“Joseph Muscat is no longer part of this government.”
Prime Minister Robert Abela said it at least twice in today’s press conference.
It wasn’t quite the apology Simon Busuttil demanded this morning.
But it remains a clear message: Muscat is going down and the process to disown him has begun.
Naturally, Abela wants to hold onto some of the positive elements of Muscat’s legacy, namely: “The Movement”.
This is because no matter what you might think of Labour, it HAS turned into a movement – a strong one too – and it is not built on crime and corruption alone.
It also includes a core of highly-organised progressives who were genuinely inspired by Muscat’s message and wanted real change from the tired Nationalist administrations.
While Muscat’s men were busy building offshore structures to layer their illicit kickbacks, many Labour progressives built strong and self-renewing policy structures filled with women and men who had big ideas for the country.
To survive, Abela must take this element of the movement forward and ditch the criminal networks that preyed on them like parasites.
Today’s bold cannabis legislation sends a clear message that Abela wants to build on the progressive core group while letting the institutions do their work to deal with the criminals. (He’s even lightened their workload on drug offences so they can focus their efforts on real crime.)
Obviously it will take much more than that to convince the rest of us that Labour has learnt its lessons. Even if Robert Abela proves to be genuine – and at this rate the burden of proof lies with him – Labour must undergo a thorough renewal if it wants to safely survive the Muscat fallout that’s coming.
In a country serious about fighting corruption, the government should have resigned en bloc already, just as the Dutch government recently resigned en masse over a child welfare fraud scandal. And we’re still at the beginning of the rot still to be unraveled. Muscat hasn’t even been arrested yet.
However, it’s significant that Abela made these proposals in the absence of Rosianne Cutajar, who was meant to spearhead this reform but got too close to the Muscat gang that she got burnt. Her involvement in the cannabis reform was reduced to picking up media scraps on the Labour Party stations.
Abela is basically telling Labour activists and MPs that they should be more like him, using their platforms to disown Muscat’s corruption and talk policy, not on complaining about media ethics and dangerous driving.
This is also an important wake-up call for the Nationalist Party.
No matter how much crime and corruption is exposed, Labour remains a well-oiled electoral and political machine that’s on the pulse of what the people want.
This cannabis reform will surely not be enough to contain people’s anger and frustration. The country needs concrete closure more than it needs cannabis reform.
But it would be equally as big a mistake for the PN to have learned nothing from its last landslide defeat and go on thinking that simply criticising government while remaining a conservative party with little vision will bode well.
PN’s focus should be on building its own structures to ensure that it can come up with useful and constructive policy. Voters expect PN to be at the forefront of proposing and building on ideas like cannabis reform, not rejecting or mocking them.
Yes, PN must also play its role as Opposition and hold Abela to account, even personally given his role as an MP and Cabinet legal advisor in Muscat’s government who defended the crooks, perhaps unwittingly.
But PN cannot be an Opposition at the expense of being an alternative government that can be elected.