‘The reasons will have to be found’

I’m the first to agree with the widespread consensus, that Malta’s first-ever Standards Commissioner – George Hyzler – actually did a pretty good job of it, on the whole

It might be a rather obscure movie-reference with which to start an article (even if the film’s director – John Ford – remains one of the most influential, and widely-copied, movie-maker of all time).

Nonetheless, his 1958 comedy ‘The Last Hurrah’ (starring Spencer Tracy, Jeffrey Hunter and John Carradine) has to go down as one of his lesser-known efforts. And that’s a great pity, in my humble opinion: because there is a certain ‘something’ about this movie – though precisely what, I’m still not entirely sure – that vaguely reminds me of the atmosphere of Malta in the distant 1970s and 1980s (and to a lesser extent, even today).

Not in any direct sense, of course – the film is far too light-hearted for that – but mostly because the plot revolves around a fictional election for the governorship of an unnamed ‘New England City’ (presumably, Boston); and as the campaign progresses, the two rival candidates resort to ever-more insidious and intrusive methods, to somehow ‘nudge ahead’ in the electoral race.

For instance: long-time Republican mayor Frank Skeffington (Tracy) manages to transform even a random neighbourhood funeral, into an impromptu ‘campaign event’. Elsewhere, his Democrat rival Kevin McCluskey (allegedly modelled on a young John F. Kennedy) hires a film studio to concoct a ‘personalised’ television interview: in which every single aspect of his ‘home’ – all the way down to the family dog – is actually just a film-prop.

What really nails the ‘Malta connection’, however, are the scenes in the counting hall, as the results start to (ve-e-ery slowly) trickle in.  But you’ll have to take my word for it, I’m afraid.  Suffice it to say, for now, that anyone who remembers comparable scenes at the old counting hall at Ta’ Qali – when it could take anywhere up to three whole days, to find out who actually won the election – will surely feel a little tingle in their nostalgia-bone.

If I bring up ‘The Last Hurrah’ today, however, it is largely thanks to a single scene featuring John Carradine (Fun fact: that’s David Carradine’s dad! Remember? Bill from ‘Kill Bill’; and ‘Kwai Chang Kane’, from… erm, that old TV series about ‘a guy who could never catch a grasshopper’…)

Anyway: in ‘The Last Hurrah’, David’s father plays newspaper editor Amos Forge; and in that capacity, he starts dictating his new editorial policy to a bewildered secretary:

“On Sunday the Evening News will announce its support of Kevin McCluskey for mayor. We will say we believe he is the best-qualified of all the candidates opposing Skeffington. The reasons why we believe this, are… [long pause]… the reasons will have to be found…”

See, what did I tell you? Right there, in those last few words alone, ‘Kwai Chang Kane Senior’ has precisely outlined the very essence, of the entire modus operandi that informs Maltese politics to this day (and even more so, back in the 1970s and 1980s).

Not just because the underlying mindset is more or less indistinguishable, from how Maltese political parties invariably tend to operate (“Reasons? Pah! Since when do we need ‘reasons’ to oppose things… when ‘opposing things’ automatically translates into benefits for ourselves; and disadvantages for our political rivals?”)

But because even people like Amos Forge clearly understand that – while ‘opposition-for-its-own-sake’ is a good enough reason, FOR THEM – it remains a somewhat unsatisfactory justification, in the eyes of the wider general public.

So make no mistake: ‘reasons will have to be found’. And this – in the movie, just as in real life – is where the fun usually begins.

Take the ongoing controversy about the ‘anti-deadlock mechanism’, proposed for the appointment of the Standards Commissioner (a situation that has been vacant, by the way, since last September.)

By now, I imagine you all know the score: the process of appointing a new Commissioner requires a two-thirds parliamentary majority [Hey, don’t look at me! I was the one warning you all, at the time, that this wasn’t going to work]; and, as we have all seen with our own eyes… both government and opposition have proven unsuccessful, in their (ahem) ‘efforts’ to appoint a successor, over the past four whole months.

Not only that: but there is also no end in sight to the current impasse… which also explains why Robert Abela is now openly attempting to just sabotage the entire system: by proposing an ‘anti-deadlock mechanism’, that – on closer scrutiny – simply removes the two-thirds majority obligation altogether (leaving us precisely where we all were before: i.e. with the supposedly ‘autonomous’ Standards Commissioner reduced to a unilateral, and unopposable, ‘political appointment’…)

And yes: that would defeat the entire purpose of even having such a Standards Commissioner in the first place. But then, we also have to examine the precise circumstances that led us to this ridiculous pass.

