As in one of those ‘Neputija tal-Kappillan’ farces, in which characters exit running from stage right only to re-enter immediately from stage left, Rosianne Cutajar has returned. Out she went in disgrace; back she comes in as chair of a parliamentary committee. She gets a pay rise and is able to tell her constituents that see, the prime minister endorses her.
What made Robert Abela approve the return? Is it an indifference to public standards or a forced error, something he’d rather not have done but felt he had to do? It could be both, of course, but if I had to put weight on only one factor, I’d say it was a forced error.
To understand why, look at how Abela reacted to the anger whipped up by the likes of Jason Micallef and Emanuel Cuschieri to the police search of Joseph Muscat’s house. His people were busy reassuring the angry elements in the base that “the Party is united”.
Don’t blink or you’ll miss it. Usually, leaders command unity. The base falls in line behind leaders. Here, however, is the leader reassuring the base he’s still marching in step with it. It’s unity all right. But it’s not leadership.
The billboards up around the country boast something else: it is Robert Abela who’s brought “unity” to Party and country. It turns out it’s an empty boast.
After all, what does a reassurance of Party unity mean in the context of a police search of the house of a former leader? It can only mean that the Labour government still has Muscat’s back.
Who knows if Abela really means it or if this was another untruth meant to fob off Labour unrest until the general election, when after the expected landslide victory there will be time enough for evidence to leak that will either damn or clear Muscat, and Labour supporters will have time to adjust to whatever circumstances call for.
After all, that’s how Konrad Mizzi has been dealt with. He’s gone from hero to expulsion from the parliamentary group, without the Party ever condemning him in any statement, but with general activist acceptance that he had to be jettisoned. The evidence has piled up in public, nature took its course, and Labour didn’t have to utter an official word of explanation.
It’s against this background that Cutajar’s return needs to be understood. It’s another statement of “Party unity”. Cutajar may be small fry but she’s in a position to reveal the messes of bigger fish just before a general election where Abela needs to maximise Labour’s vote.
Here’s the irony. Abela needs not just to win the next general election but to win big. A landslide victory would establish him in his own right and give him greater authority and freedom of manoeuvre within the Party. But to win his independence tomorrow he must give it up today: he is dependent on everyone around him, needs them on board, so that division and resentments do not reduce Labour’s vote.
None of this is based on esoteric mind-reading. It’s there, coded, in Abela’s public speeches, when he says the alternative to Labour is Labour — meaning a renewed Labour parliamentary group, purged by voters, and replaced with candidates of his choice.
It’s been there from the beginning, when he spoke of “discipline”, implying both Labour unity and self-restraint when it came to the cookie jar.
Since then, of course, the talk of discipline has been proven to be hollow. His own image of self-discipline was shattered with images of his seaside holiday during the first summer of the pandemic, just when a disastrous policy was implemented. Worse, there’s no end to official reports of maladministration and corruption. The man who promises good governance has a civil service head who attacks the Ombudsman and the Auditor General.
Is the problem simply rhetorical? Will a big Labour victory truly make Abela independent, his hands free of the ropes binding him to Muscat’s legacy today?
Few things are truly impossible in political practice. But in these two years, Abela hasn’t just submitted to a legacy. He’s continued to bind himself. In not taking action against abusive ministers today, he’s made it more difficult to take action tomorrow when they continue along a path they’ve already begun.
He’d have to embark on a politically costly path, inflicting division, just when he needs a united front — because the economic bills for the patronage, maladministration and corruption will very likely be punching holes into his budgets, and the leaks, from police investigations and internal audits, will be increasing.
Is that plausible? No. For all we know he may intend it, this pivot from Party unity (“My Party is above right or wrong”) to rule of law (“no one is above wrongdoing”). But the idea that a massive general election victory will release him from the pressures he faces now looks like wishful thinking.