Sense of irresponsibility

Muscat’s decision to call a snap election is highly irresponsible because he should have waited for the outcome of the inquiry to be known to all before asking the people to keep him in office or vote him out

4 May 2017, 7:36am
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Calling an election in the midst of a magisterial inquiry that effectively investigates the Prime Minister, his wife and his Chief of Staff could come back to haunt Joseph Muscat. 

Having himself announced an election in March 2018, Muscat has now found himself calling an election next month, a full year before the expiry of the legislature.  This is a clear indication that Muscat’s choice of date for the election is driven by the latest turn of events.

Not only is the country suffering from an institutional paralysis but the decision to call an election now precludes any possibility of closure on the allegations subject to a magisterial inquiry before the country is called to the polls.

The Prime Minister’s spouse, Michelle Muscat, is facing allegations that she is the ultimate beneficial owner of a secret Panama company which received payments from the Azerbaijani regime.

The magisterial inquiry, requested by the Prime Minister, is mandated under the Criminal Code, granting the magistrate the power to investigate to the fullest of powers. The inquiry is also looking into allegations made against the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, Keith Schembri.

Moreover Muscat has himself to blame for the timing of the latest allegations. For had the institutions functioned properly in the past year, with all those involved being investigated by the police following the resignation of Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri, the country would have already have had some closure. Moreover the most damning aspect is that the FAIU had already flagged Schembri for possible irregularities and the police failed to commence an investigation.  

The opposition leader, Simon Busuttil, presented the magistrate with what he said was proof that fees from Russian clients who acquired a Maltese passport paid to an offshore company owned by Brian Tonna were kicked back to Schembri.

Schembri has insisted the payments were related to a 2012 loan to Tonna. But there is no doubt that these allegations merit a criminal inquiry.

Claiming innocence, Muscat said that the elections are a sign that he “won’t allow anyone to destabilise the country”.

Surely, the Prime Minister must have based his decision to call a snap election on favourable opinion polls. But there is more to politics than winning elections. And Muscat has now decided that it should be the electorate which judges him and people should go to the polls before the inquiry is concluded and its conclusions made public.  

Muscat is well aware that the magistrate’s inquiry will not be out before election day and it would be foolish for the magistrate to consider making the report public in the middle of an electoral campaign as whatever conclusions are reached he would be accused of trying to influence the result. 

Thus, the electorate will only know whether there is any truth in the allegations once the new administration is sworn in. There are obviously two possible outcomes. 

If Muscat wins and the allegations turn out to be a fabrication it would be costly for the PN and Simon Busuttil will have to bear the brunt of the defeat. 

But if the allegations are true, Muscat – who has repeatedly denied owning Egrant – would have been caught out in a historically gargantuan lie and his only way to remain in power would be to continue to lie. The consequences on democracy would be lethal. 

But he has already said that he will resign if magistrate Aaron Bugeja were to find any evidence or suspicion linking him or his wife Michelle to secret Panama company Egrant.

If he does resign after being sworn in for a second term, Muscat will throw the country in further turmoil and a new Labour administration will lose its legitimacy despite enjoying popular support, once again throwing the country into a constitutional crisis. 

Even if the inquiring magistrate finds no solid proof that illegalities took place

serious doubts will still loom over a new Labour government. Muscat will be strongly tempted to use the victory at the polls as a form of exoneration and once again plead to learn from past mistakes. 

In the eventuality of a PN victory, one would not only expect to see further inquiries launched but it would certainly spell the end of Muscat’s political career.

It will also herald a Labour implosion and the party will pay a hefty price for standing by Muscat and his decision to back Schembri and minister Konrad Mizzi despite the two owning offshore companies in Panama where they can enjoy the benefits of very low income tax rates, banking secrecy and non-cooperation with foreign countries and institutions.  

Whatever Mizzi’s and Schembri’s intentions were, they created financial structures which allow them to pay less taxes in Malta. And these are two Labour stalwarts, who have completely done away with what education minister Evarist Bartolo said was one of the party’s founding values, fiscal morality.

More importantly, a new PN government should make it a priority to follow on its promise to reform the constitution and strengthen the country’s institutions which guarantee transparency and accountability.  

Muscat’s decision to call a snap election is highly irresponsible because he should have waited for the outcome of the inquiry to be known to all before asking the people to keep him in office or vote him out. 

But he has instead chosen to put his political survival before the common good and unless the inquiry unequivocally absolves him and his inner circle from any wrongdoing he will only perpetuate the instability he wants to quash.