At the opening of Labour’s general conference on Friday, Robert Abela warned the delegates that brave decisions will be needed down the road. He’s been saying that since he became prime minister almost two and a half years ago.
Abela is never so bold as when he announces that courage is needed. That’s when he whips off his jacket, tears open his shirt, ripples his lotioned pecs and, a true lionheart, faces down whatever ONE interviewers and his government’s handsomely paid PR consultant, Saviour Balzan, lob gently at him.
From the beginning, Abela has been bloody, bold and resolute. It was with flinty purpose that, in January 2020, he nominated the disgraced Konrad Mizzi to head Malta’s parliamentary delegation to the OSCE, and with devil-may-care pluck that he withdrew that nomination a few hours later.
It needed valour to pay Edward Scicluna €38,000 more than his predecessor as Central Bank governor, just to get rid of an embarrassing finance minister. It was gutsy to pay the disgraced Justyne Caruana a ministerial golden handshake of €30,000 — not once but twice.
Faced with decisions in the national interest, Abela is not timorous. But neither is he temerarious. He is an instinctive disciple of Aristotle, courageous to the right degree.
Addressing Labour’s general conference last year, Abela audaciously conceded that his disgraced predecessor’s government had “a few shortcomings” (nuqqasijiet). But he wasn’t so reckless as to refuse Joseph Muscat an unprecedented golden handshake, nor so feckless as to tell us how much of our money Muscat is pocketing.
When Rosianne Cutajar finally let go of her junior minister’s post (with another minimum €30,000 as a farewell gift), Abela stoutly affirmed that his government stands for the rule of law, while sticking by Cutajar’s claim not to have broken it.
In a dazzling display of derring-do, the government held back from telling us if Cutajar had been sacked or if she had resigned. Declaring she had been fired would have gone some way to restoring our reputation at the Council of Europe, but Abela stood up to all that foreign bullying.
He routinely takes difficult decisions to stand up for the weak against the strong. When the pandemic’s social distancing measures required the elderly struck down by Covid to die alone, like vagrants, and then to be buried hurriedly, wrapped in plastic like pet dogs, Abela courageously stuck his neck out to defend the Floriana football fans caught flagrantly violating the rules while celebrating their team’s championship victory.
Against the protests of the police association and the environmental health professionals, Abela was unafraid to defend the 47 arraigned supporters. Did they benefit from an amnesty? The government hasn’t denied it. So yes, they did. Abela insists that Labour delivers what it promises.
He promised Labour delegates that he would defend any minister from “senseless attacks”. He stood by Edward Zammit Lewis, under “senseless” fire for having toadied to Yorgen Fenech when the latter was already revealed to be a major suspect in significant money laundering. And he stood by Carmelo Abela when the latter was alleged to have been involved in an attempted bank burglary.
He evidently considered demands for the resignation of these ministers to be “senseless attacks”, motivated by “negativity”, all the way up to the general elections. Once the result was in, however, he took one of those “difficult decisions” and didn’t reappoint them to his Cabinet. It takes bravery to recognise when the “senseless” becomes sensible.
Abela is principled. And the principle is that his political interests and the national interest are one.
It takes principled courage to send boatloads of migrants back to Libya when the foreign ministry’s website warns that Libya is unsafe for Maltese.
It is principle that led to the axing of the public broadcaster’s most popular discussion programme, and principled reform that led to the marginalisation of the rest. Thanks to principle, the PBS newsroom is so independent-minded that it won’t just roll over and report everything the Pope says, not least if he shoots his mouth off and says Malta must tackle corruption.
Abela courageously says that journalism must be safeguarded. It’s on principle that he ignored international experts’ offer of help.
It was brave of the government to assert that an anti-SLAPP law must emanate from the European Commission, and it’s on principle that Abela didn’t task Labour’s MEPs to agitate for it, as David Casa has done.
In light of all this, when Abela today says there are difficult decisions to be taken soon, for which bravery and unity are needed, I can’t wait to learn what they are.
Could it be a decision to sanction Anton Refalo for appropriating a protected cultural artefact? No, he’s just been reappointed minister.
Could it be discipline for the ministers rewarding family, friends, canvassers, constituents and donors with jobs, direct orders and favours? They’ve all just been reappointed, too.
Could it be telling ‘Chloe the Farmer’, daughter of construction magnate Joseph Portelli, that she can’t have another agricultural store built on ODZ land? She’s just got a second one after her father had dinner with Abela at a Labour fundraiser.
Could it be difficult decisions to impose fiscal discipline and budget cuts in the light of Malta’s tops-in-Europe deficit? Surely not. While coasting towards re-election, Abela embarked on a public employment spree and fearlessly spent almost €200 million more this March than in March last year. Having won, he appointed a 27-member Cabinet, set to cost €100 million over five years.
So these difficult decisions can’t possibly have anything to do with the environment or financial and economic stability. What then?
I’ve no idea. I just know the decisions will be courageous and principled. Abela insists they will fill us with hope.
Happy EU Membership birthday. It’s the 18th. We’ve just turned adult.