[WATCH] Robotic Abela enjoys upper hand as Grech adopts combative mode in first TV debate

Robert Abela vs Bernard Grech | Kurt Sansone and James Debono give a post-mortem of the first televised debate between the PL and PN leaders

Robert Abela and Bernard Grech went head to head for the first time on television in a Broadcasting Authority debate chaired by journalist Liam Carter
Robert Abela and Bernard Grech went head to head for the first time on television in a Broadcasting Authority debate chaired by journalist Liam Carter

Robert Abela enjoyed the upper hand in his first televised debate with Bernard Grech, although this is unlikely to be an election game changer.

The Labour leader arrived late for the debate that was recorded at TVM on Wednesday morning, leaving his rival waiting nervously inside the studio for around 20 minutes.

Abela joked about his lateness, saying he was studying the Nationalist Party’s manifesto costings that had just been published in a statement.

The debate organised by the Broadcasting Authority and chaired by TVM journalist Liam Carter saw Grech adopt a combative stance as he tried to reach out to an undecided audience by undermining Abela’s trust.

The PN leader touched on a few weak points that Abela had to respond to but failed to quantify proposals in pounds, shillings and pence so that his audience could understand how their pockets will be better off under a Nationalist government.

Abela took few risks, delivering a solid albeit scripted performance. The PL leader touched a number of raw nerves like disunity on the PN side but also emphasised deliverables that can be translated into monetary benefits for voters.

Abela’s attempts to fend off allegations of impropriety involving his Żejtun villa by turning the tables on Grech were somewhat lame. The building irregularities in Grech’s Mosta house were insignificant when compared to the illegalities at the Żejtun villa, which Abela eventually bought a few days after the PA sanctioned it.

But the Prime Minister had a few messages he wanted to get across and made sure of delivering them clearly, even if he overshot his time allocation on several occasions.

These are five take-aways for each of the leaders from Wednesday’s debate: 


Robert Abela
Robert Abela

1. The devil you know: ‘You know where you stand with us’

Abela’s message to voters was that in times of uncertainty triggered by the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, they should rally behind the devil they know which had already proven itself in managing the pandemic.

He forcefully contrasted the “calm, stability and certainty” offered by his leadership with lingering divisions in the PN. He also repeatedly challenged Bernard Grech to state how much he will raise pensions, contrasting this with the Labour Party’s firm commitment to increase pensions by €15 a week.  Abela’s ability to translate the party’s manifesto in clear deliverables rather than vague commitments as Grech often did, was his greatest strength in the debate. He had a message to deliver and ensured it got delivered well.

2. The plank in your eye: ‘You had built your Mosta villa illegally’

It was Grech who threw the spotlight on himself by starting the debate rebutting the “lies” said about him and accusing Abela of sending a drone to film his villa.  But Abela’s attempt to turn the tables on Grech was over the top, considering that the Planning Authority had sanctioned very minor irregularities, which were immediately deemed acceptable by the authorities.

In contrast, Abela had bought a villa three months after the PA board had regularised its sizeable expansion in an ODZ area in a case characterised by conflicting policy interpretations. There is very little in common between the two cases, irrespective of the Prime Minister’s attempt to blame Grech for having his own planning ills.

3. Broken record: ‘You sent the wrong message by saying Malta is not full up’

Robert Abela raised the migration issue despite not featuring high in people's concerns in this electoral campaign
Robert Abela raised the migration issue despite not featuring high in people's concerns in this electoral campaign

When Grech was elected PN leader, Abela immediately challenged him to state whether Malta is full up or not with reference to migration. Grech simply had refused to engage in such non-sense in a country, which has seen a massive increase of population during the past decade. This episode was awkwardly resurrected by Abela who now claims that by refusing to agree with him that Malta is full up, Grech was weakening Malta’s position within the EU - a far-fetched claim considering that Abela’s antics like hosting migrants on pleasure ships also failed to ruffle any feathers in the EU.

Abela who also insisted that he would never put any life at risk, could have resurrected this episode to reassure the dormant anti-immigrant vote that he had the best policy on migration. In another instant, Abela accused Grech of supporting a magisterial inquiry against him and the army commander that had been requested by NGO Repubblika. It was strange that Abela should play the migration card when the issue has not featured as a concern in this campaign.

