[WATCH] Labour leadership debate turns out to be a sterile show of promises and jibes

Chris Fearne and Robert Abela engage in their first and only face-to-face debate of the Labour leadership campaign in the safe environment of One TV

The debate on One Tv was the only face-to-face encounter between Chris Fearne and Robert Abela
The debate on One Tv was the only face-to-face encounter between Chris Fearne and Robert Abela

Labour leadership hopefuls Chris Fearne and Robert Abela crossed swords in a sterile debate that was not shorn of 'friendly' jibes on the party TV station.

The first and only face-to-face debate between the two candidates was held on One TV with three journalists invited to put recorded questions to the candidates.

Fearne made it a point to stress his 40-year activism in the party and his experience in government, describing himself as “Joseph Muscat’s co-pilot”.

Abela rebutted by insisting the race was not about him but about the people, adding that he wanted party members to make their choice without pressure and without being entertained with promises.

Robert Abela
Robert Abela

Abela came across as more decisive when answering a question on development boundaries. “I can guarantee that development zones will not be extended,” Abela replied.

Fearne made no such commitment, opting instead to stress the importance of development that respected rules and the need for better enforcement.

Fearne was left wanting on planning issues, waffling on what he intended to do on the controversial ODZ policy that came into force in 2014.

Abela was more cognizant of planning matters as a result of the legal services he has been offering the Planning Authority, insisting the ODZ policy did a lot of good but became problematic the moment decision makers started interpreting it loosely.

Chris Fearne
Chris Fearne

On good governance, Fearne came across as more decisive, insisting that the authorities must have all the resources to investigate “whoever and whatever” they deem necessary.

Fearne added that the ample resources dedicated to solving the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder should be dedicated to investigating the Karin Grech and Raymond Caruana murders and the 2013 oil scandal.

He reiterated his pledge to organise a national conference on the rule of law to bring together stakeholders to come up with a blueprint for reform.

Abela was not enthused by Fearne’s proposal of a national conference. He also cautioned against the implementation of the Venice Commission report proposals lock stock and barrel.

“I will not be comfortable with that. There are things that make little sense to our country and its systems. But I agree with a proposal to give the president more powers in the appointment of the judiciary,” Abela said.

He added that more public appointments should be subjected to the scrutiny of parliament’s public appointments committee.

When asked whether they agreed with constitutional reform to launch the Second Republic, Fearne delivered a punch below the belt. “The Constitution is everyone’s and does not belong to lawyers,” he said, excusing himself with Abela for the bluntness and poking his finger further in the wound by insisting that he trusted lawyers only so much.

The deputy prime minister insisted that discussions on constitutional change should be open to all of society but sounded less secular when he said that any change should “not stop us from expressing our culture”.

Abela was more matter-of-factly, insisting constitutional reform was promised in the 2017 electoral manifesto and a committee presided over by the President was already meeting.

Asked what space they will offer the losing candidate, Abela hinted Fearne could remain in command of the health ministry. “I trust his capability to deliver on my proposal to have all medicines for pensioners available for free,” Abela said.

Fearne was less specific: “Robert Abela will be offered all the space to be part of my Cabinet.”

Abela responded to an invitation by Fearne to join him for an already booked post-election reception for party members by saying that he had no receptions booked.

Abela’s reply was intended to draw a difference between his rather low-key, simple campaign and Fearne’s well-oiled campaign machine.

Keith Schembri's name never cropped up in the debate
Keith Schembri's name never cropped up in the debate

As expected, the safe environment of the debate ensured that Keith Schembri’s name never cropped up and both candidates made sure of praising Joseph Muscat while being coy on the problems that rocked the establishment over the past weeks.

Controversial issues that have dogged the government, such as the Electrogas and VGH deals, did not feature as well.

Both candidates pledged to fulfil the government’s electoral mandate, promising an election on its due date in two-and-a-half years’ time.

Both ended the debate with references to their family roots and how their socialist principles were fostered in childhood experiences.

Fearne spoke of how he and his brother shared their Dinky cars with children from problem families that his mother used to help as a social worker.

Abela reminisced on how it was a Labour government in the 1970s who pulled his grandfather and his family out of poverty by giving them a decent house and living conditions.

PL members choose their next leader and prime minister on Saturday.

READ ALSO: Chris Fearne’s lead eroded by resurgent Abela, MaltaToday survey finds