Between principle and political reality

‘Panamagate’ touches on several crucial endemic problems with our political system, first and foremost the question of accountability

In parliament last Monday, the Nationalist Opposition described as ‘surreal’ the fact that Minister Konrad Mizzi could address a debate on health at a time of serious political crisis. On its part, the Labour government now concedes that ‘Panamagate’ was a ‘mistake’.

Both definitions are correct, but fall far short of describing the political reality in which Malta now languishes. 

‘Panamagate’ touches on several crucial endemic problems with our political system. First and foremost is the question of accountability. Much of the Labour Party’s campaign was built on the (correct) observation that the Nationalist government had failed to establish clear guidelines on political responsibility. One of the several main reasons for which Joseph Muscat was elected prime minister in March 2013 was precisely to address this lacuna.

It is painstakingly clear that political responsibility has not been shouldered for the revelations that a senior Cabinet minister and the prime minister’s chief of staff had created an offshore company inside a blacklisted tax haven.

While some of the accusations now levelled in parliament may seem gratuitous – accusations of ‘bribery from third world dictators’ must surely be substantiated, if they are to be taken seriously – the fact remains that the energy minister’s actions have raised precisely such suspicions. 

It is therefore inconceivable for the prime minister to expect to ride out this crisis, when of all the debacles his first administration has faced in such a short period of time, this is the one that hits closest to home.

Muscat faces a very hostile Opposition which has taken the fullest of democratic measures at hand to call him out on his administration’s shortcomings. He also leads a government whose progressive agenda for change cannot be brought about unless he commits himself to the change he promised.

So in the case of Konrad Mizzi, his misguided error of judgement – an attempt to create a financial structure that could be used for tax avoidance, or at worst some form of secret bank account for dirty money – is one that cannot be countenanced.

At this point Muscat must take a good look around him. It is clear that he can no longer retain Mizzi as a minister.

However, he may well have been unwittingly thrown a lifeline by the Opposition, which chose to respond to the crisis with a self-proclaimed ‘national protest against corruption’ last Sunday. The intention may indeed have been to appeal to a wider front involving civil society. But the result was undeniably a Nationalist mass meeting, to which Muscat has already responded with a similar meeting set for 31 March.

Regrettably, this has fired the starting pistol for a premature campaign which will only entrench both parties deeper into their respective positions.

It would however be a grave mistake on Muscat’s part to underestimate the public outcry calling on minister Mizzi to resign for his grave error of judgement. With him should also go the PM’s chief of staff, Keith Schembri, whose similar set-up exposes Muscat himself to suspicion: even by the fact that Schembri is a ‘person of trust’ who does not need to be accountable to parliament.

Beyond the principle, however  there is political reality: Muscat will not offer Schembri’s head on a plate; he has no precedent to follow – if anything, the precedents set by the PN allow him to dig his heels in. Even Richard Cachia Caruana was defended to the last minute by his government, until he was removed from his ambassadorship by a vote of no confidence. 

Schembri runs Castille for Muscat in much the same way as Cachia Caruana had done for previous PN administrations; neither was elected.

In Mizzi’s case the situation is more complex. By sacking him, Muscat would lose an important minister but retain his deputy leader for party affairs – elected by party delegates – who is needed to run Labour’s affairs and prepare the run-up to a general election. He will have a full-time deputy leader to tend to his party after it was hollowed out after the 2013 election when its top officials and volunteers were moved into government offices.

Difficult though the decision would be politically, it must nonetheless be taken if Muscat is to salvage a legacy he purports to have started in 2013. His stated claim of leading ‘the best Cabinet in history’ will no longer be possible to achieve; his ambitious ‘Second Republic’ does not even have a favourable climate in the first place. Already Muscat has been forced onto the defensive over his government’s past errors – on Café Premier his ‘learning curve’ was a costly €4.2 million bailout of private businessmen, and he lost two ministers over misguided ministerial directions.

In the long-term, Muscat’s best hope to scrape through onto a second administration is likewise to assume the political responsibility he promised before the election. He cannot taint such a legacy by wilfully repeating the errors of his predecessors, by holding onto ministers whose actions have betrayed a nation’s trust. 

Muscat is still in time to regain some lost credibility by taking the right decision. Even though Mizzi might be earnest about his intentions, and it is undeniable that his dedication to his work is unimpeachable, the only honourable way out is clear.

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