[ANALYSIS] The Labour contest: Choosing between continuity and change

Which of Labour’s two candidates stands more for discontinuity with the style and policies of Joseph Muscat? JAMES DEBONO delves into their public statements made over the past few weeks

Minister for Health Chris Fearne and Labour MP Robert Abela
Minister for Health Chris Fearne and Labour MP Robert Abela

Robert Abela has promised continuity with Joseph Muscat despite the latter’s dramatic fall from grace, while Chris Fearne morbidly promised to adorn his tombstone with the ‘RIPN’ epithet. Both are trying to appeal to a cohort of Labour diehards who still adore Muscat and other paid-up members. But anyone elected must reach out to a wider electorate of voters whose trust in Labour has been seriously dented by the dark shadow cast on Castille by Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination.

To gain back their trust, whoever is elected must offer a degree of discontinuity, without throwing away the baby with the bath water.

But the short campaign over Christmas and the persistent overshadowing of Muscat who will address the Labour conference on the eve the vote, may not have been the best way to encourage a serious deliberation on Labour’s future leader.

Continuity or discontinuity

Despite denouncing “a diabolical pact” to anoint Fearne leader and presenting himself as an insurgent, it is Robert Abela who has markedly presented himself as the continuity candidate who emphasises stability, unity and normality, telling MaltaToday “we cannot turn the world upside down”.

Fearne has been bolder in advocating change, committing himself to “clean the country’s reputation from any stain,” ensure “truth is revealed and that justice prevails”, and “that Malta once again comes first and foremost”. His is the clearest indication that something has long been wrong in the state of Denmark.

Outgoing Prime Minister Joseph Muscat
Outgoing Prime Minister Joseph Muscat

Dealing with Muscat

Fearne came closest to disowning his predecessor in an interview criticising Muscat for thanking his former chief-of-staff Keith Schembri for his service upon resignation; and for saying he could “not vouch for anyone” when asked about Muscat’s innocence in the murder of Caruana Galizia or its cover-up.

While recognising that Muscat “did a lot of good for this country” he pledged firmer governance, stronger institutions, transparency and fairness. In contrast Abela – himself the son of Muscat’s main rival in the 2008 leadership contest – has been very careful not to offend Muscat’s die-hard followers, promising that he would consult with Muscat whom he presently advises as consultant, on a regular basis. Subsequently Abela clarified that while he may consult with Muscat, he will make his own decisions if elected.

Former OPM Chief of Staff Keith Schembri and former Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi
Former OPM Chief of Staff Keith Schembri and former Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi

Dealing with Schembri and Mizzi

Both candidates have excluded the return of Konrad Mizzi to the Cabinet. In what might well have been an attempt at self-preservation, Mizzi did endorse Fearne’s  candidature before Abela announced his, but this has also to be seen in a context of district rivalry and Fearne’s past attempts to distance himself from the Vitals hospital privatisation scandal.

Both candidates have not minced their words on Keith Schembri, whom both seem to resent. In a powerful dig against Schembri, Fearne promised to abolish the post of chief-of-staff in the OPM, insisting that the highest office in government could not have “two power centres”. He also said that “it was Keith Schembri, not Labour, that was too close to big business”.

Robert Abela is also reported to have directly confronted Joseph Muscat in a stormy Cabinet meeting, which led to his resignation by telling him “that bastard fucked you”. Further muddying the waters was a recent declaration by Schembri’s henchman, Neville Gafà, that “people demand continuity… not a new beginning” which seemed more in tune with Abela’s continuity pledge. But this may also be seen as a desperate attempt at self-preservation by Gafà who had been fired from the health ministry by Fearne.

2020's first anti-corruption protest took place on Sunday afternoon
2020's first anti-corruption protest took place on Sunday afternoon

Reaching out to civil society protestors

While Abela has gone on record describing protests asking Muscat to step down immediately as a “provocation”, Fearne says he has heard those protests and that “now it is time to seek consensus and implement solutions so that what happened will not happen again.”

When asked whether he would put a stop to the removal of flowers and candles form the Daphne Caruana Galizia vigil, Fearne said his job will be of “healing wounds and not perpetuating them”. Neither did he exclude building a monument for Daphne Caruana Galizia if it is “the will of the people”.

On his part Abela sympathised with the pain of the Caruana Galizia family: “I understand that their mother was killed… so I can understand from a family sentiment, and I have a sense of sadness about all this”.

Cleaning Malta’s international reputation

Of the two candidates it was Fearne who mostly emphasised the need to clean up Malta’s tarnished reputation, speaking more like a future Prime Minister than as a leadership contender.

One striking point of departure from Muscat is Fearne’s commitment to reform the Individual Investor Programme, which he will replace with a new scheme negotiated with Brussels which “does not harm Malta’s image abroad”. Fearne was also very categorical in describing the damage to Malta’s international reputation as “almost irreparable.”

On his part Abela said that he does not agree with the term “political nightmare” as a description of Malta’s current situation, while describing the current period as one of difficulty, which requires a “clear vision” on how the country can come out of it with its reputation recovered and intact. He will also retain the IIP.

Police Commissioner Lawrence Cutajar
Police Commissioner Lawrence Cutajar

Choosing the next police commissioner

Both candidates agree that the current police commissioner Lawrance Cutajar should not remain commissioner. But they have differed on the way his replacement should be appointed. While Fearne believes that the commissioner should be subject to the approval of a two-thirds majority in parliament, Abela wants him to be chosen following a public call and parliamentary grilling.

Fearne’s proposal was first made by the Nationalist Party under Simon Busuttil and was opposed by Muscat’s party.

