A gaffe of truly ‘Gahan’ proportions

It is vital, at this stage, to revamp the code of ethics for Ministers and MPs: to ensure that meetings, lunches and gifts with lobbyists are all declared and regulated

Following the publication of his Whatsapp chats with business tycoon Yorgen Fenech  – now a prime suspect in Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder – Edward Zammit Lewis position as Justice Minister has become somewhat untenable.

It is debatable, however, whether this is because of the Labour MP’s proximity to the disgraced Fenech; or whether it was the demeaning tone of his comment – which referred to the typical Labour voter as ‘Gahan’: the village idiot of Maltese folklore – that may have crossed the line.

Either way, the incident also stands out as a reminder of the incestuous and deferential relationship between the business class and the political class; and as such extends across the political spectrum.

It is pertinent to point out that - at the time of the chats - Zammit Lewis was not a Minister, nor even aware of Fenech’s involvement in the plot to assassinate Daphne Caruana Galizia.

But he was still an MP, a former Minister, and a close ally of former PM Josph Muscat; and he carried on his friendly exchanges with Fenech, even well after it became publicly known that Fenech was the owner of 17 Black: listed as a client of Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi’s Panama companies.

Even on this level, however, it may be unfair to single out only Zammit Lewis: who was far from the only politician who cultivated a friendship with Fenech after the 17 Black revelations. Even two Nationalist MPs (Herman Schivaone and Kirsty Debono) had met Fenech, to solicit a free room for party conference, after the 17 Black revelations; while another MP, Jason Azzopardi, had solicited help in travel accommodation from the Tumas family before the 17 black revelations.

Moreover Pierre Portelli, the former head of the PN media, has even testified that in March 2019, he had asked Yorgen Fenech to help him pay the salaries of staff who work with the PN media.

What stands out in this case, however, is the deferential tone of the conversation itself; and also, the mockery made by Zammit Lewis of Labour voters. One cannot escape the gross irony of a member of the political class showing such contempt towards his own voters; while simultaneously showing deference towards one of most powerful business persons in Malta.

It is arguably this aspect, more than any other, which has come back to haunt Zammit Lewis, and which has provided the opposition with ammunition to strike: this time, also over his contempt for Labour voters, something which is bound to negatively impact Zammit Lewis’ chances re-election.

Meanwhile, it has also been reported that Zammit Lewis had sent Fenech a link to a report of a press conference, in which he described former PN leader Simon Busuttil as a “threat to the rule of law” for his continued attempts to force court action on the Panama Papers and 17 Black.

If true, this suggests that Zammit Lewis was currying favour with Fenech, on an issue in which Fenech himself was also deeply involved. It also suggests that Zammit Lewis had no qualms on the possible corruption resulting from the dealings of high officials in the Labour government and 17 Black.

Yet Zammit Lewis was surely not alone in his reluctance to raise any questions within the party. The impression one gets is that Fenech was deliberately courting a very compliant political class: in which case, Zammit Lewis was not the only offender.

To be fair, one also has to acknowledge that as Justice Minister, Zammit Lewis has implemented reforms which have strengthened the independence of the judiciary and the police force; and which thus have helped in establishing a break with the institutional paralysis which characterized the Muscat administration after Panamagate.

But the Whatsapp chats have cast a shadow over this, too: they suggest that Zammit Lewis was either a late convert to good governance; or that he is simply a political survivor from the Muscat era, who is trying to cynically reinvent himself.

Yet one should be wary of singling out Zammit Lewis without making a reflection on the nexus between politicians and big business. For while both businessmen and politicians have a vital role, and can contribute to national prosperity, the absence of a firewall between the two categories is a recipe for corruption and bad governance, which leads to collective moral and possibly material impoverishment.

Moreover, the opposition should also be wary of its own relationship with the business class especially when it comes to party financing. It was, in fact, quite a disappointment that MPs of both sides where mostly silent on one aspect of the Inquiry report: the allusion to an incestuous relationship between politicians and big business.

It is vital, at this stage, to revamp the code of ethics for Ministers and MPs: to ensure that meetings, lunches and gifts with lobbyists are all declared and regulated.

Political implications apart, it is also important to recognize the news value of the nature of Whatsapp chats between a politician, who is now Justice Minister, and the alleged mastermind of an assassination.

This is why legal attempts to muzzle the press, and prevent it from publishing these conversations, are unacceptable, and an affront to the legacy of Daphne Caruana Galizia.