No question about it, resign now!

It cannot be that in the face of such irrefutable proof and links, ministers and functionaries who were connected indirectly through some secret offshore network continue to hold onto their position, claiming they did nothing wrong

Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri
Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri

MaltaToday has from day one called for the resignation of chief-of-staff Keith Schembri and tourism minister Konrad Mizzi at the outbreak of the Panama Papers and thereafter on several occasions when facts about their Panama accounts were revealed and then in the midst of the Egrant allegations.

Once again, last November when the ownership of 17 Black was revealed to be Yorgen Fenech’s, a leading businessman still involved as a director until last week with the Tumas group (Malta’s largest company with an asset value of surely half a billion euro) and Electrogas Malta, MaltaToday reiterated its call.

Those who follow MaltaToday are given an editorial line that is part of the team spirit inside MaltaToday, where journalists share as much as possible political and cultural values and views. Asking someone to resign from political office is not an easy decision and it is always the editor’s prerogative, but this is something we concurred with as an editorial team.

Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi may have been capable administrators, campaign managers and visionaries in their own field. They have shown themselves to be affable individuals with a drive to succeed.

But there is a bigger and more fundamental problem.

Perhaps proof of the extent of this problem was the toxicity that followed the Egrant allegation before the 2017 general election. The fact that the fake allegation – fanned firstly by the ex-Pilatus employee Maria Efimova and later fuelled by the late Daphne Caruana Galizia – gained ground is because of the revelation a year before of Schembri and Mizzi’s secret Panamanian companies.

When Yorgen Fenech was apprehended as he sped out of Portomaso with his Riva yacht on Wednesday morning, the whole country took a step back and many held their breath. Reputable audit firms, banks, businesses, the family business, related firms, financial service providers and countless friends and acquaintances could not quite see what the motive or logic behind Fenech’s alleged murder plot was.

The Tumas group is by all means Malta’s largest conglomerate, if not the one with the widest spread of influence across Maltese society. From hospitality to property to port operations and casinos, and lest we forget, the name of its founder is honoured by an independent foundation set up in his name to further education in journalism.

Yorgen’s father, George, built a company thanks to his father Tumas, which gained the respect and envy of many businessmen. He wined and dined and courted politicians and prime ministers. He would treat political masters to lightening visits to Montecarlo on his private jet, part of a folklore that more recently was cemented by the fateful Arsenal match to which he accompanied one finance minister.

When we talk of Yorgen we are not talking here of some lowlife criminal who sprung out of nowhere. So the implications are justifiably shocking and inescapably in your face.

Beyond the sensational news, the most relevant news is that Dubai companies 17 Black and Macbridge were recognised as target clients of Schembri and Mizzi’s offshore companies in Panama. The leaked documents showed that these Panamanian companies were the intended recipients of €150,000 a month. When the ownership of 17 Black was shown to be that of Yorgen Fenech, a director of two companies linked to the new power station, nothing shook the foundations under Schembri and Mizzi. They stood by and said that they were innocent and had not intended or planned to receive kickbacks.

The obvious conclusion is that this was not the point.

With a 40,000 vote lead in the last elections, one could understand why they did not give a hoot about the ethical argument. Neither did the fact that there were magisterial inquiries have a bearing on their decision to leave or to stay.

It starts to look more like a Netflix series, even more so when Konrad Mizzi announces in the midst of all this that he has leadership interests and starts to actively campaign for this post.

When two weeks ago, Keith Schembri ceded his defamation case because he refused to answer questions on 17 Black on the premise that any of his comments would prejudice the magisterial inquiry into 17 Black, the spotlight once again turned on him. No one could understand why he could not answer a very simple yes or no about his involvement in 17 Black.

Any association, indirect or direct, with 17 Black – when the owner of that company is a person of interest in the Caruana Galizia murder – is more than bad news.

The real turning point for many came last Wednesday with the arrest of Yorgen Fenech, a person of interest in the murder. And those words are the words from the Prime Minister. That alone should have seen two developments. The first one would have been immediate letters from Schembri and Mizzi to the Prime Minister offering their resignation.

The second would have been a Cabinet reshuffle to send the message that the government is serious on changing things.

This, I believe, is wishful thinking, because as things stand the Prime Minister is not one who takes rash decisions.

The fear is that if he does nothing people will say that he is trying to hide something. Others will accuse him of being implicated.

There is no culture of resignations in Malta but this scenario cannot be any clearer. You cannot be surrounded by individuals who cannot understand that their aversion to resign is damaging the reputation of the Prime Minister, his government and that of the country. Needless to say, of Labour too, but that no longer seems to configure as a priority anymore.

The worst-case scenario is that Muscat does nothing, waits earnestly for Christmas and holds an election. That would be wrong. This is not about his legacy, but about the country, and about what is right and wrong.

As things stand he could well win an election, and if he did not… we would have a government led by Adrian Delia which frankly is not in position to govern.

This government may still have a legitimate mandate, but there is no legitimacy in a government that rides roughshod over the ethicality and good governance.

This government should carry on for the rest of its mandate, a mandate that was achieved with an overwhelming majority. Had there been a charismatic and credible Opposition, the Labour government would be facing a real existential problem.

In the last years I gave Muscat the benefit of the doubt: in the Egrant furore I stood by those words. There was no love lost with Daphne Caruana Galizia and the way she carried out journalism and punched down on people outside the public eye, but I cannot, in any form or manner, condone that those who disagreed with her or feared her pen and chose to kill her, get treated with kids’ gloves.

And it cannot be that in the face of such irrefutable proof and links, ministers and functionaries who were connected indirectly to the alleged brains through some secret offshore network continue to hold onto their position, claiming that they did nothing wrong.

When this kind of wrong is staring at us in the face, there is something called political responsibility.

Failure to do so, will rebound on the country, the economy, but also on Joseph Muscat and the future of his party.

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