Rule of law concerns PM must act upon

Abela and his ministers should not hope our corruption problem might just go away... It will cost them dearly if they make inaction on rule of law and criminality their hallmark

At the time of writing this leader, we do not know who will emerge as new PN leader.  

But we do know, from the drab campaign that preceded today’s choice for the embattled Opposition, that Malta’s next general election will be fought between a strong Labour Party, headed by a Prime Minister who took over from a beleaguered Labour administration with deeply troubled baggage; and an outsider lawyer who will still need to close an enormous trust gap kept wide open since 2013, if he is to stand a chance of taking the PN into power.  

We also have key indications of what the PN can expect as of today. Both candidates come with baggage of their own: Delia’s financial problems are, of course, already widely known; but even Bernard Grech, who politically started off with a clean slate, has had his squeaky-clean image tarnished by reports of a history of tax evasion. Simply put, Grech’s behaviour – when still below the radar – did not match the high standards expected of an aspiring Prime Minister.  

Indeed, both Delia and Grech will lack the moral authority to clamp down on widespread tax evasion, and to nurture a much-needed sense of fiscal morality in the country. Nor can either realistically challenge the government on political impunity. For while the self-employed may identify with the fiscal troubles of both leaders, they will surely remind both PN candidates of their own tax record when faced with tax investigations.  

Of course, Delia’s and Grech’s sins appear venial compared to the Panama scandal of Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri. But by ditching these toxic elements, Labour may ironically turn the tables onto the fiscal morality of the incoming Opposition leader.  

Still, nothing should detract public attention from the problems of Malta’s government and society under the weight of the Caruana Galizia assassination and public inquiries.  

But not only will the PN have to contend with trying to win trust from Labour by hitting out at its governance record; it has to yet to settle its problematic identity crisis, with both candidates hailing from a socially conservative wing of the party.  

Grech had campaigned against the introduction of divorce in 2011; he started his campaign by opening up to a debate on abortion, and promising to respect a referendum on such issues. But his attempt to reach out to liberals faced a backlash from conservatives, and Grech quickly committed himself to resign if abortion is ever approved by referendum.  

Such U-turns illustrate that the PN still lacks a clearly-defined political identity; and this leaves the party vulnerable to manipulation, by a Labour government that has often – very successfully – exploited this internal divide by pushing through its liberal agenda.  

The choice of a new leader was an opportunity to address this identity crisis, once and for all. As things stand, any outcome will not provide a solution to the deep crisis the Opposition is currently in. Not just yet.  

No room for complacency  

This week saw the release of the EU’s first-ever rule of law report. Malta has registered a degree of success: under Prime Minister Robert Abela, we have seen an all-important response to the Venice Commission recommendations on judicial appointments and separation of powers.  

And although the report concludes that there is room for further improvement, Abela has set the bar high with the removal of Konrad Mizzi, the non-reappointment of Chris Cardona, as well as the punishing but necessary resignation of Justyne Caruana.  

However, he cannot afford to rest on his laurels.  

The report found that “deep corruption patterns have been unveiled”, which have raised a strong public demand for a significantly strengthened capacity to tackle corruption and wider rule of law reforms.  

“A track record of securing convictions in high-level corruption cases is lacking. A broad reform project has been launched to address gaps and strengthen the institutional anti-corruption framework, including law enforcement and prosecution.”  

This newspaper shares this concern: deep-seated corruption patterns are not only existent, but there are deep patterns of organised criminality in Malta which remain unchecked. Once again, as often referenced in this newspaper, this organised criminality has a thread that runs right through the Caruana Galizia assassination and the gangland murders that preceded it. No overindulged view of Malta’s ‘serenity’ can change the fact of our island’s dark underbelly.  

Abela and his ministers should not hope that this will go away. It will cost them dearly if they make inaction on rule of law and criminality their hallmark.