There’s only one thing worse than a cocky prime minister who thinks he can do no wrong and is unreachable and untouchable. That’s a prime minister who knows he’s out of his depth and is insecure, living in fear of his own fate.
Joseph Muscat ignored those who disagreed with him, driving headlong as if his will was all that mattered. That and a pumping economy boosted by the injection of EU funding and access to the eurozone, plus the resounding applause of his supporters for whom indeed he could do no wrong.
The acclamation was loud enough for him to assume the nagging detractors could be left alone as if they didn’t even exist. One or two were louder than others. For Daphne Caruana Galizia and later for Simon Busuttil he needed to put in the work to isolate them, dehumanise them and eliminate any influence they might have to dilute his authority.
He also used them as sport. If they were to love him, his supporters needed effigies they could burn. He represented these ‘enemies of the people’ as parodies of reality, pantomime characters of pure evil, targets for popular lynching.
Never before now has a single NGO been made the target of an orchestrated government attack launched by a prime-time press conference of the entire cabinet on national TV and sustained in a daily onslaught on the Labour Party media: TVM, One TV and fellow travellers.
It is not the first time that an NGO has demanded accountability of a government for actions and decisions it took that resulted in people’s lives being put in danger or even ending in their death. The worst governments have done is arrogantly dismissed NGOs’ claims or completely ignored them.
But Robert Abela felt it was time to show the country just how powerful he was, and it was time to show his party supporters they need never regret they had chosen him over his rival for people’s attention, Chris Fearne.
Context is everything. Much of Abela’s first 100 days was served by all of us in housebound isolation or social distancing. There were many reasons for many of us to be unhappy about something, some reasons more serious than others. Some lost relatives, some lost their jobs, some who still have them live in insecure fear and instability. The luckier among us missed their holiday plans or their weekly five-a-side match.
COVID-19 brought the best out of leaders and officials who rose to the occasion. Abela didn’t mind most of those. But as Fearne’s aura continued to glow, it was obvious to the prime minister as it was obvious to anyone that if the Labour Party leadership election had happened after the COVID crisis rather than before it, no one would have beaten Fearne at the polls.
While Fearne is Abela’s rival for attention, Joseph Muscat is his rival for memory. Post-COVID, Abela will preside over a weak economy exposed by all the fragilities the country ignored when the going was good. There’s no space for dissenting NGOs when popularity for the government is so much more contingent.
The decision to close Malta’s ports for unnecessary activity was rational. Much as we could not have planes flying tourists in, we could not have the harbour receiving cruise liners or passenger ferries.
The decision to include boats carrying people saved from drowning at sea as unnecessary activity for our ports was callous, inhumane, misguided and illegal. Our airport is closed for business but we would not tell a crashing plane to fly on into the sea instead of attempting a landing on our airfield. And yet Abela decided to announce that people stranded at sea would not be saved.
Never before now has a single NGO been made the target of an orchestrated government attack launched by a prime-time press conference of the entire cabinet on national TV
He knew many would like that. There are many people for whom that should be our policy at all times in any case.
And there are many more whose fear of disease will make them support any policy that is presented to them as a prevention of infection.
But while a policy of ignoring the fate of migrants at sea gave Abela the demonstration match he needed to start looking tougher than Fearne, Repubblika’s efforts to resist his decision and hold him accountable to its consequences gave him a scapegoat he could isolate and dehumanise.
The methods used by his predecessors against his nemeses were and are being applied on Repubblika. The state broadcaster carries misinformation and conflation of issues and outright lies, and refuses to carry replies or clarifications. The prime minister habitually communicates with the public over his party media or in events where he addresses the camera without the inconvenience of questions by journalists who do not assume he is telling the truth.
His lies include the line that “the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the government’s policies were right”, and that “all migrants survived”, and that Repubblika “charged soldiers with murder” when all it did was file a report to ask for an investigation, as would be normal in a democracy when reports of such grave wrongdoing make it to The New York Times.
The truth does not matter anymore. Attempting to reply, even daring to take a stand, has now become an act of sedition punishable in extraordinary ways. At a TV ‘debate’ on the national broadcaster, the organisation was represented by its president Prof. Vicki Ann Cremona. For daring to show up she was lynched all over Facebook. A senior government official moved from attacking the person, to attacking the university department where she works, her colleagues, her students. There was no question of attacking her argument.
Because her argument – Repubblika’s argument – is unassailable and remains true and immutable even if Abela is successful (as his predecessor had been with his targets) to remove Repubblika’s ability to be heard.
NGO volunteers seek no office. Their private lives and their professions suffer with the time and effort to put forward arguments that should be self-evident: all lives in danger must be saved, those who put people’s lives in danger or allow them to die must face consequences, whoever they may be.
But right now, that’s the furthest thing from our prime minister’s mind. Instead he’s choosing the best posture to demonstrate to us all that the protein he injected into his muscles from the crushed bodies of migrants and civil society volunteers make him look really, really, really strong. Stronger than Fearne. Better than Muscat.
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