A disgraceful déjà vu

Editorial | While it is important to ask the right questions; it is equally important to adopt the right behaviour, if the PAC is genuinely concerned with receiving answers. Neither side, however, showed any real commitment to that responsibility.

The farcical scenes we witnessed in this week’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) hearing, will surely have come across as a case of déjà vu.

On Wednesday, former Energy Minister Konrad Mizzi stormed out of the hearing, after objecting to questions put to him by Opposition MPs. He subsequently went to Parliament and asked the Speaker for a ruling, claiming his rights were breached, when allegations were made in his regard.

With the exception of the request for a Speaker’s ruling, the entire scene unfolded exactly the same way as the preceding session last November. It was clear from the outset that Konrad Mizzi had absolutely no intention of answering any questions put to him by the committee; and it was equally clear that the Opposition members were far less interested in eliciting answers, than in provoking precisely the reaction given by Mizzi.

This emerges, quite succinctly, from Farrugia’s initial remarks: “In certain instances, chairperson Beppe Fenech Adami, Karol Aquilina and other members made offensive remarks towards Mizzi. This instigated a reaction from Mizzi who used derogatory words himself,” Farrugia said.

In a nutshell, that sentence captures the sheer absurdity of the situation Malta’s House of Representatives has descended into. It is not merely a case of impropriety – whereby MPs use ‘derogatory language’, much like children on a school playground – but it is also a case of undermining the entire function of Parliament itself.

It seems to strange to have to remind our MPs of this; but the whole point of these sittings is to present questions – and elicit answers - on matters of the gravest national importance, raised by the National Audit Office. These range from the adjudication of the Electrogas tender, to the role of SOCAR, to Konrad Mizzi’s own connections to the businessmen involved, and many more.

So while it is important to ask the right questions; it is equally important to adopt the right behaviour... if, that is, the PAC is genuinely concerned with receiving answers.

Neither side, however, showed any real commitment to that responsibility. For instance: at one point Mizzi refused, point-blank, to answer a question about his role to pardon €40 million in excise taxes due by Electrogas, after a meeting he had with Yorgen Fenech.

The Opposition rightly retorted that his silence was unacceptable; but rather than hold Mizzi to his responsibility to answer, Karol Aquilina simply gave Mizzi further excuse to filibuster... by accusing Mizzi of being a “lackey” of Yorgen Fenech. Mizzi exploded, denying the charge. “You are a lackey and a vulgar person. Stop,” Mizzi hit back. At which point, it is abundantly clear that both Aquilina, and Mizzi – and everyone else at that meeting – had lost sight of the subject they were supposed to be discussing.

It is behaviour such as this, that allows Konrad Mizzi to continually delay proceedings. His decision to request a Speaker’s ruling is, in itself, purely cynical: he is clearly snatching at any excuse to prolong the discussion; and he has every interest to do so, for obvious reasons.

From this perspective, we must also turn our attention to the Government members of the PAC. For if Mizzi’s behaviour is at least understandable – though not certainly not ‘condonable’ – what are we to make of MPs who defend their disgraced former colleague, and assist him in shouting down all legitimate questions?

It is simply unacceptable, that Government members would show no interest whatsoever in getting to the bottom of the Electrogas scandal. Much worse, it suggests a certain level of ongoing collusion in the affair.

Nonetheless, Mizzi’s gesture does successfully throw a spanner into the works. He now has the (artificial) luxury of being able to ‘await the Speaker’s ruling’, before answering any further questions. And this is a tactic that the Opposition – in its entirety – is (or should be) only too familiar with. Surely, Aquilina himself is an experienced-enough politician, to know that his own behaviour only gave Mizzi precisely what he wanted: an excuse to ‘play the victim’...

So to say that the whole scene was nothing but a farce, would be to merely repeat a point made by this newspaper last November. But there is a small difference between the two scenarios. In the first instance, the antics on both sides could be put down – at least in part - to genuine temper loss, and extreme frustration.

But to repeat the performance a second time – knowing full well what Mizzi’s entire strategy has been so far – is almost to become an accomplice in the stonewalling.

At this point, both Government and Opposition members of the House have to decide, once and for all, what their actual role should be. They are either going to get on with their job with the se-riousness, and gravitas, it deserves; or else, they are going to simply keep sniping at each other, in the hope of scoring cheap political points before an election.They cannot do both at once.