This prime minister is for turning: the costly moves of Robert Abela

Is Malta’s PM Robert Abela pushing the envelope with his electorate when testing the waters of public opinion before performing an about-turn? MATTHEW VELLA on the cuts that hurt the most...

Maltese prime minister Robert Abela has been hit by a trifecta of political debacles that appear to replicate the storm that presaged demise of the Gonzi II administration back in 2009. Now, political U-turns, bad optics, and infrastructural challenges are souring Labour’s electoral soup.

Abela is contending with unprecedented blackouts across the Maltese islands that have raised the public’s ire, hot on the heels of national outrage over his obstinate refusal to have a public inquiry into the Kordin construction tragedy that claimed the life of young Jean Paul Sofia.

2023 has been a clamorous year for Labour: it is suffering a major fall-out on the Muscat legacy due to the Vitals-Steward privatisation fiasco and major allegations of fraud and corruption. But with the Sofia inquiry vote, a further emotional cord with the administration has been severed – the polls show as much, with Labour voters refusing to commit their vote in the face of such egregious decisions.

The timing of the Sofia protests, with nationwide blackouts exposing weaknesses in Malta’s electricity distribution system, have left widespread bitterness across the nation. The thousandth cut, the final straw, the reminder of all things wrong... and Abela’s last three years in power are now revealing a particular pattern.

The Sofia inquiry

Abela had been categorical about refusing the PN’s call for a public inquiry, parallel to the Kordin magisterial inquiry, into construction deaths, a campaign spearheaded by the grieving mother of Jean Paul Sofia. That position was crowned by his parliamentary group voting against the PN motion for an inquiry. But the image of the Sofia family railing at the Labour MPs from the Strangers Gallery became an enduring image of justified rage, prompting national opprobrium for Labour.

Suffering the consternation of a wide part of the electorate, Abela appeared careless as he was snapped ploughing out of his troubled Maltese waters for his Ragusan weekender – with baseball cap in reverse and dressed in holiday mode – on his swanky Azimut 50 yacht, an image of wealth that smacked of disdain for an enraged public.

The tide turned almost immediately, with Abela meeting Sofia’s mother to announce the public inquiry as a vigil for Sofia to be attended by thousands outside Castille beckoned.

The PM then seemed to have torn the political playbook when on the Monday evening of announcing the public inquiry, he exited Castille an hour after the Sofia vigil had come to an end, only to be booed by the stragglers leaving the protest. Had he tried to bait the partisan haters in the crowd? But no prime minister should ever allow himself to be seen humiliated in public...

A week later: the blackout crisis – an unprecedented week-long saga of power cuts brought about by faulty underground cables, overheating and the new ‘abnormal’ from the planetary climate crisis. Next in line, a potential milk shortage due to power cuts at the Malta Dairy Products plant (and the summer heat naturally affecting cow milk production).

Storms past: Gonzi II

Like Abela, Nationalist prime minister Lawrence Gonzi too displayed a stubborn attitude in the face of complex economic and infrastructural challenges in his second legislature.

Unable to solve the island’s energy problems and its debt-ridden energy plant, hypocrisy in the face of a growing demand for civil liberties, scorned political alliances and an uneasy one-seat majority, Gonzi endured the demise of a once-powerful Nationalist administration under pressure from the international financial crisis and its effects on Maltese industrial production.

While Robert Abela did meet the challenge of the global COVID pandemic head-on with a generous package of wage and business relief, as well as tax-funded vouchers to inject a consumer sugar-rush in the economy, the blackouts of summer 2023 have marred Labour’s much vaunted investment in energy.

The planetary climate crisis is turning every single summer abnormally hot, spiking Malta’s energy demand. But this reality cannot be decoupled by Labour’s pro-growth model: construction full speed ahead and the use of foreign workers for low labour costs.

This reality has exacerbated Malta’s infrastructural pressures, traffic woes, and the social issues from rising rental rates and communities complaining of bad neighbourliness. It truly shows that a blackout during the feelgood days of 2015, is simply not the same as a blackout under the scuffed and dented brand that Labour is today.

Abortion U-turn

In what was yet to become Labour’s most radical innovation in its historical record of upholding civil liberties, the administration announced Bill 28, a law to allow doctors to effect terminations on women when pregnancy is endangering their health. The law traced its roots to the case of Andrea Prudente, an American tourist who was forced to transfer to Spain after needing an abortion while on holiday in Malta. Prudente started miscarrying and despite being told by doctors that her pregnancy was not viable was denied an abortion.

Back in November 2022 when the Second Reading stage of Bill 28 started in parliament, Abela and several other Labour MPs made a whole-hearted defence of the proposed amendment, especially the aspect that spoke of protecting women’s health. The underpinning argument was that Prudente and women in her predicament should never be allowed to reach a stage where their life is put at risk before doctors could intervene.

But seven months down the line government backtracked on its core principle to protect women’s health, despite the rhetoric saying otherwise. The new wording of Bill 28 will not solve the dilemma created in the Prudente case – consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist Mark Sant has said as much.

Environment: Marsaskala yacht marina

Abela’s style of leadership is not new to sudden U-turns or attempts at testing the patience of civil society.

In February 2022, the controversial Marsaskala yacht marine was finally dropped after months-long campaigning from residents and civil society groups. But for months before, Labour proponents refused to give in to the justifiable anger of residents. Again, the Labour administration has faced countless community protests across many Maltese villages facing the onslaught of the construction lobby since 2013. So did the Gonzi II administration as an embattled government faced more localised anger inside PN-leaning communities such as Sliema who felt disenfranchised by the loss of open spaces around Tigné.

Foreign policy: Russian passports

Abela with former prime minister Joseph Muscat
Abela with former prime minister Joseph Muscat

On the foreign policy front, Robert Abela opposed the immediate suspension opf Russian applicants from Malta’s cash-for-passport scheme. Abela had insisted Malta’s golden passports scheme was robust. After weeks of criticism, Abela suspended all applications by Russians and Belarusians from the controversial scheme. It was a dramatic change of stance that came on the back of mounting pressure from the international community not to give wealthy Russians a backdoor into Europe following its invasion of Ukraine. Abela, who in the past used his own Zejtun address to ‘lend’ it for two Russian passport applicants to buy Maltese citizenship, insisted his decision to stop passport sales to Russians was “not a u-turn” even though just 24 hours early the government had defended the scheme. “On the contrary, the decision [to suspend] was taken by the authorities after they carried out the necessary assessment and came to their conclusion. This shows that the authorities do their work well and that the country is serious,” he said.

Public defence of MPs, before acting

Again, reacting to a public backlash, Abela was forced to act on MP Rosianne Cutajar over her relationship with magnate Yorgen Fenech (accused of masterminding the Caruana Galizia assassination) at a time when the MP was suspected of secretly benefiting from the Tumas CEO’s largesse. Even when found guilty of an ethics breach by the Standards Commissioner over the Mdina property sale, Cutajar was allowed to contest the 2022 elections on the Labour ticket.

But it was only after her private WhatsApp chats with Fenech were produced in a defamation lawsuit against Mark Camilleri that her position became untenable. Only two weeks before, Abela was defending Cutajar, to the extent of calling the publication of the WhatsApp chats, “misogynistic”, and arguing that the MP had already shouldered political responsibility when she resigned as Parliamentary Secretary in 2021. Abela seemed to now think that the MP’s infamous “pigging-out” comment in the chats merited the MP’s expulsion because of the public backlash against her sense of entitlement.