[ANALYSIS] Good governance: Can Abela steal the opposition’s thunder?

Has Robert Abela disarmed Adrian Delia by ‘accepting’ Justyne Caruana’s resignation and raising the ethics bar? JAMES DEBONO takes a look at Abela’s pitch to voters disillusioned by Muscat’s legacy on good governance

Prime Minister Robert Abela
Prime Minister Robert Abela

PN strategists may well have hoped that Adrian Delia stood a better chance confronting a new Labour leader who lacked Joseph Muscat’s stature and aura of invincibility. They may have hoped anyone elected after the meltdown of the Muscat government would have inherited a divided and demoralised party.

Perhaps they underestimated the ability of the Labour Party to regenerate and unite behind a new leader, but certainly they did not expect a new leader to distance himself in such a short time from Muscat’s ‘traditions’ to be able to renew the party’s appeal to floaters and middle-of-the-road voters.

After failing to capitalise on the meltdown of the Muscat government, the Nationalist Party is once again facing a quandary: that of facing a new Labour leader who not only enjoys a strong mandate from Labour members but who upon being elected leader has apparently raised the bar on governance. For that is exactly what Abela did when accepting the resignation of Justyne Caruana.

Ironically the dismal track record of his predecessor on governance issues has provided Abela an opportunity to shine. For while revelations showing the familiarity between former deputy commissioner Silvio Valletta and Yorgen Fenech, the alleged mastermind of the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, were a stark reminder of the murky state of affairs under the Muscat administration, the instant resignation of Caruana provided Abela an opportunity to raise the bar on ministerial ethics, which had sunk so low ever since Muscat retained Konrad Mizzi as minister and Keith Schembri as his chief of staff.

Ironically, what should have come as vindication of the Opposition’s criticism of the police handling of the Caruana Galizia investigation and Valletta’s role in it, has served to reinforce Abela’s credentials as a reformer.

By accepting Caruana’s resignation, Abela has put all his ministers on notice, in a strong message that resignations will be expected not just from those caught red-handed in wrongdoing, but also from those with a shadow hanging on their reputation due to the wrongdoing of spouses and associates.

Moreover, this test came in the wake of a number of decisions taken by Abela which contrasted with Muscat’s handling of the Panama scandal and the Caruana Galizia murder aftermath. The list of casualties of Abela’s first week in office includes police commissioner Lawrence Cutajar, OPM official Neville Gafà, as well as ministers Chris Cardona and Justyne Caruana. It also comes in the wake of a decision to stop the state-sanctioned removal of flowers from the Daphne shrine opposite the law courts and the appointment of Clyde Caruana, a technocrat with no dubious business connections, as the OPM’s head of secretariat.

Surely one may argue that Abela does not deserve much credit for restoring a sense of decency in the country. But by betraying the expectations of continuity, Abela has managed to positively surprise critics even by simply doing what is expected of him. Rather than raising expectations only to disappoint upon being elected, Abela intelligently lowered expectations before being elected, in a way which makes his present actions more noteworthy.

Abela is also raising expectations of full closure on both the Caruana Galizia assassination and Panamagate, which he may find hard to satisfy without fatally undermining his predecessor’s legacy and place in history, something which may be unacceptable for Muscat loyalists
Abela is also raising expectations of full closure on both the Caruana Galizia assassination and Panamagate, which he may find hard to satisfy without fatally undermining his predecessor’s legacy and place in history, something which may be unacceptable for Muscat loyalists

But how far can Abela go?

The risk for Abela now is that by acting decisively, he may be raising the bar for himself especially when the going gets tougher after this brief honeymoon period. He is also raising expectations of full closure on both the Caruana Galizia assassination and Panamagate, which he may find hard to satisfy without fatally undermining his predecessor’s legacy and place in history, something which may be unacceptable for Muscat loyalists.

So far Abela has steered between taking strong steps which suggest discontinuity, while paying homage to his predecessor. But will he be able to rise to the occasion if investigations catch up with Muscat, or will he do everything to ensure that he will never have to face that choice?

Some may even suspect that Abela is skilfully taking decisions now to disarm critics, only to save the skin of his predecessor when push comes to shove.

For if the police under Abela does not proceed with full investigations on Keith Schembri’s role in the assassination of Caruana Galizia, he may still face a backlash. Moreover any investigation on Schembri will inevitably raise questions on Muscat. For the public still deserves answers on his own proximity to both Schembri and Fenech.

