A good start, but only a start

Robert Abela has hit a number of high notes in his first week of office, contrasting with his promise of continuity in the short campaign for Labour’s leadership

Prime Minister Robert Abela has hit a number of high notes in his first week of office, which contrasted with the promise of continuity in the short campaign for Labour’s leadership.

This suggests that Abela has made calculated steps to win the leadership: first by rebelling against the party establishment – rejecting the so-called ‘diabolical pact’, which would have seen him serving as Fearne’s deputy – then proceeding to win the hearts of Labour voters by promising continuity with Muscat. 

Yet with the authority vested in him by party members, Abela has decided to seize the moment rather than waste time on a honeymoon. In his choice of Cabinet, he asserted his leadership credentials by sending a strong signal that his government will chart a different course.

Instead of a shuffling of posts to fill some missing places, Abela has effectively appointed a new government. This is more like what one expects after a general election than after a midterm change of leadership; but it does reflect the crisis facing the country.

It also reflects some of Abela’s new thinking: like remerging the environment with planning under Aaron Farrugia, and promoting Housing to a Ministry led by Roderick Galdes. 

He also catapulted newcomer Byron Camilleri – not even a Cabinet member under Muscat – to the Home Affairs Ministry. This indicates that Abela wanted a breath of fresh air in a sector marked by institutional paralysis. The resignation of Police Commissioner Lawrence Cutajar reinforces this perception.

Nonetheless, there remain areas of concern. Owen Bonnici will still have to prove himself to fill the shoes of veteran Evarist Bartolo in education. But the choice of Bartolo as Foreign and European Affairs Minister signals Abela’s concern with the country’s reputation: entrusting a veteran minister with repairing the massive damage done in the last years. 

As expected, Abela has not reappointed the disgraced Konrad Mizzi, and Keith Schembri has been replaced as chief-of-staff by economist Clyde Caruana: who unlike his predecessor is known for his technical credentials and not for dubious business connections. Schembri ally Neville Gafa has also resigned from the OPM, a day after he attended Abela’s inauguration.

On a more symbolic level, Abela has also offered an olive branch to civil society activists, by stopping the ridiculous removal of flowers from the makeshift shrine for Daphne Caruana Galizia opposite the law courts. These small symbolic steps count towards restoring a sense of normality in the country.

All the same, Abela has also been careful to emphasise continuity, especially with regards to Muscat’s economic model. One understands that Abela cannot afford to rock the boat in such a sensitive moment.

But he cannot ignore those sectors of society who have been overlooked by the trickle-down economic model. While recognising that wealth is not trickling down fast enough in to workers’ pockets, Abela has appealed to businesses not to forget workers.

But by also summarily shooting down the idea of introducing a living wage, as suggested by anti-poverty activist, this sounded more like an appeal to generosity rather than social justice. 

And while his decision to remerge the environment and planning in one ministry suggests a different thinking from that of Muscat, his insistence on ‘balance’ between development and environment may fall short of the need to restore a deep imbalance against the latter. 

There may even be an element of political continuity with Muscat’s political project, that of displacing the Nationalist Party as a centrist party which appeals to moderates. For cleansed of Muscat’s excesses and the corruption and laissez faire attitudes of the past years, Abela may easily reclaim this space, which Labour was at risk of losing in the past weeks.  

Abela’s demeanour may well appeal to moderates who had no qualms about Muscat’s economic policies, but were turned off by his antics.

Yet this project may fall short of addressing the need of change in the social and environmental sectors. It may also see a more cautious approach to civil liberties, and a certain reluctance to embark on radical reforms: including an overhaul of party financing rules, rules regulating meetings with lobbyists and other checks and balances. 

So far, however, Abela has shown little interest in such reforms.