[ANALYSIS] Trust me, I’m your next PM: how Fearne and Abela compare

LONG READ | Labour Party members will choose their next leader in January. But the winner will also be Malta’s next prime minister. KURT SANSONE takes a look at the aspirants and the context in which they will do battle

Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne (left) and Labour MP Robert Abela (right)
Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne (left) and Labour MP Robert Abela (right)

The context: the dark cloud of murder

Joseph Muscat’s departure had to be a grand exit but it turned sour the moment his most trusted aide was implicated in Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination.

The Prime Minister now leaves in a storm of protests and under the dark cloud of murder hanging over his office.

Muscat’s resignation became inevitable after the name of his former chief-of-staff Keith Schembri cropped up during court testimony in the Caruana Galizia murder case.

The jury is still out as to whether Muscat had to step down immediately – thousands have taken to the streets demanding he leave now, a chorus that has been joined by some senior Labour exponents – or stick to his plan to leave in January.

But the whole affair has spiralled into a political crisis that has jammed the country to a halt.

There are historical precedents of party leaders stepping down while occupying the post of prime minister – Dom Mintoff did it in 1984 and Eddie Fenech Adami did it in 2004.

Muscat’s departure, though, comes as a forced exit determined by circumstances he had no control over.

It is within this convoluted situation of unprecedented proportions that Labour Party members will be choosing not only their new leader but Malta’s next prime minister.

Chris Fearne and Robert Abela were the only two to put forward their name as contestants when nominations closed last week.

The two-horse race means that the decision about who will succeed Muscat will be taken directly by party members on 11 January. It will be the first time in the party’s history that the leader will be elected by party members and not just delegates.

But with the Muscat glue melting away it will be up to the next leader to determine the best way forward for a bruised party and a wounded country
But with the Muscat glue melting away it will be up to the next leader to determine the best way forward for a bruised party and a wounded country

The party: melting glue

There is no doubt that under Muscat’s leadership the Labour Party transformed into a broad church that delivered massive electoral victories in the past decade.

Muscat sought to transform the party into a movement that brought to together traditional Labourites, moderates and liberals. In some instances, there was little that connected the different factions except Muscat’s persona, his can-do attitude and the political acumen that could anticipate concerns and aspirations.

The PL transformed from a party opposed to EU membership that scorned gay marriage as an imposition from the EU, to a party in government that led Malta’s first presidency of the EU and legislated for wide-ranging and revolutionary civil liberties.

It transformed from a party that frowned upon privatisation to a party that embraced big business. And this was all thanks to Muscat’s mantra that placed economic growth as a precursor to social justice.

Within this change, Muscat’s PL welcomed within its fold scorned Nationalists and pushed them forward as part of its mission statement, ‘you may not agree with us but you can work with us’. He also brought in people with no roots in the PL, who helped inject a more business-like and managerial attitude.

The party transformed into a mean campaign machine that trounced its political opponents at every turn.

Labour in government delivered economic and social progress, stability and gave Malta a greater standing in the EU. This stellar trajectory was not without its problems.

The environment took a back seat, big business increasingly appeared as if it called the shots and ordinary Labourites felt that PN converts were preferred to the ‘soldiers of steel’. Others in the country felt that cronyism and nepotism increased, and law and order took a nose dive.

But everything was kept together by Muscat and the calming effects of financial well-being that benefitted many families.

The strains caused by the Panama Papers scandal in 2016 that exposed the offshore companies of Konrad Mizzi and the Prime Minister’s former chief-of-staff Keith Schembri, were forgotten after Labour’s historic win in the 2017 general election.

However, the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia in October of 2017 rocked the country. Muscat tried to lead, promising that “no stone will be left unturned” in the murder investigation.

But as the Prime Minister aspired for normality in the months that followed – it also led the PL to another historic victory in the European Parliament last May – nothing could prepare the country for what happened last month.

The police arrested businessman Yorgen Fenech as the mastermind behind Caruana Galizia’s murder, the middleman in the crime was given a presidential pardon and fingers started being pointed at Keith Schembri.

What should have been Muscat’s moment of glory – priding himself in having the murder solved under his watch – turned into his downfall.

After having defended Schembri’s Panama escapade for three years, Muscat had to deal with the fallout of having his most trusted aide being implicated in the murder.

Muscat announced his resignation in a lacklustre televised address as people took to the streets in protest and Labour MPs and functionaries piled internal pressure.

The protracted exit has caused uncertainty and political upheaval in the country. But for the first time under Muscat’s leadership, the PL appeared lost. The Prime Minister lost the legitimacy to choreograph his own exit and ensure a smooth transition.

