Updated at 15:40 of 14 August 2023

An edition of the Government Gazette has issued a notice that Robert Abela is away and Chris Fearne is Acting Prime Minister. The notice is dated today but back-dated to yesterday when the prime minister was already away.


The authors of our constitution anticipated a very simple question. What happens if the prime minister is unable to do his job?

Dozens of laws require the prime minister’s say so for ordinary and extraordinary decisions of government. The prime minister is required to sign pen in hand all sorts of decisions concerning the country’s security, law enforcement, public administration, appointments, the making of subsidiary laws, and so on. The laws that require the prime minister’s signature are clear. The government cannot act unless the prime minister’s wet signature is on the document that proves his decision.

So, what happens if the prime minister is for any reason unavailable to sign the paperwork? What happens if he’s due to go under in surgery? What happens if he’s abroad on business or has gone away for a holiday?

The constitution says that on all such occasions the prime minister must appoint someone to act as prime minister while they’re unavailable. Procedurally the prime minister hands over to the acting prime minister (normally the next minister in the order of precedence) and that hand over is announced in a formal notice in the Government Gazette. Another formal notice is published when the prime minister resumes his duty.

Robert Abela doesn’t do that. He’s known to be away very frequently in summer but that cannot be worked out from the government’s formal announcements. Because there are none. It’s only known because he’s often photographed in Sicily fuelling his boat at the start of his many long journeys in the Mediterranean.

For days he’s away from the country and no one is appointed as acting prime minister while Robert Abela is away. That means we have a legal vacuum when, in effect, nobody’s boss. When his boat is in mobile phone range, he presumably takes calls, but his hand is not available to sign the paperwork that legally requires a prime minister’s signature.

This is problematic on so many levels.

Firstly, there’s the practical problem of creating administrative paralysis every time he travels. Government is not the personal fiefdom of Robert Abela. He’s no king. The notions of a permanent bureaucracy and constitutional rule have been developed in republics over centuries precisely to separate government from those running it in a way that the country does not cease operations just because the prince is having a nap. And yet when Robert Abela is away the machinery stops and files languish in the in-tray awaiting the honour of his return.

Secondly, it’s legally problematic because the constitution is systemically ignored by the people who have the job of upholding it. No one can sue Robert Abela for ignoring constitutional procedures because no one can materially prove they are directly impacted by his pathological insouciance. And yet we are all victims of his indifference to the law because while he does this our country stops working.

Thirdly, Robert Abela’s behaviour shows how little he trusts his number 2. Chris Fearne is second in command, in theory, but Robert Abela does not trust his deputy with signing paperwork in a way that he would sign it if he was here. He’d rather have everything wait to come back. This links back to two and the grotesquely personal nature of this government with all the risks that implies.

Fourthly, Robert Abela would rather break the law than formally confirm how often he’s away from the country just fucking off away from his desk. The fact is the frequency of his trips and their length, is inappropriate behaviour for a prime minister. He should be too busy for all this time in the sun. Most people can’t afford this sort of extended time away from work, not because they’re not as wealthy as the prime minister, but because they can’t neglect their responsibilities for as long as he does his without expecting their business to suffer or even collapse. Robert Abela understands that if his time away from work becomes clear to the public, the public would be openly annoyed with him.

Which takes us back to the first objection. It’s not just that his holidays are as frequent and as extended as the grand tours of nineteenth century aristocratic retirees who left behind butlers to run their estate and heirs to collect the rents. It’s also that he doesn’t trust the butlers and the heirs to continue the work in his absence. The whole machinery of government stops while he sails his redundant prime ministerial pen from one riviera to the next. To mix metaphors he habitually boards his boat to abandon the ship of state.

Let’s put aside for a minute any criticism of his taste for doing nothing. Let’s park the reasons he might have to try to hide the fact that he’s not working as often and for as long as he is.

He’s pissing on the constitution by travelling without hiring an acting prime minister while he’s away. That alone is reprehensible.