placating his detractors, the more Mr Abela is likely to claw his way back to the surface… until we’re all the way back to viewing protests as ‘provocation’ once more.

Having said all this: it is an analogy that can only be stretched so far. I’m afraid the book doesn’t help much when it comes to predicting how things will turn out: ending as it does with the death of Dr Jekyll – and therefore also Mr Hyde – to suggest that the essential duality of human nature cannot be sundered, without losing the entire individual in the process (or something like that, anyway).

But that was a literary transformation; and Robert Abela’s is a political one, which will therefore have tangible effects and consequences in the real world.

We may be facing a situation whereby Dr Robert and Mr Abela keep simply alternating between roles, indefinitely, depending on the circumstances of the day (that’s certainly what it looks like so far); but to be fair, we may also be looking at a genuine Jekyll-and-Hyde dilemma taking place beneath the surface.

Maybe there really is a higher commitment to national reconciliation in there somewhere, struggling to escape the clutches of our most basic tribal impulses… and who knows? Maybe we really have just witnessed the first signs of its eventual success.

Even so, however: something tells me the struggle itself will be a lot longer, and a lot harder, than just a week of pleasant surprises.     

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