A paradigm shift for politics

This spate of high-level resignations already indicated a profound paradigm shift in Malta’s political landscape: which had formerly been characterised by politicians who would cling to their positions no matter what, as a rule with the full backing of their party. 

Former health minister Joe Cassar’s resignation from Parliament this week is an indication of a slow but steady turning of the political tide in Malta.

Cassar had already been asked to step down as PN spokesman for culture, after it was revealed that he had accepted free construction work, paid for by entrepreneur Joe Gaffarena, in 2012. Likewise, former (Labour) home affairs minister Manuel Mallia had vacated his position in 2013, over a shooting incident involving his personal driver…. while former Gozo minister Giovanna Debono resigned from the PN after her husband was charged with misappropriation of public funds. In all three cases, MaltaToday played a leading role in uncovering the wrongdoing and in bringing pressure to bear on the protagonists.

This spate of high-level resignations already indicated a profound paradigm shift in Malta’s political landscape: which had formerly been characterised by politicians who would cling to their positions no matter what, as a rule with the full backing of their party. 

But as we all saw during the 2013 electoral campaign, Maltese politicians are also susceptible to the evolving demands of the electorate; and where, in years gone by, the electorate tended broadly to accept such misdemeanours as a sine qua non of politics, the reality today is that we as a nation are slowly but surely becoming less tolerant of political abuse.

It appears that the political class is finally catching up with popular expectations of a higher standard of public administration. Cassar’s resignation from Parliament not only confirms the trend for politicians to take their responsibilities more seriously; but it also ups the ante on what the term ‘political responsibility’ actually means. 

Unlike a Cabinet (or shadow Cabinet) position, a parliamentary seat is conferred by the electorate, and as such cannot be taken away by a political party. Cassar’s gesture, then, was also an acknowledgement of the debt of responsibility he owed to the electorate. 

As with all such transitions, however, it was not seamless. Even after resigning, Cassar continues to insist that he was a ‘victim’ of Labour manipulation in this scenario… as though his decision to accept gifts from the Gaffarenas – which he surely must have realised would eventually compromise his position – had somehow been forced upon him without any choice on his own part.

It is convenient for Cassar to accuse the government of manipulation, but convenience does not make anything right. In fact, Cassar is a ‘victim’ of a breach of ethics, brought into the open by seriously investigative journalism.

There is no indication in his resignation letters of any personal culpability for his actions. Cassar’s resignation is therefore not a case of personal responsibility having been shouldered; it is (by his own admission) a decision he took in order to spare his party any harm caused by his continued presence as an MP.

All the same, Joe Cassar is to be commended for realising that his position as a Nationalist MP was untenable. This on its own marks a quantum shift in the perception of what it means to be part of a political team. Where Maltese politicians have traditionally prioritised their own longevity at the expense of the party’s interest, here we have a case where a politician understood that the interests of his parliamentary group must take precedence over his own career.

Certainly, his decision lends considerable weight to the PN leader’s claim to represent a change in direction precisely on such issues. Simon Busuttil has on more than one occasion tried to portray himself as a force for political honesty: no easy task, given his party’s less than perfect record on the good governance front.

Following this development, however, it will be increasingly harder for his critics to attack him over his presumed ‘double standards’. Under this leadership the PN has proven that it can take serious disciplinary action against its own members when the need arises. By contrast, it is now the Labour Party that comes across as applying different yardsticks to different cases: calling for action against Cassar over his links with Gaffarena, while at the same time defending its own member – Michael Falzon – over similar allegations.

There is an unavoidable irony in this reversal of roles. Labour was arguably the first to correctly identify a public thirst for more accountability, and modelled its 2013 electoral manifesto to capitalise on this demand. Yet it had to be the PN to translate this commitment into concrete action, while Labour still persists in hiding behind ‘official inquiries’.

Even now, Cassar’s decision throws Michael Falzon’s involvement with the same entrepreneur into sharp focus. Falzon also cultivated a close rapport with the Gaffarenas – extending to hunting holidays together – while members of his secretariat even accompanied Gaffarena to the Lands department over the expropriation of a Valletta property.

Much more damningly, an inquiry by the OPM’s internal audit and investigations department (IAID) has now established that the valuation of this property was illegal. Even if Falzon was not personally involved, he is – or should be – politically responsible for irregularities committed by his own secretariat, on his own watch.

Cassar’s resignation should therefore also serve as a stern warning for Joseph Muscat’s administration. When people voted Labour in 2013, they voted not just for a change in government… but also for a change in the way we do politics in this country.  

Muscat has yet to deliver on this promise. If nothing else, Cassar’s fate should remind the Prime Minister of the risk he runs by ignoring popular expectation.

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