Robert Abela’s agenda was all about apologies this week. The commissioner for standards sent a report to a committee of five MPs, three of them from Abela’s party, to recommend they sanction the prime minister for breaching ethics. As if.

The matters of the case are not major. The prime minister misused €800 of the public’s money for insipid publicity material that some staffer in Abela’s office must have hoped would convince someone that his boss is a very nice man. The publicity video certainly doesn’t give anyone the impression that Abela does any actual work. If you were to judge by this ad, you’d think our prime minister spends his days sipping coffee, shaking hands and smiling inanely. But that’s by the by.

We don’t have a law governing what advertising the government can and cannot spend public money on. We should, but we don’t. It used to be a completely grey area. We relied on ministers’ good conscience to spend our money to inform us about our government’s business but stop short of spending our money to advertise themselves to us as election candidates.

Parenthesis, if you will allow. I don’t think politicians should need to beg for money from private funders to advertise their political programmes. I think that, since we live in a democracy and must be aware of who is running for elections, spending public money in funding political candidates is perfectly legitimate. But we don’t have laws to allow that either.

Back to relying on ministers not to spend our money to advertise themselves. The only thing that has changed in the last 10 years is we now have a commissioner for standards hired, ostensibly, to improve ethical standards in public life. Some years ago, on the back of a similar issue, the (previous) commissioner provided guidelines on government spending in advertising.

The principle was simple. If the government is telling us to wear masks to avoid disease, or where to call if a violent partner is threatening us, or informing us what they’re doing to reduce pollution, they’d be right to spend our money to do that.

If the government is telling us how nice they are, how well they fit in a suit, and how much they love their children and ours, in the absence of a law regulating fairness in public spending on political activities, they need to use their own money.

The logic should be straightforward. There’s only one government. But outside Russia and similar fake democracies, political candidates come from outside government as well and the disadvantage of not having access to taxpayers’ money when advertising their qualities is unacceptably undemocratic.

So, this isn’t about overspending €800. It’s about subverting democracy.

It’s also about obstinately ignoring improved standards in public life. Consider the back story. In April 2021, just three years ago, the (previous) commissioner ruled minister Carmelo Abela spent taxpayer money for adverts that did nothing more than boost their personal image. The MPs nominated by the government and Speaker Anġlu Farrugia shot down the commissioner’s report because, they said, ministers did not have guidelines on how to avoid breaking ethical rules on spending public money on personal propaganda.

If Robert Abela can’t apologise over such a small thing, would he see his error in much bigger ones?- Manuel Delia

It was a facetious excuse to avoid punishing a colleague. But then commissioner George Hyzler patiently wrote guidelines so that ministers would avoid accidentally dropping their hands in the till. The guidelines were published in August of 2021 and included the enlightening tip that “the message communicated by a government advertisement should be of sufficient relevance to justify the public funds spent on it”. You’d expect they’d know that without needing to be told. But they were told.

Abela – who blames his staff because he said he never saw the advert until after the new commissioner told him he’s looking into it – refused to acknowledge the offending video was in breach of ethics. And when commissioner Joseph Azzopardi suggested the matter is closed with an apology, Abela refused.

This is when the matter becomes far more important. An €800 slip-up is not the end of the world or a resignation matter, especially if Abela was prepared to blame a staffer, as he did in any case. The refusal to apologise for a self-evident error and breach of rules, however, is profoundly worrying. It shows that Abela believes himself to be above all error. If he can’t apologise over such a small thing, would he see his error in much bigger ones?

His inability to accept he made an eminently pardonable mistake does not show supreme self-confidence. It betrays a toxic vulnerability, a tremendous insecurity that he cannot trust himself to manage.

It is supremely ironic, and, perhaps, not accidental that, in the same week, he used the word apology when addressing again the issue of Rosianne Cutajar’s return to the Labour Party. He said she should apologise “genuinely” before being allowed back. Which is strange because, weeks ago, he said she had paid enough and he was ready to welcome her.

The whole routine looks like a mise-en-scène. Behind the scenes, Cutajar likely already accepted to fudge some meaningless expression of regret slightly tighter than words she already used straight out of the job-interview answer to the question what your biggest weakness is. In her case, it’s being too honest, apparently.

There will be no admission that she embezzled public funds, nor that she accepted bribes to speak in parliament in the interests of her secret lover. Such admission would amount to self-incrimination and she would make it to court quicker than she would make it to government.

It remains fascinating, however, that, in Cutajar’s case, Abela presents an apology, however hollow, as a baptism that washes away all sins, including serious crimes way graver than vanilla ethical breaches. That’s in the same week he choked on an invitation to express regret over his minor misdemeanour. For someone with much to hide, sorry is truly the hardest word.

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