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Robert Abela Two Years On: High Profile Resignations And Major Reforms But Glaring Shortcomings Remain

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Two years ago today, Prime Minister Robert Abela emerged from Parliament’s backbenches to win the Labour Party leadership election following Joseph Muscat’s fall from grace. 

It’s been a turbulent time for Abela, who has had to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, greylisting, and the fallout from the political crisis brought on by Yorgen Fenech’s arrest in connection with the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. 

Still, Abela has managed to keep hold of the Labour Party’s massive majority over its rivals while instituting some much-needed reforms, proving to be a somewhat stable figure following 2019’s crisis. Surveys even indicate he has widened that margin since taking over.

But many concerns remain with inaction, poor enforcement, petty attacks, and disrespect of institutions still the name of the game.

Here are the highs and lows of Abela’s tenure so far:

1. Abela’s made sweeping changes

Right off the bat, Abela was quick to replace unpopular figures holding top positions, like former Police Commissioner Lawrence Cutajar and former Attorney General Peter Grech, who many believe put spokes in the wheels in the battle for truth and justice in the country.

Angelo Gafa, Malta’s new police commissioner, has overseen significant progress since taking over, completely overhauling the Financial Crimes Investigations Department to impressive results, with many, including Keith Schembri, facing criminal charges.

Abela’s chopping block did not stop there, with Abela taking strong action against disgraced former ministers Chris Cardona and Konrad Mizzi, both of whom were booted out of the Labour Party parliamentary group after damning allegations emerged in the media.

He was also able to effectively replace controversial figures like Joseph Muscat, Konrad Mizzi and Chris Cardona with new politicians, who for now, seem to steer the country in the right direction. 

While his endless co-options might seem like an affront to democracy, Abela has ultimately managed to bring in strong allies into the fold like Clyde Caruana, Miriam Dalli, Oliver Scicluna, Jonathan Attard, and Andy Ellul with little to no fuss.

2. But old habits die hard

Abela has shown tendencies of reverting to undesirable traits that were so prevalent under his predecessor.

Rosianne Cutajar remains a Labour Party MP despite being removed from Cabinet following allegations of her pocketing thousands in a property deal by Yorgen Fenech, with who she is alleged to have had an intimate relationship. She will be running in the general election and do not be surprised if Abela, who is her district ally, awards her with a Cabinet position if she were elected.

Meanwhile, the whole Justyne Caruana fiasco has raised more questions than answers in Abela’s ability to lead effectively. 

Abela had started his tenure as Prime Minister in a no-nonsense fashion, asking Caruana to resign as Gozo Minister just five days after she was appointed following revelations of her then-husband, former Deputy Police Commissioner Silvio Valletta’s links to Yorgen Fenech and claims that he leaked sensitive information on the Daphne Caruana Galizia investigation.

However, she was brought back into the fold just 10 months later, being promoted to Education Minister as part of Abela’s Cabinet reshuffle. Abela defended his decision, backing Caruana’s character, telling the press that she had left Valletta and did not form part of the allegations.

Just a week later, Caruana put in a request for a €5,900 a month direct order for her boyfriend Daniel Bogdanovic for work he never even conducted. She was eventually forced to resign over the scandal, but that came almost a year after the initial allegations were revealed, giving the embattled former minister plenty of time to put her affairs in order.

Caruana remains a Labour Party MP, but insists that she will not run in the next general election. Ian Castaldi Paris has been awarded a similar grace period, despite major concerns over an unpaid tax bill over unexplained wealth.

Then there are others who have been offered complete impunity despite a wealth of damning allegations and revelations.

Edward Zammit Lewis, whose sycophantic fawning over Fenech included requests for jobs for voters and trips abroad, remains Justice Minister…. even though he’s meant to lead reforms forced upon Malta following Fenech’s alleged assassination of Caruana Galizia.

