Robert Abela and Bernard Grech survived their first-ever political debate relatively unscathed.

The two leaders went head-to-head during a university debate characterised by noticeable loud cheers for the Prime Minister and often loud jeers for the Opposition leader. 

Abela gave a steady performance, pumping up the Labour government's track record under his leadership. 

The prime minister told the audience it was clear that only one party is capable of leading the country into the future, and characterised the PN opposition as a tired old party of the past. 

Abela did not shy away from the thorny issue of abortion and said around 300 to 400 women travel abroad for an abortion each year.

The prime minister acknowledged that the debate about abortion is ongoing, irrespective of what politicians say or want.

"We cannot ignore these realities", the prime minister said, though he pointed out that abortion does not feature in the PL's election manifesto.

On his part, Grech said it is important for the country to have a discussion on abortion, but insisted his party was in favour of life “from conception to death”.

ADPD chairman Carmel Cacopardo said his party was in favour of decriminalisation of abortion for women.

“No woman who chooses an abortion, for whatever reason, should be treated like a criminal. They need help, empathy, not state persecution,” he said.

The PN leader tried to land a few body blows about the prime minister's credibility when it came to issues like the Daphne Caruana Galizia inquiry and the environment. 

His efforts were frequently drowned out by the rowdy audience, which was audibly more supportive of Abela. 

One of Grech's running themes throughout the debate was calling out Labour's failure to publish its election manifesto. He accused Abela of instead cherry-picking proposals from the PN's own manifesto.

Both Grech and Abela found fault with the different mass transportation solutions put forward by their rival. 

Grech dismissed a €6 billion plan by the government to build a metro system as unfeasible. 

On the other hand, Abela brought up the ghosts of Arriva past, likening the PN's proposal for a trackless tram to the bendy buses debacle. 

Although Abela and Grech took centre stage, the debate also featured ADPD, Partit Popolari leader Paul Salomone and ABBA head Ivan Grech Mintoff. 

Cacopardo's level-headed approach throughout the debate frequently earned him some applause from the highly partisan audience. 

He hammered home how ADPD's core mission is to clean up standards in public life. 

Grech Mintoff's pitch was that third parties like ABBA can act as effective watchdogs to the PL and PN behemoths. 

Salomone spoke of his vision of having everyone in Maltese society being given the same opportunities to get ahead in life.


That's a wrap

14.55pm Thanks for following Times of Malta throughout the debate. A summary of the highlights to follow shortly.


Past or future

14.47pm Robert Abela concluded the debate by painting the PN as a party of the past. 

He says only a Labour government can carry out the reforms necessary to take Malta into the future. 

Abela laughingly dismissed claims that his party was copying the PN's election proposals. 

"We would need a factory full of ink and paper to do that, seeing that they have changed the versions of their manifesto so many times". 

Abela concludes the debate to loud cheers from the assembled students.

He urges everyone to go out and vote for the party that will offer them a better future.


Suspend the campaign

14.44pm Bernard Grech has suggested suspending campaigning on Saturday to instead carry out a march for peace in Ukraine. 

He invited the four other leaders to join in this march. 

Trying to land a final (verbal) blow on Abela, Grech says it is little wonder the prime minister has studiously avoided debates. 

"He spent the whole time fearmongering and being negative. It is clear he does not have a vision", Grech says.

Grech says the PN has a clear vision about how the country can succeed. 

Abela, by contrast, has failed to name a single new economic sector that will be created if he wins the election. 

The PN's closing statement is largely greeted by jeers from the students.


Closing statements

14:33pm Time for the closing statements by the five leaders.

Carmel Cacopardo kicks things off. He emphasises how ADPD's core mission is to clean up standards in public life. 

He says it is unacceptable how political parties get away with not paying their electricity bills without any action being taken against them. 

Partit Popolari Paul Salomone says his party wants to empower people to be able to live a better life. 

ABBA head Ivan Grech Mintoff says third parties can act as effective watchdogs to the big parties. “Vote for third parties, vote for ABBA” Grech Mintoff impores.


Education pays 

14.29pm Robert Abela has reiterated a campaign promise to give educators' a "robust" pay boost. 

How robust is robust? Abela says it would be premature to name a figure, as negotiations with the teachers' union are ongoing. 

Bernard Grech mocks Abela's failure to give details about the size of the promised pay rise. 

"He cannot say how much the pay rise will be, because we didn’t put a figure to it in our manifesto, so he cannot copy it," Grech jokes. 


In tune

14.19pm Robert Abela has distanced himself from all disparaging comments about artists. 

The entertainment industry this week criticised Inclusion Minister Julia Farrugia Portelli for her comments on PN candidate Julie Zahra's Eurovision past.

Abela however accused the opposition of hypocrisy on the matter. 

He reminds how the PN's media had passed disparaging remarks about former Labour candidate Lynn Chircop Faure.


Lucky dip

14.08pm Moving on to questions from the audience now. 