Now: just to be clear, I’m the first to agree with the widespread consensus, that Malta’s first-ever Standards Commissioner – George Hyzler – actually did a pretty good job of it, on the whole.

At the same time, however: I find it slightly harder to believe that he did such an overwhelmingly brilliant job of it… that he simply cannot be replaced, AT ALL.

Leaving aside the old dictum that ‘nobody is irreplaceable’ (sorry, George, that counts for you, too)… it beggars belief, really, that four whole months should have elapsed, since the incumbent’s retirement last September: without government and opposition actually agreeing on even a single candidate to take his place.

And the anomaly only deepens, when you consider the identity of the man nominated Abela to replace George Hyzler: former Chief Justice Joseph Azzopardi… who had been appointed a judge by Eddie Fenech Adami in 2003; then elevated to Chief Justice by Joseph Muscat in 2018.

Interestingly enough, Azzopardi’s Wikipedia entry notes that “he was considered an uncontroversial choice” on that second occasion (and even more so, on the first). And yet, four years later… suddenly, the same Nationalist Party that had originally appointed Joseph Azzopardi to the judiciary, now considers him so utterly ‘unacceptable’, that it is willing to precipitate an entire political crisis over his appointment to the Standards Commission.

Hmmm. Why, I wonder? What are the ‘reasons’ for an official objection that has now dragged on for four whole months?

It’s hard to say, to be honest. Unlike Amos Forge, Bernard Grech has so far stopped short of explaining exactly what his party finds so objectionable about Joseph Azzopardi, to begin with.

As such, we have no option but to guess, really. It could, perhaps, be because – as the Times reminded us, back in 2018 – Azzopardi had once “unsuccessfully contested a single general election as a Labour candidate”. But then, that objection could surely have been raised against George Hyzler himself: who had successfully contested numerous elections with the PN; and had even served as Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry for Economic Services (1999 – 2003).   

And besides: even the Times – in 2018 – had described Azzopardi as “an uncontroversial character […] considered by many in the legal profession to be a very honest and affable man, who has served the court with EFFICIENCY [my emphasis] and rectitude…”

Meanwhile, in case you’re wondering why I emphasised ‘efficiency’ in that quote… it’s because so far, the only (unofficial) ‘reason’ we’ve been given is to be found the following snippet from another Times article, published last November:

“Sources close to the Nationalist Party said its main objection to Azzopardi’s appointment was his ‘efficiency levels’. They said that when he was chief justice, presiding over the appeals court, the backlog of appeals had risen to extremely high levels…”

And OK, fair enough: it is certainly true that the backlog of appeals has grown exponentially, in recent years; and I can fully understand how this might impact one’s assessment of the former Chief Justice, for the role of Standards Commissioner.

Then again, however: shouldn’t we also be asking ourselves exactly WHY the backlog of cases has grown so much? Could it really be because this one man – who had a reputation for ‘efficiency’, throughout all the long years he served as a judge – suddenly changed his habits, upon being appointed Chief Justice… and instantly transformed into a lazy, good-for-nothing, couch-potato?

Or could it have something to do with all the other reasons given by the judiciary itself, to account for the same situation? I.e., that the number of court cases has skyrocketed, in recent years – unsurprisingly, given that Malta’s population has practically doubled, since the 1980s – and that the corresponding number of court employees (including not just judges and magistrates: but registrars; deputy registrars; court clerks; court marshals; court messengers; judicial assistants, etc., etc.) has remained woefully insufficient, to handle the sheer overload of new cases being filed every day… a fair percentage of which, naturally, will go on to reach appeals stage?

As I recall, in August 2021 Mr Justice Francesco Depasquale – president of the ‘Association of Judges & Magistrates of Malta’, no less – had even supplied an entire list of such shortcomings within the court system: leading him to conclude that: ‘yes, the situation is critical’…

Clearly, then, we are looking at a crisis which cannot realistically be put down to the mere ‘inefficiency’ of one man, and one man alone…

But oh, how silly of me! I almost forgot that the real ‘reasons’ for all these objections are actually quite irrelevant, at the end of the day. What really matters is the objection itself… NOT the actual reasons for objecting.

After all: those can always be ‘found’…