The Muscat glue that kept Labour together started to melt. Grassroots Labourites took to social media, deriding the opportunist PN-converts.

Anger mounted over the Johnny-come-latelies such as Keith Schembri, who was blamed for bringing Muscat’s and the PL’s legacy to its knees.

Others who gravitated towards Labour as a result of Muscat felt betrayed but also appealed for understanding.

For the first time in 11 years, the PL faces internal turmoil, anger, frustration and sadness at how the glory days came crashing down in a jiffy. Not all is yet lost. A MaltaToday survey has shown the PL still enjoying massive support.

But with the Muscat glue melting away it will be up to the next leader to determine the best way forward for a bruised party and a wounded country.

The aspirants: Malta marida, medicina…

In the 1970s, PL supporters adopted the maxim Malta marida, mediċina Mintoff to extol the leadership qualities of their darling at a time when the country was passing through a very sensitive economic transformation in its road towards ending the British military presence on the island.

Today, the country faces a different set of problems of a far more serious nature. With criminality having infiltrated the corridors of Auberge de Castille, Malta’s malaise requires shock therapy.

Malta is sick and needs its medicine urgently. The two men who have stepped forward to right the wrongs, Chris Fearne and Robert Abela, came to the forefront of politics under Muscat’s wing but now aspire to lead at a very inconvenient time.

Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne
Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne

Chris Fearne

The 56-year-old paediatric surgeon had been active in the PL during his youth days but gained political visibility shortly after Muscat became leader in 2008 when he accepted to address a protest meeting against the rising cost of living.

He went on to contest his first election in 2013 as one of Muscat’s new faces and got elected.

Fearne was appointed parliamentary secretary for health in the 2014 reshuffle. He served under Konrad Mizzi’s wing. Two years later when the Panama Papers scandal broke and Mizzi had his portfolios removed, Fearne was appointed health minister.

He became deputy prime minister in 2017 after beating Edward Scicluna and Helena Dalli for the post of deputy leader parliamentary affairs.

After having obeyed the party Whip and supported Mizzi in a no-confidence vote proposed by the Opposition in Parliament in 2016, Fearne slowly distanced himself from his former minister, who is also a district rival.

He asked the Auditor General to probe the multi-million hospitals concession deal with Vitals Global Healthcare brokered by Mizzi. The probe is still ongoing.

And when Vitals went belly up, he described the incoming concessionaire, Steward Healthcare, as “the real deal”. The American company, which unlike Vitals has a track record in the health industry, has delivered the Gozo medical school that is being used by Barts but is nowhere near completing the promised state of the art general hospital on the sister island.

Fearne has acquired a reputation of being a decisive and no-nonsense person, very much in line with his professional background as a surgeon where clinical precision is a necessity and sugaring the pill is anathema.

He has delivered in the health sector but his ability to grasp economic fundamentals still has to be tested, especially in a government that has prided itself on orchestrating an economic miracle and putting public finances on a sound footing.

Fearne has said that with him as prime minister, the government will be a friend to business but not be led by it. What this means in practice still has to be seen but it was an important message to those in the party, who feel that under Muscat the PL drifted too far away from its socialist roots into the hands of big business.

Fearne’s ability to navigate the legal minefield of reforms also has to be tested. He was quick to embrace the Opposition’s proposal to have the police commissioner chosen by a two-thirds parliamentary majority, a position previously scorned by the government and shot down for its legal complications.

Fearne may have made the proposal because this moment requires a strong dose of humility and reaching out to the Opposition on matters involving law and order is a necessity for the country to regain stability. But he will have to explain the details of this volte face and how he will convince his parliamentary group to play ball.

In his first interviews on Dissett, Xtra and Lovin Malta, Fearne projected himself as a prime minister-in-waiting. Although gunning for his party’s top post, he has not limited himself to speaking to the membership base.

He has acknowledged the country’s problems and stressed that these are not normal times. There was also the mandatory act of contrition by recognising the mistake of not doing enough in 2016 to push for Mizzi’s and Schembri’s resignations when the Panama Papers scandal broke.

Fearne has ruled out a return to Cabinet for Mizzi and promised justice will be done without fear or favour. It will take much more than words to ensure this is achieved but Fearne has also pledged to boost resources for the country’s law enforcement and regulatory agencies.

He has also promised not to extend the highly controversial cash-for-citizenship scheme (Individual Investor Programme) when the capping limit is reached.

Fearne lacks the charisma and people skills that made Muscat an endearing character. His public speaking is a far cry from the enthralling speeches of the Prime Minister.

