The bar has been raised, but not high enough

Prime Minister Robert Abela’s first priority must be to take the necessary steps to bolster the Police Force’s effort in bringing more prosecutions to the courts

Prime Minister Robert Abela has argued that – by sacking Konrad Mizzi last Tuesday – the Labour Party ‘had set the highest standards of governance, and of good ethical behaviour on a political level’.

It was not an empty boast. Mizzi’s dismissal does indeed raise a bar when it comes to the standards expected of politicians holding high political office – one that had been lowered considerably by his predecessor.

Nonetheless, Robert Abela cannot rest on his laurels, as the ramifications of the scandals that precede his premiership may yet return to haunt his administration in the near future.

Already, Malta faces the risk of being grey-listed by Moneyval, the Council of Europe’s financial crime watchdog: a prospect that would be disastrous for the Maltese economy. 

This alone attests to the amount of work that still has to be done. Abela’s first priority must be to take the necessary steps to bolster the Police Force’s effort in bringing more prosecutions to the courts: especially by adopting the approach previously employed by other EU member states, whereby American and English investigators, experienced in investigating money laundering cases, were brought in to do the heavy lifting for the national police force.

Secondly, Malta has to bolster the executive arm of the FIAU and the MFSA: now clearly heading towards a situation where the FIAU will also become its own dedicated financial crimes agency, while the MFSA could become a supervisor on money laundering. This will, once again, go a long way towards allowing financial crimes experts to deal with this serious problem of ours, rather than hamper the police force with investigations they have so far not managed to deal with effectively.

But Abela must also reckon with the shortcomings of the Muscat administration. Without a proper investigation of the Panama Papers and the 17 Black connection, there can be no lasting progress on the reforms needed to meet the Venice Commission’s criteria. 

The political ramifications of the Panama scandal were certainly large, and indeed have left a bad taste in people’s mouths on both sides of the divide: partly because it did not see justice being done in the case of politicians who were planning sinister financial deals; but also because they were perceived as the Opposition’s attempts at short-circuiting democracy through the Egrant affair.

Now that Abela is embarking on the Venice Commission reforms, he may still face trouble if any of his political allies are caught up in situations which also demand a tough, no-nonsense response. And he may face an even greater problem, if his predecessor Joseph Muscat ends up in the same position as Konrad Mizzi.

It can only be expected that Abela and Labour will do their utmost to shield Muscat from any allegations or scandals that may yet arise. The political cost of disowning a beloved former prime minister – albeit disgraced by the countless deals that have attracted controversy under his aegis, and the implication of his chief of staff in the Yorgen Fenech arrest – may prove too high for Abela.

The same problems also beset Malta’s opposition party, which shows no signs of healing from the lingering wounds of the 2017 leadership election.

The PN’s traditional ideological space has been taken up, lock, stock and barrel, by a still buoyant Labour government, which has so far performed well even during a pandemic.  Moreover, Adrian Delia is now the subject of a magisterial inquiry into allegations of extorting money from Yorgen Fenech, to prevent the election of David Casa. 

How the PN can expect to face an election, with its leader clearly in no position to demand high standards on good governance, beggars belief. Ultimately, Delia’s masochistic desire to hang on to the reins of the PN only paints a sad picture of Maltese politics. 

But the PN will have yet more to do if a new leader steps forward to take over from Delia: it will not be able to win against Labour simply on the grounds of good governance. It will require a deeper ideological turnaround, that cannot be fulfilled with its usual reliance on the tropes of conservatism and national populism. 

Unless the PN offers a radical vision of Malta, under the enlightened leadership of a fresh face, it can only expect suffer yet more defeat.

This, too, is why the ethical standards bar still needs to be raised higher.