Pop goes the weasel…

How unfair the English language really is, at the end of the day. For if there’s one thing you certainly cannot ever accuse a weasel of doing… it’s not cleaning up his own mess behind him

Dinnertime battle royale
Dinnertime battle royale

The English language can be very unfair at times. Take the word ‘weasel’, for instance. Literally, it refers to “any small carnivore of the genus Mustela, of the family Mustelidae, having a long, slender body and feeding chiefly on small rodents.”

Ah, but when’s the last time any of us saw an actual specimen of Mustela erminea, ‘feeding chiefly on small rodents’, here in Malta: where its particular line of expertise is very much in demand? (Unsurprisingly, seeing as we’ve already wiped out all our rodents’ other predators: kestrels, barn owls, etc.)

Apart from the ‘ballotra’ once represented on the old 2c coin – and in a video clip I’m about to refer to, but more of that later – I think I can safely say I have never seen an actual weasel in the almost half a century I’ve been living here. So I suppose it’s hardly surprising that I’ve never really heard the word used in the literal sense, either.

Figuratively? That’s a slightly different story. In colloquial English slang, a ‘weasel’ is a sly, conniving, and generally untrustworthy individual: someone who cheats and lies for his own advancement (note: I’ve never heard it used for a woman), usually at the expense of others. Depending on the context, it could also mean a snitch, or someone with a knack of ‘weaselling out’ of any given situation… usually through clever but dishonest excuses…

Weasel versus rat in Maltese countryside goes viral

All in all, those are not exactly very flattering connotations. So when a video surfaced of a (real) weasel locked in (very real) mortal combat with a (just as real) rat on a country road… it was hard to resist drawing satirical analogies with the spontaneous political combustion the country is going through right now.

‘Weasels turning on rats’ was one of the most recurring of the online comments: and somehow, the image does seem to capture something of the pure zeitgeist of our times. We really are living through a fiercely primal, predatory scenario: a ruthless struggle for political survival, red in tooth and claw…

My own reaction was slightly different, however (moulded in part by a childhood addiction to wildlife documentaries). To be honest, most of it consisted of sheer relief to discover that this magnificent predator was not, as I had feared, already extinct… though at the rate we are destroying its natural habitat, who knows? We might just have witnessed the last, heroic battle ever fought by a living Mustela erminea on Maltese soil…

But I was also slightly taken aback by the sheer ferocity of the tiny animal’s behaviour.

‘Weasel-ish’, my foot. Going only on its reputation, you’d expect a weasel to sneak up on its victim, innocently ask directions, then whack it unconscious with a stone the moment its head was turned.

But no: this ferocious little hunter emulated the exact same predatory patterns you’d associate with lions on the Serengeti, or escaped Velociraptors in Jurassic Park: pouncing on its (much larger) prey, throttling it with its jaws, dragging it the ground and wrestling it immobile… only to eventually drag the dead victim away, victorious.

That’s the clean opposite of ‘subtlety’, ‘deceit’, ‘treachery’ and all the other labels we so unfairly dump on this noble, savage beast. What we saw in that tiny clip was anything but disingenuous or false: it was untold millions of years of evolution – the most brutally honest of all Nature’s manifestations - condensed into just over one minute of raw footage.

Now let’s see how this holds up with some of the human behaviour we have witnessed (or got to know about) in the past few weeks.

The prime minister has yet to explain the precise situation surrounding his apparent acceptance of at least two luxury presents. And given how much he himself had capitalised on a remarkably similar set of circumstances in the past… well, he can hardly blame his political opponents from using the same line of attack today, can he?

It seems a long time ago now, but around seven years ago – a month before the 2013 election – then-Opposition leader Joseph Muscat gave a speech in Gozo, in which he declared that it was “time to clean up Maltese politics.”

It was against the backdrop of the oil procurement corruption scandal; specifically, when Finance Minister Tonio Fenech was under pressure for having accepted a traditional Maltese clock as a gift from oil trader George Farrugia.

In that speech, Muscat accused Fenech of ‘changing his story’, in particular when it came to the question of whether (or how often) the minister had met Farrugia in the past.

