Trust matters, for both Abela and Delia

MaltaToday’s trust ratings have always spelt one thing out: a leader who is less trusted than his own party cannot win an election; Adrian Delia must face the facts

The week’s events have once again displayed the ability for Malta’s new Prime Minister to tend not just to Labour’s garden. At least for now.

The decisions that seemingly disarmed Abela’s critics don’t mean Malta’s new PM will be without his internal critics. Placating ‘rebel’ MPs and others who possess meaningful influence in the party is all part of the delicate balancing act for a new PM who upset the technocratic establishment by seeing off the deputy prime minister in the leadership election. A case in point is the nomination, then removal of Konrad Mizzi as delegate to the OSCE. Arguably, the appointment underestimated the public mood and outrage at Mizzi, who had to resign under the cloud of suspicion prompted by the Yorgen Fenech arrest and the former minister’s connection to the Panamagate, in which chief-of-staff Keith Schembri forged his business relationship to the Tumas magnate.

Not everyone inside Labour likes to see the government cave in easily to public opinion. Insiders have grown accustomed to dislike political flip-flopping that does not benefit the government side. They see it as a blithe capitulation to an opponent that has proved itself to be confrontational and uninterested in compromise during these last seven years.

Mizzi’s OSCE nomination was a dreadful choice given the Panama connection and its implications for newspapers and freedom of expression ever since 2016 – not least the 17 Black connection and the Caruana Galizia assassination. But had the €80,000 consultancy contract forged by the Malta Tourism Authority for its former minister not seen the light of day, would Abela have been politically equipped to order such a rash revocation of Mizzi’s nomination?

There is little doubt that such a contract ‘negotiated’ by the MTA’s chief executive Johann Buttigieg with the newly-unemployed ex-boss, was in the hands of a few people – especially considering that at the point of its drawing up, there was no minister in charge of tourism, with executive responsibility ultimately falling in the Prime Minister’s hands. The shocking contract was fortuitously outrageous, serving as the ideal ‘smokescreen’ for the new administration to also repeal the other embarrassing nomination of Mizzi to the OSCE.

Robert Abela has surprised many critics by proving himself to be a prime minister far removed from the bullish Labour leader he projected himself to be in the election. His first weeks were spent addressing various loose ends that the Muscat administration was unwilling to address – anticipating a Constitutional court judgement on the Daphne memorial outside the law courts, carrying out a reshuffle that promoted young MPs, bringing a technical mind into the sensitive role of head of secretariat, presenting his plans for the public appointment and scrutiny of a new chief of police, among others.

The discontinuation of Mizzi’s OSCE nomination and his unmerited consultancy at the MTA was another move that disarmed critics who last week carried out their first demonstration under the new PM’s administration. They are not ‘unnecessary’ demonstrations, however, as the PM said. They are important manifestations of justified anger that deserve to be heard. They transcend the contrived notions of putting up a Potemkin village to the rest of the world for Malta to be viewed as a convenient airport for tourists and investors.

Irrespective of the obvious historical links to the Nationalist Opposition which make up part of the vocal civil society opposition to the Labour government, Abela has to make his mark as prime minister by committing himself to a return to normality under a good governance pledge. The move to respond to public criticism on Mizzi was the right thing to do.

The question now is whether Abela’s attention to these issues will rile party insiders who had grown accustomed to the invincibility of the Muscat administration, who seem to value constituency influence over issues that pertain to the common good and the respectability of a government administration. Konrad Mizzi today is no longer an MP with a foot inside the corridors of power; how far his influence in his constituency will further his political career is yet to be seen.

Abela’s first weeks in power have, however, put him in good stead. MaltaToday’s survey gives him unprecedented trust ratings which spell bad news for the Opposition leader. Instead of being rewarded with the election of a former Cabinet member who served loyally the Muscat administration, Adrian Delia is facing the unknown-known that is Robert Abela, a novelty in his own right who comes not just with his own star power, but also a political dynasty whose name he must hold up high.

The numbers published in MaltaToday once again raise an existential issue for the PN, on how a Christian-democratic party rooted in a strong democratic, anti-authoritarian, pro-European history can redefine itself in the 21st century. It should not look back; instead it should anticipate the future with a forward-looking agenda that places sustainability, democracy, and social justice at the forefront. Like Labour it will have to look to the left on certain issues, while maintaining its liberalism on the economy.

But MaltaToday’s trust ratings have always spelt one thing out: a leader who is less trusted than his own party cannot win an election. Adrian Delia must face the facts.