Labour must take stock of Muscat legacy

The Labour Party keeps paying the price of being associated with people like Keith Schembri, which the party has never disowned; much as it will never disown Joseph Muscat for the political crisis that befell the nation when Yorgen Fenech was arrested in 2019

Keith Schembri was yesterday charged in a raft of accusations that include corruption and money laundering.

He was not in the dock because he was a Bormla boy done-good-for-himself; or because he was such a central part of the Muscat administration; or because the “establishment” was hunting him down, supposedly to make him an example for the Moneyval adjudicators that are yet to pass judgement on Malta’s greylisting (a situation to which the Muscat administration contributed no end in the first place). Schembri has been the establishment for the past decade, a businessman in his own right with a keen eye for tax avoidance, for drawing friends-of-friends into his business network, and for turning the seat of Maltese political power into his personal fiefdom. It is this kind of establishment that employs a total control of political life and the instrumentalization of weak governance structures for their personal gain, that hollowed out the Muscat administration of the good will it manipulated in its quest for power.

Whether or not the accusations that were yesterday read out to him in court will subsist, is a matter left to the prosecution; he may be innocent before proven guilty, but his central role in a string of scandals, the Panama Papers, his connection to 17 Black which he had dared deny, his ties to Yorgen Fenech, the alleged mastermind in the Caruana Galizia assassination, as well as his reported efforts in allaying the fears of assassination middleman Melvin Theuma before his arrest, have long consigned Keith Schembri to the dustbin of Maltese political history.

But Schembri persists in instrumentalising that very dedicated following of loyalists who treat him as a party stalwart or, as he himself fashions it, a victim of the ‘establishment’, a buzzword employed by the Labour administration and which now risks becoming Schembri’s own keyword.

Yesterday marked an important stage in Maltese political life. The charges themselves are a sign of a functioning police force. The Abela administration has been clear-cut on restoring national credibility in an area where the previous administration seems to have wantonly taken Malta to the brink. Yet Labour keeps paying the price of being associated with people like Keith Schembri, which the party has never disowned; much as it will never disown Joseph Muscat for the political crisis that befell the nation when Yorgen Fenech was arrested on suspicion of being the mastermind in the Caruana Galizia assassination. But the names of Keith Schembri, and more recently former Labour minister Chris Cardona, never seem to be too far away from this assassination. How long until this country will have to make amends with the political machinations that enabled the assassination of a journalist?

Without an internal process that clearly re-evaluates the legacy of both Muscat and Schembri, the average Labour voter will regard these people as heroes and victims, rather than persons who have a lot to answer for, in terms of both political judgement and possibly direct or indirect involvement in the scandals which rocked his administration.

When the Enemalta-Montenegro scandal was linked to Yorgen Fenech’s 17 Black, the same company identified as a target client of the Panama companies, Robert Abela rose to the occasion by calling on the party’s national executive to remove Konrad Mizzi from Labour MP. Already then, that was an action that could have inspired an internal process leading to a re-evaluation of the legacy left by Muscat in office. It is clear that even today, there is a need for an internal party inquiry that gives Labour clear recommendations, similar to those held after election defeats, on the scandals its administration has presided over.

The politically astute Schembri, as evidenced in the lengthy Facebook post in which he attempted to once again influence the news cycle, knew then that by painting himself as a child of Labour hunted down for his public service or political beliefs, stands a chance of being seen as a victim. He knows that without meaningful political change, especially inside Labour but also in government, he can foment some form of pressure on those who are trying to close the circle around him. It is the same tactic he used in a court testimony last year in which he dismissed the circumstantial evidence linking him to a plot to kill Caruana Galizia, by using it to delegitamise critics and journalists… always politically effective enough to rally Labour supporters to his side and muddle public opinion.

Still, even Labour voters should note that while the government is obliged to respect the presumption of innocence, including Schembri’s, Robert Abela’s administration should be sending out a strong message of political atonement. The normal functioning of the police force and justice on the Caruana Galizia assassination and so many scandals that plagued the Labour administration, are indeed the first steps. 

Only then will Abela prove he does not owe anything to his predecessor.