Joseph’s deputy | Toni Abela

His moustache is not for shaving, but he Toni Abela foursquare behind Joseph Muscat’s drive to make Labour an ‘inclusive’, electable party.

In his role as one of Labour’s two deputy leaders, Toni Abela, who carries with him the reputation of a left-wing maverick, is keen to stress caution and moderation.

He refers to his leader on first-name basis and suggests that both are on the same wavelength in their bid to create an inclusive and conciliatory party.

For Abela, Muscat is the man of destiny.

“Joseph, I believe, is the best person to coalesce past history with what’s happening today,” he says when asked about the Labour leader’s new fondness for former Nationalist and Labour party leaders.

Abela denies reports that his party has asked him to sacrifice his trademark moustache in an alleged corporate makeover, which saw the removal of Joseph Muscat’s goatee, and Anglu Farrugia’s moustache.

“This is absolutely not true.”

So integral is the moustache to his identity that he does not even remember when he last shaved it.

“Once I grew the moustache, it stayed with me. I assure you that I have no plans to shave it. ”

Public opinion polls conducted in the past two years show the Labour Party making huge gains since Muscat became leader.

But Abela warns Labour supporters not to be overconfident on winning the next election.

“I always tell supporters that we will only know who won the election when the electoral results are published. Until that time, you cannot know who is going to win.”

On a cautious note, Abela warns that one major factor influencing election results is the “power of incumbency” of the Party in government, which according to Abela is even more an important factor in Malta, than in other countries because of the total absence of laws limiting government activity and the use of public funds over the years and in the last few months before an election.

Abela attributes the surge in the party’s popularity to two factors, the government’s unpopularity and the Labour party’s ability to project itself as a “more open minded liberal party that reacts promptly to the general complaints of all does that have fallen victim to government blunders and bad governance. ”

He also attributes the surge in popularity to Muscat’s ability to address “issue by issue” the main grievances of the electorate.

But is Muscat trying to please all and sundry, thus avoiding making any hard choices from the opposition benches?

Abela insists that this is not the case.

“Joseph is not trying to appease everybody and he is only makes proposals that are achievable. His proposals are not pies in the sky.”

What about the living wage proposal, which would quantify the wage required by individuals and families to live a decent life a bit of an abstract concept?

“Muscat is not inventing the wheel, because the living wage proposal has already been implemented in Canada and other countries. If they have achieved it, there is no reason why we cannot do the same. After all, the living wage is a Christian concept that was first put forward in the Pope Leo XIII encyclical Rerum Novarum.”

I point out that due to the voluntary nature of the proposal, employees will depend on the good will of their employers in order to benefit from it.

But according to Abela, the government can “encourage” employers to comply, by offering them a “set of incentives”.

What clearly distinguishes the Labour Party from the Nationalist Party is its economic outlook, Abela insists.

“What is happening right now is that the present government concentrates on economic growth without giving attention to individual aspirations of the citizens. We have confused two important concepts. Standard of living and quality of life, which are not one and the same thing.”

The second major difference between the two parties concerns the distribution of wealth.

“We believe in the free market, but there should be a just distribution of wealth.”

Still how can he reconcile Labour’s pledge of reducing taxation with strengthening the welfare state and keeping health free for all?  Is this not simply another example of Labour trying to appease all and sundry?

But Abela makes a clear distinction between “appeasing” and “including” different social strata.

“What we are doing is trying to include everyone in the social model we are proposing. This is not about appeasing everyone. Social inclusion is an important aspect of good governance. Trying to come to terms with everybody’s interest is an integral part of the art of governance.”

As regards the balancing act between taxation and social spending, Abela makes it clear that Labour has never talked about outright reduction of taxes – certainly not before knowing the true economic state of the government – and this would only be known if Labour Party is seated in government. Labour is, however, deeply concerned about  “excessive taxation” and not fair taxation, which is essential to guarantee the revenue needed to keep the welfare state and general expenditure afloat.

