Angry calls for resignations have dominated countless protests over the last couple of weeks, but as Joseph Muscat prepares to step down as Prime Minister in a couple of weeks, Malta’s attention is shifting towards his potential successors.
Now that there are officially two people who have thrown their hat in the ring and could end up being the new Leader of the Labour Party and Malta’s next Prime Minister, all eyes have turned to Chris Fearne and Robert Abela.
But who exactly is Chris Fearne, and what has led to this point for the doctor-turned-Deputy Prime Minister?
A physician-turned-politician and father of three, 56-year-old Chris Fearne is the current Deputy Prime Minister of Malta. He was also appointed Parliamentary Secretary for Health back in April 2014, becoming Minister for Health two years later.
Before his political career was kicked into overdrive in the mid 2010s, however, Fearne worked as a doctor and surgeon for over a quarter of a century.
A former University lecturer in Paediatric Surgery and an examiner in its Medical School, Dr Fearne was also a founding director of the Malta Institute for Medical Education and the chairperson of the Celebrities for Kids, a voluntary NGO promoting children’s rights.
He’s also worked and studied in a number of children’s hospitals in England, including Alder Hey in Liverpool, and London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital.
But Fearne’s story actually starts before all of that.
Even before graduating as a doctor in 1987, Fearne was always one to get involved in a number of organisations. He served as Secretary General of the Maltese Federation of Youth Organisations, an officer within the University Students’ Council KSU, and in the Malta Medical Students’ Association, MMSA.
Fast forward to March 2013, when a 50-year-old Dr Fearne was elected to the House of Representatives amidst Labour’s first of two consecutive landslide victories.
One year later, following a Cabinet reshuffle by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, Chris Fearne was given his first official position as part of the Government of Malta; Parliamentary Secretary for Health under the office of the Minister for Energy and Health, Konrad Mizzi.
Following the appointment, Fearne announced that he would stop seeing new patients – whether privately or at Mater Dei Hospital – other than four acute cases which he had started treating before being informed of his new appointment.
Since the ministerial code of ethics forbids Cabinet members from keeping their former jobs – even if unpaid – Fearne also stepped down from his posts as Clinical Chairman of the Department of Surgery and Chairman of the Parliamentary Foreign and European Affairs Committee to focus fully on health.
Two years later, in April 2016, Chris Fearne was appointed Minister of Health.
Four years after being first elected, Fearne’s next position was to be second-in-command of a virtually unstoppable Labour Party.
Following his party’s second landslide victory – and a personal victory of over 10,000 total votes in the third and fourth districst – Fearne was elected as Labour’s Deputy Leader for Parliamentary Affairs on 15th July 2017.
Succeeding Louis Grech, Fearne was then sworn in as the Deputy Prime Minister of Malta.
Commanding important governmental roles for half a decade, Chris Fearne’s position in power has not been without its controversies.
2017 had kicked off with the news that 45-year-old Carmen Ciantar, a Labour Party activist who was the international secretary of Labour’s women’s branch Nisa Laburisti, was actually given a government contract of employment worth twice as much as that of her minister, Chris Fearne.
Ciantar, who was appointed as the CEO of the Foundation for Medical Services (FMS), was given a three-year financial package worth €104,000 annually… making her one of the highest paid government employees ever.
A government-appointed director at Transport Malta and former general manager of ARMS Ltd (the government’s utilities billing company), Ciantar was chosen for the post without any public call by Health Minister Fearne, who ended up facing widespread criticism for the choice. The exuberant salary, however, was “comparable to that of previous CEOs”, a spokeswoman for Fearne had replied.
The situation was only made more suspicious considering Ciantar was one of Fearne’s personal electoral campaign managers.
Earlier this year, to explain why Malta fell 10 places on the Euro Health Consumer Index, Fearne blamed this on the fact that the island still does not offer abortion services… even if the official report didn’t really agree with this.
In December 2018, Fearne fired Neville Gafà, a notorious Castille official and self-confessed “good friend” of former Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister, Keith Schembri.
Towards the end of 2018, Gafà’s name was thrust into the spotlight following a controversial trip to Libya which saw him, according to official communications from Tripoli, meeting with government ministers in his capacity of “special envoy of the Prime Minister”. When contacted, he had insisted he travelled to the Libyan capital on a “personal visit”… going on to say he was only spotted with Haithem Tajouri, the notorious leader of militia group Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade, because he had “bumped into him on the street”.
Nearly exactly one year ago today, Health Minister Fearne fired Gafà from a senior manager position at Foundation for Medical Services (FMS).
Back then, it was rumoured that Gafà had been fired for not backing Fearne’s Labour Party leadership aspirations, although no true credibility was given to these allegations.
Back then, Gafà had told the Times of Malta he was “projects director” at the Health Ministry in Valletta, even providing the newspaper with an official business card to back up his story. However, Health Ministry sources said Mr Gafà had not worked at the ministry Valletta’s offices since he was implicated in an alleged medical visas racket two years earlier, back in 2016.