Students were encouraged to submit questions in writing, which will be picked at random, if the moderator deems them to be 'appropriate'. 

The first question picked out of the proverbial hat fails the 'appropriate' test. 

Bernard Grech is put on the defensive with the next question.

He wields his tax compliance certificate when faced with a question touching on his credibility about tax matters.

Abela jumps in, saying the certificate being waved about by the opposition leader is evidence that he was caught evading tax. 

Such certificates are issued when people are found to have failed to pay their taxes, Abela explains.


Daphne inquiry

14.03pm Robert Abela's defensive opening words about the government's track record in implementing the Daphne Caruana Galizia inquiry findings are greeted by booes. 

The inquiry, concluded last July, held the state responsible for failing to protect the journalist. 

Abela says the government has drafted laws to offer better protection to journalists and has implemented a raft of changes to improve the rule of law in Malta. 

Bernard Grech hits back, arguing that Labour has learnt nothing. 

He slams the party for once again featuring journalists on its billboards.

Grech reminds how the last journalist to feature on a Labour billboard ended up being murdered under a PL government's watch. 

Slain journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia regularly featured on Labour billboards, such as this 2012 one.Slain journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia regularly featured on Labour billboards, such as this 2012 one.


Thorny issues

13.52pm On to the thorny issue of abortion. 

ABBA leader Ivan Grech Mintoff accuses both parties of trying to introduce abortion by stealth.

He says ABBA is firmly against abortion and the morning after pill. 

Robert Abela acknowledges how the debate about abortion is ongoing, irrespective of what politicians say or want. 

Abela says around 300 to 400 women travel abroad for an abortion each year.

"We cannot ignore these realities", the prime minister says, while also reassuring that abortion does not feature in the PL's election manifesto. 

PN leader Bernard Grech also points out that abortion does not feature in his party's election manifesto. 

"PN believes in life from conception to natural death". 

He however says it is important to understand and empathise with people who go through with an abortion.

ADPD chairman Carmel Cacopardo says women who carry out an abortion should not be treated as criminals. 

These women need empathy not prosecution by the state, Cacopardo continues. 


Settling down

13.38pm After a rowdy start, the five leaders are hitting their stride without too many interruptions. 

Unsurprisingly, stipends are a talking point during the education section of the debate. 

It looks like Robert Abela and Bernard Grech finally agree on something. Both leaders promise to further the monthly stipend given to students.

That one's a crowd-pleaser. 


Property prices

13.23pm The debate now turns to property prices. 

Here's a summary of each leader had to say on the subject:

Bernard Grech - The PN leader promises a continuation of the first-time buyer scheme and subsidies on property loans. 

Paul Salomone - A sustainable housing system that will help those starting off in life, Salamone says.

Partit Popolari leader Paul Salamone.Partit Popolari leader Paul Salamone.

Ivan Grech Mintoff - Conscious his debate time is running out, Grech Mintoff invites those following to visit ABBA's website to understand the party's property proposals. 

Robert Abela - Labour too is promising to subsidise down-payments on house loans. He says 28,000 people have benefitted from the first-time buyer scheme introduced by the government. 

Carmel Cacopardo - The ADPD chairman warns that all these measures could in fact be driving property prices up.


Down with the PA

13.16pm Ivan Grech Mintoff has a simple fix for Malta's environment and planning problems - dismantle the Planning Authority, he says. 

The Opposition leader on the other hand says his party in government will hand back ODZ land to the people. 

Development on ODZ land will only be able to take place after a two-thirds vote in parliament, Grech proposes. 

Prime minister Robert Abela acknowledges more can be done when it comes to the environment. 

He gives a rundown of the government's efforts to mitigate climate change, mentioning the shore-to-ship project in the Grand Harbour, incentives for electric vehicles purchases and more focus on solar energy.


70/30 split?

13.12pm Back to the cheer-O-meter. 

Matthew Xuereb puts the support levels at 70/30 in favour of Labour. 

At least eight security officials and four police officers are dotting around the hall, ensuring everyone keeps calm.


Concrete country

13.06pm Carmel Cacopardo gives a sober assessment of the country's environmental ills. 

His speech is punctuated with respectful applause from the audience. 

MPs should not be on planning tribunals and government boards, he says. 

He laments the war on open spaces, and says Malta has no space for a race track, as proposed by the government.

Carmel Cacopardo. Photo: Jonathan Borg.Carmel Cacopardo. Photo: Jonathan Borg.


Metro 'not feasible'

13.01pm Grech is similarly critical of Labour's mass transporation plans. 

"The metro is not feasible due to its capital cost," Grech says. 

Following on from Grech, ABBA leader Ivan Grech Mintoff bombastically claims suicides have tripled and people are depressed under a Labour government. 

Grech Mintoff is now onto his pet subject - Medical visas and Neville Gafa. 

He claims Gafa was selling medical visas from the prime minister's office in Castille. 

