Clientelism: Abela warns ministers, MPs to retain integrity and rectitude

The Malta Chamber hosted the third leaders’ debate of the election campaign


Prime Minister Robert Abela has insisted he will keep elected MPs up to standards of “rectitude and integrity” but conceded that it was only human for politicians to commit mistakes, in a debate during which he was asked about Labour’s governance record.

Abela was taken to task over Labour’s record of ministerial ethics breaches in a Chamber of Commerce debate with Opposition leader Bernard Grech, who himself charged Labour with presiding over unabashed clientelism and even the assassination of the journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

The debate was moderated by Chamber official Rachel Attard.

Abela stood by his administration’s efforts in implementing various political and judicial reforms mandated by the Counci of Europe, but said he will make it incumbent on MPs to live up to a “standard of rectitude”.

“Mistakes will surely be made... but rectitude must be the guiding principle. I won’t instil fear in ministers to take decisions, but integrity and rectitude has to guide us in our daily work. There are standards that I will insist on them following, and I am convinced we will reach these standards,” Abela said.

The Labour leader disputed claims that Maltese politics was dominated by clientelism.

“Sure there’s an element of parochialism, which incentivises voters, but I don’t think the majority of the electorate sets out to seek out favours.”

Abela also said it was time to discuss reforms to electoral districts and full-time MPs, to see whether larger districts or a smaller number could weaken the element of clientelism present in democratic politics.

Grech instantly accused Abela of attempting to abscond from responsibility for his ministers’ wrongdoings. “He simply shifts the fault onto others, even his own ministers… he is telling them now that they will be ‘making mistakes’,” Grech said.

The PN leader also charged Abela with using tax credits and COVID relief cheques mailed right in the middle of a general election, as nothing but the epitome of clientelism.

“Is this good governance? Ministries are calling up voters and pestering them to ask them whether ‘they need something’… surely I won’t be competing with you on giving people government jobs.”

Mandatory union membership

Abela was immediately grilled on the Labour Party’s proposal to introduce mandatory union membership.

He remarked that many employees operate in working conditions that render them more vulnerable than others, and these people deserve such protection.

He added that any decision to introduce mandatory union membership will be taken after consulting with social partners, including employers.

“In the same way that we reached agreements with MCESD on other issues, we’ll reach an agreement on this too,” he said.

Grech stated that union membership should not be imposed on workers. “We always believed in dialogue, that we shouldn’t impose measures but rather reach solutions for everyone.”

On Wednesday several business lobbies urged the Labour Party to withdraw its electoral proposal to introduce mandatory union membership for employees.

The Malta Employers’ Association, the Malta Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise and Industry, and the Malta Chamber of SME said that the measure as proposed was “regressive and undemocratic,” and would not in any way strengthen the state of industrial relations and social dialogue in Malta.


Bernard Grech was questioned on his party’s proposal to introduce a trackless tram system. He clarified that no bicycle lanes will be closed to make way for the tram, but added that widening roads will not alleviate Malta’s traffic problems.

He said the trackless tram will operate along the periphery of localities, making no sound and causing no environmental damage.

Robert Abela acknowledged a spate of deadly road traffic accidents that happened over the past weeks.

He said it was unacceptable to have a main road closed to traffic because of delays in opening the magisterial inquiry.

On the Labour Party’s proposal for a metro, he admitted that the project is ambitious and would require substantial investment.

“But the cost of doing nothing and keeping the status quo would be bigger.”

Planning versus permit

As moderator, Rachel Attard asked the two leaders whether it’s time to rename the Planning Authority to the Permit Authority, adding that the government agency was always something a political football.

Abela said that the authority is autonomous but ought to observe government’s general guidelines.

“The authority has autonomy and government can’t interfere in its decisions. But the authority also has responsibility to observe government’s new priorities and operate in line with that strategy.”

Grech immediately commented on Abela’s private dinner meeting with Gozitan developer Joseph Portelli. Portelli hosted Abela as a guest of honour at a dinner with other contractors days before a development of his was approved by the Planning Authority.

“I have dinner with businesspeople, but not before a decision like that is taken,” Grech said.

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