Minister within the Office of the Prime Minister Carmelo Abela is facing far more serious claims, with convicted murderer Vince Muscat and suspected hitmen Alfred and George Degiorgio, linking him to an attempted HSBC heist in 2010.

Abela and his government have also regularly looked to discredit key watchdogs, especially the Standards Commissioner, who has released several damning reports on Cabinet members. Meanwhile, Abela regularly delays resignations amid pending inquiries, preferring to protect loyalties within his inner circle rather than taking action.

3. COVID-19 and health

Abela knew going into the role that he had a lot on his plate, whether that was the looming threat of greylisting or the Pandora’s box that erupted in the wake of the political crisis in 2019. However, nothing could have prepared him for what was to come, with the COVID-19 pandemic presenting a whole new set of unique challenges.

For the most part, Abela and the Health Ministry, which is led by Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne, has done an admirable job. Employment, while certainly more precarious, has remained stable thanks to far reaching and effective government schemes.

Meanwhile, the government led an impressive vaccination campaign, with almost 95% of all Maltese residents receiving the jab. Hospitals have remained relatively well-supplied and have not become overwhelmed like many other European counterparts.

The government has also had to take tough but arguably necessary decisions even when they were unpopular, as was the case with lockdowns, limits on groups of people, mask-wearing, and others. Abela has regularly followed the health advice from experts, even if he’s earned some scorn from the public at large.

Still, mistakes have been made. Abela and Fearne both issued impressive promises and pledges that “everything would be business as usual” before a vaccine was even being rolled out, which blew up in their face once cases and deaths began to rise.

Time and time again during the pandemic, Abela and the government have far too often valued spin and popularity over the facts, leaving the general public at a loss over the information we all need.

Restrictions and regulations have been issued carte blanche with no explanation, leaving many angry or confused by the constant changing of measures. Trying and testing measures during a still somewhat-unknown pandemic is natural, but the government would rather play hide and seek than admit that it may have made a mistake here and there.

It has also used a strongman approach, when in truth it has not been needed, with Maltese people, for the most part, obeying restrictions and getting the vaccine, including the booster. Strict regulations coming into force on 17th January might backfire.

And while the COVID-19 pandemic has been raging, there’s one major health issue people continue to ignore. The government remains hamstrung by an awful deal with Steward Healthcare, with Abela seemingly at a loss to address it.

Sexual health and education also remain worryingly low on the agenda – despite rising STIs in the country and the continued issues of sexual harassment, assault, and gender-based violence.

4. Greylisting

A stain on Abela’s tenure inherited by Muscat. For a long time, Maltese people were shielded from the truth and were told time and time again that the country was doing enough to avoid being put on the FATF list.

That proved to be false, with the country now joining the likes of Syria, Uganda, Panama, and others in the infamous grey list.

Malta has been working overtime to address the issue with financial regulators scrambling to get in line with the FATF recommendations, but as the FATF said, enforcement and commitment to upholding the law remain major concerns.

Thankfully, Malta is yet to feel the major effects, but many who work within finance have already got a taste of the endless bureaucracy and climbing costs that come with greylisting. Foreign investment is also being threatened, while the industries Malta worked so hard to develop could disappear if the country fails to get its affairs in order.

It’s a threat to every person’s livelihood and more must be done to treat financial crime at the very top levels more seriously. Till now, while there have been arrests, we’ve seen far too many frivolous cases in an attempt to bump up figures.

Dillydallying over the issues facing Justyne Caruana, Rosianne Cutajar, Carmelo Abela, Ian Castaldi Paris, (all of whom remain PL MPs) and many others will do nothing to inspire confidence from the FATF. It seems that while action is being taken, it’s the small fry who will continue to suffer while the big fish operate with impunity.

5. Major reforms: From cannabis to rent

Abela, to his credit, has overseen some much-needed reform in the country. And while most of the changes to the judiciary, legislative, and executive powers were imposed on Malta by international authorities, the Prime Minister has still seen them effectively implemented over a short period of time.