“Taxation is the main source of revenue for any government anywhere in this world. What we are saying is that we would look into excessive taxes.”

He also gives a clear example of a tax, which is of concern: the excise and duty on diesel fuel.

“A good 55% of the price of petrol paid by the consumer consists of taxes.  We are saying that this is excessive. This is something which is being done in the United Kingdom.”

Abela also sees this as a way of alleviating the pressure of increasing oil prices on the consumer.

“We do understand that if international oil prices increase, there is very little one can do. But we can try unburden the consumer from having to sulk under the weight of unreasonable taxes that are government induced.”

Creating a level playing field for consumer will be one of the major priorities of a new Labour government.

“When it comes to inflation, the government has rendered itself a

spectator, manifestly falling short of its responsibilities of putting the regulatory authorities in place.”

Abela does not advocate a return to direct government intervention in the way markets function, but calls on the government to strengthen regulatory authorities.  One area, which deserves special attention, is medicine prices.

“Some people are being impoverished because of medicine prices, and government sits pretty saying a lot without doing much to address the situation save for publicity stunts that don’t change anything.”

An issue Labour has not taken a position on is divorce. While the Labour leader has committed himself to campaign for a ‘yes’ vote, the party will remain non-committal. Isn’t this situation absurd?

Abela disagrees with my interpretation, turning the tables on the PN.

“What is contradictory is the way the Nationalist party is tackling the issue, by having the party against divorce and at the same time conceding a free vote. This is what I call a highly contradictory political stance. This is a way of trying to appease and compromise with both conservatives and libertarians.”

On the other hand, Abela believes that the PL has been consistent in leaving the matter at the “absolute discretion of the individual.”

“Muscat is saying that he is a leader is in favour of divorce but has always expressed his opposition to imposing his views on others. That is why the party has not taken a stand. The party would have been in overt contradiction to declare itself in favour of divorce while advocating a free vote. We would have ended up in the same contradictory position of the Nationalist Party.”

According to Abela, Joseph Muscat has been consistent in his approach way back – nearly two years ago – when he first expressed his view on this matter.

But this decision leaves us with one party (the Nationalist Party) against divorce and the other party represented in parliament (the Labour Party) non-committal. Since the referendum law states that only parties represented in parliament can be involved in the scrutiny of the referendum process, this creates an imbalance against non-party movements that are campaigning in favour or against the introduction of divorce.

Abela agrees that this situation is not desirable, and something has to be done to address this imbalance, since the debate on divorce is not a partisan matter.

“The two movements campaigning for and against divorce should be given some kind of right – although not on the same footing of political parties – to participate in the scrutiny of the voting process in the same way as the PN and the PL. This, of course, is strictly my personal opinion.”

One notable difference between former leader Alfred Sant and Joseph Muscat is that while the former leader used to constantly denounce the networks of “friends of friends” and “barons,” Muscat has toned down this approach.

Abela attributes this to a difference of a change in world outlook, which he sees as the result of a generational change.

“Inevitably, Joseph Muscat comes from a generation different from that of Alfred Sant. Muscat’s world outlook is different and reflects the times we’re living in. This is what makes him the right leader in the right time for the Labour Party. Joseph Muscat has adopted a different political language. This does not mean that those who came before him were wrong. It means that Joseph is responding to change.”

Another change in the Labour Party is that Muscat has been more willing to come to terms with the party’s past by celebrating the merits of Dom Mintoff’s government in the 1970s, and at the same time praising past Nationalist leaders like George Borg Olivier and even Nerik Mizzi.

“Again Joseph is showing himself to be a man of our times. He is sending a message of what I call historical conciliation… something which we rarely come across in a highly polarised country. He recognises that each party has given its contribution to the constitutional and political development of the country, albeit in different historical contexts. He does not shy away from praising past and present political adversaries, despite opening himself to the criticism from the more partisan elements on both sides of the political fence.”