Fast forward to the end of 2019, and Gafà, an OPM co-ordinator, has been spotted at the home of the Prime Minister’s former Chief of Staff Keith Schembri, who is facing serious allegations over his involvement with the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. Questions are now being raised as to whether Gafà is passing on messages between Schembri and Castille.
Of course, shit really hit the fan in the end of 2019.
With shocking revelations in the assassination investigation of Daphne Caruana Galizia jumpstarting a political crisis that led to various resignations – including that of Prime Minister Muscat himself – many looked to the PM’s second-in-command to see what his reaction would be.
One of the first things that Fearne went on record to say was that, no matter what, there would be no chance of an early election, and that the Labour Party will finish its full five-year term. Chris Fearne said the PL would be doing this “not out of arrogance, but out of duty to the voters”.
“These past four days were tough and there were times when he, I and everyone felt practically betrayed; there was that sentiment,” Fearne had said days after some of the most shocking revelations and implications emerged. “There were times when we realised that Malta was passing through a serious moment, but there were also moments of satisfaction when we realised that, after two years, someone who was allegedly well involved in the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia [Yorgen Fenech] had been charged.”
“Yes, we had different opinions, but when we reached a decision, we were as tight as a fist.”
Following a parliamentary group meeting that same week, Fearne had said that he is convinced that Joseph Muscat’s successor will enjoy the trust of all the Labour MPs, “no matter who it is”.
One week later, Chris Fearne became the first person to officially announce his bid to become Malta’s next Prime Minister… with the backing of a bunch of big, familiar names.
“This is a historic moment for the country and the party,” Fearne said on Facebook ahead of a weekend which saw Muscat embark on a ‘farewell tour’ around Malta. “We’re at a crossroads, and the choices we make in the coming days will have a huge impact on our future. I will shoulder the weight of the country and I expect the same from everyone. Everyone. I will see that Malta’s name is cleared of all stains.”
Upon announcing his intention to run for Labour leader, Chris Fearne enjoyed the backing of Transport Minister Ian Borg, who had previously been tipped to contest the role.
Fearne’s only current competitor for the role, Robert Abela, quickly made reference to “a pact with the devil”; an agreement pushed by senior party exponents (with the blessing of Joseph Muscat himself) which would have instantly installed Chris Fearne as leader and have Robert Abela and Transport Minister Ian Borg share the role of Deputy Leader (and Borg being earmarked for Deputy Prime Minister).
Despite this seemingly enticing offer, Abela objected because of Ian Borg’s proximity to Keith Schembri, the former Chief of Staff of Prime Minister Muscat who has had to resign amidst explosive claims by the current suspected mastermind of the Daphne Caruana Galizia assassination, Yorgen Fenech.
But Minister Borg was far from the only person to explicitly endorse or encourage Fearne to take up the mantle of Prime Minister sooner rather than later.
Soon after, support for Fearne came out from everywhere and virtually everyone, including Equality Minister Edward Zammit Lewis, Justice Minister Owen Bonnici, Reforms Secretary Julia Farrugia Portelli, MP Glenn Bedingfield… and even recently-resigned Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi.
Long considered one of the favourites to succeed Muscat, Labour MEP Miriam Dalli had just bolstered Fearne’s leaderly chances one day before his announcement by officially ruling herself out of the upcoming race.
By the following Monday, former Labour MEP Marlene Mizzi called for Fearne to immediately take over as PM, urging “we need this to happen now, country first.”
So what are Chris Fearne’s chances of becoming Malta’s next Prime Minister?
Well, according to many, Fearne becoming Malta’s 14th Prime Minister is a sure bet… but the reality is a tad more complicated.
By last weekend, a MaltaToday survey found that both Abela and Chris Fearne enjoyed a much larger trust rating than PN and Opposition leader Adrian Delia.
As for the two contenders, though, Chris Fearne definitely enjoyed a higher rating than Abela; the Deputy Prime Minister got a record 60.6% rating over Delia, while Abela clocked in 49.3%. In fact, Fearne’s trust rating registered as the highest for any Maltese leader ever.
In both cases, the two potential Prime Ministers are trusted by over 90% of PL voters, with Fearne very interestingly being trusted more than Delia by 14.8% of PN supporters.
At the time of writing, however, a separate, Lovin Malta poll asking our readers to choose who they’d want to see being elected as the next Prime Minister has already amassed nearly 10,000 votes… with Abela currently ahead commanding a 55% of the votes.
A General Conference will be held on 6th and 7th January and, if there are more than two candidates, a vote will be taken during that conference to ascertain the two most popular candidates. The two candidates who receive the most votes will then face each other at PL Congress on 11th January. If only Fearne and Abela remain in the race, then only one vote will take place; the PL Congress on the 11 of January.