4. The Portelli connection: ‘The Sannat permit is not definitive’

The PA approved a massive block of flats in Sannat a few days after Robert Abela was entertained at a dinner by several Gozitan developers
The PA approved a massive block of flats in Sannat a few days after Robert Abela was entertained at a dinner by several Gozitan developers

Abela was forced to address the insinuation by Grech that the permit issued to developer Joe Portelli in Sannat for a massive block of flats was conditioned by a meeting the PM had with Gozitan businessmen, including Portelli. But Abela’s reaction was lame when he stated the obvious that the permit, like any other permit, is not definitive and can be appealed.

What Abela did not say is that it will be NGOs and the public who will bear the costs of such an appeal. If the over-stretched e-NGOs do not fork out money of their own pockets or resort to crowd funding from citizens, the permit will be eventually become final. Abela’s argument would be stronger and more convincing if a public authority like ERA appeals the permit. Abela categorically denied that he received a €200,000 donation from Portelli as claimed by Grech and insisted that he never talked to Portelli on this permit.

5. The risk of arrogance: ‘The greater the victory, the humbler we will become’

Abela knows that one factor militating against him is the fear that if Labour is re-elected by the same majority, or even bigger, it would become more arrogant and ride rough shod over any opposition. Abela was keen to emphasise that the greater the majority the humbler he will be. This was an attempt to reach out to voters still jittery about the happenings in 2019 that led to Joseph Muscat’s resignation.

But judging by the campaign itself it was the fear of Labour losing its super majority, which made Labour responsive to civil society campaigns like that against a yacht marina in Marsaskala or the AUM project in Zonqor Point.  The question remains; when the dust settles and Labour is reconfirmed in power with a solid majority, will it remain so sensitive to public opinion? Abela says ‘yes’ but it remains to be seen whether the electorate will be convinced.

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Bernard Grech
Bernard Grech

1. Embracing the anti-vax: ‘If you want a dictatorship… vote for Robert Abela’

Bernard Grech’s closing address included a pitch against “oppression”, citing as an example the restrictions introduced during the pandemic to control the spread of the virus. He likened Abela’s running of the country to a dictatorship: “If you want a dictatorship in this country, vote for Robert Abela… if you want more oppression vote for Robert Abela.”

But he then called the restrictions introduced throughout the pandemic as “exaggerated” and a curb on individual freedoms. “I want you to look towards the future… live better, be free and not have a government use the pandemic to cut down on your freedom,” Grech said, in an attempt to pander to a section of the population that has been protesting the use of face masks, restrictions and in some cases refusing the anti-COVID vaccine. “I want COVID measures that are reasonable like the rest of the EU,” Grech insisted.

It was strange that the PN leader should use the arguments championed by the Maltese anti-vax movement in his concluding pitch, especially when Grech’s more sober reaction to people’s concerns when cases started to rise throughout the pandemic was well-received by many people.

Grech’s fearmongering on Abela’s yearning for a stronger mandate may resonate with a section of the electorate that is still jittery about the events of 2019 but going as far as calling Abela’s two years in power a dictatorship may be stretching the argument too far. If anything, the risks of a stronger mandate are arrogance and rampant nepotism. And linking ‘dictatorship’ with COVID restrictions does little justice to the necessary sacrifices done by everyone over the past couple of years to control the pandemic. If anything, Malta’s restrictions were far less onerous than those in European countries where total lockdowns and curfews were the norm.

2. Trust attack: ‘Lies, lies, lies’

Grech tried to use the debate to undermine people’s trust in the Prime Minister, repeatedly accusing him of spreading lies. It was a strategy to attack Abela on what has proved to be his strongest asset – trust. Surveys have consistently shown that Abela is trusted far more than Grech.

By referring to Abela’s earnings as a Planning Authority lawyer, his purchase of a sprawling Żejtun villa on the cheap soon after it was sanctioned, and a property deal with a businessman charged with kidnapping, Grech attempted to characterise the Prime Minister as a self-interested individual.

“A person who earned €28,000 a month cannot understand you and that is why he is not credible on social issues. He cannot understand how you can live with €500,” Grech told his audience. “Lies, lies, lies… it is untrue works on my property were illegal,” Grech rebutted when Abela accused him of illegalities at his Mosta residence. Grech’s strong words were a clear attempt to erode Abela’s credibility, telling voters that the Prime Minister cannot be trusted to keep his word.

Grech then insisted a Nationalist government will increase pensions and the minimum wage, and refund money from overcharged utilities. The PN leader insisted that with him at the helm, a PN government would offer “peace of mind” and allow people to live better.

But Grech’s pitch was not accompanied by raw numbers that could be easily understood by his viewers. Grech was unable to quantify the increase a PN government would give pensioners and while the attack on Abela’s credibility may have resonated with some viewers, it lacked the killer punch because the alternative offered was bereft of quantifiable detail.