But Fearne now insists that the country needs unity to find solutions that addressed the deficiencies in the rule of law. “We cannot be proud of ourselves and oppose something simply because we did so in the past… we have to find solutions to the problems,” Fearne told MaltaToday. But while Abela has expressed reservations about the proposal made by Fearne he still insists he will seek consensus with the Opposition.

The redneck vote: Immigration and hunting

While Fearne has focused on rule of law issues, Abela has been keener on addressing public concerns on immigration and sectoral issues like hunting. In this Abela seems more in synch with the younger Muscat who had pandered to concern on migration and disgruntlement among hunters, before the 2013 election.

Fearne did list immigration as one of his priorities in the first hundred days, but did not reject Muscat’s cosmopolitanism, arguing that “the country needs to overhaul its infrastructure, such as sewage, to keep up with the drastically increasing population.

As for irregular migration, he said that while he would continue to be “compassionate”, Malta needed to show a strong hand. In September, following riots, Abela had already indicated a more hawkish stance arguing for a more “hardline” approach on migrants who cause unrest while being kept in detention.

Moreover, Abela has pinned a slowdown in wages to Malta’s foreign worker influx, proposing that permits to employ foreigners should not be handed out unless employers pay them their full salaries in their bank accounts. With regard to hunting, he promised the introduction of administrative fines for hunters in breach of minor irregularities as well as a point system similar to that applicable to drivers, when it comes to the revocation of licences.

Both candidates have been adamant on not giving the impression of rocking the boat
Both candidates have been adamant on not giving the impression of rocking the boat

Dealing with big business

Both candidates have been adamant on not giving the impression of rocking the boat. Abela spoke of the need of introducing effective measures that restore the distinction between business and politicians “without declaring a war on business.”

Fearne also spoke on the need to “work with business,” while arguing for more transparency and for opportunities “to be equal for all, not restricted to the same four or five people, so that everyone will have the opportunity to invest and do business in this country”.

Abela says he will speak to businesses about giving them a level-playing with foreign competitors who are enjoying tax rebates under Malta’s taxation system, a system which Fearne will not touch, citing the importance of FDI to Malta.

In a sign of continuity with Muscat’s distributive model which also saw the removal of exam fees and free school transport, Fearne promised that by the end of 2020, parking will be free at Mater Dei Hospital.

More greenwash?

Both candidates spoke generically on the need of more sustainable development and urban green spaces, but failed to propose any policies limiting the construction industry.

Fearne spoke of “development that goes hand in hand with a better quality of life”, while Abela wants incentives for the regeneration of properties in urban conservation areas.

Fearne said he will launch a plan to introduce green spaces in every Maltese town and village, arguing that people have a right to unwind in their home-towns. But he also confirmed he is in favour of the proposed tunnel linking Malta and Gozo, arguing that the project will have obvious benefits to the entire economy.

Both candidates have indicated a shift from the pro-business mantra when it comes to workers’ rights, partly addressing the perception that the party has moved away from its socialist roots
Both candidates have indicated a shift from the pro-business mantra when it comes to workers’ rights, partly addressing the perception that the party has moved away from its socialist roots

Making the party Labour again

Both candidates have indicated a shift from the pro-business mantra when it comes to workers’ rights, partly addressing the perception that the party has moved away from its socialist roots. It was Fearne who first proposed enforcing the principle of equal pay for equal work in all government entities, a proposal which was also endorsed by Abela. Fearne referred to thousands of workers who are employed by contractors who then provide services to different entities within the government. These workers, he said, are doing the same work that other government workers do, but are paid less.

On his part Abela was keener on linking wage stagnation with the availability of cheap foreign labour. None of the candidates have proposed an increase in the minimum wage. When asked by MaltaToday whether he would consider this, Abela replied that any raise would have to be seen in context of “the impact it has on the market” adding “if the country’s economy allows it, why not?”

Rule of law and constitutional reform

Fearne will convene a conference that will debate governance and the rule of law, adding that the current situation calls for immediate action. It is still unclear how the constitutional reform will proceed and whether this will have a clear timeframe to ensure that the reforms are enacted.

Abela has not given much importance to the subject and has hinted at giving particular attention to the home affairs ministry because he could not be “trustful enough”.

A question of style

Fearne showed a greater willingness to speak to the independent media from the very initial stages of the campaign. Abela was initially hesitant.

But after not inviting the media to his campaign launch and receiving flak for it, Abela was more forthcoming in accepting interviews. In itself Abela’s reluctance to engage suggested that while his adversary was more focused on addressing the nation as its future Prime Minister, Abela was more keen on winning the hearts of Labour members, focusing on how the party has gone astray and how “Labourites” and the party’s traditional working class constituency, have ended up with the wrong end of the stick.

In contrast to Abela’s more populist campaign, Fearne has presented himself as the “no-nonsense” leader who will tackle institutional shortcomings. Yet in the past week Fearne seemed keener on reaching out to party members. He did so the wrong way by resorting to a divisive jibe.

Fearne not only suggested that as long as he is alive the PN will not win an election but in bad taste said that his tomb will be adorned with the epithet ‘RIPN’.

This in itself came as confirmation of Fearne’s difficulty in reaching out to the grassroots, resorting to a divisive comment to give the impression of being something he clearly is not. For, so far, it was Fearne who proposed the least divisive policies, including the appointment of the next police commissioner by a two-thirds majority.

On the other hand, while Abela represents greater continuity with Muscat’s style of over the top charismatic leadership, the country may well be yearning for the kind of sobriety offered by Fearne who is shown by surveys to command more trust than Abela among Nationalist and undecided voters.

It would be a great pity if Fearne undermines this goodwill by resorting to divisive tribalism to win points among a restricted cohort which may not even be decisive in his bid to win the internal contest.