A few months ago, Konrad Mizzi was finally expelled from Labour’s parliamentary group. The hope was that finally a line could be drawn under the scandals shaking the Labour government. A month later, Robert Abela told Party delegates he welcomed criticism from within, signalling that he was responsive to popular concerns and not cut off.
Four months have passed since that assurance. It’s a year after popular anger frightened the Cabinet into pushing out Joseph Muscat. But Abela has cause for rising concern.
On the one hand, he has quietly accomplished a lot on the personnel front. In January, he had four MPs seriously threatened by scandal and further revelations. Today, Mizzi is expelled. Muscat and Chris Cardona have retired from politics.
Edward Scicluna is still finance minister. He is in peril of what a magisterial inquiry into the Vitals Global Healthcare deal might conclude about his role. He is disgraced by his own money-grubbing testimony at the Daphne Caruana Galizia inquiry. His “Kitchen Cabinet” claims have been dismissed as self-serving by fellow Cabinet members. But Abela has made it known that Scicluna is on the way out.
On the other hand, dealing with these four MPs has not stopped Abela’s personnel problems. Three developments have combined to increase them.
One is that the Caruana Galizia assassination has almost ceased to be about her personally. It has become about the deep corruption that she exposed. That is an important change in narrative.
The shift is marked by the change in focus from Caruana Galizia’s personality to the figure of Yorgen Fenech. The almost exclusive focus on him might turn out to be ill-judged. But the point here is that, whatever the deeper truths yet to be discovered, Fenech has become a symbol of Labour rot reaching beyond the Panama Gang.
Association with him continues to damage the justice minister, Edward Zammit Lewis, and his junior minister, Rosianne Cutajar. It has touched the energy minister, Michael Farrugia. In his previous role in the Muscat government, questions persist about a planning decision he took on the same day he met Fenech. Today, Farrugia is facing the Electrogas and Montenegro scandals because they touch his current portfolio.
The second development is the handling of the pandemic. Up until last year, the most widely held view of the Labour government was that it was sleazy but, largely, competent. Not any more.
Fearne, the health minister, has emerged a strengthened and more respected figure, despite the rising infections and deaths. But scorn has been poured over Julia Farrugia Portelli, the tourism minister, and Silvio Parnis, the junior minister for the elderly.
For a simple sign of how mockery has become a reflex, consider the statement by the doctors’ association last week, when it openly jeered at Farrugia Portelli’s “mechanisms”. When a professional association — a mixed bag in terms of Party preferences — is so casually scornful in an official statement, you know that it’s reflecting public opinion.
COVID-19 is also affecting the reputation of the education minister, Owen Bonnici. As justice minister, he antagonised people who would never vote Labour. Now, however, there is also simmering resentment of many parents who send their children to State schools, who feel that not enough was done to train teachers for online learning.
But, of course, the biggest political victim of COVID-19 has been Abela himself. It’s reflected in more than just the polls. He likes to be associated with the word “discipline” but it’s the word “puerile” that’s increasingly used about him and his arguments — whether it’s muttered within the business community, or by the health professions, or even in newspaper editorials.
The third development: a change in the attitude towards sleaze, maladministration and corruption. Up till a year ago, there were two broad attitudes: an indulgent one (“yes, they eat, but so do we”) and fatigue. Both the indulgence and fatigue are fading fast.
They are replaced by growing active anger. Some revelations show that cronies are not just “eating” but gorging themselves. And they’re doing it not just at our expense but also to our detriment.
Open cross-party criticism is breaking through, whether it’s academics querying the culture minister, Jose Herrera, or Gozitan parents of autistic children complaining about a Labour mayor’s behaviour, or resentment of land given over to hunters.
These developments suggest a real change in the tide. Between them, they directly damage the reputations of half the members of Cabinet, in spite of its size. They affect the new guard as much as the old.
A change in tide doesn’t necessarily benefit the Opposition, particularly when most people would be hard pressed to name the Nationalist MPs shadowing the tainted ministers. But it explains why Abela has felt the need to import potential Cabinet replacements from outside — in Miriam Dalli and Clyde Caruana. For now, it might be enough to stem the tide.