Robert Abela’s litmus test

Abela still needs to send a clear signal that he will leave no stone unturned in establishing both the political and judicial truths related to the Panama scandal and all its spin offs

On Monday Prime Minister Robert Abela not only insisted that Konrad Mizzi should face questions from Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee; but he gave clear instructions to his party’s representatives on the same committee, to dispel the perception that they are treating the disgraced former minister with kid gloves.

“Government members on the PAC should not, and will not protect Konrad Mizzi, and should carry out their work neutrally,” Abela said on Monday; after Mizzi announced in a Facebook post that he would only be available to attend a hearing from 3 November onwards, thus effectively turning down the committee’s summoning for Tuesday.

Mizzi had already refused to attend a sitting two weeks ago.  Then he changed his mind, saying that he was willing to attend not to harm the Prime Minister and deviate attention from the budget; only to change his mind again, claiming that his lawyer was not available on the date of the rescheduled hearing.

Amidst rumours of an imminent election, many suspected that Mizzi was simply hoping that he would never have to appear before the PAC during this legislature.  Yet with Abela now excluding an election in 2021, Mizzi will have no choice but to face the music, or risk the wrath of his own Prime Minister, whom he would be defying by not attending.

But the hearing itself poses a problem for Labour.  While the opposition is expected to have a field-day in using this opportunity to score political points, the government’s own members have three choices: to defend Mizzi by deflating the opposition’s questions; to take the backseat to appear ‘neutral’; or to take the initiative by putting their colleague in a tight spot by asking questions themselves.

If they take the backseat, they would only give the Opposition a blanket opportunity to score political points. But if they defend Mizzi, government members would risk being perceived as being in cahoots with a disgraced former Minister who was expelled from the party following revelations related to the Montenegro wind farm scandal, a spin-off from the Panama scandal.

Yet the hearing also represents an opportunity for Abela to ditch once for all the perception that he is protecting Mizzi.  This perception can be quashed if Labour’s representatives ask pertinent questions to Konrad Mizzi.

For example, Mizzi is duty bound to explain his relationship with Yorgen Fenech, whose secret company 17 Black was listed as a client in Mizzi’s own secret company in Panama.  He is duty bound to explain his chats with Fenech related to Projects Malta’s plan to transfer ITS to Smart City; and to explain the involvement of Nexia BT in the adjudication of the power station bid to Electrogas.  He must also answer questions on the political decision to sell public hospitals to what effectively was a shell company, whose ownership was not even established at that time.  And no interrogation of Mizzi can be complete without questions on how far Joseph Muscat was implicated in his dealings.

But for the PAC to serve its purpose in establishing the truth, members should present a meticulous line of questioning, something in which the opposition does not excel: as it will probably be more interested in making a show by humiliating Mizzi.

While Mizzi deserves to be humiliated, the truth is better served by a sober line of questioning which actually makes it more difficult for the former minister to pander to Labour’s grassroots.  This is where Labour’s representatives on the committee can distinguish themselves.  In this sense, the hearing represents a golden opportunity for Abela to distance himself him both Konrad Mizzi and the legacy of his predecessor: before, not after the election.

But despite the importance of the PAC, the most important questions to Mizzi can only be answered in police interrogations and in a court of law.  The fact that Mizzi has not been arraigned and formally charged raises questions on whether Abela’s government is really giving the police a free hand in conducting investigations; or whether the Police Force remains reluctant to take on big guns like Mizzi and Schembri.

One understands that while there is a lot of smoke which suggests a fire, money laundering accusations require a meticulous collection of evidence to make the case watertight.   But justice also has to be seen being done.

And while Schembri has been brought to the dock on a case of corruption in the private sector related to the Times of Malta, his and Mizzi’s possible corruption in government projects has yet to be properly investigated.

This remains the litmus test for Abela.  While he may well be seeking a strong mandate of his own to be in a position to confront his predecessor’s legacy, voters also fear that a strong mandate for Labour could well be interpreted as an absolution for its past sins.

Abela still needs to send a clear signal that he will leave no stone unturned in establishing both the political and judicial truths related to the Panama scandal and all its spin offs. This is why a strong signal in the PAC, that Labour is also seeking the truth, would be a step in the right direction.