But by praising Labour governments in the 1970s, isn’t Muscat open to the criticism that he is glossing over far less positive aspects of Labour rule, especially in the 1980s?

Abela is adamant on not rehabilitating these negative aspects of the Labour leader, and insists that Muscat is on the same wavelength.

“It is not the first time that Joseph, myself and other party officials admitted that the 70s had their good side and their bad side. What we are saying, however, is that the in the 70s had positive moments which many are wont to forget out of political

revisionism… there were a lot of political blunders, some by design and others by accident. Blunders that, in some way or another, the major political characters of the time committed. However, notwithstanding the downside, the 70s and late 80s were also the economic foundation upon which a Nationalist government could safely build its projects during the last 22 years.”

He also refers to the exhibition commemorating the party’s 90th anniversary.

“Anyone visiting it could not help observe that the unpleasant political episodes of the 1970s and 1980s were not overlooked.”

But Abela goes one step forward than other party exponents, describing these episodes as “unpardonable” and the work of a handful of undesirable elements.

“History calls upon us not to make the same mistakes and we are determined to answer this call. I myself was a victim of those moments, having had to resign from the party in 1989 after having denounced those that had marred us.”

One of the legacies of the 70s was a close relationship between Malta and Gaddafi’s Libya. With the hindsight of recent events – which revealed the brutality of the regime – how does Abela assess this special relationship?

Abela immediately points out that this relationship was not a plain sailing one, but had its ups and downs.

He also disputes the idea that the Labour Party was the only Maltese party that has wooed the Gaddafi regime.

“Only recently, just a few days before the eruption of the civil war, our Prime Minister felt like visiting him in the now familiar Bedouin tent.”

Abela does not deny that there were positive aspects in the relationship with Libya noting that when the Labour Party got elected to government in 1971 and found the public coffers literally empty, it was only thanks to Libya we had an economic start.

“Suffice to remind your readers that at the time, the government did not have the funds to meet the public sector bill.”

However, later on in the early 80s, he recalls that when Malta tried to explore oil, Libya intervened with its military to stop it from exploring the seabed “in waters that – internationally speaking – are ours”.

He also recalls that, when Mintoff and Gaddafi were at loggerheads, “strangely enough, the Nationalist Party started to flirt with the Libyan government instead of backing the legitimate claims of the Maltese.”

But why has the Labour Party kept silent on events in Libya during the past weeks?

Abela begs to differ. Being cautious is not the same thing as being silent.

“Unfortunately, at this moment in time, an island like Malta has to take decisions which might not be popular, but in the interest of the country. This why the Labour Party has been foursquare behind the government on this issue.”

The Labour Party has distanced itself from any statement suggesting approval of the Libyan regime’s actions, but at the same time, it has not condemned Gaddafi. Why was the party failed to do so?

“There aren’t two ways, there is also the third way… I think we have managed to perform positively in this situation by declaring ourselves that we are ready to provide humanitarian aid to those who need it. As the Prime Minister has rightly put it, Malta has a humanitarian mission to accomplish.”

One of the interesting aspects of the current crisis is that the Nationalist government has discovered a new enthusiasm for Malta’s neutrality to justify its refusal to participate in a military intervention authorised by the UN Security Council.

He observes that in the past, the government did not give much importance to neutrality.

He recalls that back in 2002, during the controversy on ship repairs on the USS Lasalle, the government was claiming that neutrality was an anachronism.

Now that same government is invoking neutrality to justify why we should not participate in any military action – when in truth even we participate due to the state of affairs – it is not, legally speaking, in breach of the constitution.

“Strictly speaking, had we approved of Malta being used as a military base, I think that we would have been in line with the constitution since it allows such participation as long that it follows UN Security Council’s resolutions.”

In this sense, therefore, according to Abela, the government has gone a step forward from strictly invoking constitutional neutrality.

“It has moved to a more practical neutrality based on pragmatism or should we call it realpolitik”.