No excuses: Justyne Caruana has to go

Anything less would simply confirm that we have learnt nothing from recent history; and that – despite all assurances to the contrary – we still remain a country where political impunity reigns supreme.

Education minister Justyne Caruana
Education minister Justyne Caruana
No excuses: Justyne Caruana has to go

Justyne Caruana is hardly the first Cabinet minister to have faced resignation calls over ‘unethical behaviour’. Nor is she the first to be (apparently) defended by the government she forms part of.

Such, perhaps, is the nature of Malta’s bipartisan divide: evidently, Prime Ministers often feel compelled to stand by their trusted lieutenants, whenever they are under attack ‘from the other side’.

But Caruana’s case poses a direct credibility problem for Prime Minister Robert Abela himself, who has already defied the above perception on at least two prior occasions.

The first was when he summarily expelled disgraced former minister Konrad Mizzi from the PL’s parliamentary group; the second was last February, when he insisted on parliamentary secretary Rosianne Cutajar’s ‘temporary’ resignation – which would become ‘permanent’ in July – pending an ethics probe into her business transactions with Yorgen Fenech (the man accused of commissioning Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder).

As such, one cannot help but observe how Abela is now using an entirely different yardstick when dealing with Justyne Caruana.

Not only did he retain her as minsiter throughout the time she was similarly under investigation by the commissioner for standards in public life; but he has so far failed to remove her from her post, even after the inquiry report was published, revealing clear evidence of wrongdoing on her part; and even recommending that the matter be subject to a criminal investigation.

The inquiry itself had been requested by Arnold Cassola last March, after MaltaToday revealed how Caruana had gifted former footballer Daniel Bogdanovic – known to be a close personal friend of hers – a three-month contract worth €15,000 to ‘review the national sports curriculum’.

Specifically, the Standards Commissioner concluded that: “It is my understanding that Minister Justyne Caruana used her discretion in a way that constitutes abuse of power, and broke with the ministerial code of ethics, by giving preferential treatment to Daniel Bogdanovic, and in particular by giving Bogdanovic a contract by direct order that he was neither qualified for or competent to carry out.”

Already, this suggests that Caruana’s actions may indeed have been more serious than those of Cutajar: where the misdemeanour (reprehensive though it undeniably was) took the form of an illicit personal business transaction… and as such, the fall-out was limited largely to Cutajar herself.

In this case, however, it is clear that government employment regulations have been flouted, to accommodate an unworthy candidate with a lucrative public position; and that reflects not just on Caruana herself as education minister… but also, the integrity of her ministry as a whole. 

Moreover, Hyzler’s damning report concluded that ‘every effort was made to hide Bogdanovic’s incompetence; that his work was in actual fact carried out by a consultant in Caruana’s ministry; and that this fact was kept hidden from him when hearing testimony on the case.”

This is not surprising, as the education ministry had likewise lied to this newspaper when the issue was first reported last January. A ministry spokesperson had insisted that the former footballer was “not a person of trust to the Gozitan minister of education”; and this even led to a withdrawal of the online version.

Admittedly, this may appear but a small footnote, in a story that is ultimately about maladministration and abuse of power. Nonetheless, it points towards an attempted cover-up by the ministry: lending weight to the widespread perception that public officials are often dragged in as accomplices, to cover up for ‘ministerial misbehaviour’.

Ultimately, however, this case poses a dilemma for Robert Abela for another reason: it seems to confirm that something is still very rotten indeed, at the core of the present government’s entire modus operandi.

This is where both Cutajar’s and Caruana’s predicaments can be seen to have a lot in common. In different ways, they both stem from a deliberate blurring of the ethical boundaries between politics and (for want of a better word) ‘friendship’.

Clearly, we have a situation where senior politicians – including those occupying the Cabinet’s most important ministerial portfolios - are abusing of their position to dish out favours to (or receive favours from) their ‘friends’: a fact which makes an open mockery of the entire concept of good governance.

But in Caruana’s specific case, the favour itself was also huge a slap in the face of the education sector. It is after all, difficult to justify a €15,000 contract to a man with no pedagogical credentials whatsoever – and who, to make matters worse, was also the subject of a 2016 criminal prosecution concerning domestic violence – at a time when genuine educators have to fight tooth and nail for even modest salary increases, in their annual negotiations over collective agreements.

All things considered, then, there are simply no excuses for Prime Minister Robert Abela not to insist on Justyne Caruana’s resignation: or, if all else fails, to sack her outright.

Anything less would simply confirm that we have learnt nothing from recent history; and that – despite all assurances to the contrary – we still remain a country where political impunity reigns supreme.

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