The Malta Independent 25 February 2020, Tuesday

How Robert Abela got there

Noel Grima Sunday, 19 January 2020, 08:29 Last update: about 2 months ago

At the end of this most momentous week, I intend to focus solely on how Robert Abela managed to become prime minister, leaving further comment on the selection of the Cabinet and the first steps of the new administration to future articles.

The first inkling of Robert Abela's ambition came in his famous outburst against what he called the devilish pact which would have made Chris Fearne prime minister and Robert Abela one of the deputy prime ministers.

Till this very day Dr Abela has not explained what was so devilish about that succession plan considering he then insisted Mr Fearne stays on as health minister and deputy prime minister. But in all this story there has been a huge overlay of obfuscation and mystification.

Till that time Fearne was solidly in front, backed by at least the majority of Cabinet. He started to appear as the new prime minister and his supporters were going around as already working from Castille.

Actually it was more that Fearne lost the race while Abela came from behind and overtook him. Those who watched the counting of votes on Saturday night could immediately tell who the people supporting Fearne were. They were so dejected while the others were rejoicing.

In his speeches Fearne was, as I said, prime ministerial although he made a number of political gaffes such as when he resorted to passing partisan comments when we now realise his support was flagging.

On the contrary Abela was working hard in his district meetings. Someone has remarked that none of the candidates used the format of closed meetings for just delegates where they could ask about anything, as they do abroad.

The campaign was very smooth especially when compared to the turbulent PN one and the vote counting was quite efficient.

But Robert Abela turned up with one trump card and that was Smash TV. Now, I have worked at Smash and I sort of know the lie of the land. Smash was never in Muscat's group, nor of Sant before him. It backed Mintoff through the years especially in the pre-EU years and it still carries programmes with Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici and Sammy Meilaq.

Dr Abela, being a lawyer, has more a gift of the gab and in his speeches he was passing many messages which his listeners readily understood while they probably meant nothing to outsiders.

He was making his own the complaints many times aired by the Labour grassroots that the party bigwigs were not really identifying with their concerns and living in a bubble.

This is why I cannot accept the fiction that Abela offers continuity. He offered none of the sort - he offered, if anything a break with what Muscat was offering.

He spoke of not being so much private sector dependent, of not giving the private sector carte blanche (as was happening many times with Muscat) and of addressing the problem of different workers being on different wage structures for doing the same job at the same enterprise.

He took up the GRTU complaint about Sicilian importers who bypass VAT through the catamaran and about the lack of a level playing field between foreign investors who have a very low tax level and Maltese investors who pay the full rate. (Edward Scicluna pooh-poohed this but now accepted to remain as finance minister)

So in a word Abela was making his own many of the complaints Labour grassroots were making - those at least not in the Castille bubble. It is quite easy to discern the strategist behind him - his father.

Then it is instructive to follow the reasoning of those who voted Abela, even people who Fearne had every right to consider as his voters. There is always a sort of market in contests like this but something tells me Abela promised less than Fearne maybe did. Or maybe Fearne was more cavalier about it - maybe a story for the future.

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