Switch off the echo chamber

This is a moment of leadership Joseph Muscat needs to embrace as his own, a personal act of fortitude where he recognises that the national interest, not personalities or friendships, comes first.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat is walled in an echo chamber that is elbowing out the little wise counsel that there is inside Castille, calling on to him to heed the sound of ‘common decency’: a minister of the state cannot use offshore as a way of avoiding tax on his assets.

Muscat may be a beginner in the art of statehood – Panamagate, in his third year, sounds like a third strike too early after Café Premier and the Gafferena scandal – and his ‘best Cabinet ever’ has shed much blood already. Now, it seems, that bloodletting has not been enough.

But if there was a test of leadership for the man whose party delegates vaunt as the template leader for European social democracy, making the cut that hurts the most, now, is that test.

He can look away now, heed party delegates who slobber on the conference podium seeking their own electoral fortunes, and cast away all pretensions at being an agent of change.

Or he could take a long, hard look at the country he claims his party has changed, and venture into the future of the project he set out on three years ago.

Muscat is not simply a successful social democrat, but his political cherry-picking over the years is a result of his pragmatic approach to politics. Under Sant he swore loyalty to the uninspiring ‘partnership’ and campaigned against the EU, only to persevere in becoming an MEP and later to sit at the European Council’s table; he evolved from an opponent of gay adoptions, to now call for gay marriages; he made shrewd calculations for political gain that in the process cost him precious votes from liberal pockets, namely on environment, on migration, and most regretfully, on good governance.

That Muscat has come at an inevitable crossroads in his political project is, also, in part, his responsibility. Never has he shied away from promoting rent-seeking elites as long as the private sector could carry out its basic job of making money, without any hassle. The Individual Investor Programme may be the ultimate money-spinner, but Muscat commoditised Maltese citizenship without batting an eyelid. The American University of Malta may be the boost his beautiful south needs, but Muscat felt unmoved at taking public land so blithely away from the citizens who own it, to be regaled to foreign merchants hustling for a dime from the children of the global rich.

And Konrad Mizzi?

He too worships at the altar of aspiration, as if making money any which way it has to be done is justifiable in itself, as long as it’s legal.

But Mizzi’s problem is a clear one that has to be seen for what it was from the start. He is an elected Member of Parliament, granted a role in the country’s executive, which he placed under suspicion the minute he chose an offshore structure to hide his beneficial ownership and minimise his tax exposure. This alone is an effrontery to the civility of the taxpayer’s democracy that is Malta.

It is doubly problematic that the prime minister’s own chief of staff, no stranger to the world of offshore, could have encouraged Mizzi to select this option. Keith Schembri’s fate is tied to the prime minister’s in a way that Mizzi’s is not. Mizzi’s election is the product of our democracy, and to this, the five questions on democracy from Tony Benn need answering: “What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you use it? To whom are you accountable? How do we get rid of you?”

Mizzi is accountable to the people, and he has betrayed their trust by not being above suspicion in adopting an offshore structure that could be employed for the hiding of illicit earnings. In this act alone, Muscat’s minister endangers a government and breeds mistrust, making a mockery of Labour’s commitment to democratic governance.

No wonder then that the Opposition leader rightly calls out the uncertainty prevailing in the country.

If Muscat wants to play the partisan game, he is right where the Opposition wants him to be. Walled in his own ivory tower, harping on economic growth as some antidote to the iniquity that was revealed by Panama Papers, delegating his own morality to a tax audit that nobody cares about. And most deleteriously, with Konrad Mizzi as a senior minister calling on taxpayers to vote for Labour again in 2018.

But he could also heed the wisdom of party grandees who have already looked into the future. This is a moment of leadership he needs to embrace as his own, a personal act of fortitude where he recognises that the national interest, not personalities or friendships, comes first.

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