Muscat’s day in court

Perhaps the most regrettable aspect of his performance was in fact, that Muscat continues to downplay the risks posed to democracy by the intimacy of the political and business classes

After a year of almost total silence from the former prime minister, expectations were high for Joseph Muscat’s return to the limelight last Friday. 

It cannot be said that he failed to deliver. Starting with a lengthy written admonition of the inquiry judges themselves, for ‘deviating from their remit’, and proceeding with a display of all the confidence and determination associated with the years before his downfall… one can certainly say that Joseph Muscat ‘had his day in court’. 

But despite delivering such a spectacle, Muscat’s triumphal return was in reality only skin-deep. His performance may have been confident; but his answers did not always live up to the bravado with which they were uttered. 

For instance: declarations such as: “I am shocked about what came out about Montenegro,” or (about Schembri and Mizzi) “In truth, after the fact you start to doubt everyone. But I never saw anything but two people who worked hard”, suggest a naivety that is visibly belied by the intelligent, elegant way he himself presented his arguments in court. 

For the first time ever, Muscat admitted he knew that 17 Black – revealed cryptically by Daphne Caruana Galizia in February 2017 – was a business matter held by Schembri and Yorgen Fenech, a red flag that his chief of staff was a business partner with the Electrogas shareholder. And yet, all Muscat uttered in the years he was PM were denials and untruths. Indeed, he failed to shed any light on when exactly he became aware that Yorgen Fenech and Keith Schembri were business partners in offshore companies; or on whether Keith Schembri had continued attending security services meetings after suspicions fell on Yorgen Fenech.  

This itself may also be a reflection of his own criticism of the public inquiry itself: which – in this, but also in other sittings – has not always been of the highest calibre.  

But it illustrates just how unwise it is to underestimate Joseph Muscat: even now, in in his disgraced exile. That verbal admonition clearly served its purpose: just as he had done so often with his political adversaries, Muscat put the inquiry on the backfoot, and forced it onto the defensive. 

While this may resonate with Muscat loyalists – as, no doubt, did his traditional strategy using Nationalist sins to absolve his own failures – it does nothing to address the fact that the institutional rot (regardless how, or under which administration, it began) clearly continued on his watch. 

Perhaps the most regrettable aspect of his performance was in fact, that Muscat continues to downplay the risks posed to democracy by the intimacy of the political and business classes. “I will make a shocking statement,” he said. “Every government in the world, including Malta has to be close to business. […] I wasn’t just close to those businessmen, I was close to all of them. Thanks to this I saved thousands of jobs and I’m not ashamed of it.” 

That statement is indeed as shocking as Muscat intended it to be. It ignores the fact that this same intimacy could have given certain businessmen the impression that they are above the law, and can get what they want in return for contributing to prosperity and growth. 

So while Muscat may have protected jobs, the fact remains that he also undermined good governance. 

Nonetheless, there remains some room to question whether the public inquiry – regardless of Friday’s session – is truly achieving its purpose.  

It has to also be said that the inquiry lacks certain elements of visibility that characterise foreign equivalents. The sittings are not livestreamed, for example; nor are video recordings uploaded to a website, or distributed to the public in any other way. If this is a shortcoming of the government – or the board itself, which has not requested it – it testifies to the lack of experience Malta has had in truth and reconciliation exercises.  

Questions could also be asked about the identity of the witnessed being called – or not – to testify. Eye-rolling episodes of minor scandal, or the eliciting of helpful soundbites from people who were not functionaries in the bowels of the political machine, seem to add little to the ultimate quest of the inquiry. The upshot is that the inquiry, though well intentioned, often seems to be missing the wood for the trees. Apart from the specifics of the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder itself, what is also under investigation here is the same intimacy, between business and politics, that Muscat defends so eloquently. 

This is or, should be, Malta’s Tangentopoli moment: exposing the historic consensus of bipartisan alternation, where business donations build party machines in the form of insurance on future policy decisions. It is hard to disagree with Muscat when he says that history did not begin in 2013. 

And what happens when that system risks breaking down, because of one journalist’s dogged pursuit of a few corrupt individuals? The murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia. And it has happened in ways that nobody, including those closest to the machinations of the State, could ever expect or suspect.  

So for all its flaws, the inquiry can still teach us that – without a strict system of checks and balances on power; without the restriction of partisanship in the actions of government; and without the recalibration of democratic administration in daily matters of the State – the only possible result will be corruption, illicit profit, bribery… or much worse. 

To do that, this inquiry needs a certain muscle, a certain depth, a profound political viewpoint of history and society that can guide it towards its quest for truth. And that means its inquisitors cannot just be beholden simply to scandal or uncritical perspectives of the historical passage that took us to the times we are living.