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The honourable thing

While credit is due for bowing out with grace, it would be a mistake to extend the ‘honourable’ accolade also to the behaviour which warranted Cassar’s resignation.

10 November 2015, 7:54am
Joe Cassar may have done the honourable thing, but he cannot claim to have been ‘framed’, still less play the victim or martyr.
Joe Cassar may have done the honourable thing, but he cannot claim to have been ‘framed’, still less play the victim or martyr.
Since tendering his resignation from Parliament last week, former health minister Joe Cassar has been lauded for ‘doing the honourable thing’. In a sense, this is merited. Cassar’s action makes a welcome change for analogous cases in which embattled politicians cling to their positions no matter what.

But while credit is due for bowing out with grace, it would be a mistake to extend the ‘honourable’ accolade also to the behaviour which warranted Cassar’s resignation.

He may have done the honourable thing, but he cannot claim to have been ‘framed’, still less play the victim or martyr.

Yet Cassar’s resignation letter is replete with both claims. He insisted that he was a victim of ‘character assassination’, and that he had done nothing ‘wrong or illegal’. 

It is true that his actions as Cabinet minister do not constitute a crime at law: the ministerial code of ethics is an internal parliamentary set of rules that is not legally binding. On both a moral and institutional level, however, it sets the limits on what ministers can and cannot do. 

Cassar very clearly violated the regulation which states that ministers should not accept “gifts or services such as might be deemed to create an obligation, real or imaginary.” 

One can argue at length as to whether, in the scale of human misdemeanours, this particular breach warranted a full resignation from Parliament. Opposition leader Simon Busuttil initially didn’t think so, though he accepted the resignation all the same. 

Meanwhile, others in comparable positions have committed the same, or worse, yet did not pay the same price. Lands parliamentary secretary Michael Falzon is now under pressure over his own links to the same entrepreneur. The circumstances are not identical, but the underlying principle remains the same. What’s sauce for Joe Cassar must be sauce for Michael Falzon, and all other analogous cases also.

But it is simply incorrect of Cassar to assert that there is nothing ‘wrong’ with accepting ‘favours’, worth as much as €8,000, when parliamentary procedures strictly prohibit such entanglements. Those regulations exist for a reason: politicians should not entertain friendships with businesses, in Malta or abroad, or in any way place themselves in a position where people doubt their decisions and integrity.

This is also why violation of these regulations should be considered a resignation matter: not just in Cassar’s case, but across the board. What’s at stake here is not the reputation of a single politician, but the credibility of the institution of parliament as a whole.

There is a growing sensation in this country that all calls for expressions of interest and tenders seem tailor made to benefit certain companies. Blurred lines between the world of business and politics have already led to demonstrable loss of trust in politicians in such matters. Incidents such as Cassar’s gaffe only aggravate this perception further.

There is an irony, too, in Cassar’s claims to have been ‘framed’, and to be a victim of blackmail. It is precisely to avoid situations where ministers may be blackmailed that the code of ministerial ethics exists. By his own admission, Cassar exposed himself to the danger he was later to complain of.

Moreover, a ‘frame-up’ also implies that Cassar had fallen victim of a conspiracy to incriminate him. This contradicts his earlier claim to have done nothing wrong – if his actions were all along legitimate, on what grounds could he be incriminated? There is no logic to the ‘frame-up’ claim, unless the act of accepting a gift was indeed something ‘wrong’ for which he might afterwards have to pay a price.

Which it was, and which he did.

Having said this, Cassar is to be commended for understanding that his position was no longer tenable under the circumstances. It is a realisation many others find hard to reach.

If anything, this episode demonstrates the sheer extent of the incestuous relationship that has developed between business and politics over the years. Even if reluctant, Cassar’s resignation has set the benchmark for Michael Falzon and all other politicians who have been too accommodating in similar scenarios.

It is debatable, however, whether this message is being received by the two parties themselves.

Already Cassar’s resignation has been channelled into a blame-game played out between government and opposition. This form of discussion, dominated by parties accusing one another of being dirtier than themselves, does not address the core issues at stake. It only deprives the country of the space to discuss and scrutinise policies and ideas.

Even now, we are not debating the way forward after Cassar’s resignation: which ideally should take the form of clear rules of engagement, applicable to all parties equally, regarding what sort of behaviour is acceptable or unacceptable in an elected representative.

The same principle underpins all aspects of good governance: transparency in government contracts, especially for the sale of public land and assets, and other crucial sectors such as energy.

It is in part to stimulate this debate that MaltaToday has in the past exposed links between business and politicians on both sides of the political divide: including Gaffarena’s links to Labour MPs. 

Unless a higher standard of transparency and accountability is achieved, Cassar’s resignation will not solve anything.

DealToday
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