The year 2020 is, in some form or another, is proving to be terrible for everyone. Everyone except Prime Minister Robert Abela. Judging by his recent statements, both in interviews and on social media, he is having the best year ever.
Why fret about the hundreds of daily COVID-19 positive cases, when there could have been thousands? Malta has the best COVID-19 statistics, it had the best rule of law report, it has passed the best budget ever!
Does Robert Abela sound like US President Donald Trump or UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson? Yes, he does, and there’s research to show just how dangerous this can be.
Now, before any government apologist or propagandist wades in, nobody is disputing that positivity is an important quality in leadership. Optimism and upbeat leaders can inspire and empower communities, but that is not what this version is.
The “positivity” that’s being obsessively rammed down people’s throats is visibly insincere and unrealistic and has done little more than produce examples that highlight just how counterproductive it has been, not just in Malta but in those countries where leaders have adopted this approach.
Research by David Collinson, Professor of Leadership and Organisation at Lancaster University, examines what he has labelled “Prozac leadership”, which is the tendency by those in power to engage in disproportionate positivity.
His work looks into the common tactics shared by Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. These included downplaying the severity of the virus’ effects, ignoring or undoing the advice and concerns of the medical experts and using a hyper positive language to portray themselves as virile men who were personally invulnerable to the virus.
All three leaders have consistently refused to wear a mask – until all three tested positive. Given the way Abela behaves and speaks, he would be a welcome addition to this club.
Now, the government has told us COVID-19 “will not kill Christmas”. Who can forget Abela’s flippant “waves are in the sea” comment when asked about the possibility of a resurgence in COVID-19 positive cases?
This hyper positivity espoused by Abela is merely an extension of the tactic used by his predecessor. Disgraced former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and his supporters have been promoting their brand of positivity since 2013, where any criticism and questioning the government’s actions was equated with negativity, even treason.
And if the negativity card didn’t suffice, this “think positive” mantra continues to be insidiously interwoven with nationalistic rhetoric, which is why we find that so many of Abela’s statements include the word “proud” while critics are forever “ashamed” or “traitors” or sullying Malta’s good name.
The one difference at this point in time is that, with the onset of the pandemic and the steady stream of revelations highlighting endemic corruption at State level, simply smiling while metaphorically kicking wrongdoing under the rug is not going to work as well as it did for Muscat.
Rising COVID-19 positive cases, revelations about scandalous conflicts of interest by public officials and a public inquiry into the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia are dampening all the cheer.
That’s not all. Outside of the political partisan debate, have we ever stopped to consider whether by constantly saying that things are getting better we might, in fact, be making them worse?
All around the world, movements or individuals who call out systemic failures in society are often bombarded with observations on how things were worse in the past.
The truth is that many of us are guilty of thinking about progress in this way, but when using progress as a counter-argument to political or societal malaise, it might be worth asking what is considered progress and who benefits from it.
To put this in a local context, what lay beneath the shimmering veneer of Malta’s constant economic success so frequently extolled by Muscat and Abela? How about the lowest unemployment rate in the euro area Abela recently boasted about on social media? Sure, it sounds great, but it doesn’t take into account the overstuffing of public service jobs or the schemes to help employers retain staff through government subsidies, all of which have a bearing on the public purse.
Up until COVID-19 hit Malta, there was a booming property market, but how has this affected the environment, property affordability, pollution levels and workers’ safety on building sites? Describing progress in absolute terms tends to obscure the view of what is still wrong.
Which is why, by silencing alternative voices and debate, hyper positive leaders like Abela and Muscat before him leave organisations and societies ill-prepared to deal with setbacks.
Muscat kept smiling as Malta’s institutions, intended to keep the government in check, while they were weakened to the point that it took three years and unyielding pressure from European organisations to set up a public inquiry into the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Abela keeps telling us how great everything is as COVID-19 positive cases put a strain on medical services and deaths caused by the virus continue to occur.
Professor Collinson’s research suggests that: “Effective leadership combines optimism with informed critical thinking; positivity with a willingness to confront difficult realities; and an upbeat vision with a capacity to listen to alternative voices. This approach to leadership empowers people and, more importantly, does not place them in harm’s way”.
Too bad for Malta that this is not the leadership it has, but let’s cheer up, it could be worse.