‘Michael and Ninu are not Austin’

Joseph Muscat cannot resist the temptation to appeal to those who fall out with either Gonzi or Busuttil irrespective of the issue at stake.

Tweets are short incisive messages which inevitably solicit different interpretations.  When sent by Prime Ministers, tweets are also expected to carry the gravitas of office.

On Monday instead of expressing outrage against tax evasion by elected representatives, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat tweeted: “Michael and Ninu are not Austin.” [Since it was not signed ‘JM’ it is highly likely it was a member of his staff that tweeted the missive… doesn’t change much however.]

On one level this tweet was based on a political fact: that Simon Busuttil is according different treatment to three former ministers guilty of a similar breach of ethics i.e. that they all failed to declare a swiss account to parliament.

While Michael Falzon and Ninu Zammit had repatriated monies from HSBC Geneva after failing to declare these assets to the tax authorities even while serving as Ministers and MPs, Austin Gatt failed to declare a Swiss bank account inherited from his father in his parliamentary declaration of assets until 2013. Gatt who insisted that he had never deposited any money in the account claimed that he had forgotten about it. On that occasion Muscat rightly pointed out that Swiss accounts are not something one should forget about.

Simon Busuttil – who has to be commended for his otherwise bold stance – justifies the distinction by saying that he will only act on revelations made during his tenure as party leader. One understands why Busuttil does not want to be held responsible for the lack of action of former party leaders when faced by breach of ethics: he would spend the next five years responding to what he would have done had he been in Gonzi’s or Fenech Adami’s place. 

New leaders come with their own agenda. Alfred Sant closed the Labour  party’s doors to several former Labour ministers. Muscat immediately re-opened the doors to former minister Joe Grima. But Busuttil’s stance does invite comparisons. Austin Gatt, like Falzon and Zammit, also failed to declare a bank account to parliament even if he did not make deposits in it.  Ultimately Busuttil’s rigid approach (typical of his legalistic frame of mind) reinforces the perception that Gatt, despite being absent from the PN, still curries favour with the new leadership.

So on this aspect Muscat’s tweet may not have been elegant, but he was spot on. 

But Muscat’s tweet also takes political advantage of any divisions or bad blood inside the PN. Labour grew “fatter” by appealing to any element that fell out with Gonzi or Busuttil irrespective of integrity or ideology.  But today Labour may be increasingly suffering from an obesity problem that could prove corrosive in the long term.

Muscat’s Labour has welcomed former Nationalists, some loaded with toxic baggage, riding on the new gravy train. Muscat even managed to exorcise scandals like that of Mistra to win the loyalty of former Nationalist MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando.

It is highly unlikely for either Michael Falzon or Ninu Zammit to follow suit. Falzon’s suspension is first and foremost a loss for Simon Busuttil, who managed to lure the former minister back in to the party. Falzon brought with him a strong dose of lucid political analysis – now he did the honourable thing of issuing an apology to the Maltese people.

If anything Muscat’s tweet is directed towards PN voters who fail to understand Busuttil’s fuss on this issue, who think he is being too hard with Nationalist stalwarts. He may have been quick to pounce on Busuttil’s double standards but he has yet to pronounce himself on whether Labour would suspend any party officials found to have had undeclared accounts.  For even if these accounts were repatriated at some stage, voters have a right to know if their representatives have behaved like cheats in the past. One may well argue that MPs should be automatically excluded from benefiting from any future repatriation scheme or amnesty.

Both Falzon and Zammit benefited from amnesties at a time when they were no longer MPs, but their sin was not to declare these bank accounts in their parliamentary declarations while  serving the republic as ministers. Zammit only repatriated his funds in 2014 in the latest repatriation scheme issued by a Labour government.  This  should spur parliament to appoint a legal body tasked with scrutinising the declarations made by MPs, and to improve the declaration of interests.

What I cannot understand is why Busuttil limits his actions for those connected to Swiss bank accounts (ostensibly because of Swissleaks); what about those who hoarded money in other jurisdictions? The message should be zero tolerance on tax evasion especially when committed by their elected representatives or officials.

Still for all their posturing on tax evasion, both parties accept Malta’s role as a financial centre which legally assists foreign clients in avoiding tax in their own country.  The participation of lawyers from both parties in this lucrative business does contrast with any firm action on tax evasion locally.  One may argue that it is thanks to Malta’s role as a financial sector that we can afford lower taxes and have avoided making hard choices and the fate of other countries like Greece, Italy and Spain.  But in an international climate where tax avoidance is being increasingly questioned, the long-term sustainability of our dependence on this sector is doubtful.

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