PAC: playpen of democracy

Last week’s PAC was a failure on all sides. While Konrad Mizzi was trying to score points with Labour grassroots, the truth is that he was somewhat enabled to do so, by both PAC chairman Beppe Fenech Adami and by Labour Whip Glenn Bedingfield

There is only one way to describe last Wednesday’s meeting of the Public Accounts Committee. It was a total circus that should have made voters squirm at the hysterics on show.  

This meeting was supposed to discuss matters of the gravest national importance, raised by the National Audit Office. It was the perfect occasion to present questions ranging from the adjudication of the Electrogas tender, to the role of SOCAR, to Konrad Mizzi’s own connections to the businessmen involved.   

What we witnessed, however, was the diametric opposite of what we, as citizens, are entitled to expect from the House of Representatives. Rather than a measured encounter with a former member of the Labour executive, who is obliged to answer to his peers over his past actions, we were regaled with a show of hysterics and shrill theatrics… all in the name of partisan tribalism.   

It was a situation aided by all parties in the PAC. In the first instance, Konrad Mizzi showed utter disrespect to the committee by refusing to attend when asked to: illustrating that a toothless PAC was unable to bring the MP to answer, even to the damning findings of a National Audit Office report.   

When Konrad Mizzi finally appeared, he turned what should have been an initial statement, into an hour-long ‘oral presentation’. The boisterous MP rattled his cage; he shrieked and hollered; he played to the gallery of his former Labour voters, and enjoyed his shrill dressing-down of his Nationalist inquisitors... and all along, the Opposition MPs heckled. It was all grist to Mizzi’s (and Labour’s) mill.  

On its part, the government side – naturally uneasy with the NAO findings, and with having its former energy minister, once a darling of the Muscat administration, engaged in a searing grilling – simply sat back and enjoyed the show: when in reality, Mizzi was indeed attacking the institution of Parliament itself.  

Instead of understanding that their PAC colleagues were entitled, just as much they are, to brevity and clear answers, government members watched Mizzi repeat tried-and-tested political mantras, cheap shots and regurgitated accusations: all meant to distract the PAC from its rightful mission to exact answers from witnesses.   

Moreover, Mizzi was disingenuous when absolving himself by taking credit for lower energy bills and delivering the switch from heavy fuel oil to LNG gas. For this is not about the validity of the policy of shifting to LNG; but rather, about the way this change was delivered.   

LNG may well have been a good idea which had positive impacts on the country; but that does not justify deficiencies in the way the tender was awarded. Secondly, the bills were de facto lowered before the LNG power station started operating: partly, thanks to a decrease in the international price of oil.   

More importantly, however, Mizzi’s behaviour as energy minister is conditioned by fact that he owned an undisclosed Panama company, which listed Electrogas shareholder (now prime suspect in the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder trial) Yorgen Fenech as one of its clients.   

This link was further reinforced by recently-published chats which, for the first time, showed Fenech lobbying Mizzi over the proposed ITS project in Smart City. 

But while Konrad Mizzi was desperately trying to score points with Labour grassroots, the truth is that he was somewhat enabled to do so, by both PAC chairman Beppe Fenech Adami (who engaged in the shouting match); and also by Labour Whip Glenn Bedingfield, who cannot, or is unwilling to, detach himself from the Muscat era.   

In some ways, the Opposition may have been counting on Mizzi to behave precisely that way; as his continued endearment with Labour grassroots only complicates life for a Prime Minister who still walks a tightrope between ‘continuity’ and ‘change’. Robert Abela has nothing to gain by any association with Mizzi; but the PN probably stands to gain by reinforcing the idea that Mizzi is still in the PL fold. 

But last week’s PAC was a failure on all sides. Fenech Adami was unable to control the hearing, and indeed enjoyed watching Konrad Mizzi’s high-pitched rowdiness. “Not a good look, dear boy,” Fenech Adami told Mizzi. Indeed… not a good look, for all MPs. 

What sort of rules does the PAC have for witnesses to abide by, when an MP openly disrespects an institution which directly represents the people of Malta; and is instead used as an arena for Malta’s tribalism?   

Where is the onus on government MPs to respect the work carried out by other inquiring MPs in the PAC, just as they had done in their time, as probing MPs in the Opposition? Why does Glenn Bedingfield, government whip, enable the theatrics of Konrad Mizzi?   

And where is the Speaker, to ensure that Malta’s PAC hearings are carried out with the same level of decorum that we see in the British House of Representatives, or in the US Senate?   

Clearly, the Public Accounts Committee needs proper guidelines on how such meetings should proceed. Having said this, one cannot expect 'justice' to be delivered by the PAC, either.  This is not a tribunal or a court of law: which is, ultimately, the only place where Mizzi can be tried and prosecuted.   

But that does not justify turning the PAC into a political theatre, either.  The country deserves better.