“Despite initially denying ever meeting George Farrugia, finance minister Tonio Fenech today admitted to meeting Farrugia on two occasions,” Muscat said.

“The first meeting was about an Enemalta tender and the second meeting occurred when Farrugia went to his house to give him the clock. Fenech’s only argument to the contrary was that the clock’s value was less than €5,000. Fenech knows that the code of ethics binding all ministers expressly forbids the acceptance of any gifts, no matter their value…”

Ouch. On almost every point (except one: the value of the timepiece, which has meanwhile mysteriously quadrupled) the exact same charges can now be lain at Joseph Muscat’s door.

Like the former finance minister, he was at first vague about his own previous meetings with Yorgen Fenech; but we now know that Fenech was a guest at at least one of Muscat’s parties last February, where he reportedly also gave him a number of wines worth over €5,000 in total: over and above the €20,000 wristwatch, which was given on another occasion (a few months after Muscat made that speech, as it happens).

Also like Tonio Fenech, Muscat did not deny having accepted the items; instead, he argued that there had been no breach of the ministerial code of ethics (the same code he had just accused Fenech of breaching, in the case of a much less expensive gift).

To give his reaction its full due: Joseph Muscat also claimed he was the victim of a ‘smear campaign’, in the sense that “partial, deeply manipulated information being selectively leaked to parts of the media by someone who is directing the accused in a hideous assassination case to obviously try to build a narrative that is both misleading and self-serving.”

Either way, the prime minister has yet to explain the precise situation surrounding his apparent acceptance of at least two luxury presents. And given how much he himself had capitalised on a remarkably similar set of circumstances in the past… well, he can hardly blame his political opponents from using the same line of attack today, can he?

(Ironically, that is part of the reason why such things as ‘ministerial codes of conduct’ exist in the first place: i.e., to avoid situations where prime ministers can be ‘threatened with smear campaigns’…)

Still, the benefit of the doubt must be given, as always: albeit with a much smaller margin than usual. It now falls to the Standards Commissioner to determine whether, in fact, there had been any breach of the code of ethics; even though – just as Muscat himself had argued, in the case of Tonio Fenech – that is all just a largely mathematical exercise, at this stage.

The whole point is not what the code says, specifically, line by line. It is the purpose that it serves: in this case, to prevent politicians from creating a sense of moral or material obligation to third parties… which is important at the best of times; but all the more so, when those third parties also happen to be major investors who regularly bid for public contracts.

For there is more than just a superficial resemblance between these two ‘forbidden clock’ scenarios: like Yorgen Fenech, George Farrugia was also a successful tenderer in the energy sector; and then as now, government was rocked by a corruption scandal in broadly the same sector – both involving the building or refurbishment of a power station, and the supply of its fuel (not to mention that there were controversial Presidential  pardons given out on both occasions, too.)

Having said that, there are also other differences apart from the value of the gifts themselves. The repercussions in Tonio Fenech’s time were almost exclusively suffered by his own government: which collapsed in disgrace a few months after the oil scandal broke out.

The long-term consequences of today’s revelations have yet to be fully calculated; but at least one of the protagonists is already separately charged with murder; and the case itself implicitly tied in with a company of his, separately under investigation for corrupt practices and graft.

And to cap it all, this was precisely what Joseph Muscat himself had only just promised to address, with his ‘time to clean up Maltese politics’ declaration: the clearly symbiotic relationship that exists between the seat of Maltese political power, and the seat of all Malta’s Big Money.

But oh look: seven years later it’s not only all still there; but the gifts have become four times as expensive to boot…

Well, this only brings me back to precisely how unfair the English language really is, at the end of the day. For if there’s one thing you certainly cannot ever accuse a weasel of doing… it’s not cleaning up his own mess behind him.

We all saw it in the video: did that specimen of much-maligned Mustela erminea leave bits and pieces of dismembered rat lying about all over the roadside? No! It dragged the entire carcass over a rubble wall, and safely out of sight into the bushes… leaving not so much as a drop of blood behind, to show that anything had ever even happened there at all.

And all in less than one minute, too. Now that’s the way you do it. Like a true boss. Like a real weasel…

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