Problem solved? Not quite...

Keith Schembri’s arrest cannot be held up as any form of instant validation of the state of health of our country’s institutions. For that, the real litmus test would be to see how Malta’s newly revamped law and order agencies would respond to a truly analogous case today

Keith Schembri
Keith Schembri

It had to happen, I suppose. This morning (Tuesday), I sat down to write an article about Malta’s culture of political impunity – partly in response to Labour MP Glenn Bedingfield’s claim last week, that the Daphne Caruana Galizia inquiry had become ‘too political’ – when… well, I suppose you can guess the rest.

I made the mistake of checking up on the latest headlines, only to realize that, - not for the first time - I had been entirely overtaken by events.

For one thing, it would be just a tiny bit surreal to base today’s article on ‘something Glenn Bedingfield said last week’… when the news cycle has only just been completely disrupted by something so much more urgent and newsworthy.

Besides: at a glance, the news itself seemed to take all the wind out of my argument’s sails.  You can’t exactly claim (as I was about to do) that ‘Malta’s culture of political impunity’ is still firmly in place, and very much alive and kicking… on the same day that Keith Schembri (former OPM chief of staff, and all that) finally gets arrested on money-laundering charges.

It would be like… um… remember that Iraqi military spokesman (nicknamed ‘Comical Ali’) during the second Gulf War? Well, it would be like him informing the world, on live TV, that ‘Iraq had successfully repelled the US/British invasion’… when we could all see Baghdad being bombarded to smithereens in the background.

Or, for that matter, like arguing that ‘COVID-19 doesn’t really exist’: at a time when the same virus is now killing an average of five people a week…

But then again… how accurate are those analogies, anyway? And does what happened this morning really contradict all those claims I was about to make, on the subject of ‘political impunity’ in this country?

Well, the Prime Minister certainly seems to think so. Or at least, his initial reaction to the original news story (i.e., not to the arrest itself, but to the freezing of Keith Schembri’s assets) was to hail the event as proof of ‘good governance’; and that (in his own words): “There’s no doubt that all the institutions are robust, they’re discharging their duties without interference…’

As for myself, however… suddenly, I’m not so sure. So tell you what: I’ll outline the main argument I was going to make, as briefly as I can; and you decide if it fits the present scenario or not. Ready? Here goes:

Glenn Beddingfield was perfectly correct to use the word ‘political’ to describe the public inquiry into Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder. But at the same time, he was completely wrong to complain about it.

Yes, the inquest is (and has been, from the outset) ‘political’, because it is not so much an investigation into the murder itself – that is happening separately, in court – as an investigation into the State’s own responsibility for what happened.

According to  its terms of reference, the inquiry is being conducted “[to determine] whether any wrongful action or omission by, or within, any State entity facilitated the assassination or failed to prevent it”; and “[to establish] whether the State had and has in place effective criminal law provisions and other practical means to avoid the development of a de facto state of impunity through the frequent occurrence of unresolved criminal acts…”

Effectively, then, it is the State that is (figuratively speaking) ‘on trial’ here – and on charges which - while having clear, undeniable ramifications for the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder investigation – are by no means limited to that one crime alone.

This is – and has been, from the day one - the very core argument of the entire drive for justice that followed that brutal event of October 2017. ‘Justice for Daphne’ is not just about ensuring that the perpetrators themselves are duly caught and punished (though that does, ultimately, remain the immediate goal); it is also about ensuring that the institutional organs of the State are indeed functioning as they should be… that we really do all have the proper legal and administrative measures in place, to protect the common citizen from State-perpetrated injustice. (Note: I did say ‘as briefly as I can’, remember?)

Right: that’s as far as I’ll go with that other argument… except to say that it concluded roughly along these lines: even the simple fact that people like Glenn Beddingfield (who are also part of ‘the State’) are exerting undue pressure on the panel of judges – and, more specifically, that the Prime Minister himself is openly seeking to place limitations on their remit – strongly suggests that: no, actually.  We are still very, very far from reaching the desired level of institutional autonomy.

