In Friday’s speech to Labour’s general party conference, Robert Abela effectively told us why Rosianne Cutajar had to be fired as junior minister. By having an issue with the taxman, she threatened to undermine one of his major lines of attack in the coming electoral campaign: paying one’s taxes in full.
The issue might seem narrow but it embraces the three keywords of Abela’s speech: honesty, balance and trust. To listen to him, you’d think he has those qualities while the Nationalist Party does not. We haven’t heard the end of the tax affairs of Bernard Grech and his predecessor, Adrian Delia.
Abela never mentioned Cutajar by name, of course. He even referred to his Cabinet colleagues as an ‘incredible team’ over the last 18 months, during most of which Cutajar served as junior minister.
Critics of Labour’s pornocracy will say that Cutajar’s political sins are about a lot more than tax. On those, Abela continues to shield her. The sins that matter are those that thwart Labour, not those that corrupt public administration.
Critics might be incredulous at the chutzpah of Abela boasting of the competence of his government, amazed he has the nerve to speak of balance, and angered that he can boast of his honesty and how he has levelled with the public.
Competence from a government that saw us greylisted by the FATF and redlisted by the UK? Whose yo-yo policy on travel to Malta has damaged our reputation further with potential tourists, while endangering the language school industry?
Balance from a government which can’t get even balance of powers right? Whose instincts on justice reform are to violate Constitutional norms and pass on some of the courts’ caseload to people who serve at the minister’s pleasure?
Balance from a government that so far has not balanced economic growth with social justice? Which has destroyed the balance between development and sustainability?
Levelling with the public when Abela’s own parliamentary declaration isn’t transparent about his own earnings? When getting information from the government through FOI requests is like drawing blood from a stone? When the signal national projects on energy and health are mired in corruption and secrecy?
Honesty, when everything Abela says about his disgraced predecessor is larded in euphemism? When in Friday’s speech the most he could say was that there were “some shortcomings”?
But Abela wasn’t addressing sceptics. His target audience is the majority that still supports him over the Opposition, in particular the critics within Labour who are angry about crony greed and corruption.
From that perspective, he gave an excellent speech. It succeeded because it parried the PN’s line of attack while providing a coded message to supporters.
Against the PN’s current line — that Labour arrogance must be cut down to size with our vote — Abela said that any Labour arrogance should be reported, and action will be taken, no matter how big the offender is. To appear credible, Abela acknowledged the stakes: arrogance would endanger Labour’s hegemony.
He also told his audience that the PN was the really arrogant lot. With them in power, affluence would be imperilled.
One sign of a successful speech is when nonsense is made to sound reasonable. Abela told his target audience that the only credible alternative to Labour is… Labour. “We’re a movement that renews itself and is its own alternative.” And: “We can be a better version of ourselves.”
What gives the message its force are two things. First, it conflates people’s ideas about personal improvement in their lives with how Labour can improve gradually.
The parallel is, of course, false. The problems stemming from Labour’s public administration are not a bug but a feature. Its business model is cronyism, no distinction between Party and State, and the defence of corrupt politicians as long as possible. The true parallel with personal life would be going into rehab.
Next, the virtues of honesty, balance and trust become code for promises of how corruption will be weeded out — discreetly.
“Honesty” means Abela acknowledges “shortcomings” without naming any, nudging his audience and expecting it to understand he can’t really say more.
“Balance” means doing this gradually, behind the scenes, getting rid of problem politicians one by one, without endangering Labour’s hold on power.
“Trust” means knowing Abela will do it because his own career is on the line — and, after all, he has already been doing it by weeding out several MPs.
Of course, this means that “justice” remains something the Party handles, not the courts. The Party decides, as it has done so far, which charges matter and which don’t. The track record suggests the cost — farming out problematic politicians to lucrative post-retirement posts or giving them public consultancies — will still be borne by the public purse.
The coded promise amounts to saying that Labour’s personnel will change but that its business model won’t.