Turkeys clamouring for Christmas

The PN cannot keep insisting on Mizzi and Schembri’s resignation, when Simon Busuttil – now embroiled in an infinitely worse scandal – refuses to shoulder his own political responsibility for this fiasco

Busuttil’s approach suggests that he was willing to make a leap of faith based on what was reported on Caruana Galizia’s blog
Busuttil’s approach suggests that he was willing to make a leap of faith based on what was reported on Caruana Galizia’s blog

I’m beginning to wonder if the chorus of voices calling for Simon Busuttil to be retained within the Nationalist Party – if not, incredibly, reappointed as its leader – is actually the political equivalent of a suicide attempt. It is as though there is a tiny corner of the PN somewhere that Busuttil didn’t quite manage to totally obliterate: and now, they want him back to finish the job.

If that’s the case, they needn’t bother. The job has indeed been finished – very thoroughly and comprehensively, too – though it might take another devastating electoral defeat for the reality to finally sink in. As party leader, Simon Busuttil staked his entire political reputation on the truth of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s allegations about Egrant Inc. Without any proof whatsoever, he stood on a podium before tens of thousands of people, and solemnly declared: ‘I have no doubt that Egrant belongs to Michelle Muscat’. Meanwhile, the PN’s television station NET TV went into overdrive with a daily running header, repeating the same words with even greater conviction: ‘Egrant belongs to Joseph Muscat’s wife, period.’

Even at the time, this was grossly irresponsible of both the party leader and its media – not to mention all the other party officials and pundits who dutifully peddled the same lie (and whose credibility now also lies in smouldering ruins). That claim was already the subject of a magisterial inquiry. The responsible thing to do would have been to await the inquiry’s conclusions, before jumping to any of their own.

Other people did this at the time: I interviewed Arnold Cassola shortly before the election, and he refused to be drawn into speculation about Egrant. Instead, he preferred to concentrate on other aspects of the Panama Papers scandal for which proof did exist: namely Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri’s actual offshore holdings, which were amply attested by documentary evidence.

Had Simon Busuttil chosen to take a comparable stance, the fall-out would not be quite so apocalyptic today. But by ignoring issues which were real, and for which there was evidence, in pursuit of a wild goose which might not even exist at all... he undermined his entire party’s future ability to ever take a stand against those issues again. Worse still, he has provided us with another scandal that quite frankly eclipses the one already engulfing Mizzi and Schembri: this time, a scandal that threatens to annihilate the Nationalist Party completely.

Now that the inquiry has established that the only ‘evidence’ linking the Muscats with Egrant was a forgery, we can all see the entire saga for what it was: a crime, no more or less. And it is a crime that will now have to be investigated.

To this day – and until evidence surfaces to the contrary – that is one thing we cannot say about Mizzi’s and Schembri’s misdemeanours. As has been time and again pointed out, it is not illegal to own an offshore account in Panama. Legality kicks in only when that account is used to launder the proceeds of crime. And oh look: the Egrant inquiry found no evidence of the claimed one-million-euro transfer to Egrant...nor any evidence that Hearnsville and Tillgate had any accounts at Pilatus, either.

Legally, then, Mizzi and Schembri cannot be touched (unless, again, fresh evidence emerges... this time, preferably not consisting solely of forged documents). There does, however, remain the question of political responsibility; but this is precisely the crux of the entire tragedy today.

The PN cannot keep insisting on Mizzi and Schembri’s resignation, when Simon Busuttil – now embroiled in an infinitely worse scandal: an attempt to overthrow a government on the basis of a lie, no less – stolidly refuses to shoulder his own political responsibility for this fiasco. The ‘moral high horse’ he was riding – ‘battle between good and evil’, remember? –  has very rudely and very emphatically bucked him off. Busuttil is quite simply in no position to ever talk about ‘political honesty’ and ‘good governance’ again.

And that, I fear, may be the least of his problems. Apart from Christmas, another thing the turkeys seem to be clamouring for is the publication of the full inquiry report. It apparently hasn’t occurred to them that the only things this will add to the executive summary are the inquiring magistrates’ recommendations. These will include criminally investigating all the people involved in what was clearly a conspiracy to frame the Muscats; and even without the political implications – which extend to treason – this would be a serious crime, entailing lengthy prison sentences to any found guilty.

