[WATCH] Robert Abela defends distributing cheques on eve of election

Xtra on TVM News Plus | Robert Abela says the cheques serve as a safety cushion for rising prices due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Robert Abela (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)
Robert Abela (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)


Labour leader Robert Abela has defended a decision to distribute tax cuts and COVID relief cheques just two weeks before the 27 March election, claiming they were necessary to fend off rising prices from supply shortages and the spill-over effects of the war in Ukraine.

Abela said the €100 and €200 cheques, given to all taxpayers without any means-testing, were a safety net against inflation.

The prime minister also insisted his pledge to keep energy prices stable despite the international rise in gas prices following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, was necessary for economic growth. “This isn’t the first time that oil prices went up like this. This is just as had happened in March 2020,” he said.

Abela said his government is using the same economic model as at the start of the pandemic, and a frugal fiscal policy that had allowed the Labour administration to employ a large war-chest throughout the pandemic.

Interviewed by Saviour Balzan on TVM News Plus’s Xtra, Abela refused to commit on two Labour proposals for mandatory union membership or the scrapping of homework for school pupils.

Abela said Labour wants to see more workers unionized to make sure vulnerable workers are given protection; and that the debate on homework was about achieving the best balance between children’s school work and leisure time.

Abela was confronted on his Żejtun villa acquisition, whose €600,000 price tag for over 2,000 square metres of land outside development zones has raised eyebrows. Abela insisted that he had paid the relevant tax according to law and did not interfere in the sanctioning decisions by the Planning Authority, which he served as legal consultant at the time, to regularise the villa so that it could be sold to him.

Abela insisted that the Planning Authority had to consider government’s strategic direction in its planning decisions, when challenged on the green light the PA had given to Gozitan mega-developer Joseph Portelli’s Sannat complex, which has been roundly criticized by NGOs and residents. “I will be clear on one point. Developers have never, ever, spoken to me about this permit in particular.”

Abela said the 2006 local plans were an “inescapable reality” and accused Bernard Grech’s right-hand man, Ray Bezzina – who formerly served as an aide to environment minster George Pullicino in 2006 – of being responsible for the extension of the building zones.

Abela acknowledged that Labour was suffering from disappointed voters who had been scandalised by the corruption of the Labour administration that came to light in the 2019 political crisis. “Labour has started a new page after the crisis, specifically in January 2020 when I was elected PL leader,” he said. “We weren’t perfect, we made mistakes, I’ll be first to admit my own. But we’re committed to do better.”

Abela listed several reforms by his government to alleviate the centralisation of power at the hands of the Prime Minister. Before 2020 the Prime Minister enjoyed full discretion in appointing the Commissioner for Police and Chief Justice. Months after Abela came into power, government changed the laws so that the police commissioner is appointed through an open call while the Chief Justice is appointed through a two-thirds parliamentary majority. “I looked for consensus from the Opposition leader at the time, and the Chief Justice was given a stamp of approval by parliament,” Abela said.

The prime minister also insisted that Malta’s FATF greylisting was “not necessarily a confirmation of corruption”.

He said that of all Malta’s 58 deficiencies identified in the initial Moneyval report, the country had to address two spheres of action in its FATF action plan. “Our country is a safe jurisdiction. People appreciate that we approached the issue seriously.”

The Russian invasion of Ukraine sparked a mild debate on what Malta’s role should be in such conflicts as an EU member state and a militarily non-aligned country. Abela said that Malta can still practice solidarity while remaining neutral at a military level.