3. Off script: ‘Throw Joseph Muscat under the bus’

Bernard Grech portrayed Joseph Muscat as a victim of Robert Abela in a strange twist to the PN script of the past five years
Bernard Grech portrayed Joseph Muscat as a victim of Robert Abela in a strange twist to the PN script of the past five years

In a peculiar twist to the script the PN has been following over the past five years, Grech avoided any reference to Joseph Muscat’s government and its ills. Instead, in three instances, Grech tried to portray Muscat as a victim of Abela’s untrustworthiness.

In the first instance when denying he built his private residence illegally, Grech played the Muscat card: “Robert Abela attributes his ills to others… you cannot trust him. Joseph Muscat trusted him and appointed him advisor. By any chance, Robert Abela, was your advice to Joseph Muscat intended to let him crash into the wall?”

On the second occasion, Grech criticised Abela’s inability to create new economic sectors and instead ride high on his predecessor’s surplus. “Robert Abela squandered the surplus that Joseph Muscat left him,” Grech hit out, in a clear departure from PN’s previous criticism of the surplus.

The third instance saw Grech picking on the Prime Minister’s statement that his government had inherited a list of 58 deficiencies flagged by the Moneyval report, which had to be corrected. Abela said the deficiencies were historic and went back to previous Nationalist administrations. But Grech was quick to point out that Abela had just “thrown Joseph Muscat under the bus” when using the word ‘inherited’.

The portrayal of Muscat as a victim may have been intended to pander to those Labour voters, who still believe Muscat was a better leader than Abela. According to a survey published by the Times of Malta on Tuesday, 30% of Labour voters believe Muscat was better than Abela.

It will be impossible to know whether Grech’s attempt to curry favour with Muscat sympathisers will reap results but it certainly jarred with the PN’s relentless and at times justified criticism of the former prime minister over the past five years.

4. Trackless fiasco: ‘We will widen roads where necessary’

The PN's trackless tram will require some roads to be widened, Bernard Grech has now confirmed
The PN's trackless tram will require some roads to be widened, Bernard Grech has now confirmed

A key proposal of the PN manifesto was the trackless tram. But the proposal has been dogged by inadequate explanations from party exponents whenever asked for details on how the tram will use existing road infrastructure. After two versions of how the trackless tram will use road space, Grech put forward a third version. He made it clear that where necessary roads will be widened to create a dedicated lane for the trackless tram. This contradicts the previous explanations given by Ryan Callus and Toni Bezzina.

Callus had said during a Broadcasting Authority TV transmission that the tram will run on a dedicated lane in arterial and distributor roads, taking up one of the existing lanes. This, he had said, was necessary so that no additional agricultural land will be taken up.

However, a day later, Toni Bezzina denied roads will be reduced to a single lane, insisting existing road space will be “rationalised” to include a third dedicated lane for the trackless tram, without explaining how this could be squeezed in without being a safety hazard.

Grech said the trackless tram will be punctual, environmentally friendly, silent and ready in five years, adding: “The trackless tram will not be stuck in traffic… we will widen roads where necessary.”

His explanation was the more logical of the three but the inability to voice this when the tram proposal was launched created a feeling of unpreparedness and brought back memories of the Arriva fiasco during the Gonzi years.

5. Peace of mind: ‘Pro-business, not part of business’

Grech’s best was when he outlined the PN’s vision to create 10 new economic sectors and making a clear pledge not to increase taxes, VAT and National Insurance. “We are pro-business but not part of business,” Grech insisted in an attempt to draw a distinction between himself and Abela. “I will not be in cahoots with a criminal businessman. I will not rent my villa to Russian tycoons,” he continued.

Grech said the new sectors will create jobs that will pay good wages like the gaming sector. He said development will be important but it will not be the only sector the country will depend on. Grech said the PN’s electoral manifesto would cost €6 billion but will generate €42 billion and 32,000 jobs. “A PN government is a guarantee of peace of mind and a strong economy,” he insisted.

This was a rare instance throughout the debate when Grech put forward numbers to strengthen his arguments. However, another flagship PN proposal, the introduction of ESG criteria, was only fleetingly mentioned. The PN’s manifesto is replete with references to ESG criteria (environmental, social and governance criteria) which businesses and organisations will need to adopt to benefit from tax credits and other measures proposed by the party.

It was evident throughout the campaign that ESG was little understood as a concept. In the debate, Grech only made an occasional reference to ESG, and only after it was raised by Abela as an additional cost to businesses.