Creating narratives with populist slogans

We used to think “waves are in the sea” was Robert Abela’s most outlandish statement. However, that was before the prime minister embarked on a series of public appearances to celebrate his two years in office.

First, we had the statement that since his appointment there has not been a single episode of bad governance. Then last Sunday we were treated to a speech, filled with contradictory, misleading and, at times, utterly bizarre statements.

The Shift has only picked five of these statements, not least to preserve our sanity.

“The Opposition has this belief that people working with the government are useless”

The Prime Minister has often claimed the Labour government has succeeded in bringing unemployment down to record levels, even though statistics clearly show it has done this by hiring thousands of additional workers on the government payroll.

Abela’s latest speech in Gozo was no different where he boasted that Gozo saw an increase in jobs in the last year.

He then went on to suggest that criticism about the increase in government jobs, mainly by the Opposition, is based on the idea that people working with the government are useless and “not needed”.

Attributing criticism of the dramatic increase in government jobs solely to the Opposition is highly misleading because several constituted bodies, including the Malta Chamber of Commerce, the Malta Employers Association, the Gozo Business Chamber and the MUMN, have repeatedly called on the government to cease its recruitment drive of unnecessary jobs in the lead up to the looming general elections. They warned that apart from creating serious long term problems, particularly for government finances, the government’s ongoing jobs-for-votes drive is draining resources from the private sector.

In September 2021, data from the National Statistics Office (NSO) showed that public sector employment has ballooned to unprecedented levels, with an increase of almost 10,000 people put directly on the public payroll since March 2013, meaning that when compared to March 2013, taxpayers are having to fork out an additional €184 million in salaries, and that’s according to conservative estimates.

“I have read the Bills and I will be the first to debate them on Thursday”

It’s been two weeks since the Opposition Leader announced a raft of Bills that incorporate all the major recommendations made by the Caruana Galizia public inquiry board, but the government has done little to date except rubbish the proposals.

First came government whip Glenn Bedingfield, who said the proposed laws could not be debated because they contained elements of a Money Bill. Abela then said they were merely a political stunt.

Now that the proposed Bills are finally going to be debated, Abela has described them in a number of ways. In last Sunday’s speech, he said the Bills the Opposition wants to enact into law are only intended to instill fear in businesses and paralyse the economy. He also stated that one of the proposed Bills “will recognise Malta as a Mafia State”.

Creating misleading narratives around proposed legislation is hardly the appropriate prelude to what should be a sound and objective debate.

“Our message about the institutions has always been clear; that they have to be left to work serenely and that they must be used for justice alone”

When disgraced former OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri was among a number of individuals arraigned in court in March 2021, Abela told the press it was proof that the institutions were working: “I will continue defending the institutions and will not allow anyone to undermine their work”.

Fast forward to the latest speech on Sunday where, without making specific reference to the search of disgraced former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s home, Abela reiterated that institutions have to continue to work serenely but solely for the administration of justice.

Therefore, “let the institutions work” but with a warning. Many quite rightly saw in that a veiled threat to the magistrate who ordered the search.

Of course, no government criticism of independent institutions would be complete without Bedingfield’s contribution.

In a speech in parliament on Tuesday, Bedingfield followed up on Abela’s comments. He first criticised the judiciary, then for good measure proceeded to criticise the Office of the Ombudsman and Standards Commissioner George Hyzler, saying both had become the “de facto Opposition”.

Let the institutions work, indeed.

“My appeal to self-employed people and business people is this – if you feel terrorised by an institution, don’t keep knocking on doors. Come directly to me so that I can defend you”

This is perhaps the most bizarre statement uttered by the prime minister during his speech in Nadur.

He just said that institutions need to be left to work serenely (but solely for the administration of justice). A few sentences later, he depicted those institutions as entities to be feared rather than entities working in the public interest by maintaining the necessary scrutiny of government in a democracy.

Abela portraying himself as the protector of businesses from the terror of law enforcement and regulatory bodies is perhaps more telling of his administration’s attitude towards institutions and good governance than his crowd-pleasing statements.

How does he plan to square this bizarre statement with his finance minister’s plans?

Two weeks ago, Finance Minister Clyde Caruana said in parliament that the government would be collecting taxes due from businesses, saying they could no longer continue to use the government as an “overdraft facility”.

In an unusual outburst in parliament, Finance Minister Clyde Caruana revealed that some €5 billion in taxes are owed by companies in Malta.

All this while debt levels have shot up to an unprecedented record of over €8 billion. The government is increasing its spending at an alarming rate, driving up the deficit to record highs, according to the most recent government statistics.

“In these fora, populism doesn’t work”

This remark was truly striking, even though it was probably never intended to be so.

While referring to Bernard Grech’s discussions with foreign delegations of Malta’s plan for a hydrogen-ready pipeline, and attempting another dig at the Opposition Leader, Abela stated that “in these [international] fora, you can’t work with populism…”

Abela is right, of course. Populism in these international fora doesn’t work which is why Malta’s reputation has taken a nose-dive since the Labour Party’s shift to power in 2013. FATF greylisting occurs precisely because empty statements devoid of concrete action do not work on an international level.

But populism does seem to work perfectly with audiences in Malta and Gozo, especially for those who sat through Abela’s meandering speech and waving of hands to celebrate his two years in office.


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