The moderator cuts him short...this section of the debate was meant to be about transport, she admonishes. 


Bendy Buses

12.57pm Robert Abela is not impressed by the PN's trackless tram proposal

He likens it to the much-maligned Arriva bendy buses, which had a penchant for clogging up roads and spontaneously combusting. 

Abela says the government is investing in a hydrogen ready gas pipeline and a second interconnector. 

He says the fast-ferry service has been a success. 

The government will be asking for EU help for its ambitious €6.2 billion Metro plan, Abela continues. 


Viva il-Labour

12.48pm Grech gets a few potshots off at Abela.

He says Malta needs a prime minister who is proactive, not reactive. 

Subsidies are good, but the government is stealing from families by overcharging them on their utility bills. 

"Go pay your taxes," one student shouts out in response. 

Cheers for Robert Abela, jeers for Bernard Grech.Cheers for Robert Abela, jeers for Bernard Grech.


A polarised crowd

12.54pm The crowd following the debate is highly polarised. 

The Labour and PN supporters are segregated in groups. 

The atmosphere flares up whenever Abela or Grech speaks, Matthew Xuereb reports.


Off to France

12.42pm Leveraging his prime ministerial role, Abela says he will be jetting off to France to discuss Russia's invasion of Ukraine with other EU leaders. 

The prime minister is once again smashing the cheer-O-meter. 

In contrast, Grech is facing a steady stream of interruptions from the rowdy crowd. 

"Go to Greece," one student shouts out - A reference to Grech's quip a few years ago about how he sometimes pretends to be Greek while travelling, as he is ashamed of Malta being associated with corruption.


Free thinking 

12:34pm ABBA's Ivan Grech Mintoff up next. 

He says his party wants to wrestle its country back from a government that does what it likes with our money, corruption and greylisting.

Grech Mintoff accuses the university of hosting a censored debate, giving Labour and PN more speaking time than him. 

He also noted that those not vaccinated against COVID-19 were not allowed into the debating hall.

University, he says, should be the space for free thinkers not censorship.


Forgetting Bernard

12.29pm The moderator has just realised she skipped Bernard Grech. 

Taking aim at Labour, Grech says their proposals would jam Turnitin, an internet-based plagiarism detection service used by the university. 

Grech is again greeted by boos and cries of Viva il-Labour

The moderator once again appeals for respect and calm. 


Christmas Time!

12.25pm Carmel Cacopardo up next. 

The ADPD leader hits out at both parties for promising earth to all and sundry. 

"It feels like Christmas with both parties promising everything," he quips


Abela gets Christian-Borged

12.21pm Abela kicks things off with his opening pitch. 

He gives a rundown of Labour's achievements in government. 

A few sneaky calls of "Christian Borg" can be heard ringing out.

Abela has been under the spotlight for his role in a property deal with Borg, who is facing charges for his alleged involvement in a kidnapping. 


Cheers and jeers

12.18pm The leaders have made their way to the stage. 

According to our scientifically tested cheer-O-meter, Robert Abela got the loudest cheer when making his way up to the podium.

A few jeers were also heard. Bernard Grech was greeted with cries of 'Viva-il Labour'. 

Matthew Xuereb, who is following live from university, says Labour supporters definitely outnumber PN ones.

Debate moderator Jasmine Ellul calls for order.


Running order

12.10pm So, how is the debate structured, we hear you ask? 

The debate is expected to run for about two hours. After opening statements, the moderator will ask a series of questions about different themes directed to the panel in general. 

The last 30 minutes will be dedicated to questions submitted by the students on the day and chosen at random. 

Students have submitted their questions for the debate. Photo: Jonathan Borg.Students have submitted their questions for the debate. Photo: Jonathan Borg.


No picnic

12.05pm Students wishing to enjoy some light snacks and refreshments during the debate are in for disappointment. 

Water, sandwiches, cookies and even a Cisk Berry have been confiscated at the door.

Photo: Jonathan Borg.Photo: Jonathan Borg.

Photo: Jonathan Borg.Photo: Jonathan Borg.


Belt up!

11.57am Bernard Grech has been doing some last-minute homework in his car prior to the debate. 

Let's hope his driver keeps his eyes on the road, as the Opposition leader looks to have forgotten his seatbelt. 


Elbows out

11.52am A crowd awaits. 

Students are jostling for position outside the hall, to hear what Malta's political leaders have to say. 

COVID-19...what's that?


Welcome

11:50am Hello and welcome to this live blog!

Prime Minister Robert Abela and Opposition leader Bernard Grech will be going head-to-head in their first-ever debate this afternoon. 

Joining them on stage at the Sir Temi Zammit Hall University hall will be ADPD chairman Carmel Cacopardo, Partit Populari head Paul Salamone and ABBA's Ivan Grech Mintoff. 

Make yourselves comfortable as we give you minute-by-minute updates of the proceedings. 

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