Undermining the rule of law

The Labour Party and the current administration – both led by Robert Abela – did not react to Muscat’s outbursts. But is feigning that Muscat has said nothing – as if he does not exist – the right way forward for Robert Abela?

Prime Minister Robert Abela (left) with his predecessor Joseph Muscat
Prime Minister Robert Abela (left) with his predecessor Joseph Muscat

Last Tuesday, Fredrick Azzopardi – former head of Infrastructure Malta – was charged in court with breaching the environment protection law by carrying out illegal works at Wied Qirda in Żebbuġ. 

Plants and protected trees were uprooted and habitats in the sensitive ecological area were destroyed as a result of the agency’s decision to upgrade a road leading to a private residence in the rural area. Stop orders issued by inspectors from the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA), and affixed to machinery on site, were simply removed by workers who continued with the roadworks in the valley.

This provoked Arnold Cassola to make a formal report to the police, asking them to investigate and take action considering that Infrastructure Malta defied a compliance notice issued by ERA.

Unfortunately, the right of citizens to make reports and expect the police to take action is more respected by its breach than by its acknowledgement.

Indeed, in December 2017, then Chief Justice Silvio Camilleri had told a European Parliament rule of law delegation that the police do not even need ‘reasonable suspicion’ to start a criminal investigation. Investigations can be started by the Police with simple information of a crime brought to their attention, in any form.

Apart from these legal niceties, a few days before Azzopardi was to appear in court, former PM Joseph Muscat in a Facebook post accused “the institutions” of crumbling to pressure by taking action against Fredrick Azzopardi.

According to Muscat, Azzopardi was being brought to court, “because he essentially did his job to have the infrastructure that is needed in our country.”

He added that the time had come to speak out against those in public office who were bowing to such pressure “from the usual people”. Muscat went on to say that “we too have a voice,” pointing out that it is the voice of thousands who should not be taken for fools because they have thus far remained silent.

Muscat claimed that the “rushed or panicked” decision to prosecute Azzopardi for simply doing his job seems to have overlooked the fact that there are “obvious legal points” that nullify the case. He even warned that: “This mistaken decision carries consequences. Someone must be held responsible.”

After this strong statement against the Police for proceeding as they were expected to do in terms of the rule of law, Muscat said that while he had always defended the institutions when prime minister, he now feels the need to defend citizens from institutions that crumble after a bit of pressure.

It must be said that challenges in court against the Police Commissioner because of the police deciding not to take action on reported alleged crimes are very rare. In fact, for donkey’s years, it has constantly been police policy to proceed with formal accusations in court even when the reported crime is of a dubious nature. In this way, the police avoided such challenges and shifted the final decision on to the courts.

It must be said that this unofficial policy sometimes led to the suspicion that the police authorities were, in fact, shrugging off their responsibility. Even so, the rule of law prevailed.

But what Muscat said in his post, in fact, was an attack on the rule of law that – he says – he always defended when Prime Minister. Whether this implies that during Muscat’s premiership, the police had been told to refrain from taking action in certain cases when he thought such action was ‘rushed or panicked’, is anybody’s guess. Or is it only now that the police are taking ‘rushed and panicked’ decisions? And is taking no action at all, preferable to taking ‘rushed or panicked’ decisions?

What is sure is that Muscat’s comments did not reflect any respect for the rule of law, and, indeed, included a not so hidden threat in the case of the Police taking action in cases with which he does not agree.

In Muscat’s universe, it seems that declaring one’s respect to the rule of law, while facetiously undermining it, is no contradiction at all!

The Labour Party and the current administration – both led by Robert Abela – did not react to Muscat’s outbursts. But is feigning that Muscat has said nothing – as if he does not exist – the right way forward for Robert Abela?

Tories in trouble

Writing in a recent issue of The Spectator, John Oxley compares the final moments before a plane crashes with the situation in the Conservative party in the UK.

As he put it: “In those final fateful moments, one can observe highly intelligent, highly trained professionals making error after error, gradually dooming them and their passengers. Despite the ringing alarms of the onboard systems, they lose sight of what they are doing or how to avoid the impending doom. They pull the joystick instead of releasing it, they shut down the working engine instead of the failing one, or sometimes the two pilots pull in different directions, cancelling each other out. Eventually, they hit the Point of No Return and, shortly after, the ground.”

According to him, the Conservative party struggles in an uncertain world to decide what it wants to do, and struggles to implement the few ideas it has. He argues that the most pervasive and surprising problem the Tory party faces is that it doesn’t care about politics.

There is currently no theory in conservative politics. Moreover, factionalism within the party is driven far more by aesthetics than by ideology.

The Tory party is not driven by some grand policy agenda, but is simply grasping at shiny objects. There is ultimately emptiness at the heart of the current Conservative party. Its politics and principles are skin deep and conflicted and this fact is being exposed in the current Sunak vs.Truss leadership contest.

There is an almost complete absence of policy innovation. The party grasps around for yesterday’s answers to yesterday’s problems, copying the homework of Thatcher, a leader who has been out of power for 30 years and dead for ten.

Tory MPs and Tory leaders are saying what they think their voters want to hear. But there is no implementation, no plan for adverse consequences, and no underpinning logic or principle.

The parallel with the current situation in the PN is striking, even though the PN is already in the Opposition.