100 days of Robert Abela: Life in soporific times

In his 100 days since his first electoral mandate, Abela has presented himself as safe pair of hands in a time of crisis but controversy simmering as various issues is bound to test Labour’s cohesion in the next months. James Debono looks back at the past 100 days

Like Lawrence Gonzi during the financial crisis after 2008, Abela portrays himself as a no-nonsense PM with a steady pair of hands presiding the country in testing times
Like Lawrence Gonzi during the financial crisis after 2008, Abela portrays himself as a no-nonsense PM with a steady pair of hands presiding the country in testing times

After being elected on his own steam with a super-majority, Robert Abela has shunned the limelight (and a good part of the press) to focus on management amidst a global crisis triggered by war in Ukraine which brought inflation pressures to the fore.

Like Lawrence Gonzi during the financial crisis after 2008, Abela portrays himself as a no-nonsense PM with a steady pair of hands presiding the country in testing times. Compared with a shambolic opposition and the excesses of his predecessor, Abela gives peace of mind which may well give the country some respite.

Crowning achievements and lingering problems

The removal of Malta from the FATF greylist boosted the government’s credentials in taking the necessary action to restore Malta’s reputation. For by removing Malta from the greylist in the space of a year, FATF has certified concerted action to address various shortcomings in controlling the flow of dirty money.

Yet this was not matched in similar zeal for reforms aimed at fighting corruption, regulating lobbying and limiting the number persons of trust, as confirmed by the latest report by the Council of Europe anti-corruption watchdog GRECO. And the lack of progress in solving the various mysteries related to various spin-offs of Panamagate and Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination risk leaving the country in a state of collective amnesia, as the events leading to the downfall of Abela’s disgraced predecessor become a distant and forgotten memory. In this sense Malta risks being plagued by the ghosts of mysteries left unsolved as happened to Italy in the frivolous 1980s, after its so-called “years of lead”.

Abela’s Cabinet sweep

Abela defused tension by avoiding needless controversies generated by controversial members of his pre-election cabinet. Ian Borg was transferred from roads to foreign affairs, Edward Zammit Lewis, Rosianne Cutajar and Carmelo Abela were left in the cold while Miriam Dalli, Clyde Caruana and Aaron Farrugia, three ministers with a more technocratic approach to politics, were regaled with super-ministries in charge of vital sectors like energy, the environment, the economy, infrastructure and the country’s finances.

In so doing he is also following in Gonzi’s footsteps after his 2008 re-election. But while Gonzi’s bold move to leave out former ministers like Jesmond Mugliette and popular politicians like Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando in the cold, further destabilised his one-seat majority. Abela’s super majority gives him the gravitas and authority required to assert his authority.

The soporific effect

In this sense while Gonzi’s honeymoon was short and his exclusion of prominent party figures presaged trouble, Abela’s style of leadership has had a soporific effect on the nation, as people have switched off from politics after passing through a political crisis in 2019, a pandemic between 2020 and 2021 and an electoral campaign three months ago.

Abela has also sedated the nation by keeping himself away from the fray, avoiding bruising interviews and simply not reacting even when faced by serious blunders like that of the Attorney General in the bribery charges against Yorgen Fenech’s lawyers. And while the de-escalation of political confrontation does help in reducing partisan tension, Abela risks looking detached from everyday life problems.

In this sense the perception of Abela as a “patrician politician” who has always had it good in life, also thanks to lucrative contracts awarded by the Gonzi administration, may well be his Achilles’ heel especially if inflationary pressures push more people in to the brink of poverty.

The cost of living is back

Abela has succeeded in projecting himself as a safe pair of hands, but inflation is taking a bite from wages, which were already stagnating during the best of times under his predecessor. The cost of living which dominated the list of public concerns before 2013 has returned back with a vengeance. The only silver lining was that Malta was spared from energy hikes thanks to the hedging on gas prices, but it remains to be seen whether this will remain the case.

And with little political will to rock the boat by raising the minimum wage, Labour still banks on the trickle-down from sustained economic growth. That also explains why Abela is hesitant on a host of other issues like the need to regulate the gig economy and the exploitation of foreign workers. But now he also needs to address immediate concerns, and expectations are high for income supplements in the next budget to make up for loss of income. In this sense the EU’s relaxation of budgetary rules during the pandemic, has proved providential to Malta.

IVF yes, abortion maybe?

Following Joseph Muscat’s playbook, Abela also used his honeymoon period to deliver a major liberal reform in the shape of a new law aimed at widening access to IVF, which has further destabilised the PN and exposed Bernard Grech’s weakness as he flip-flopped in another major U-turn on PGD testing. Yet while Abela can easily project his party as more liberal then the PN, abortion may well be for Abela what divorce was to Gonzi, where he may well end up being overtaken by exponents in his own party.

While there are clear signs of trepidation in the aftermath of the Prudente case, Abela may be more flexible in assessing where the debate is heading. Abela has kept his silence on this issue, but Chris Fearne’s announcement of a review of abortion laws in the wake of the Prudente case offers an opportunity for Labour to further test the waters.

A balancing act?

The next move was honouring the pledge to shift the American University from Zonqor to Smart City, in a bid to greenwash his government while still accommodating developers who will benefit from an intensification of development in the area. And with the Planning Board not meeting due to a major hiccup in the appointment of its chairman, the honeymoon was not marred by decisions on major projects.

But much more lies in store in the next months with major decisions on road projects and land reclamation being in the offing, amidst talk on “the need to balance environmental and economic considerations” – which is also reminiscent of the Gonzi administration: having delivered a knock-out blow to the environment through the extension of building boundaries in 2006, it became more cautious after 2008.

But like Gonzi before him, Abela shows no willingness to change the rules of the planning game and his party is at a loss when faced by civil society resistance like Graffitti’s actions in Comino.

Clearly under Abela, Labour’s love affair with big developers continues with permits still being dished to whet the appetite of the likes of Joseph Portelli. But Abela is increasingly vulnerable to criticism from Labour’s own grassroots. And Labour officials with an axe to grind, are now more likely to tap in to discontentment on environmental issues to send a message to Abela.

While the second Gonzi administration was characterized by stagnation, Abela is keen on pressing the accelerator after two years of COVID restrictions and now the impact of the war… and this will make the search for balance even more difficult and elusive. So one may expect a greater attempt to square the circle and to redefine the balance.