Disown Muscat now or face a worse scenario

Because they believe that if Muscat’s memorable legacy is destroyed, the party will face a dramatic backlash

No one in the Labour party is saying it. Everyone is keeping a brave face and putting all the blame on Keith Schembri, Muscat’s former chief of staff. They want all the roads to hell to stop at his door. And they hope that it will not go any further.. so that no one will lay a hand on their crown jewel: Joseph Muscat, the man who gave the Labour Party a chance to govern after 25 years in opposition.

Because they believe that if Muscat’s memorable legacy is destroyed, the party will face a dramatic backlash.

Yet there is not much choice left.

Like so many others, I believed in Joseph Muscat and his capability in steering the country. Not only did I believe in him. I liked him. I wrote as much in my columns. I said that he had much to offer this country. And I was not alone in believing in the dream he seemed to have put on the table to voters. Like many others, I changed my voting preference because I too wanted change. I did not agree with all of Labour’s policies. But I liked the man for his progressive policies... perhaps less so for his wanton insensitivity on environmental issues. But then again, I was happy with many of his decisions.

Perhaps, I was too blinded by the fast pace of reform that took Malta by storm in 2013.

In 2008, after the very close electoral win by Lawrence Gonzi, I called him up (he was then an MEP) and encouraged him to stand for PL leader. I had known him as a journalist and friend – not a close one – but a friend nonetheless. I surely preferred him to George Abela, who I felt was too conservative for my liking.

After the 2008 PN victory, I had been fending MaltaToday off from an onslaught of defamation cases, commercial boycott and character assassination. Sniping at journalists did not start in 2013, sure enough.

I got to meet Keith Schembri when his face appeared in a photo of a Labour delegation’s visit to Libya, accompanying Muscat. I knew him to be a paper merchant. When I did meet him – overdressed, suit and cufflinks, designer tie and a classy watch – he turned to be affable, pleasant to speak to, with a sense of humour, quite ordinary in fact.

When it finally dawned on me that he would be Joseph Muscat’s choice for chief of staff, I remember telling him that life in politics would deprive him of his life and of his privacy. “You will be scrutinised over every single action and you will be pounced upon the second you make your first mistake. Your business will be the first to suffer. Are you sure of this?”

His answer was like a rehearsed sound bite. “I believe in making this country a better place to live.”

It could not have gone more wrong. What we all thought was a normal bloke at the service of the State, was in fact a complex personality. But I only see this now.

All of those who knew him – and I thought I did – in business and in politics, or both, admit that they can never reconcile themselves to believe that Schembri could have been so deceptive. I have said this before: I have known PM’s aides in the last 35 years. I can still sit down and talk to one or two, but Schembri by far was the most efficient. Never in my wildest dreams would I have though that this would have happened with Schembri.

The events at the Allied Group may not be as surprising to me as they are to the general public. Before Schembri’s times, the way business was played out at Progress Press was far from ‘correct’, and it did not just start with Adrian Hillman or Vince Buhagiar. I can only say that when the ICIJ’s Swissleaks list was only partially published in Malta, by design or error, the name of one prominent member of the same company was left out. That particular revelation, as well as countless other Maltese names in Swissleaks, showed to what extent the running of many Maltese companies harbours bad intentions. What I mean to say is that, it is not only politicians who set out to enrich themselves but also private directors appointed by shareholders.

But back to Schembri, for the fact is that the way Joseph Muscat acted in the face of overwhelming evidence that Schembri was already involved with Electrogas shareholder Yorgen Fenech through 17 Black and the Panama companies, is at the root of what we are witnessing today.

I hit myself for not having been proactive on the story. But the day that Panama hit the newstands, I told Muscat directly that he should tell Schembri and Konrad Mizzi to resign, or face a tsunami. To that he simply told me he would weather the storm. But did he just do that?

To think that he says that the Malta Security Services had told him, after allegedly treating Yorgen Fenech as a person of interest in the Caruana Galizia assassination, to carry on as normally with the Tumas magnate... but did he have to invite Fenech to his birthday party in 2019 at Girgenti? Was that not a celebration traditionally reserved for his inner core and group of friends, which he could trust?

Yorgen Fenech had alleged in his police statement, reported last June in The Sunday Times, that Muscat had called him in January 2019 to Castille to ask him if he trusted Melvin Theuma (Muscat has denied these claims). If true, it would show Muscat having been privy about the Theuma recordings early in the day, and speaking about its incriminating content with the person the MSS itself was showing up to be a person of interest! And that is extremely shocking. Of course, the concern was evident: those tapes name Keith Schembri and Chris Cardona...

Muscat has already reacted to this claim, saying it is a fat lie. Muscat has denied that a first meeting in Castille was held with Fenech. He could not deny that he had met Fenech at Girgenti at his birthday party.

But my question is: has the police investigated and quizzed other people about this visit? I doubt they have. Yorgen Fenech says there were others behind the killing of Caruana Galizia and he points to two political personalities: Cardona and Keith Schembri.

So the way the police has fixated their focus on only one mastermind is baffling. Should not lead investigator Keith Arnaud have been tougher with all potential political ‘suspects’? Justice needs to be served. But it cannot be served at the whims of the interested parties only or other unknown considerations.

And this brings us to Robert Abela, who is in a quandary as to whether he should disengage from Muscat now. He will eventually only legitimise his ascendancy to the throne by calling an election – surely not something any PM wants now, despite the temptation of leading a new administration with a comfortable majority. We could be approaching a point where the alternative is another slim majority for the party in government, surely a recipe for more political tension and in a country crying for some normality.