His government has been busy elsewhere, with Social Accommodation Minister Roderick Galdes doing impressive work in terms of rent reform and addressing Malta’s housing crisis.

Through Clyde Caruana, Abela’s government has also introduced an Employment Policy, looking to address the major gaps in skills and education in the Labour Market.

It’s a comprehensive document that really looks to tackle the issue head-on, presenting the startling facts with no spin. Still, issues in the platform labour market, like food delivery couriers, remain unaddressed.

Abela has also led some reforms in the construction sector in the aftermath of the death of Miriam Pace. But in truth, the same old issues remain, with cowboy contractors and endless development making Malta a sometimes insufferable place to live in.

But Abela’s landmark moment came with cannabis reform, which saw the country effectively legalise cannabis for personal use and cultivation, which help users while also addressing the black market and criminality.

Still, there is far more work that needs to be done in other fields that deserve more attention. Abela’s government continues to tacitly support the Electrogas project, despite the corruption allegations and its links to shareholder Yorgen Fenech.

It has been identified as the possible motive behind the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, but still, the government was up until recently working to get an EU-funded pipeline which would have seen millions funnelled into the consortium if it wasn’t for the intervention of Matthew Caruana Galizia.

Reforms, of course, mean nothing if the rules aren’t implemented. Enforcement remains Malta’s most fundamental problem with authorities continuously left understaffed, which seems more by design rather than genuine oversight.

The environment also remains an overthought. It’s true that Abela’s government, through Miriam Dalli and Aaron Farrugia’s ministries, have presented ambitious targets for 2030, as part of a global initiative to address climate change.

But commitments only go so far, with concrete action seldomly seen despite the country declaring a climate crisis more than two years ago. Pollution, endless development, and the destruction of agricultural land remain major issues in Malta.

Abela has begun to work on initiatives that look to increase Malta’s stock of green public spaces, but concerns remain that little is being done when it truly matters, with developers still reigning supreme over the island and its politics.

6. Migration

Irregular migration and asylum-seeking remain major concerns in Malta with the number of arrivals increasing year on year while the diplomatic situation in the Mediterranean crumbles.

Abela has taken a strongman approach, regularly blocking vessels carrying migrants in distress from reaching Malta. It’s had fatal consequences, while Malta’s actions have brought serious questions from the courts.

It has placed serious questions on Abela and his respect for human rights, but in truth, the large majority of Maltese support the approach, after years of neglect from the EU.

On his part, Abela has tried to address the issue, working closely with Libyan authorities to find a workable solution away from Malta’s shores. But this once again raises serious questions, with Libya still locked in civil war, while crimes against humanity continue unabetted.

Abela’s strongman approach may curry favour with the masses, but it still fails to address the issue within Malta head-on. The open and closed centres across Malta remain in disrepair and are failing spectacularly at integrating the diverse group of people entering Malta.

All the centres are full-up and the government seems reluctant to introduce initiatives that will radically transform the lives of irregular migrants in the country, who are often abused in the labour market and face racism on the streets.

Abela’s approach would seem more genuine if more work was being done to help this vulnerable community, something which should really be at the cornerstone of any socialist party. Instead, ghettos are forming across the island, while localities like Marsa, St Paul’s Bay, and others are completely ignored and left to their own devices.

Abela’s tenure so far will be put to the test this year with the country set for a general election by latest September 2022, with the legislature set to officially end in June 2022.

He’ll be hoping to extend the party’s majority over the PN, putting a final nail in its coffin, while also distancing himself from the legacy of Joseph Muscat. 

Still, he’ll be concerned about a reinvigorated PN making gains, and potentially presenting serious question marks about his leadership.

2022 could be Abela’s year, we’re looking forward to seeing how it unfolds.

How would you rate Robert Abela’s first two years as Prime Minister? Let us know in the comments below

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Julian is the Editor at Lovin Malta with a particular interest in politics, the environment, social issues, and human interest stories.

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