But that brings me back to the original question. How much of all this is still relevant, despite the fact that Keith Schembri has now been arrested in connection with corruption/money-laundering charges?

And the emphasis, by the way, is on the word ‘now’. Why only now, and not, say, at any other point in the past three years?

OK, there are few fairly obvious answers to that question: and I’ll stick to just one. Because at any other point before today, proceedings would have no doubt been halted – or somehow sabotaged – by the two institutions that have thrown so many other spanners into the works of so many other inquiries (all, by an amazing coincidence, involving highly-placed government officials).

So it is ‘only now’ – i.e., with new people occupying the posts of both Police Commissioner and Attorney General – that such a previously unthinkable thing could even be possible in the first place.

But by the same token, ‘only now’ also means ‘almost a whole year since the collapse of the Joseph Muscat administration… and with it, so much of Keith Schembri’s own power-base: both within government, and the Labour Party itself.’

And OK, I’ll admit it’s a rather cynical way of looking at things – how can it be otherwise, given everything that’s happened since 2017? – but you could just as easily interpret Keith Schembri’s arrest,today, as a case of having protected the former OPM chief of staff for as long as he was worth protecting… only to unceremoniously dump him the moment he was no longer worth anything tangible – not even, it would seem, in terms of blackmail - to either his party or government.

Not only that: but contrary to what seems to be a widespread interpretation out there (among non-Labour interpreters, anyway)… the fact that Keith Schembri was indeed arrested, and is finally going to face a judicial process after so long, actually translates into very good news: if not for the government as a whole, at least for Robert Abela himself.

On a political level, this turn of events enables him to stand up in front of the cameras, and do… well, precisely what he did yesterday afternoon: i.e., project the image that all those ‘institutional problems’ that have tarnished our country’s reputation so irreparably in recent years… all the ‘rule-of-law’ issues that have earned us so much international rebuke, from the world press, from European institutions, etc.… well, they are all now ‘a thing of the past’.

For much the same reason, it also robs Abela’s detractors of a major pillar in any future electoral campaign to unseat him. Not, mind you, that there’s any shortage of other pillars to replace it (look under ‘COVID-19, handling of’ for further details)… but after this, I can’t realistically see how any Opposition party can accuse the Prime Minister of ‘protecting/harbouring criminals’; or even, for that matter, of still being under the corrosive influence of Joseph Muscat.

The most I can predict – and it will probably happen before I even finish writing this article – is that they will intensify the pressure on Abela to finally expel Muscat from the party (as he had earlier done with Konrad Mizzi). And there, admittedly, the political fallout of such a decision could be considerable.

But it isn’t all that considerable in the case of Keith Schembri – just as, with hindsight, it wasn’t really in the case of Konrad Mizzi, either.

Besides: even from a purely practical angle, the loss of Schembri, Mizzi and even Muscat himself (should if ever come to that) entails far more benefits than disadvantages for the current Prime Minister: if nothing else, it would allow him to finally set his own leadership stamp on that party, in a way that he hasn’t so far really been able to do.

Whichever way you look at it, then, yesterday’s news event can be seen to help the present government’s image far more than hinder it: and while that doesn’t necessarily mean that all those systemic problems I mentioned earlier are still in place… it doesn’t exactly mean they’ve all gone away, either.

As such, Keith Schembri’s arrest cannot be held up as any form of instant validation of the state of health of our country’s institutions. For that, the real litmus test would be to see how Malta’s newly revamped law and order agencies would respond to a truly analogous case today.

For instance: an investigation into allegations of corruption, or any other serious crime, concerning members of the present administration of government… as opposed to the one that collapsed in disgrace more than 10 whole months ago.

Until that day comes (and to be fair, there’s always a possibility - however remote - that it never will), I’d say it is a little premature to claim that “all our institutions are robust, and discharging their duties without interference.”

But then again: I suppose that’s also why I get called a cynic so often…