[ANALYSIS] Abela’s tight-rope walk on the Caruana Galizia public inquiry

Abela walks a tight-rope to ditch the albatross around his neck, while Grech calls for Muscat’s head – knowing this strengthens the disgraced former leader’s standing with Labour’s hardcore... squabbling over the former PM’s legacy, both leaders brush off the public inquiry’s warning of the dangers of intimacy with big business

“Abela still refrains from any judgement on his predecessor’s legacy, except from hinting at Muscat’s present political irrelevance. What is significant is that Abela is now himself wearing his badge of distinction from Muscat with pride”
“Abela still refrains from any judgement on his predecessor’s legacy, except from hinting at Muscat’s present political irrelevance. What is significant is that Abela is now himself wearing his badge of distinction from Muscat with pride”

In his own characteristic way of defusing nasty situations, Prime Minister Robert Abela this week put on a brave face to immediately apologise for the shortcomings of the Maltese State, identified in a damning public inquiry report on the circumstances leading to the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia and summoning parliament from its summer recess to discuss the report.

He offered an olive branch to the Caruana Galizia family, which has been constantly vilified by Labour supporters on the social media, by inviting them for a meeting and hinting at financial compensation. Although he can go much further than this – for example, giving official recognition to Caruana Galizia’s role in exposing high-level corruption – this gesture goes a long way from the days where the shrine in memory of the slain journalist erected in front of the law courts, would be regularly vilified by Labour supporters with the connivance of the authorities.

On this front, the change is epochal.

The upside is that Abela, as he had already done after the greylisting of Malta by the FATF, is not shooting down a verdict which angers a large segment of Labour supporters by questioning its motives, and instead he has expressed his willingness to implement its recommendations and engage with critics.

One may argue that Abela had little choice in this. The inquiry itself was appointed under his predecessor’s watch and the government cannot simply ignore the results of a public inquiry, which it has appointed. Neither can any Prime Minister of a democratic EU member attack the conclusions of the judiciary without sounding authoritarian.

Seeking Nationalist approval

This suggests awareness on Abela’s part that despite his high poll ratings, he still needs the kind of legitimacy which he can only gain by distancing himself from the antics of his predecessor. Ironically it was the same approach Joseph Muscat adopted in distancing himself from old Labour to reach out to new voters. For like Muscat before him, Abela is keen on turning Labour into a natural party of government with a strong appeal to former PN voters.

The downside is that the apology is being made for the shortcomings of a faceless and nameless “State”, with Abela refraining from naming and shaming anyone, except to highlight the expulsion of Konrad Mizzi from the party’s parliamentary group and Muscat’s resignation from parliament. Abela’s mantra is that his government has carried out reforms in matters like judicial and police appointments, which show his willingness to mend what is broken in the republic.

Yet he still refrains from any judgement on his predecessor’s legacy, except from hinting at Muscat’s present political irrelevance. What is significant is that Abela is now himself wearing his badge of distinction from Muscat with pride: “The way the State functions today isn’t even recognisable from how it was in January 2020,” he said. “The State that the inquiry evaluated works completely different today.”

Quite a feat from someone who promised continuity before being elected Labour leader.

Abela’s slow revolution

But Abela’s attempt to brush away his ties with his predecessor without spilling any blood sound all too timid in contrast to the denunciation found in the inquiry report of  “an atmosphere of impunity, generated by the highest echelons at the heart of Castille and which, like an octopus, spread to other entities and regulators and the Police, leading to the collapse of rule of law”; and by the inquiry’s attribution of collective responsibility on the entire Cabinet serving under Muscat for not taking the necessary action necessary on the allegations of Caruana Galizia, particularly on those related to 17 Black. “Surely at this stage, no Cabinet member could be exonerated from the obligation to assert their voluntary judgement at that stage, that there was no place in the Cabinet for those responsible,” the inquiry said.

Abela has not only inherited ministers from the Muscat era but he himself served as Muscat’s consultant and was only elected leader after promising continuity with his disgraced predecessor.

Yet Abela is not oblivious to this criticism, and over the past year has been busy co-opting new MPs unconnected to the Muscat era. But how far can Abela’s slow revolution go?

Abela is aware that his current popularity hinges on his strategic ability to walk on a tight-rope between Muscat loyalists whom he is keen not to stir, and Labour voters who recoil at aspects of Muscat’s legacy. The public inquiry makes it even more difficult for Abela to continue in this balancing act.

And while the arraignment of Keith Schembri on a case involving corruption in the private sector may have temporarily appeased voters yearning for closure and justice, it remains to be seen whether similar arraignments will take place on cases involving corruption at government level, in cases related to 17 Black role in alleged kickbacks related to Enemalta’s Montenegro wind farm project and the Electrogas project itself.

“Business is not the plague”

While Abela seems keen on cautiously distancing himself from Muscat, he is much more cautious on distancing himself from big business.  While the inquiry report is scathing in denouncing the nexus between politicians and businessmen, describing the Panama Papers as “a testament to the mentality of association and closeness between some businessmen and public administrators who together aim to ensure that, while working to carry out large investment projects for the country, they advance their interests,” Abela in parliament made it clear to remark that business is no plague. He reiterated that businesses will find complete support in his government so that they can continue functioning.

The risk is that instead of coming up with radical reforms to create a firewall between parties and business, Abela is keen on keeping the status quo. Otherwise he would have taken this opportunity to usher in reforms on party financing by limiting private donations not just to parties, but also to the media companies they own, and possibly introducing state financing. He would also take this opportunity to swiftly approve a new code of ethics, making it obligatory for all ministers and MPs to register gifts, lunches and meetings with lobbyists.

To add insult to injury, this aspect of the report denouncing the dangers stemming from the incestuous relationship between big business and politicians, was also ignored by the Nationalist Party and was only raised by Moviment Graffitti during a protest co-organised with Repubblika.

The unwillingness to address the structural problems identified in the report risk giving the impression that what happened after 2013 was a blip or passing mistake, ignoring its deep roots in a country where over decades of different administrations, a nexus was created between big business, organized crime and politics.

One may say that by turning poachers like Keith Schembri and others into gatekeepers, Muscat had surrounded the last weak defence against state-capture by this “mafia”. But as the pre-2013 oil scandal exposed by MaltaToday showed, the problems were already there.

Between opportunism and desperation

Where does all this leave the Opposition that is still reeling from its consistent poor showing in the polls?

The reality is that like the FATF greylisting, the inquiry’s conclusions will not turn the tables. At best on this issue Grech’s best hope is that of winning the full support of groups like Repubblika and Occupy Justice, who lately have been showing some misgivings on Grech’s leadership.

While it is understandable that the Opposition raises the stakes to expose Abela’s fault lines vis-à-vis Muscat, it has to be careful in not sounding too desperate. The impression one gets is that the Opposition is keen on making it even more difficult for Abela to distance himself from Muscat by presenting him with an impossible demand: that of expelling him from the party. The PN knows that hardcore Labour voters are more likely to rally behind their disgraced former leader whenever he is attacked by the Nationalists.

This may well suggest that the PN fears that if Abela ditches Muscat, he may well be in a position to win over more Nationalist voters, in a scenario where both parties have converged to the centre-ground and are practically indistinguishable except for the corruption issue.

And while Grech’s forceful speech in parliament was scathing in exposing Abela’s quandary in dealing with Muscat’s rotten legacy, like Abela he is very economical in his words with regards to the dangers posed by the incestuous relationship between politicians and big business, a reluctance which may well stem from Grech’s own political aspirations which depend on a well-oiled electoral machine which requires funding.