Abela will also face calls for investigations on the scandals which rocked the Maltese government, including 17 Black, the Vitals scandals and deals involving Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi. Failure to act on any of these fronts may well weaken Abela’s credentials as a reformer and leave room for the opposition to counter attack. One problem for Abela is that he risks being bogged down in the swamp.

Moreover Abela is not showing great willingness to address the structural roots of corruption through constitutional reform, more checks and balances and stricter rules on the financing of political parties, including their TV stations. The lack of conviction he showed on such issues during the leadership campaign may well return to haunt him.

Ironically faced with a relatively clean Abela, Delia may be in further trouble, with Labour pouncing on the allegations made by Caruana Galizia against him
Ironically faced with a relatively clean Abela, Delia may be in further trouble, with Labour pouncing on the allegations made by Caruana Galizia against him

How the PN risks losing its battle-cry

But if Abela does proceed along the slippery road to Labour’s moral redemption, the PN may find itself losing its main battle-cry: that of upholding better standards of governance than Labour.

Surely championing good governance was not enough for the party to narrow Labour’s lead in 2017 but it did give the PN a sense of purpose. The election of Adrian Delia as PN leader, despite allegations of money laundering by Caruana Galizia, further weakened the party’s credentials on this issue.

Yet Muscat’s race to the bottom still gave the PN even with Delia as leader, a sense of raison d’être. Ironically faced with a relatively clean Abela, Delia may be in further trouble, with Labour pouncing on the allegations made by Caruana Galizia against him. This may well increase pressure in the PN to replace their leader with someone who carries less baggage.

Moreover, if Abela does to some extent deliver on the good governance front, what battle-cries will the Opposition use to confront him? Much depends on how Abela will position himself on other social and economic issues.

Continuity with Muscat-onomics?

Abela has already hinted at continuity with Muscat’s economic policies which has seen the party move towards the centre, thus occupying ideological territory stretching from the neoliberal right-wing to the social democratic left which once belonged to the PN.

Abela may even broaden the party’s appeal by addressing concerns on widening social inequalities and environmental degradation, even if a ‘balance’ between growth and sustainability may remain elusive as pressures to keep the economic momentum of the Muscat years grows.

For Abela will be under intense pressure to keep the machine running at full speed; this may make him wary of changing direction. After all, it is only thanks to the fast rate of growth that the Muscat government has been able to reduce fiscal pressures while at the same time expanding welfare. The problem is that good governance is also intimately tied to the economic model: economies on steroids are often fertile ground for corruption.

If the economy slows down Abela may even be tempted to take a more hawkish line on migration at least on a symbolic level, to take away steam from a far right which thrives on the social fractures created by neoliberal economics.

Abela may even be more cautious than Muscat on new civil liberties which may alienate social conservatives from his party. In the end the PN may well end up facing a party which is remarkably similar to its former self in the 1990s, but this time led by the son of a Labour grandee made President by Lawrence Gonzi.

In this way the PN may well be faced by a third devastating exodus of switchers who may leave it to find a new home in Abela’s Labour Party.

But the greatest problem for the PN is that by electing Abela, Labour may well have found a way to cheat itself out of the 10-year cycle rule
But the greatest problem for the PN is that by electing Abela, Labour may well have found a way to cheat itself out of the 10-year cycle rule

Is Abela cheating the 10-year cycle?

In these circumstances, the PN has to choose between two options: either shift to the right and confront Abela from a more radical, anti-immigrant, conservative and possibly pro-business position; or confront Labour from the centre by slowly building an inclusive team with a wide appeal stretching from the centre-right to the centre-left, to eventually earn the trust of the electorate as Labour runs out of steam, especially if the economy starts showing signs of fatigue.

But the greatest problem for the PN is that by electing Abela, Labour may well have found a way to cheat itself out of the 10-year cycle rule, which has seen most Maltese governments diminished or voted out of office after 10 years in power.

The more Abela distinguishes himself from Muscat, the greater the prospect that voters start considering his government a brand new one, thus possibly extending further its term in office further into the future. In electoral terms the question is: will voters see Abela as a continuation of Muscat’s term, or will they see Abela’s election to the helm as a new beginning?

Much depends on Abela’s ability to set himself apart from Joseph Muscat.

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