The jellyfish bite

The Prime Minister should have suspended Mizzi and Schembri, ascertained that there was nothing illegal and then recalled them after some time. The problem now is that too much time has passed.

Janusz Wojciechowsk and Ladislav Balko probably mean nothing to the readers of this newspaper, and less so to the public. I for one can hardly pronounce their names. But briefly, they, together with Toni Abela, were rejected by the budgetary control committee composed of European members of parliament to screen the new candidates for the post of auditor.

Well Wojciechowsk, a Pole, and Balko, a Slovakian, are now auditors. They ignored the pronouncement of the budgetary control committee and are today recipients of a salary that, let us face it, should make anyone puke. More than a quarter of a million, in a job that I am sure Louis Galea, who is the outgoing auditor for Malta, would describe as the best part of one’s life.

Well, the moral of the story is that Abela, who was under immense media pressure to quit, could have got the job but did not. 

I know Toni Abela, he cares too much about his integrity to have taken the Wojciechowsk and Balko choice.

Soltes, a Slovenian MEP who happens to be a Green but sounds more like a Spanish inquisitor, and who was the most vocal critic of Abela, said about the Pole and Slovakian: “We now expect them to live up to the commitment made in their declaration and withdraw their candidacy, as the Maltese candidate has already done pre-emptively.”

But that is not how it works out in the European parliament and the Union. When it comes to small countries: standards, principles and ethics come into play, but when we have bigger countries, the rules of engagement are different.

My concern is that Toni Abela is not past his expiry date. He still has a very important role to play and albeit I see that role in the Labour party, where his presence is surely missed and where a personality that reflects the aspirations of the grass roots is badly needed.

                                                           *                      *                       *                       *

Bannister is the name of the man who has run the Malta Financial Services Authority for years, he is the man who is being asked to resign from his post by a cabinet minister, Evarist Bartolo.

This is not the first time that Bartolo has targeted Bannister. In the Bank of Valletta investment crisis, which left hundreds of investors without their money, Bartolo had chastised Bannister for the MFSA’s inaction.

Now Bartolo is reminding everyone that Bannister has a connection (declared) in the Cayman Islands, another fiscal paradise, and that this case scenario makes his position untenable.

He has a point. Let us face it. If we are to apply zero tolerance to the public figures having connections to fiscal havens, then the same I would imagine should apply to Bannister, who after all runs Malta’s regulator of the financial services.

But then, we should also say that Bannister was also blessed by Muscat and I would imagine that Muscat would not want to see Bannister go.

In the meantime, Bartolo’s quip on Bannister led Simon Busuttil to describe Bartolo’s stand as disgraceful. Again, I get the impression that Busuttil has the same problem many twitters have. They suffer from the knee jerk syndrome. 

If it is wrong for a politician to have a Panamanian connection, why should it be fine for Bannister? Bartolo has been highlighting Bannister’s unsuitability since 2012. In 2012 he wrote under a pen name in that Professor Joe Bannister, Chairman of the Malta Financial Services Authority (MFSA) that licenses and regulates collective investment funds, is himself a director of numerous umbrella funds incorporated in the Cayman Islands, sitting on the same board of directors with others who receive regular consulting contracts from the MFSA.

And he went on: “Indeed, it results from information given in parliament, that a business partner of Bannister in the Kairos Fund Limited based in the Cayman Islands has been awarded €463,047 in direct contracts since 2008 by Bannister.”

The problem which obviously all politicians are being sort of informed is that Malta itself is not far from being a Panama. We offer financial services to many companies and individuals who are advised to disguise their real profits by perfectly legal methods but in a highly unethical manner. We, and when I say we, I mean Muscat and Busuttil, are in no position to cry wolf over Panama. Malta’s Financial Services are a device to siphon billions and avoid tax in the countries of origin. So I guess Evarist Bartolo is doing what any left wing deputy should be doing. Defining in a rather unsubtle way what a bunch of raging hypocrites we all are.

Which of course brings me to our survey today. The first observation is about Muscat’s rising trust gap. It is surely understandable, because though we are highly critical of Labour’s moral standing and f***ed up approach to administering projects, the truth is that no matter how much he tries, people still need time to embrace Simon Busuttil.

I could compare the whole experience to a jellyfish bite. It takes time to forget the pain and discomfort of a jellyfish bite, but anyone who has experienced one will reel at the sight of a jellyfish.

It takes four, five perhaps eight years before you pluck up the courage to dive deep in the sea and hope for the best and not get stung.

Busuttil still cannot quite understand that the sensation of that jellyfish bite has not yet gone away. And no amount of flotsam on the surface and floating sewage will erase the lasting effects of the jellyfish bite.

There will be those who will get over that experience and move on but there will be many who will hang on to the experience.

The front-page story also talks about the standing of Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri. If they had any sense they would have tendered their resignations on the first day. Now that they haven’t the decision is more complex.

The Prime Minister probably would have suspended them, ascertained that there was nothing illegal and then recalled them after some time.

The problem now is that too much time has passed. A decision is needed. If the decision is going to be saying sorry to the public, then I suggest everyone keep that option to themselves.

If the decision is linked to a resignation, then many people will be glad. Not because they would like anyone to go, but because they know that the standards are what they are.

I want to believe that both men have done nothing illegal or accepted bribes. And unlike most others I will give them the benefit of the doubt.

I also know that both men are extremely effective, hard working and focused. But politics is not only about this. It is also about transparency and by giving a friggin example.

In the case of Keith Schembri the PM has more leeway but he also knows or has learnt that any decision will have an impact on his government’s central nervous system.

The PN knows that this is not only about resignations. It is about making Muscat’s ability to solve problems. Most especially in the case of Keith Schembri. I was surprised the other day to meet some old friends who had attended the PN protest, who actually asked me if Schembri is a ‘Mafioso kind of guy’. “He looks like it.”

I said that he could be mistaken for any of those typical Nationalist functionaries who dress up in cufflinks, blue ties and shirts and always act very polite. He looks and sounds like their stereotyped Nationalist.

The Opposition are fully aware that without Schembri the PM will be a weaker man and less effective. There is little doubt that this is a very important consideration for Muscat.

Muscat would not be in Castille without Schembri and his chance of returning to Castille in 2018 depends on Schembri, and that consideration is perhaps the reason that he may ask him not to leave. 

There is one thing I know, a decision will be taken before May 1. Muscat wants to turn a new leaf before next Sunday’s political meeting. The ball is in his court!