When Robert Abela’s critics call him the continuity candidate, they are throwing his words back at him as an accusation. But what they understand by continuity is not what he promised. It’s important to understand the growing gap between the two.
All Abela meant by continuity was what Labour Party members understand by a return to safe harbour. Labour self-confidence, PN demoralisation, economic stability and growth.
What the critics understand by continuity is reckless sailing on high seas. The ship of State is manned by a crew drunk on free-flowing rum, there’s no one on watch, and the flag is the Jolly Dodger.
Neither understanding of continuity is possible in a post-pandemic world. Certainly not Abela’s, since the key condition that made it possible – steady economic growth – is gone for the next year at least.
But the critics aren’t right, either. This calls for some explanation, however, as it’s natural to think that the continuities are obvious.
The standard operating procedures of Joseph Muscat’s government included the following. Whatever they did, Labour insiders had to be defended to the hilt.
Party loyalists knew that the government had their back. Partisanship came before public standards. National interest was defined as defending the Party establishment and their families. Investigations were avoided, botched, starved of key information or simply ignored once the results were out.
If, however, public outrage against some abuse grew so much that an insider had to be let go, then a new contract in some other area of public service or procurement was soon bound to follow.
Media enquiries and public inquiries into government dodges were themselves dodged. International questions and criticisms were framed as motivated by envy of Malta.
Sometimes, international concern was addressed differently. The government boasted of its civil rights record and how it combined it with economic growth and greater social benefits.
Some of these practices have continued under Abela. A young lawyer, and Labour insider, whose behaviour compromised the State’s most important prosecution case is called merely “insensitive” by the justice minister.
A police commissioner who did not investigate serious allegations of corruption, and who has lost the confidence of key segments of the public, is pressured into resigning – only to be given a new public contract on the same day.
Media enquiries about alleged or real scandals are simply not answered. Presumably, the excuse is that the government is bunkered down trying to address the pandemic. But addressing reputational issues are an important aspect of any pandemic exit strategy.
It isn’t clear if any proper investigations into new scandals, or developments in old ones, are being carried out. We’re not even being told that.
Finally, the nationalism card is being played again, this time on the immigrant issue, with NGO critics being accused of treachery.
So where’s the difference? Try this. The nationalist card on immigration was tried and quickly discarded by Muscat. Using a political card discarded seven years ago is a sign of weakness. There goes your civil rights codpiece.
Where the weakness lies is evident. It’s the booming economy that tempted many to close their eyes to what they otherwise would have objected to. That has gone.
It is true that the pandemic has seen Malta score in the top three (so far) for infection rates and mortality. But it’s Chris Fearne, the health minister, whose reputation has grown because of that.
Malta’s financial aid package is said to have been proportionately the largest in Europe. That too, however, has not so far enhanced Abela’s reputation or his economic authority. He has had to rope in Muscat as political cover.
What Muscat performed from a position of strength, Abela is doing from a position of weakness. That’s not continuity.
Abela came into office declaring he will restore Malta’s international reputation. He cannot do this without distancing his government from his predecessor. Yet now we see him needing to coast on the reputation of the man who has disgraced Malta internationally.
In Malta, to weather the economic recession, politically, he needs Muscat beside him. Internationally, to navigate the country’s path to economic growth again, he needs to put a clear distance between him and Muscat – a distance to protect against viral infection.
When Abela promised continuity he meant sustainable economic growth and Labour serenity. Yet the first requires protecting Malta’s reputation; the second means protecting Muscat and his chief cronies.
No one can keep a safe distance from someone they embrace. Even young grandchildren know that these days.