A half-baked measure

Muscat – regardless of any personal involvement in the actual scandal – is not only powerless to act against transgressing ministers, but is compelled, for reasons connected to his own political survival, to defend them both tooth and nail

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

Facing widespread criticism of his cabinet reshuffle – announced on Thursday – Prime Minister Joseph Muscat expressed confidence that the public will eventually be convinced that he took “the right decision”.

“I did what no other Prime Minister had the courage to do. I stripped him [Mizzi] of an important portfolio. I also know that he is a man that delivers, and many agree. Part of his redemption will be that of delivering the power station project and the switch to gas.”
But Muscat’s position is flawed on several counts. First of all, the decision to strip a serving minister of his portfolio is hardly ‘unique’… especially considering that Mizzi was given another Cabinet role to compensate for the loss of energy and health.

As for Muscat’s appraisal of Mizzi as a minister who ‘delivers’, that is open to interpretation. The prime minister seems to have forgotten that he was supposedly bound by an electoral promise to build a new power station within two years of the election. Three years have now gone, and the power station is still far from completion.

Mizzi may have fared better with the health portfolio – in which he was assisted by parliamentary secretary Chris Fearne, who now replaces him as minister – but if Muscat is under the impression that Mizzi enjoys national trust on the basis of his performance as energy minister, he is very much mistaken.

The greater mistake, however, lies in the prime minister’s approach to the Panamagate issue. Once again Muscat has confirmed that he simply fails to appreciate the extent of the public outrage at these revelations. And this is a very worrying prospect, given that Muscat was elected in 2013 on the strength of his commitments to transparency and accountability.

Instead of making clear that he would not tolerate any behavior that runs counter to these two principles – such as ethical breaches or tax avoidance – Muscat has provided us a with a half-baked measure that does not even address the core issue at stake in the Panamagate scandal.

However one looks at the Cabinet reshuffle, what emerges is a political manoeuvre that seems calculated with the next election in mind, rather than a moral response to what was ultimately a moral dilemma.

Muscat’s decision is clearly motivated by a concern to appeal to various pockets of voters. He knows Panamagate has cost him the support of a chunk of switchers who base their voting intentions on principles rather than party allegiance. But rather than trying to regain their vote, he appears to have given up on that category altogether. So instead of sending a message that his government would not be tolerating wrongdoing of this sort, he has limited his reaction to ‘cutting his losses’: taking a decision that suggests he fully intends to weather this crisis on his own.

More worryingly, it is also clear that Muscat must have not seen anything wrong with offshore in the first place; otherwise he would have taken the decision to sack Mizzi and Schembri straight away. By his own admission, however, he evidently considers himself unable to complete the LNG plant without Mizzi, or run Castille without Schembri: which is also why he incongruously paid tribute to both men last Sunday.

So even if Opposition leader Simon Busuttil may have jumped the gun with his comment that Muscat must be ‘involved’ in Mizzi’s and Schembri’s financial arrangements, it is nonetheless clear that Joseph Muscat is to a point dependent on these two team members. He has retained them by his side, limiting any disciplinary procedures only to a light slap on the wrist for Mizzi: who has lost his designation as energy minister, even if the minister still reports to him on energy matters anyway.

In this sense, one can talk of an intertwinement between the prime minister and his disgraced colleagues: not on the same level as hinted at by Busuttil, but the connection can still be felt in other ways.

This in turn means that Muscat – regardless of any personal involvement in the actual scandal – is not only powerless to act against transgressing ministers, but is compelled, for reasons connected to his own political survival, to defend them both tooth and nail.

This much is clear even from his comment that the delivery of a new power station (already over a year late) will somehow ‘redeem’ Mizzi of his poor judgment. The logic here is as flawed as the logic Muscat displayed with his Cabinet reshuffle. He seems to think that a simple redistribution of roles here and there will be enough to ‘redeem’ his administration of the aura of transgression that has now stuck to it.
What Muscat fails to realise is that his government has now lost the sheen it had when it was elected in 2013: undermined by the shortcomings of its own insincere belief in the civic values of political propriety.

Muscat has also lost an opportunity to genuinely redeem his government’s clumsy and rotten governance record. For a prime minister who once said he wanted to govern in poetry, not prose, he seems hell bent on turning his administration into a tragic comedy of errors.


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