The spectre of inquiries and investigations

Magisterial inquiries are not there to serve a political purpose; they have a responsibility to investigate matters in an impartial and dispassionate manner, and should be allowed full freedom to do so

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

There is something anomalous about the sheer number of ongoing magisterial inquiries overshadowing this election campaign.

It is, of course, to be expected that allegations of criminal behaviour are investigated. But it is debatable whether the proper response to such allegations is to open a fresh inquiry every time.

Technically, the onus of investigating crime falls to the police. There is even a dedicated unit within the police force specifically to investigate money laundering and other economic crimes. A magisterial inquiry may still be required, but it should take place in tandem with a police investigation.

In this respect, we are witnessing a new development in political engagement. Before 2013, it was the order of the day for politicians to report such cases to the police. Former prime minister Lawrence Gonzi would ask everyone to go to the Commissioner, if they had any information about corruption allegations.

This time round, politicians have turned to the judiciary instead. This is problematic for a number of reasons. The election itself will be over by the time these inquiries are concluded.

This means that voters hoping to base their electoral decisions on a clearer picture, will still have to make do with unproven allegations instead. Indirectly, it also means that the election itself may prove a rather meaningless step in a process that may culminate in an unprecedented Constitutional crisis for the newly elected government.

If Muscat is re-elected, and subsequently found to be at fault by the inquiries... Malta would face the unthinkable prospect of criminal prosecution of a serving prime minister. If the Nationalist Party wins the election, the opposite scenario would suggest that the newly elected government might have won the election under false pretences. Either way, the crisis would be severe.

Another issue is that over-reliance on the judiciary – especially in cases which have strong political overtones – exposes the judiciary to undue political pressure. Muscat’s comments on the ‘responsibility’ to be shouldered by an inquiring magistrate were clearly inappropriate.

But Opposition leader Simon Busuttil is also piling pressure on the magistrates, by constantly informing the nation of what he ‘expects’ them to conclude.

On another front, the way in which inconclusive Financial Intelligence Agency Unit (FIAU) reports are being selectively quoted from, undermines the efficacy of such reports in the longer term. There is nothing wrong with newspapers being leaked copies of such documents, but it is highly questionable whether short excerpts from an unpublished report can be used to ‘prove’ any allegations.

It is odd, for instance, that only a 20-page excerpt (out of 120 pages) were submitted to the magisterial inquiry. Surely, the inquiring magistrate (if not the general public) is entitled to see the full report, instead of selected titbits that present only one facet of the issue. This raises the issue of whether the inquiry is empowered to request the full report from FIAU.

Lastly, one must also distinguish between the various magisterial inquiries. What is evident is that three protagonists of the present government – Joseph Muscat, Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri – are facing a magisterial inquiry. But Muscat’s inquiry is completely different, insofar as his direct involvement on offshore structures remains speculative (unlike the case with the other two). Under such circumstances it would be wise to await the inquiry conclusions... and not jump the gun by unilaterally declaring the culpability of everyone involved (as Busuttil has so far done.)

This is a dangerous path to tread. Magisterial inquiries are not there to serve a political purpose, either for the government or the opposition. They have a responsibility to investigate matters in an impartial and dispassionate manner, and should be allowed full freedom to do so.