Continuity won, but some change is inevitable

From this perspective, Abela’s tenure as Prime Minister may have commenced with a promise of continuity: but for practical as well as political reasons, a certain amount of change is inevitable

At a glance, the election of Robert Abela as the Malta’s new prime minister may seem to buck the trend of recent events.

Prior to the leadership election, former prime minister Joseph Muscat appeared to be in political freefall. And yet, the candidate who promised ‘continuity’ from the apparently disgraced Muscat, succeeded in beating off an older, more experienced candidate who advocated ‘change’.

Nonetheless, it would be premature to interpret Abela’s win as a straight victory of continuity over change. For while that certainly was the message during the campaign, Abela has since then introduced a number of subtle nuances to his public statements.

In his inaugural speech he acknowledged that “[Labour] may have been mistaken at times, but that’s what happens when you work”: vowing not to repeat the same mistakes, though stopping significantly short of promising to fully rectify them.

He also raised memories of Labour’s past promises of better governance: “We are a party that believes in social justice, social mobility, national unity and equality – those are the roots of our party.”

But as the same speech also illustrated, Prime Minister Abela’s ability to overcome the problems dogging Malta’s institutions is also hamstrung by his debt to the legacy of the outgoing administration.

He must somehow find a way to resolve the issues that proved to be Joseph Muscat’s downfall – including his predecessor’s close proximity to suspects in the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder case – while not alienating the support Joseph Muscat clearly still enjoys among the Labour Party grassroots.

It is already a good sign that Abela chose, as chief of staff, a man far removed from the type associated with Keith Schembri: at least in terms of his business interests. Instead, Abela opted for a labour policy economist, who has touched with his own hands the reality of employment policy, and can give the relatively inexperienced Abela (who was never a minister in the past) strong and dependable policy advice.

But his government’s past shortcomings on good governance have additional implications for Abela: who has made ‘social justice’ the mainstay of his focus.

Recent revelations – including the claim that Muscat had accepted expensive gifts from Yorgen Fenech, but also a string of questionable planning decisions that seem tailor-made to benefit certain business interests – have concretised the perception that Labour has allowed the scourge of nepotism to run unchecked. This has, in turn, caused many left-leaning observers to doubt the Labour Party’s socialist credentials in recent years.

To allay such suspicions, Abela must give a strong sign that fairness will be his benchmark; and that there must be zero-tolerance for corruption, if he wants to safeguard the Labour project - and also secure for himself the future legacy of a respectable prime minister; not just his own, but also the family legacy that comes with being part of a political dynasty… a fact which he must now also bear in mind.

Abela will no doubt also be aware that many voters – a segment which is increasingly transcending party lines – are disillusioned and concerned about the environment: now heaving under planning policies which boosted the construction industry to the detriment of Malta’s townscapes and countryside. Abela cannot afford to ignore the environmental abyss created by the post-2013 policies: which separated MEPA’s planning and environmental arms, resulting in a toothless authority that is often powerless to counter the ongoing urbanisation.

He has to address conflicts of interest in his Cabinet and parliamentary group, and abide by high standards set by the parliamentary commissioner for standards in public life: ignoring them will be an ill-advised business-as-usual approach

He must also give heed to critics who want Malta to abide by the Venice Commission recommendations, and – in keeping with the 2017 manifesto, to which he is bound - convene a Constitutional convention that will allow Malta’s public and political framework to evolve into a modern structure that respects plurality of opinions, that imparts fairness in government decisions, and limits the powers of the executive.

From this perspective, Abela’s tenure as Prime Minister may have commenced with a promise of continuity: but for practical as well as political reasons, a certain amount of change is inevitable.