To be effective, the inquiry must have consequences

If Abela truly intends implementing the reforms demanded by the public inquiry – and above all, to lead the nation into some form of closure – it will take more than just ‘hitting the right notes’

In fairness to the Prime Minister, Robert Abela managed to hit nearly all the right notes in his public reaction to the damning Daphne Caruana Galizia inquiry report this week. 

The inquiry concluded that the Maltese State had to bear responsibility for the 2017 assassination of Caruana Galizia: specifically, for having “created an atmosphere of impunity, generated by the highest echelons at the heart of Castille and which, like an octopus, spread to other entities and regulators and the Police, leading to the collapse of rule of law.” 

Nonetheless, contrary to the expectations Robert Abela himself had raised earlier – when, for instance, he had publicly questioned, for no good reason at all, the inquiry board’s impartiality last September – the Prime Minister struck a very different tone when it came to actually accepting the inquiry’s conclusions. 

In a live press conference, Abela said he would apologise for the shortcomings of the Maltese State, and for “having fostered the environment that led to the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia.” 

That admission, alone, marks a clear departure from the Prime Minister’s former stance: both insofar as the public inquiry was concerned… but also – more significantly still – from the Labour government’s entire position regarding its own culpability for what happened in 2017. 

Furthermore, Abela’s apology to the Caruana Galizia family also signals a sorely-needed change in approach. Although he could go much further than merely apologising – by, for example, giving official recognition to Caruana Galizia’s role in exposing high level corruption – this gesture still marks a welcome change, from the days where the shrine in memory of the slain journalist, erected in front of the law courts, was regularly vilified (and vandalised) by Labour supporters, with the connivance of the authorities.  

On this front, the change is truly of an epochal nature: as reflected also in the Caruana Galizia’s acceptance of said apology. 

Of course, a lot more would have to be done, if we are to truly progress from words into action. All the same, however: by accepting the report’s damning conclusions, with more than just a hint of genuine remorse… Abela may well have kickstarted a process that may, in time, even lead to some form of national closure. 

Unfortunately, it was the brutal assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia that allowed this first seed of change to germinate. The horrible irony is painful to accept: a journalist who touched upon a mafia of politics and business had to become a martyr for what could be one of the Maltese nation’s most far-reaching of governance reforms. 

As Paul Caruana Galizia pointed out: “What’s important is that government really implements these reforms [recommended by the inquiry report]. It would be a shame if an independent inquiry’s recommendations are turned into a partisan cherry-picking exercise.” 

And it is from this perspective that Abela’s response has so far been somewhat lacking. Almost immediately after offering his apology to the Caruana Galizias, Robert Abela went on to declare that most – if not all – of the inquiry’s recommendations have already been implemented. 

Abela’s mantra is, in fact, that his government has already carried out important reforms, in matters such as judicial and police appointments: and to be fair, this may even be the case.  

But it still does not address the core complaint raised by the public inquiry, that is, the ‘culture of impunity’ that Abela himself now freely admits was in place until at least 2020. 

There is, of course, a paradox in all this. Surely, Robert Abela will be aware that his own acceptance of the verdict, also implies that some form of action –ideally, going beyond mere apologies – will now have to be forthcoming. After all, the State’s failure to take action against those involved in government corruption – among other criminal acts – did not exactly end with Abela’s own rise to power.  

To this day – with the exception of Keith Schembri; and even then, only in one specific case – there have been no prosecutions of any of the politicians exposed in the Panama Papers, or who were involved in any of the known corruption scandals of the Muscat administration. 

So while it is undeniably significant that the Prime Minister now wears his badge of distinction from Muscat with pride – when he had promised ‘continuity’ from his predecessors, only 18 short months ago – it is debatable, to say the least, whether this change is anything but skin-deep. 

Moreover, Abela’s claims that “The way the State functions today isn’t even recognisable from how it was in January 2020”, and that “The State that the inquiry evaluated works completely different today”, do not really stand up to scrutiny. 

If Abela truly intends implementing the reforms demanded by the public inquiry – and above all, to lead the nation into some form of closure – it will take more than just ‘hitting the right notes’.   

As the President of the Republic put it, in his own reaction: “this report can, and must serve as the point of departure for a national healing process for the trauma this brutal assassination has precipitated since 2017.” 

But that objective can only realistically be achieved, if the inquiry itself is seen to have real, tangible consequences.