Climate of abnormality

This election takes place under the most surreal of circumstances, where allegations built around circumstantial evidence have set in motion a chain of events that has not only affected people’s trust in the institutions and politicians, but as happens in Maltese politics, even personal friendships.

7 May 2017, 8:00am
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat may have gingerly stepped forward to make it clear he has no choice but to request the resignation of his chief of staff, if allegations against him of kickbacks from auditor Brian Tonna on the sale of Maltese citizenship become the subject of a criminal investigation.

This newspaper has already been clear on where it stands with respect to those who serve the Prime Minister in his personal secretariat: it is unthinkable that someone by the PM’s side should not be above suspicion, indeed unimpeachable as a servant of the State, who can be trusted in his discharge of duties to serve nobody else but the citizenry.

The private interests that preceded Mr Schembri’s ascent into political life, then immediately compounded by the Panama scandal, cast a dark shadow on the government, despite the positive economic climate and Joseph Muscat’s electoral plan to further incentivise consumer spending with tax cuts. How far one is more important than the other, is certainly the heart of the matter in this election.

The developments on Thursday merit a proper understanding of the facts at hand, even though this might change little of what people think about the allegations. At the outset, the magisterial inquiry that was kicked off by a complaint to the police by Joseph Muscat on the allegations made against him of owning an offshore company, was derided as a “sham” by his accuser and then as a “colossal cover-up” by Opposition leader Simon Busuttil.

But when Busuttil took full ownership of the new allegations against Schembri – that fees paid to Brian Tonna’s offshore company by three IIP clients could have been kicked back to Schembri (who denies this, saying it was a repayment for a 2012 loan to Tonna) – Dr Busuttil found himself amenable to show the magistrate leading the Egrant inquiry his new evidence.

This development alone underlines the importance of allowing due process to take place on both sets of allegations. The fact that Busuttil felt comfortable delivering his evidence to Magistrate Aaron Bugeja means the Egrant inquiry cannot be simply dismissed as a “cover-up”. As Opposition leader, it is perhaps more fitting that even when the most egregious allegations are taken on board by his party, Busuttil uses less careless language on the same institutions he trusts to probe the allegations he brings to them.

On the Schembri allegations, the magistrate said that since the complaint was not made to him by the Commissioner of Police or the Attorney General, and since Busuttil did not avail himself of the police to make his accusations, it would have to be a new magistrate – picked at random to avoid forum shopping – to lead an inquiry. Mr Schembri has indicated he will not protest in court the setting-up of a new inquiry, but neither will he resign.

While legalistically, these in genere inquiries are not criminal investigations in themselves, a magistrate can employ the fullest of powers to ensure that all evidence is collected and establish whether a crime has been committed. And politically, for the citizenry this is now a matter of trust, and a desire to see the country’s leadership untainted by these accusations.

The prime minister has chosen his words carefully. He will not expect his chief of staff to resign now that a new magisterial inquiry will be set up, not unless the evidence gathered in this inquiry snowballs into a criminal investigation. After all, Mr Muscat has placed himself under inquiry over the Egrant allegations. In the middle of this election, the prime minister will be keen to project the image of both a strongman for loyal Labour voters who do not want to see him bend backwards to the Opposition’s attacks; and that of an understanding leader who makes the right noises to the rest of the electorate, by saying he cannot tolerate a chief of staff who is placed under investigation.

Credulous voters have already made up their minds as to who to believe in this sordid affair. The rest of the voters who do not wish to rush in where angels fear to tread, they demand hard evidence to the allegations, and even a level-headed approach from political leaders. When Busuttil calls on the Security Service to investigate the allegations surrounding the country’s leadership, it’s the kind of language that brings to mind some form of covert subterfuge redolent of Latin America; when Muscat demands that voters make the choice between him and Busuttil as if he were predicting the deluge that should fall upon Malta, it raises the question: “where is your apology? Where are the reforms?”

This election takes place under the most surreal of circumstances, where allegations built around circumstantial evidence have set in motion a chain of events that has not only affected people’s trust in the institutions and politicians, but as happens in Maltese politics, even personal friendships. And yet, none of these matters will be solved after 3 June. We can only hope that the political leaders converge to a more civil debate, and that sanity is restored in the rest of the electorate.