Repeat after me Labour’s electoral message: Malta needs Labour to guarantee a stable government. Labour needs Robert Abela to guarantee that Labour is cleaned up.
And yet, cleaning up Labour will divide the Party. That’s clear from the reaction, within Labour, to the police search of Joseph Muscat’s home and office. So, cleaning up the Party will destabilise government.
Recite: Abela needs a huge Labour majority to ensure he is secure enough to clean up Labour. And Labour needs to be cleaned up to ensure the economy doesn’t continue to suffer the consequences… or worse.
And yet, the huge Labour majority depends on a continuation of the system of turbo-patronage. A clean-up would significantly reduce the patronage and shrink the majority. So, a clean-up will reduce Abela’s secure hold of power.
Labour’s message — Malta needs a strong Labour government for a strong economy — is based on a contradiction. Labour’s strength is incompatible with the economy’s strength.
Turbo-patronage damages the economy. It is parasitic on real enterprise. Patronage is based on not having a level-playing field and undermining fair competition.
Even now, the private sector is complaining about the damage inflicted by Abela’s government, not just the legacy of Muscat’s. The public debt is rising steeply. If economic growth isn’t enough to pay it off, the stability of our finances, public and personal, will be in trouble.
But cutting back on patronage would destabilise the Labour government itself.
Labour’s electoral message has sidestepped these issues by making ‘Robert Abela 2022’ its emblem. It has literally reduced the Party to the margins of its billboards and adverts.
Somehow, we’re told to believe Abela will find a working balance between the status quo and the reforms needed. He is being sold as the face of gradual, prudent reform.
He is, in fact, the face of the status quo.
It is true that, ever since Daphne Caruana Galizia exposed the Panama Gang, the corrupt system put in place by Joseph Muscat has been associated with the faces of Konrad Mizzi, Keith Schembri and Muscat himself. In a way, however, Robert Abela personifies it better.
Scandals like the Electrogas power station and the giveaway of the three public hospitals reveal the sheer depth of the system’s corruption. They typify the ruthlessness and absence of limits. But they are also exceptional.
Only a few were allowed to raid public assets and compromise future governments on that scale. This corruption was strategic and required access to the rooms where policy was formulated.
Far more routine has been a different kind of self-enrichment, based on access to government funds and to mid-level officials who could ignore the rules in your favour.
This corruption shades into maladministration. It is tactical, not strategic. It consists of seizing opportunities as they come, hopping from deal to deal: using public funds to reward or employ canvassers, using contracts to reward donors, using personal access to or involvement in decision-making for profitable private business deals.
Many more people play the system in this way. Abela personifies just how it can be milked.
He’s not the only one to have had multiple retainers paid out of public funds. But perhaps he’s the only one who, from public funds alone, earned in a month what most people do not earn in a year.
He’s hardly the only person to have benefitted from property deals where the granting of Planning Authority permits was fortunate. But Abela’s luck has been miraculous.
He won’t answer questions about the two cases we know of. It’s up to us to imagine how, in one, a development permit was granted on the same day as the contract; or how, in the other, so many planning violations were forgiven that the value of a Zejtun property that Abela bought for €600,000 is now worth at least €2,500,000.
Abela has been a major beneficiary of the system that he’s supposed to reform. If you believe he can, you must believe that he isn’t compromised. That the people whose wings he’ll have to clip won’t have anything on him.
Or else you’ll need to believe that the only clean-up that’s needed is of scandals on the scale of Panamagate and the Vitals deal. You need to believe what economic authorities refute: that economies can thrive in the shadow of turbo-patronage.
If you believe neither of those things, then Abela’s face represents the problem, not the solution. He personifies why Labour can’t clean up without collapsing. And if it can’t clean up, its economic promises are written on sand.