Caesar's pal

Criminal law follows scrupulously the assumption that everybody is innocent until proven guilty. This is an important legal precept, but it holds no water in the political arena

Can anyone honestly say that Keith Schembri is above suspicion?
Can anyone honestly say that Keith Schembri is above suspicion?

The story goes that a Roman gentleman – a certain Publius Clodius Pulcher – once sneaked into a party with the intention of seducing Caesar’s wife, Pompeia. This led to Publius’s arrest and trial.

After the trial, Caesar divorced Pompeia. When people questioned what this might have had to do with the trial of Publius, Caesar said: “My wife ought not even to be under suspicion.”

Because Pompeia was under suspicion of illicit behaviour, Caesar felt that he had to divorce her to protect his dignity.

Forget about Mrs Michelle Muscat. Let’s consider Caesar’s pal.

Consider what happened last Monday in a Court case in which the Prime Minister’s chief-of-staff, Keith Schembri was advised by his lawyers to withdraw his libel complaint against former PN leader Simon Busuttil to avoid replying to questions about the infamous company that used to go by the name 17 Black.

According to documents exposed as a result of the Panama papers revelations, Keith Schembri’s secret company set up in Panama – Tillgate – had indicated that it was to receive a regular income from 17 Black.

Subsequently, the owner of this company turned out to be none other than Yorgen Fenech, whose business connections are not small and include a share in the Electrogas consortium that sells to Enemalta electricty generated from liquified natural gas (LNG) stored in a giant tanker moored in Marsaxlokk.

Keith Schembri’s lawyers, undoubtedly, gave him sound legal advice. It was not in his interest to answer questions intended to establish whether he is corrupt or squeaky clean while there is a magisterial inquiry about Tillgate and 17 Black that is still ongoing.

Criminal law follows scrupulously the assumption that everybody is innocent until proven guilty. This is an important legal precept, but it holds no water in the political arena.

In politics, perceptions about dignity and on whether one is sticking to the high moral ground go beyond criminal guilt as a result of proceedings in a court of law.

That is why Caesar divorced his wife, albeit she was innocent of the alleged adultery. Caesar’s wife has to be above suspicion.

Can anyone honestly say that Keith Schembri is above suspicion? The next question is obvious: why does the Prime Minister refuse to ditch his pal in order to protect his dignity?

The situation being what it is, everybody is entitled to imagine all sorts of explanations for – and even speculate about – the Prime Minter’s behaviour in this case. If this is not politically damning, I do not know how ‘teflon’ Joseph Muscat can ever be embarassed.

Last Wednesday, the Opposition leader tabled a motion in Parliament calling on the Prime Minister to sack Keith Schembri.

This is an interesting development – not because the motion stands any chance of being approved by a majority of MPs, but because all Labour MPs will be collectively and individually officially closing their eyes to the allegations made and to the fact that Keith Schembri is not above suspicion.

I know that many genuine Labour supporters are – to say the least – not happy with the influence Keith Schembri exercises on his pal, the Prime Minister. They feel that sooner or later the evidence will become much clearer and the boat will crash into the rocks.

These include some MPs and even Cabinet Ministers: they will now find themselves in the embarrassing position of having to vote against their cosncience in order to save the current Labour administration together with its sordid undercurrents and – more important for some – to protect their own skin.

In fact, rather than saving Labour from shame, they will be assuming responsibilty for Schembri’s actions and therefore, willy nilly, share the guilt that they are so vehemently angry about.

Unfortunately, they will opt to take this road of shame, instead of forcing the party that they love so much to come clean.

In the US, Republican politicians are facing the same kind of dilemma with regards to the attempt of the Democrats to impeach President Trump because of his misdemeanours: the consequence of having two political tribes expecting loyalty, irrespective of what one’s conscience says.

This is the dark side of politics, where power comes first and foremost.

No super mum

In a recent opinion piece, Jackson Diehl, Deputy editorial page editor and columnist focusing on international affairs in the ‘Washington Post’ gave his opinion on what happened since the fall of the Berlin wall, 30 years ago.

In his opinion, ‘Thirty years later, the politics of the 1930s are still playing out in the former Eastern Bloc. Poland is governed by an authoritarian-minded right-wing government closely aligned with a reactionary Catholic Church. An uneasy peace prevails in the splintered remains of Yugoslavia after a devastating ethnic war. Hungary, which was ruled by a right-wing authoritarian government before World War II, is now dominated by the proudly “illiberal” Viktor Orban, who has tried to rehabilitate former strongman Miklos Horthy.’

He goes on to claim that some legacies of communist rule have proved enduring: ‘One is the use of state-run national television for political propaganda.

After the establishment of democracy, Poland moved to make its government-owned network independent, similar to the BBC. That abruptly ended when the right-wing Law and Justice party came to power in 2015. Now state television glorifies the ruling party and slimes its opponents in a fashion eerily reminiscent of communist times. In Hungary, Orban has gone a step further, using state resources and friendly businessmen to all but eliminate independent media.’

In spite of what many could have thought, EU membership has not helped to avoid the old political tricks of the Communist bloc in Hungary, Poland and even in the Czech Republic.

In Malta, there were some who believed that EU membership would make it impossible for any Maltese government to resort to the abuses that used to happen under the 1971-1987 Mintoff/KMB regime.

When Labour was led by Alfred Sant, Labour changed its stance on the use of violence for the political ends of the party in government. Muscat followed on the same lines. Otherwise, the cronyism and its penchant for favouritism are still there.

EU membership is fine – but it will not save the Polish or the Hungarians from the excesses of their own government.
Nor will it save us.

The EU is no super mum.

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