Our prime minister’s prolonged absence from public engagement is becoming increasingly hard to ignore, especially when we consider the troubles and vicissitudes knocking at the country’s door.
This absence, as the country grapples with some harsh economic and social realities, is disconcerting. More so when we remember that he boasted on social media in early July that in his first 100 days as prime minister, his administration “worked hard to safeguard the welfare of families and businesses”.
Yet outside of Abela’s parochial soundbites and carefully worded social media posts, things are a lot less rosy. Here’s a selection of pressing issues that Abela has yet to address properly.
Rising living costs, rising risk of poverty
In its latest quarterly review, Malta’s Central Bank reported that inflation hit 4.5% during the first quarter of the year, up from 2.6% in December, affecting many businesses and households.
Moreover, according to the latest data by the National Statistics Office (NSO), in 2020 alone, a total of 85,369 people are at risk of poverty. That’s 17% of the population, or rather, one in every six lives in a household earning less than €9,744 annually. No household can survive on that amount, especially when food inflation reached 10.2% in June.
Food is not the only sector that’s been affected by rising costs. According to a local study, property prices in Malta are now double what they were in 2013, while rental prices of housing units also increased over the nine-year period between 2013 and 2022, going up by some 42%, the study found. Consequently, as house prices rise, fewer people are buying properties.
Declining mental health
You would think that the man who told us how grateful he is to live in Malta, where one can enjoy serenity and peace of mind, would have something to say about the string of local and European surveys that expose the declining mental health of the Maltese.
A recent survey published by US analytics company Gallup revealed that a quarter of Maltese surveyed for the study replied they had experienced anger a day before being questioned; 64% said they were worried about something; while half of the respondents also experienced stress.
A local MISCO survey also found that employees have experienced mental health issues such as stress and anxiety related to their work. Around 68% of respondents experienced a mental health problem directly related to their job in the last 12 months.
In 2021, a survey found that almost 60% of young people in Malta would rather live in another European country, while another revealed that one in two children suffers from anxiety.
An imploding national airline and broken election promises
It may feel like a lifetime, but it was only five months ago that we were presented with 1,000 electoral pledges that were supposed to blow our socks off.
Not only have we not seen any implementation of this magnificent programme, but the government has already had to rescind its pre-electoral promise to hundreds of soon-to-be redundant workers at Air Malta.
The entire saga, which The Shift has been documenting, has seen Finance Minister Clyde Caruana’s ill-conceived scheme run aground during discussions with the European Commission, and the latest agreement connected to a golden handshake for some employees described by the Malta Employers Association as “obscene and unprecedented”.
Considering the possibility that Air Malta may be dissolved to make way for a new state airline, the prime minister’s silence on the matter is deafening.
A raft of international reports
Abela has also been uncharacteristically silent about the numerous international reports on Malta that were published in the last couple of months. Perhaps he cares little about any of them, but as prime minister, he should be seen to be reacting.
Abela has yet to respond to OSCE’s election monitoring report that concluded, among other things, that the timing of the tax refunds and stimulus cheques before the general elections did not conform to international standards.
Meanwhile, the European Commission’s latest rule of law report lamented that Malta is still taking too long to investigate high-level corruption and the Council of Europe reminded Malta that a comprehensive and holistic reform of Malta’s democratic institutions and a system of checks and balances is still “urgently needed”.
MEPs from the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) also voiced their concerns about the “impunity afforded” to former prime minister Joseph Muscat, his chief of staff Keith Schembri, and former Minister Konrad Mizzi as one of their main conclusions in the report following their recent rule of law mission in Malta.
If Abela won’t comment, Muscat will
Abela’s protracted silence on these and other matters has meant that we have heard a lot more from disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat, whose every sneeze made it to the front pages almost daily.
Muscat started by taking issue with the LIBE committee’s observations and had his lawyers pen a wordy response, which he then posted on his Facebook page.
Following that, Muscat tried (but failed) to rally support against the prosecution of former roads agency boss Frederick Azzopardi, who also happens to be his cousin’s husband. Azzopardi was charged in court with environmental crimes following a criminal complaint by Arnold Cassola.
A bad look that’s getting worse
Nobody is disputing the fact that Malta’s prime minister deserves a break, but Abela seems to be making a habit of holidaying or retreating from the public eye at the worst possible time.
In August 2020, Abela was heavily criticised when he chose to holiday at the height of the Covid-19 crisis in Malta, and no propaganda is going to change the fact that the country is still reeling from the pandemic’s aftershock, the effects of which have been compounded by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
If Abela retreating looked bad in 2020 during the pandemic, what does it look like now?
It is bad enough that our bulging, part-time parliament won’t reconvene till October, but having a prime minister who has all but disappeared during such a critical period does make you wonder why Abela campaigned to become prime minister in the first place.