And in a political environment where people contact remains more important than the razzle and dazzle of marketing material, Fearne will have to improve on his human relations.

But at a time when the country is wounded, these considerations may be of secondary importance. The country needs a healer who is not scared to administer the sour-tasting medicine necessary to restore normality and stability.

Fearne appears willing to bite the bullet. However, he will also have to reach out to the official Opposition and the unofficial opposition out in the streets, the Labour converts angered by the betrayal, and the Labour grass roots who cannot understand why their own government has ended up in such a pitiful state.

Navigating these waters will require more than just surgical precision: Fearne will need to hone the skills of compassion, listening, compromise and persuasion. He needs to heal the country but eventually, he will also have to ensure that the glue that kept the PL movement together is restored.

Labour MP Robert Abela
Labour MP Robert Abela

Robert Abela

The 42-year-old lawyer was elected for the first time on a Labour ticket in the 2017 general election, filling the void on the Sixth District left by Marie-Lousie Coleiro Preca.

Abela’s political foray can be traced back to a PL meeting before the 2013 general election when he delivered a hard-hitting speech against then Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi.

It was at a time when his father – George Abela – was still president.

The speech was not well-received by Nationalists, who felt Abela’s criticism was unwarranted when Gonzi had broken convention in appointing his father as president. Gonzi’s decision had been a first in that the president was from the opposing political camp.

Other than this occasion and the occasional appearance as a commentator on TV discussion programmes, Abela’s political career took off in 2017 when he accepted to contest the general election.

He was elected but refused an offer to join Cabinet as a parliamentary secretary, choosing to continue pursuing his legal career that also included a retainer with the Planning Authority.

However, he was also appointed as an advisor to Muscat with the right to attend Cabinet meetings, something, Abela says worked to his advantage because he now has a broad view of all ministries.

Abela’s contributions in Parliament have been largely legalistic in nature, focussed on the nitty gritty of legislative proposals being debated and always towing the party line.

His decision to contest the leadership did not come as a surprise though. His name has often been touted in Labour circles as a potential successor to Muscat.

His youthfulness is charming although it could be seen as a disadvantage at a time when the seriousness of the situation demands maturity.

Abela tried anticipating this on Dissett when he said maturity was not a question of age but determined by how a person acts in certain circumstances.

He told his host that he had told Konrad Mizzi in no unclear terms that he had no place in his Cabinet. He was equally forceful when saying that the police commissioner had to be replaced and how he was not at all happy with certain aspects of the Caruana Galizia murder investigation.

Abela did not elaborate on this but it is clear that this was a reference to the police’s deficiency in investigating Keith Schembri properly.

Abela was reported to have angrily addressed the Prime Minister during an emergency Cabinet meeting that discussed the possibility of a pardon for Yorgen Fenech, telling him “Dak il-kurnut fottik (that cuckold fucked you)”, with reference to Schembri.

On Xtra, Abela hinted that he could retain the Home Affairs portfolio under his wing as prime minister, a sign of the importance he intends to give the portfolio.

Abela has also spoken about how the government has departed from values held dear by a broad section of Maltese society. He has not qualified the statement but it appears to imply that he is uneasy with the liberal and cosmopolitan streak the party has embraced over the past years.

On immigration, Abela has gone on record expressing the concerns of many. While this may not be a bad thing because it acknowledges people’s worries, it still has to be seen how this will translate into policy if he becomes prime minister.

Malta’s economic growth has fuelled the need for imported labour and unless Abela is advocating a slowdown, it remains unclear how he intends tackling the concerns. His grasp of economic matters also has to be tested.

But Abela has also used his parting shots in this leadership campaign to speak to the PL grassroots. He has focused on how the party has gone astray and how “Labourites” have ended up with the wrong end of the stick.

The discourse may be appealing to the PL’s traditional voters but does little to reach out to the rest of the country. In this sense, Abela has appeared more inward looking, almost disowning the glue that kept Muscat’s broad church together.

It is true that the voting base to elect the leader is made up of PL members but Labourites also know that to win an election the party has to keep with it the thousands who gravitated towards it over the past decade.

Abela has since tried to qualify his reference to “Laburisti” as a reference to the downtrodden, the working class and those on society’s lower rungs.

Abela still has to prove he can rise above the pettiness of party politics at a time when the country is yearning for justice, truth and reconciliation. His description of protests as “a provocation” does not help the situation – he will also be the prime minister of these people if elected.

The underlying fact is that PL members will not simply be electing a party leader but also a prime minister, which makes it incumbent on contestants to project themselves as leaders for the whole country.