Watching Robert Abela give his May Day address yesterday was a curious experience in hearing voices.
The podium identified him as speaking in the name of the Labour Party, even as he spoke of nothing except about what he’s doing (and spending, with taxpayers’ money) as prime minister. But that’s not what was curious. We’re used to this insulting conflation of government with Party.
The oddity lay elsewhere. Usually, these speeches are set pieces. The examples are chosen carefully to make sure that listeners are not distracted by the wrong connotations. They’re so sanitised that, unless you’re a groupie, they switch you off.
Yesterday, Abela had the opposite effect. For anyone who follows the news, the speech triggered an inner heckler, who kept pointing out how almost everything Abela said was undermined by recent news.
Here’s Abela, closely paraphrased, in quotes, and your inner heckler, in italics:
“If the country has emerged from this tumultuous year in a stable condition, it is all thanks to the commitment of our workers. Our first thanks should go to our health frontliners who take care of those in a vulnerable condition.”
Are these the same health workers who had to threaten collective action because your lax enforcement was driving them to breaking point?
“Just today, I visited the workers at St Vincent De Paule Residence for the elderly.”
You mean the place where the National Audit Office found that a public contract of €274 million may be invalid, given all the breaches of legislative provisions? A crony contract for which no political responsibility has been taken, even though it involves two senior and two junior ministers?
“We have invested nothing less than €20 million in assistance and incentives for businesses.”
Thank you but there would have been another €20 million, at the very least, if it hadn’t been for that €274 million. Are we going to claw any of that back — to give to the really struggling businesses, instead of consortiums of friends?
“We’re also setting aside €10 million to fix the injustices of the past, for which applications are open.”
What about the injustices of the present? Is any of that €10 million going to come from money recouped from the above-market-rate consultancies that not even you have the nerve to defend directly — the rookie lawyer, the footballer turned education policy expert, etc? Don’t these injustices impinge on the rights of workers who might have been engaged instead?
“The Malta Tourism Authority will be waiving contributions and licence fees for this year.”
Good. Could it have waived even more if so much hadn’t been waived for the Electrogas consortium? Or Vitals Global Healthcare?
“We are signing new collective agreements with the forces in uniform. I have just signed one with prison officials.”
You say this on a day when the news reports a prisoner has accused the prison administration of systemic terror, torture and a possible crime. Yes, the prison authorities have denied everything. But this report comes in the wake of several others alleging serious systemic abuse and questions about the spate of deaths of prisoners. Have you nothing to say about this, which is also related to the conditions under which honest prison officers are working?
“I have visited the workers at Wasteserv…”
You mean the entity whose Marsa facility experienced a major fire last year, with residents in Paola, Fgura, Tarxien and Santa Lucija asked to keep their windows closed because the fumes could be toxic. A fire that followed one in Marsaskala in 2017 and another in Magħtab the following year?
“We are going to continue to improve workers’ quality of life…”
Tell that to the young man on a motorbike who had to drive through the black fumes caused by the Magħtab fire — because he had to go to work.
“We will continue working to ensure our country is more beautiful and clean.”
Have you seen what the Planning Authority has approved lately? On your watch alone?
“These are just a few examples. I could have mentioned many more.”
Yes, us too.
Spare a thought for Abela. These examples are not rhetorical gaffes. They’re forced errors. He mentioned them because there are no better alternatives. The legacy he’s inherited from Joseph Muscat is one of pervasive maladministration and corruption.
Abela cannot escape it. And he cannot address it explicitly, not without opening a can of voracious, wriggling worms. So he has to plough on, straight-faced, hoping voters think of him as cleaning up the mess he inherited.
It’s been just over a year but the continuity candidate is banking on us thinking of him as the agent of discontinuity.