A political leadership vacuum

Muscat defends his inaction by describing it as ‘caution’ and ‘prudence’; but the political world is different from the formalistic dimension of audits and inquiries. Protracted silence over seven weeks is clearly taking caution too far

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

With so much pressure now piling up over Panamagate, it is becoming clear that the one option that no longer lies in Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s hands is the option to do nothing at all.

And yet, so far, that is the only ‘action’ the prime minister appears to have has taken. This week, Joseph Muscat left Malta for a visit to the Middle East with a business delegation: clearly imparting the impression that he is unruffled and unfazed. 

Certainly there is nothing wrong with his decision to lead a business delegation to Jordan – becoming the first Maltese prime minister to officially visit that country – but no such pretence of normality can hide the fact that he has left a serious crisis behind him at home.

It is now a crisis that affects him personally, at least on a political level. Until recently, the core issue of the Panama revelations concerned the financial investments of Energy Minister Konrad Mizzi and Muscat’s chief of staff Keith Schembri: already too close for comfort.

Now, however, the controversy has expanded to also take into account Muscat’s handling of the crisis. Unlike previous instances where the prime minister did indeed take difficult decisions – Manuel Mallia and Michael Falzon spring to mind – his indecisiveness on this one issue will surely raise questions.

So far he has limited his declarations to a self-imposed standard of ‘waiting for an inquiry decision before taking action’. But this is by no means a satisfactory response to the current situation.

The ongoing tax audit on Mizzi’s assets cannot be expected to reach any clear conclusion, given that Panamanian tax authorities are not legally obliged to cooperate with investigators. Awaiting the outcome of this inquiry is another way of deferring judgment indefinitely.

If this is Muscat’s intention, it is not unreasonable for him to expect to weather this storm for as long as it takes for the news cycle to change. Other governments before him have done the same. In this sense, time might prove to be Joseph Muscat’s ally. He still has two years left of his mandate, and – more importantly – two successive budgets to present. 

But by procrastinating on this decision Muscat is allowing plenty of space for pressure to continue piling. His indecision is creating a political leadership vacuum, in which his critics can only continue to prosper, while his supporters are left without a moral guideline.

Already it seems that Muscat has allowed the grass to grow under his feet. Now, even former Prime Minister Alfred Sant has made it clear that a prime minister cannot have a minister of the state who has benefited from investments in offshore tax havens. Education Minister Evarist Bartolo – one of Muscat’s most senior and respected ministers – has followed suit.

By insisting on dragging his feet regardless, Muscat risks further internal alienation: a prospect he cannot realistically afford, while simultaneously battling to appeal to an ever-growing segment of floating voters.

Muscat defends his inaction by describing it as ‘caution’ and ‘prudence’; but the political world is different from the formalistic dimension of audits and inquiries. By the standards of a formal inquiry, silence is indeed prudence. But in a political scenario, protracted silence over seven weeks is clearly taking caution too far.

Instead of doing what even his most trusted lieutenants now describe as the right thing, Muscat risks putting his own 10-year project at risk. This is perhaps inevitable, when public anger – especially the sort of anger that cuts across partisan lines – is clearly justified, yet continues to be unaddressed. 

Under the circumstances, Opposition leader Simon Busuttil can only be expected to milk the crisis for all its worth. Labour may cry foul at the extent to which the Opposition has taken the fight – describing its methods as attempts to harm Malta’s international reputation – but the fact remains that it was the Labour government’s indecision that gave Busuttil the opportunity to do so in the first place.

Meanwhile, Muscat’s silence has to be counterbalanced by the excessive noise made by others on both sides of the debate. Ministers like Chris Cardona would do well to tone down the language of ‘axes’ and ‘daggers’. And there is certainly much to criticise in the Opposition’s line of attack. 

Justified though the anger may be, it is irresponsible to turn up the political temperature so high. By presenting a motion of no confidence in Muscat, Busuttil is giving the impression that his goal is to topple the government, which still enjoys a democratic mandate. Moreover, the rowdy scenes in front of the law courts on Wednesday, fully exploited by the Labour media, risk projecting the PN leader as a divisive figure, when what it actually needed is a vision to unite the country.

Such displays of political force are only making people more anxious and heated up about the state of the country, in a way that does not befit civility.

More in Editorial

Get access to the real stories first with the digital edition