Too little, but not too late

Naturally, one does not expect Abela to do the probing and investigating himself; but he should give a clear sign that what he expects from the police is a determination to act fast, diligently and with conviction, without fear or favour

That the Prime Minister has finally bitten the bullet, and asked Chris Cardona to resign from PL deputy leader, is a welcome development. That it took so long, however, attests to the difficult situation Robert Abela now finds himself in.

It is not a problem of Abela’s own making, to be fair. But as a party leader who was elected to manage the crisis left by the preceding administration, the situation now demands a decisive show of leadership on the prime minister’s part.

In reality, Abela should have acted sooner to put out the fire, after damning testimony started emerging in court implicating Cardona in Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder.

Ever since court sessions resumed after the lockdown, Cardona’s name has been mentioned multiple times in court testimony given by pardoned middleman Melvin Theuma during the compilation of evidence against murder suspect Yorgen Fenech.

Cardona is alleged to have paid for Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder, using his canvasser, Anthony Chetcuti - known as il-Biglee - as the middleman with Alfred Degiorgio, one of the murderers.

Together with his lawyer David Gatt, he is also alleged to have made €400,000 available to the murderers by the start of the trial by jury.

Cardona himself has so far vehemently denied all allegations, dismissing them as “nonsense, based on lies”. From a legal point of view, he is correct to insist on the observation of the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ principle. These allegations are based on hearsay, and have yet to be proven in a court of law.

Nonetheless – as recent experience has time and again taught us – in such cases there are political responsibilities to be shouldered, over and above the ordinary judicial process.

Following the events that culminated in last December’s political crisis, it should have been obvious that a man implicated in this murder investigation – however remotely (still less, as explicitly as in this case) – could not expect to continue representing either the Labour Party, or the government of Malta, until his name was cleared.

Resignations under such circumstances are not unprecedented; in 2010, Parliamentary secretary Chris Said stepped down over charges of perjury… only to resume his role after duly fighting out his private legal battles in court.

Given that the allegations against Cardona are so much more damning, the former economy minister should really have had the decency of defending his name without causing any further damage or instability to the Labour Party.

Up until yesterday, Cardona showed no sign of any intention to step down willingly: and this must have caused embarrassment to his prime minister, who was reportedly under internal pressure – including from other members of his Cabinet – to take the bull by the horns.

But the goes beyond the question of Cardona’s own involvement: the evidence presented in court also points to a sinister collusion between people in high office, the police, criminals and powerful business people to eliminate a journalist.

Both Cardona’s reluctance to step down, and the Prime Minister’s hesitation in taking action, could therefore only reinforce popular perceptions of a government that is unwilling to address this black stain on its recent political record. It is for this reason, ultimately, that Cardona’s removal was so urgent.

Now that the decision has been taken, Abela must seize the opportunity to place a stamp of leadership on proceedings. He may be banking on the appointment of a new police commissioner to kick-start a new era for the police force; but Angelo Gafa’s appointment alone will not be enough.

Even if he is known to be a serious and disciplined investigator, Gafa will have to demonstrate that he has the will to go after every single person being mentioned in the Caruana Galizia case. And he can only realistically succeed, if the government gives assurance that it will not hinder the course of justice.

This is where Abela must show grit. The government must have the political will to get to the bottom of the Caruana Galizia murder, and ensure that all possible leads are investigated and prosecuted – even (or especially – when they point to past Labour governments.

Naturally, one does not expect Abela to do the probing and investigating himself; but he should give a clear sign that what he expects from the police is a determination to act fast, diligently and with conviction, without fear or favour.

That is what the rest of the country expects, too. And while Abela’s actions, to date, may indeed be ‘too little’… they are not yet ‘too late’.