For decades, it was customary for prime ministers to announce the destination and duration of private vacations and appoint an acting prime minister to take charge of the country in their absence.
It seems that Robert Abela has broken with this long and tried tradition.
MaltaToday revealed on Sunday that Abela was on vacation with his family, but despite being away from the island he has not given up his duties. Therefore, no interim Prime Minister was appointed.
“The prime minister went on a private vacation to Greece and Sicily with his family in August,” a spokesman for Abela said without specifying the period of the prime minister’s absence.
Asked why no notice was published in the Official Gazette, the spokesman said “the Prime Minister never left office”.
No one is questioning the PM’s right to go on vacation. Taking a vacation is more than understandable, especially after a general election that followed two pandemic-dominated years.
But Abela’s unorthodox decision to stay behind the wheel while on vacation raises a number of questions. The more pertinent question facing Abela is whether his reluctance to give up his post betrays a general distrust of anyone who replaces him, particularly Chris Fearne who, as Deputy Prime Minister, is next in line to take the job. as interim prime minister.
To be sure, over the past two years Abela and Fearne have managed to bury the hatchet of an acrimonious leadership race, and Labor has largely managed to retain its cohesion against a sham opposition.
Yet, by denying Fearne the honor of temporarily replacing him during his absence, Abela implies that he does not fully trust his deputy leader.
However, it may well be that Abela’s decision not to relinquish power has more to do with his style of governance and management, than with past rivalries with Fearne. This raises the question of whether Abela sees himself as indispensable in that he wants to be in control even during the holidays.
Does Abela maintain a system in which he is indispensable in decision-making in all aspects of government action? And is it crippling the work of ministers, who feel they always need his final approval?
A sound system of governance relies on trust between the Prime Minister and his Cabinet. If this confidence is lacking, one can anticipate future problems.
Certainly, it must be recognized that the technology has evolved and that the PM can still carry out certain functions electronically without having to be physically present at all times. Yet, aside from the prime minister’s right to disconnect and enjoy a proper vacation, some decisions may require the attention of a physically present commander-in-chief.
Just imagine what could happen if an emergency like a terror attack happened while the Prime Minister was traveling on his yacht without an acting Prime Minister working in his place.
It should be noted that the prime minister’s absence from public engagements also coincides with a de-escalation of political confrontation in a country that has long suffered from election fatigue.
By refraining from political activities in the summer, Abela is in tune with the mood of the country. Yet one also has to wonder whether Abela’s long absence will hamper crucial decisions on the next budget, cost of living and Air Malta.
Many Maltese are enjoying a normal summer lull after two years of pandemic frustration. But there are pockets of dissatisfaction which are multiplying, in particular because the rise in prices is pinching their pockets.
In this sense, it can be argued that it is better to have the PM completely absent for a week with his role filled by an acting PM, then a PM present intermittently, making appearances on the party media before disappearing again .
It also appears Abela hasn’t learned the lesson from the backlash he received after being photographed on vacation as COVID cases spiked again in August 2020.
At best, Abela can take a long vacation knowing full well that the next few months will be difficult, challenging, and requiring all of her focus and dedication. So far, Abela has distinguished himself by winning the public’s trust during the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
But his obsession with being in control all the time without trusting anyone else, even for a brief time, could potentially make his job more difficult and daunting.
If so, Abela cannot afford to let his paranoia cripple his government. A good prime minister is one who takes care of a cabinet he can trust. And while one understands Abela’s reluctance which may be rooted in past scandals that have undermined Labour’s credibility, one should be wary of sending the message that he is a control freak who trusts no one to occupy the seat of power for a few days.