Remote governing... does Abela have a trust issue?

But his obsession with remaining in control all the time without trusting anyone else even for a brief period, could potentially make his task harder and more daunting

For decades, it was customary for prime ministers to announce the destination and duration of private holidays and appoint an acting prime minister to take charge of the country in their absence.

It seems that Robert Abela has broken with this long-tested tradition.

On Sunday, MaltaToday revealed that Abela was on vacation with his family but despite being away from the island he has not relinquished his duties. Consequently, no acting prime minister was appointed.

“The Prime Minister travelled on a private holiday to Greece and Sicily with his family in August,” a spokesperson for Abela said without specifying the period of the Prime Minister’s absence.

Asked why no notice was published in the Government Gazette, the spokesperson said “the Prime Minister never relinquished his duties”.

Nobody questions the PM’s right to go on holiday. Taking a holiday is more than understandable, especially after a general election which followed two years dominated by the pandemic.

But Abela’s unorthodox decision to remain in the driving seat while on holiday, does raise a number of questions. The most pertinent question Abela faces is whether his unwillingness to relinquish his position betrays a general distrust of anyone replacing him, particularly Chris Fearne who as deputy PM is the next in line to occupy the post of acting PM.

Surely over the past couple of years Abela and Fearne have managed to bury the hatchet of an acrimonious leadership race, and Labour has largely managed to keep its cohesion in contrast with a factitious opposition.

Yet, by denying Fearne the honour of replacing him on a temporary basis during his absence, Abela hints that he does not completely trust his deputy leader.

However, it may well be the case that Abela’s decision not to relinquish power is more tied to his style of governance and management, then to past rivalries with Fearne.  This raises the question as to whether Abela sees himself as indispensable to the extent that he wants to remain in control even during a holiday.

Is Abela nurturing a system in which he is indispensable to decision-making in every aspect of government action? And is this crippling the work of ministers, who feel they always need his final approval?

A healthy system of governance is based on trust between the prime minister and his Cabinet.  If this trust is lacking one can anticipate future problems.

Surely, one has to recognise that technology has evolved and that the PM can still carry out certain functions electronically without having to be physically present at all times.  Yet, apart from the right of the PM to disconnect and enjoy a real holiday, some decisions may require the focus of a physically present commander in chief.

Just imagine what could happen if an emergency like a terrorist attack happens while the PM is travelling on his yacht without having an acting PM working in his place.

It is worth noting that the PM’s absence from public engagements also coincides with a de-escalation in political confrontation in a country that has long suffered from electoral fatigue.

By refraining from political activities in the summer, Abela is in synch with the mood of the country.  Yet one also has to question whether Abela’s long absence will hamper crucial decisions on the next budget, the cost of living and Air Malta.

A large number of Maltese are enjoying a normal summer lull coming after two years of frustration caused by the pandemic. But there are pockets of dissatisfaction that are growing, not least because rising prices are squeezing their pockets.

In this sense one may argue that it is better to have the PM completely absent for a week with his role filled by an acting PM, then one who is intermittently present, making appearances on the party media before disappearing again.

It also seems that Abela has not learnt his lesson from the backlash he received after being photographed on holiday when COVID cases were rising again in August 2020.

In a best-case scenario, Abela may be taking a long holiday fully knowing that the next months will be difficult, challenging and requiring his full focus and dedication.  So far, Abela has distinguished himself in earning the public trust during the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

But his obsession with remaining in control all the time without trusting anyone else even for a brief period, could potentially make his task harder and more daunting.

If this is the case, Abela cannot afford to let his paranoia cripple his government.  A good PM is one who nurtures a cabinet which he can trust. And while one understands Abela’s reticence which may be rooted in past scandals which undermined Labour’s credibility, he should be wary of sending a message that he is a control freak who trusts nobody to occupy the seat of power for a few days.