A crisis is a particular type of event set apart from others, for a number of reasons. It has its consequences, its benefits, its sources of discouragement, as well as its sources of inspiration for people from all walks of life. The current coronavirus pandemic is certainly no exception, as it has forced world leaders to take difficult yet unprecedented decisions, whilst still managing to adapt to the unique nature of Maltese politics.
Ever since the first cases of Coronavirus were registered in Malta, there were little to no major political developments taking place which got people’s attention, barring perhaps the commentary regarding the Maltese government’s performance in combatting the spread of the virus and specifically the efforts undertaken by, the Minister for Health, Chris Fearne and the Superintendent of Public Health, Professor Charmaine Gauci.
On the other hand, what certainly has been dominating the news headlines as of late has concerned the actions of Prime Minister Robert Abela, who just recently marked a 100 days in office. Needless to say, this in of itself is a landmark achievement for any head of state or government, and a well –deserved congratulations would be in order.
In Malta’s case however, such an event was not only accompanied by this, but also by a display praise on television and online that when constant, verges on glorification of a political leader. Malta is certainly no stranger to cults of personality surrounding political leaders, which is inflated by us having media and television outlets owned by both major parties, making the line between news and propaganda even more blurred.
The commemoration of Robert Abela’s first 100 days as Prime Minister also coincided with the controversy ignited by the government’s decision to close Malta’s ports to migrant arrivals, which has also prompted a magisterial inquiry following the criminal complaint which was submitted by the civil society group Repubblika, based on allegations made by the NGO Alarm Phone that a dinghy carrying 66 migrants was sabotaged by 11 crew members of Armed Forces of Malta( AFM) patrol boat P52, leaving them stranded in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.
As of now, the investigation is still ongoing, with the emergence of fresh evidence calling the authenticity of these allegations into question, since the evidence points towards the behaviour of the P52 crew members being part of a standard procedure in cases of a rescue or an emergency.
Prior to this information being made publically known, the commencement of this magisterial inquiry was coupled with Robert Abela formally announcing that it would take place, in a speech he gave with his cabinet assembled by his side. Since then, Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi has renounced his role as Repubblika’s lawyer, saying that he didn’t want there to be any conflict of interest between his role as a member of parliament and as Repubblika’s lawyer, as he was finding it difficult to fulfil both functions and felt that his legal profession was being weaponised by Abela as a means of alienation from important and pressing issues.
In the eyes of an astute political commentator, the fact that the criminal complaint was directed towards AFM officials and the Prime Minister himself, gave Robert Abela the opportunity to portray himself as a martyr being impeded from leading Malta amidst a global pandemic, whilst also giving the impression that anyone who criticises him as wants to impede him from fulfilling his duties in this difficult time.
Let’s just stop there for a moment, and assume that this was the political spin which was applied as a response to the context of this situation, as we can also conclude from the outcome of this response. I won’t however, go as far to assume that Jason Azzopardi had malicious intentions to stop the AFM from carrying out its duties in tackling the repercussions that COVID-19 is having on the Maltese Islands when accepting to take on this case, just as I won’t assume that the Maltese government was motivated by racist intentions when deciding to close Malta’s ports to the arrivals of migrants.
What this speaks to, is a much deeper aspect of Maltese politics, which is the creating of cults of personality and the conflation of criticism with hatred for who it is directed towards.
I’ll now proceed to try and dispel the two, as I believe that they are both inherently connected in relation to the Maltese political scene. Legitimate criticism (when delivered constructively ideally) would not be given in the first place if our Prime Ministers delivered an immaculate performance, so it therefore indicates that change is needed in the area that the criticism is targeting. Its primary aim is to make sure that positive results are yielded after the necessary improvements are made, and it serves as a means to hold those in power accountable, as is dictated by us living in a democracy.
The ongoing crisis we’re currently experiencing is no exception, as its imperative more than ever that beneficial measures are applauded, but that those introducing these measures are still challenged. If this weren’t the case, it’s important for criticism to be delivered nevertheless. If this never happens, then very nature of Malta’s democracy warrants being called into question.
As I’ve already hinted at, this process is unfortunately muffled by the tendency to form cults of personality around Maltese political leaders, which elevates them to a saint-like, if not god-like status. This not only enables criticism to be deflected as a personal attack, but for it to be described as a source of hatred and interference in the person’s work.
In this regard, it’s also important to not confuse having praise heaped upon you by your fawning supporters, with being applauded for decisions taken that are having benefits across the entire country. Real leadership is shown when praise is received, but not expanded upon as a means of self-aggrandizement. Ultimately, real leadership is further defined by a leader’s ability to learn from their mistakes by being receptive towards criticism, the absence of which would cause leaders to comfort themselves with thinking that they don’t need to learn anything new at all, but opt to keeping everything as it is.
It goes without saying that whilst the Coronavirus pandemic has indeed made our lives abnormal, it has not stopped us from doing what’s right. This pandemic is no excuse to not hold Robert Abela’s feet, and those of other politicians, to the fire of public scrutiny, and it should not be, as it is certainly not abnormal in this case, or in any other.
Written by: Jacob Callus