Abela’s elastic ethical yardstick

Abela is playing for time to avoid upsetting the apple cart by having to reshuffle the Cabinet for a new education minister, right before the general election; apart from curating the ministerial balance in the Gozitan constituency.

Robert Abela’s decision to postpone the fate of education minister Justyne Caruana until the standards committee discusses the Hyzler report, is weak leadership in the face of a clear-cut case of impropriety.  

For a leader basking in popularity and leading the Opposition by such a wide margin, his incapability to send a strong message of moral renewal is especially needed now needed considering the pits to which the country fell under his predecessor. Abela still sends mixed messages on whether he represents continuity or change.  

What is most striking in this case is that Abela is hesitant to act on a case where Caruana’s removal is watertight: a direct order awarded to a minister’s friend for what looks like a phantom job, with the connivance of civil servants who were duty-bound to stop this from happening.  

The Standards Commissioner not only found Daniel Bogdanovic unsuitable for the €15,000 task assigned to him, but that the sports curriculum report he had to author was actually compiled by Paul Debattista, a consultant to the minister. Bogdanovic’s contribution was minimal and mostly carried out on instructions from Debattista. 

Abela is playing for time to avoid upsetting the apple cart by having to reshuffle the Cabinet for a new education minister, right before the general election; apart from curating the ministerial balance in the Gozitan constituency. Or is he is expecting Caruana to step down so as to avoid spilling blood? Is Abela more interested in party unity than in the national interest?  

More worrying is the way Abela revised his ethical yardstick, starting his term with a strong message of accountability by kicking Konrad Mizzi out, only to become more cautious as time went by. In 2020 Caruana herself had to resign from Gozo minister after it was revealed her husband, former deputy police commissioner Silvio Valletta, had a close friendship with Daphne Caruana Galizia murder suspect Yorgen Fenech. In many cases – Konrad Mizzi, Chris Cardona... – Abela acted without waiting for the conclusion of any investigation. 

This changed when MaltaToday broke the news about Rosianne Cutajar’s role as a broker on property deal linked to Yorgen Fenech. There Abela awaited for all the facts to be established by Standards Commissioner George Hyzler. By March, further revelations of Fenech’s €9,000 gift to Cutajar saw Abela “accepting” her ‘temporary’ resignation before the publication of the Standards report. When the report concluded that the junior minister had breached ethics, Cutajar was simply not reappointed. 

But in the case of Caruana, the Standards verdict has been delivered. Now it is up to MPs to discuss the report, endorse it and recommend sanctions against Caruana.  Neither government nor opposition members can add anything to the facts established by the investigation itself. 

So Abela is either waiting for Caruana to take her own decision in the New Year, or he intends pushing Labour MPs on the standards committee to possibly exonerate Caruana in tandem with the Speaker. It looks like an unlikely prospect for someone as savvy as Abela to risk so much for the fate of a minister who is not even being defended by party media or the usual army of sycophants. 

But Abela’s difficulties are compounded by his go-slow justification: no interim measures for Caruana (as he did with Cutajar) because “the difference between this case and Rosianne Cutajar’s is that Cutajar’s case involved Yorgen Fenech.” 

So now Abela has added a nebulous yard stick in which association with Fenech counts as an aggravating factor in assessing misconduct. Then why was Cutajar retained as MP and on the Labour ticket? Why had this not been an immediate consideration in December 2020 when the buck was passed on to the Standards czar? Indeed, Cutajar’s proximity to Fenech was not even a problem for Labour: Abela said it was the receipt of any money that could be a problem. 

One year later, Abela now says it is Cutajar’s association with Fenech that cost her her position. So how does this inpact the fate of other Cabinet members like Edward Zammit Lewis who remained in contact with Fenech even after he was exposed as the owner of 17 Black? 

Abela has inadvertently raised the stake for Labour politicians who were close to Fenech, a part-owner of Malta’s gas plant. While association with the magnate is problematic in the same manner as the Italians might treat association with the mafia, this is no alibi for impropiety when it happens to be unliked to the Caruana Galizia murder. 

After Abela downplayed the gravity of being associated with Yorgen Fenech, this cannot be used selectively to buy time for a Prime Minister who is not keen on cleaning out – once again – the Cabinet stables.