Sunday 01 October 2023

Is this a fresh start for Labour? Only time will tell

This column first appeared in Malta Today

Until Robert Abela and his new Cabinet get settled in and we get used to saying Prime Minister Abela rather than Muscat, and until we see whether his talk about good governance will be translated into concrete action, it is still too early to pass judgement.

Certainly, the input of new faces and some reshuffling has sent positive signals, if my newsfeed is anything to go by.  However, if these last few months have taught me anything, it is not to jump the gun and come to any premature conclusions. Only last week, the predictions were that Chris Fearne’s election to the top post was a ‘sure thing’ because he was way ahead in the polls, but these turned out to have been based on information which was not really that reliable after all. 

As Malta Today cautiously pointed out in its final survey which saw Abela enjoying a slight lead (published on Saturday evening shortly after voting was closed), “the survey was conditioned by the large number of people who were uncertain who to vote for (44.8%)”.

Interestingly enough, even as far back as March 2018, a Malta Today survey had found that Robert Abela was already leading in the polls followed by Miriam Dalli with Chris Fearne placing third.  “This gives Abela an important advantage in a leadership race that will be determined by PL members,”  the paper had reported at the time.  I admit to have forgotten all about the results of the 2018 survey until I was carrying out research for this column, which just goes to illustrate once again how important it is to rely on facts rather than perceptions or what our social media bubble is telling us.  When you have 44.8% of respondents refusing to state whom they are voting for, nothing is a foregone conclusion and, as happens with general elections, it is that unknown quantity which will always bring forth the most surprising results if you have not been paying attention. 

What happens behind-the-scenes, of course, is another Pandora’s box. Even as I write, there are still conspiracy theories making the rounds about which of the two contenders was actually Muscat’s “anointed one” and whether any backroom deals had been made.  In fact, certain comments and behaviour seem significant. Miriam Dalli’s pointed remark on a talk show on One TV on Sunday that “Abela did not try to force others out of the running” was telling.  Her stony expression and very cool reception of Muscat after his farewell speech did not go unnoticed, especially compared to how some other Labour politicians were literally sobbing. In contrast, her very warm embrace and beaming smile when congratulating Robert Abela on Sunday evening spoke volumes.  Let us not forget that an attempt had been made for everyone to drop out of the race so there would be no need for an election: Chris Fearne would be made leader with Ian Borg and Robert Abela to be made his deputies.  “The deal was being pushed by senior party exponents and had the blessing of outgoing leader Joseph Muscat, sources in the party told MaltaToday.”   Miriam Dalli and Ian Borg obliged by not contesting for the leadership post, but Abela refused to play ball and an election was held after all.  One would not blame her for being angry.  

There is also the conviction by his political adversaries that Muscat, who will now be a backbencher, will be the one pulling the strings and that Abela is merely his puppet. All this remains to be seen because I always prefer giving people the benefit of the doubt.  I believe criticism of anyone who has just been elected to a high post needs to be made, but only based on the person’s actions not just unfounded speculation.  

The graffiti scrawled on a wall calling Robert Abela “dog shit” before he had even taken his oath of office was childish, to put it mildly. What is this kind of name-calling actually achieving? I realise that there is a faction which simply loathes anything Labour but until the Opposition musters enough support to actually make a Nationalist Prime Minister a reality, then scrawling schoolyard insults on walls will not get anyone elected.  The MZPN, which is the youth branch of the PN, were similarly petty by publishing a photo of former Justice Minister Owen Bonnici, mocking him for eating at KFC after the reshuffle. That is the kind of joke I expect from a satirical website, not from a branch of a political party.  Meanwhile saw fit to run an unsigned piece with the headline, “Millionaire bodybuilder to be new Malta Prime Minister”.  If whoever was behind this headline thought it would serve to dent Abela’s image they need to think again. Have they not realised by now that this kind of approach is not getting them anywhere?

Abela has also been criticised because he is a lawyer, since lawyers are well-known for being smooth talkers able to get out of any sticky situation. But coming from a party such as the PN which is jam-packed with lawyers and has had its share of lawyer-Prime Ministers, that is a bit rich. Or are we now saying a PN lawyer turned politician is OK, but a Labour equivalent isn’t?

This is not to say Robert Abela can simply delete the past and reboot the Labour Party in Government as if nothing has happened. Faced with the unenviable task of trying to repair the considerable damage which was done to the integrity of the Government and the country, the scrutiny on Abela will be at a higher intensity than ever before. This is to be expected in the circumstances because the erosion of trust has been considerable.  Whether he will succeed or not, only time will tell. But it is also unreasonable to expect instant solutions and quick fixes over night. 

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