Rosianne Cutajar’s fate is a curve-ball for Robert Abela

Robert Abela first wanted the Standards Commissioner to determine Rosianne Cutajar’s fate, but now accepts her resignation until the final verdict: what changed since then? asks James Debono

Rosianne Cutajar
Rosianne Cutajar

While more details surfaced during the past weeks, nothing much changed from December 2020 when MaltaToday and the Times revealed that equality parliamentary secretary Rosianne Cutajar had allegedly acted as an unofficial ‘broker’ in a property deal involving Yorgen Fenech.

The deal eventually fell through but the seller is claiming back moneys paid in cash to Yorgen Fenech, which were apparently earmarked for Cutajar and her aide as brokerage fees.

On 21 December, Prime Minister Robert Abela insisted that he won’t make any decisions on the future of his junior minister until Standards czar George Hyzler concludes his investigation into the controversial property deal.

Clearly at that stage Abela jad decided to pass the buck instead of taking a political decision himself. In so doing he absconded from his role of determining the yardstick of governance, whose bar he himself set higher by rightly expelling Konrad Mizzi from Labour, in the absence of any ‘guilty’ verdict by any institutional body.

The problem of setting a bar for Rosianne

Abela was not in a position to exclude Cutajar simply because of her proximity to Yorgen Fenech after it was already revealed that he was the owner of 17 Black, but before he was accused of commissioning the Caruana Galizia murder. Unlike Konrad Mizzi, Cutajar was not herself involved in any scandalous deals, and was possibly a willing ‘victim’ of Fenech’s constant attempts to curry favour with the political class.

The reality is that within Joseph Muscat’s Labour, ‘17 Black’ was either considered fake news or the new normal right up to the momentous events in December 2019. If people who owned secret companies were allowed to hold the highest positions of power, there could not be anything wrong for a young aspiring politician to consort with a businessman who felt comfortable trading in influence in the corridors of power.

And that means Abela finds it very difficult to clamp down on politicians in his party for their associations in the business world. For even if secret companies are taken out of the equation, the failure to set a firewall between politicians and capitalists is something that pre-dates 2013. So raising the bar on that issue may well end up in a purge of the political class, including opposition members like Jason Azzopardi who accepted freebies from business tycoons.

Forcing Cutajar to resign at that stage would have set a precedent which would have forced the hand of Abela in cases involving other ministers who remained in contact with Yorgen Fenech after November 2018 (when Rueters revealed that Fenech was the owner of 17 Black), including Joseph Muscat himself but also others retained in Abela’s Cabinet.

Passing the buck

For Abela the crux of the matter was not Cutajar’s proximity to Fenech, but whether Cutajar had accepted any money. “If she received the money – something, from what I read yesterday, she is denying – then that would be one matter. The commissioner for standards will determine this. We respect the decisions of institutions,” Abela said in December.

Yet even at that stage he had another option: asking Cutajar to resign temporarily, only to be reinstated if absolved by the Standards Commissioner.

The fact that Cutajar resigned two months later suggests that Abela intensified his pressure in the past days. But Abela could have nipped the problem in the bud by expecting Cutajar to resign in 2020; or in the wake of press reports that Cutajar took a €9,000 cut from a €40,000 pile of cash handed to her by murder suspect Yorgen Fenech; and that Cutajar had solicited “help” from Fenech for a political survey in 2019, once again indicating the close relationship between the pair.

It remains to be seen how far the Standards Commissioner can go in establishing the truth on this matter. Any complainy on ministerial misconduct “cannot be entertained if made after more than one year from when the fact giving rise to the complaint happened. The report, filed by the independent politician Arnold Cassola, could only be made for not declaring the income forthcoming from this transaction in her parliament and income tax returns, as “this was the only thing that was still within the 12-month limit”. Yet this may still give the commissioner enough leeway to delve deeper. After all, it was Abela who had asked Hyzler to investigate whether Cutajar had indeed pocketed any money or not.

Hares and hounds

The problem for Abela is that in this case he is not setting the agenda himself; in his attempt to placate both his tribal support base and middle-of-the-road voters appalled by Cutajar’s antics, he is running with the hares and chasing with the hounds. To add insult to injury, Cutajar submitted her resignation a day after a protest by Repubblika, something which did not go down well with Labour grassroots and even some Cabinet members.

Ironically this coincided with a major breakthrough in the Caruana Galizia assassination probe, which suggests that Abela does have the political will to have the case solved under his watch.

Yet Abela is also to blame for this state of affairs. Rather than appearing weak in the face of Repubblika’s challenge, he may well render it irrelevant by taking ownership of the moral revolution the country needs. And that does not simply mean ensuring the police have the freedom to carry out their tasks, but also sending the right message to supporters to ensure that corruption rooted in the cosy relationship between politicians and their sponsors in the business world, is not nourished by the compliance of the grassroots.

For even Cutajar’s resignation was peppered by the kind of partisan tribalism which alienates non-partisan voters. Rather than resigning in the name of accountability, she presented herself as a victim of an attempt to harm her reputation, the government and the Labour Party. In short, it did not come across as a sign of “maturity” as Abela claimed it was on Sunday.

For Abela to reclaim the moral high ground, he will have to present the speech he has yet not delivered: a denouncement of Muscat’s errors addressed to supporters who so far have been regaled with mixed and contradictory messages, to the extent that many who applaud him still think that Muscat and his minions are demi gods.

That signal may well set a domino effect which would see the Labour party cleansed and in a position to win over both MOR voters and principled socialists disgusted by his predecessor’s antics.

It will also allow Abela to turn the tables on the Opposition, which is still riven by contradictions and double-standards. The risk for Abela is that in his balancing act between Muscat loyalists and the rule-of-law tubthumpers, he may well end up satisfying nobody.

But in going for the jugular by making the battle against corruption his own, Abela may well end up raising expectations of steps which will be hard for him to deliver without turning on some of his own.