I won’t make the mistake of idly speculating who will be called up for questioning, or what these people might reveal under threat of bearing the full brunt of the consequences themselves. But the visible facts already speak for themselves, on at least a number of relevant points.

One of them is that the PN had invested considerable energy and resources to capitalise on the Egrant story: within minutes of the original blogpost on that fateful day in April, a small army of Nationalist apparatchiks had already been mobilised into position. There were journalists outside Pilatus bank, and door-stepping Michelle Muscat; and there were well-placed pundits all over the social media, whose ‘job’ – self-appointed or otherwise – was to browbeat all sceptics and nay-sayers into submission. (On a separate and more personal note, I think some of these people should now at least question the role they themselves played in the deception).

Another fact is that the document itself was passed onto the magistrate by Pierre Portelli – who claimed to have received it from neither Daphne Caruana Galizia nor Maria Efimova. Right there, we already have circumstantial evidence of a conspiracy extending beyond the originators of the allegations themselves.

Above all, it also remains a fact that Joseph Muscat can, at any time he likes, simply stroll along to the nearest police station, and file a report against Simon Busuttil (and so many others, too, if it comes to it) for making a false accusation about himself and his wife.

There is nothing stopping him from doing that today; and there will be nothing stopping him from doing it at any point between now and the next election. Nothing, that is, except for his own political expediency. Muscat has undoubtedly already worked out that Simon Busuttil is far more useful to him where he is today – i.e., wreaking havoc within the Nationalist Party – than in a court of law, being tried for any or all of the above crimes.

Paradoxically, then, the one thing standing between Busuttil and the justice system is Joseph Muscat’s own political acumen. It simply doesn’t pay Muscat to take legal action against Busuttil in today’s circumstances. But in a hypothetical future scenario where Busuttil does become PN leader again? I don’t know... there’s a limit to how much restraint can be expected from a politician, you know. To me, it looks a lot like Joseph Muscat may be saving that trump card for when, or if, Simon Busuttil somehow claws his way back into the Opposition driver’s seat. If so, Busuttil’s may prove the shortest political comeback in Maltese history.

Yet still, they want him back. There are Nationalists today who, instead of chasing Simon Busuttil out of Pieta’ with pitchforks and scythes, actually want him to return as party leader. I mean... why not just finish the job themselves? Why not hire a ball-and-chain demolition machine, and physically tear down the Stamperija stone by stone, column by column, and marble plaque by marble plaque? (Note: you might want to remove any busts of Eddie Fenech Adami first. It’s not exactly fair that he should take any blame for this mess, either.) For regardless of criminal or political ramifications of Egrant: the PN itself is now irremediably divided, and Busuttil represents a faction that has earned the eternal enmity of roughly half that party’s own grassroots.

This, too, seems to be invisible to the pro-Busuttil chorus: even though they themselves keep spelling it out in their own posts and memes. Someone, for instance, has just uploaded a graphic showing the combined electoral performances of the two PN warring factions at the last election. Busuttil’s faction, we are reminded, got just over 56,000 votes; Delia’s, on the other hand, just over 36,000.

Let’s ignore the small detail that Adrian Delia didn’t actually contest the last election; and that, if he contests one now, it would be as party leader. (That might skew the above stats a little, don’t you think?) No matter: what those figures really tell us is that ’36,000’ (probably more) is roughly the amount of votes the PN would instantly lose, if Busuttil were to topple Delia and take his place. Under those circumstances, a Nationalist Party led by Simon Busuttil wouldn’t even get 20% of the popular vote in a national election. It would automatically shrink almost to the level of Malta’s other political minnows: AD, PD and Front Patrijotti Maltin.

Nor should this really surprise us, either. Even when Busuttil had a united PN firmly behind him, he still managed to register that party’s worst-ever defeat. Just imagine today: with a Delia faction that would never forgive him for the damage he has already done, and the Egrant calumny hanging round his neck like a bloody albatross.

But tell you what: if you all want him back so badly... hell, take him, by all means. Just don’t expect me to step in and clean up the mess afterwards, that’s all.