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Being the prototype Zoomer that I am – I was born in 1995, which is apparently the starting point from which Generation Z is identified – I have this quote from a Twitter handle stuck in my head.

“Meet me in the middle, says the unjust man.
You take a step towards him, he takes a step back.
Meet me in the middle, says the unjust man.”

Given that I often find it useful for describing what it’s like to attempt to negotiate with an entity as belligerent as the Maltese government, I’d like to explain why I think it perfectly illustrates how when negotiating with someone in bad faith, your concessions will always have to inevitably lead to more concessions, shifting your ‘middle-ground’ ever closer to whatever end goal ‘the unjust man’ has in mind.

And, before I’m accused of being always negative, bear in mind that I spent eight years active in civil society and have accumulated enough experience dealing with this government to know what it looks like up close. Besides every time I’ve ever heckled a politician with questions in my capacity as a journalist, in my capacity as an activist, I’ve met ministers, CEOs, experts, policy-makers, ambassadors, diplomats, and other assorted bureaucrats, most of whom were brought to the negotiating table because we created enough pressure to ensure that they hardly had any other choice left.

In those situations where tension between the negotiating parties is practically a key defining feature, you get to observe someone’s mettle up close, to the point where you can inspect for faults in forensic detail if you know what to look for. Given that I also have years of experience working within the field of mental health, I am now able to sniff out a rat from a mile away, in the same exact way I can identify the ring of truth in someone’s voice when their arguments are grounded in objective reality.

Some, usually among the rank and file or otherwise those rare public officials who are safely ensconced within the protective fold of the few independent institutions we have left, will adopt a frank and conciliatory tone and attempt to find genuine solutions. Others will panic and become agitated when pressed on their shortcomings, while others will panic further still and even turn hostile, treating the other party as the enemy rather than as someone to be won over through persuasion and reason.

Then, there is the Unjust Man, and there is no one better-suited to serve as an example of what I mean than our disgraceful prime minister Robert Abela.

Given that the news item was – rightfully so, for a change – plastered all over the front page of at least three mainstream media outlets by the time this went to publication, I will assume you’ve already heard of Abela’s pathetic tit-for-tat with Standards Commissioner Joseph Azzopardi, in which our prime minister felt it was fitting and appropriate to sink his office to even greater depths by refusing to apologise for a practically indisputable breach of ethics. The complaint, filed by independent candidate Arnold Cassola, centred around a video which Abela claimed was promoting government work, but which well and truly was solely promoting Abela himself.

Of course, Abela’s go-to excuse was no longer available to him. This time around, he couldn’t ever possibly imply that Azzopardi forms part of some mythical Establishment with a capital E, because he was the one who effectively shoehorned a law into Parliament which allowed the government to pick its own nominee if the House of Representatives fails to agree on who to pick. The legislative amendment which allowed for this mechanism was quietly slipped into force two days after Christmas Day in 2022, after the government and the opposition had spent months bickering about who would occupy the role.

So, no hidden PN bogeymen to blame for shitting the bed.

Knowing Abela’s lack of understanding of what good governance actually looks like, he must have been furious at the idea that Azzopardi, the man he handpicked for the role, would dare defy the prime minister by holding him accountable for his refusal to apologise for breaching the code of ethics when he spent €700 in taxpayer money to produce meaningless propaganda featuring people gesticulating and pointing at things, the same kind of propaganda which governments are universally mocked for.

To be clear, this isn’t an endorsement of Azzopardi’s track record so far. His approach has clearly been of the velvet glove sort – by January 2024, Azzopardi had decided not to investigate 12 out of a total of 18 formal complaints that had been addressed to his office. And yet, even with a standards commissioner whose approach has been described as ‘timid by design‘, Abela could not bring himself around to asking one of his dozens of staffers to write up a quick apology and sort out the matter accordingly.

Instead, he resorted to haggling with the commissioner, borrowing one of his disgraced predecessor’s favourite ‘the dog ate my homework’ excuses by claiming that he was not allowed to present evidence to counter the commissioner’s assertion on the offending advert. He blustered about how the video shows ‘projects of national importance’ which the government is duty-bound to inform the public about, claiming that the complaint was frivolous and overtly implying that the commissioner’s office was being used to ‘paralyse’ the government.

And what was Abela’s evidence, after all, you may ask? A couple of screenshots from the Facebook pages of the governments of other countries, which were meant to prove that what he had done was no different to what other heads of state in other countries are doing. When the standards commissioner rejected this facetious argument, Abela lost the plot completely and again accused the standards commissioner of failing to allow to him to provide adequate evidence. When the commissioner called his bluff, the prime minister failed to produce further evidence to justify his claims.

Exactly like our archetypal Unjust Man, Abela asked the standards commissioner to meet him in the middle. Not once, but twice. Being the timid defender of public standards that he has been made out to be, Azzopardi kindly obliged, repeatedly. When it came to shifting once more towards Abela’s real objective – the dismissal of the complaint he himself described as ‘frivolous’ – and Azzopardi refused, the Unjust Man’s mask came off.

Do not make the mistake of thinking that Abela is just stubborn and pig-headed. The refusal to admit wrongdoing is part and parcel of his abysmal ‘Dear Leader’ stewardship of the Labour Party, the stagecraft which animates the delusional imaginary realm in which Abela is infallibly right and all the critics are indubitably wrong. If the unjust man apologises, then the rest of the charade would have to inevitably follow – if Abela apologises for this instance of bullish arrogance, he’d be expected to apologise for everything else.

If he did that, Abela would spend the rest of his term as prime minister apologising.

The crucial lesson to be learned with unjust men is that, unless you wish to keep stepping towards a middle ground that doesn’t exist, they must never be satiated, not once, not twice, nor ever.

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