The new normal is unacceptable

Schembri and Mizzi have sabotaged Labour's agenda: by not sacking them, Muscat is making sure that good governance remains the main issue confronting the country

Energy and health minister Konrad Mizzi
Energy and health minister Konrad Mizzi

On Sunday Joseph Muscat insisted that he wants to focus on government, leaving what he describes as mudslinging to the Opposition.

The problem for Muscat is that it is not the Opposition, but the unethical behaviour of his chief of staff and his deputy leader undermining his government and his party.

We are now in a position to judge the situation from the facts at hand. Keith Schembri, his chief of staff, has admitted owning companies in the secretive British Virgin Islands before taking up his political role, as well as setting up a company in Panama while in office. Konrad Mizzi has only closed a similar company in Panama after he was outed in the media. He has defended his actions insisting that he has not put any money in the said company. The PM now says that he would only make Mizzi resign if money was deposited in the company.

What the PM seems to overlook is that opening an account in a secretive location is something unacceptable for anyone serving the republic. It is not just a question of being sensitive. It is a question of what one expects from two high officials supposedly serving the republic.

The fact that his chief of staff was previously a businessman should have prompted even greater transparency and accountability. I have no problem with people in business entering the fray, but I do have a problem with businessmen with money in secretive locations, occupying one of the most important unelected posts in the country’s administration. Setting such companies while in office makes their actions doubly reproachable. Such actions cast a shadow on all the actions taken (and contracts signed) by these persons while in office.

On the basis of this alone, Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri should have resigned out of their free will instead of dragging down the government with them and by doing so, giving the impression that their personal fates and that of the Labour Party and government are interlinked. 

Ignoring the elephant in the room with the excuse of focusing on government is tantamount to endorsing a new normal, where people in public office can continue governing us even when their behaviour is in breach of basic norms. Hoping that the opposition and the media will get tired talking about the same thing is tantamount to expecting the country to accept a new normal. If you have an albatross hanging around your neck, it is your responsibility to remove it. Expecting people to stop talking about it is a political dead end.

Demanding the resignation of the two public officers is not a partisan matter. It is a civic duty. I am culturally and ideologically distant from the Nationalist Party but I refuse to keep silent simply because it is the PN which is vociferously calling on Mizzi and Schembri to resign.

Moreover with some notable exceptions like planning policies, the privatisation of energy and health, the land grab at Zonqor and the sale of passports, I endorse a big chunk of Labour’s agenda in government. It is this agenda which is being sabotaged by Schembri and Mizzi. The problem is that by not sacking Mizzi and Schembri, Muscat is making sure that good governance remains the main issue confronting the country. It makes all other issues irrelevant for the simple reason that people in office are expected to focus on government and not on setting up personal financial arrangements in distant parts of the globe.

In normal circumstances it would be the Labour Party which would stand up to be counted and bring the PM to his senses. This was why choosing Konrad Mizzi, as deputy leader was such a bad idea. It neutered the Labour Party, turning it in to the government’s lap dog.

The Labour cabinet and party is full of persons of integrity like Evarist Bartolo, Helena Dalli, George Vella, Leo Brincat and many others who can replace the rotten apples and press on with a socially reformist and progressive agenda. Unfortunately a socially reformist agenda cannot be trusted in the hands of people whose standards would offend any democratic socialist the world over.

Simply put the words socialist and Panama or British Virgin Islands do not go well together. One cannot serve a progressive government while investing money in secretive locations. Muscat can still do the right thing. But any failure to do so will further entrench the gulf between Muscat and civic-minded people from across the political spectrum. Is Muscat determined to allow this to happen? Is he part of the problem rather than part of the solution? And will someone from the party stop him before it is too late?

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