Veteran Labour Minister Anton Refalo has gone into overdrive since his reappointment to Cabinet a year ago, issuing €3.6 million in direct orders in 2020 – his first year as Agriculture Minister.
The Gozitan MP, who was relegated to be the backbench following the 2017 elections after serving as Minister for the sister island, was appointed Agriculture Minister by Prime Minister Robert Abela.
Refalo is one of three candidates, together with Clint Camilleri and Justyne Caruana, who have served as Ministers for Gozo and who are in stiff competition for the post as the Labour Party candidates have not so subtly set into gear their electoral machines.
A number of direct orders dished out by Refalo involve dozens of employees, mostly Gozitan, were given contracts of service to perform odd government jobs, mostly at the Fish Market and Pitkalija.
In addition, a raft of security personnel were recruited through various private operators awarded lucrative direct orders. Even departmental drivers and messengers at Refalo’s ministry are being recruited directly from the 13th district – Gozo.
Through a ‘suboutlet’ opened in Victoria, paid through public funds, that doubles as Refalo’s headquarters in his constituency, most of the Gozitan recruits are being assigned to jobs in Gozo so that his constituents would not have to cross over to Malta every day.
The battle for votes in Gozo
As the general election looms closer with the Gozo district having three Ministers vying for their parliamentary seat, which is unprecedented, the battle for votes kicked in months ago.
Gozo is traditionally Nationalist, except for the 2017 elections when the Labour Party won the district with less than a thousand votes. Now, Education Minister Justyne Caruana, Gozo Minister Clint Camilleri and Agriculture Minister Anton Refalo are focusing on ‘Labour votes’ as they compete for the territory.
Hundreds of thousands are being spent indiscriminately, putting constituents on the State payroll while others are given jobs through private companies and government service providers.
A plan to get rid of Refalo
PL sources in Gozo told The Shift that the ousting of the veteran Gozitan MP has been on Labour’s radar for many years, at least since Joseph Muscat took over the party in 2008.
Pushing eye-specialist Franco Mercieca in the 2013 elections, with the aim of making him Gozo Minister, Muscat’s plan fell flat as Anton Refalo was elected with more than 5,000 first count votes.
Following the 2017 election, despite Refalo’s efforts and favours that helped swing Gozo to Labour for the first time since independence, Muscat still replaced him with Justyne Caruana.
Incensed, Refalo did not accept any other post and distanced himself from Muscat for several months.
With the departure of Justyne Caruana last year following revelations of her husband’s close relationship with murder suspect Yorgen Fenech, Prime Minister Robert Abela turned to Clint Camilleri to fill the vacancy – the least popular of the three Gozitan MPs.
A new player enters the fray
Robert Abela is fielding a new candidate Jo Etienne Abela in what is seen as an attempt to reduce the popularity of both Anton Refalo and Justyne Caruana.
An extremely popular consultant surgeon, born and bred in Gozo, Abela is considered by Labour insiders to be a perfect candidate for the district, being a friendly and likeable character even among traditional PN voters.
It is understood that Abela is hoping to get him elected and possibly assign him the Health Ministry if Labour is returned to power.
Yet as things are panning out and considering Refalo’s efforts, sources close to the Labour Party said the plan may backfire spectacularly, with either Clint Camilleri or Justyne Caruana biting the bullet.