Salvaging Muscat’s legacy

Joseph Muscat knows only too well that Labour’s brand has been severely damaged. From now on, he faces an uncertain political future

It’s hard not to think that Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, when he twice said during Wednesday’s Budget speech that he would not be contesting another election, understands better than most that Labour’s brand has been severely damaged.

The Panama Papers scandal had dented and scuffed it, tainted its moral sheen. The murder of a journalist on his watch - no less his main critic - throws a dark cloud over his legacy.

In itself, this damages Muscat’s aspirations to take his political career further by seeking a European post: as some media speculated, though the jury is still out on that interpretation.

Either way, however, the Prime Minister faces an uncertain political future. If the door to international speculation about Malta had previously been ajar, Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder has flung it wide open... now, with a specific emphasis on the ‘rule of law in Malta’.

For this murder cannot be viewed in a vacuum. It took place against the backdrop of nationwide loss of trust in national institutions. The extent of this erosion is debatable: and unfortunately, the debate itself is already tinged with political tribalism.

But there can be no doubt that, even before this barbaric crime, questions were being asked about the existence of a link between Maltese politics and international criminal organisations. The seed of doubt planted by the Panama Papers has budded and grown in the light of the government’s failure to allow that scandal to be properly investigated.

Whether or not there is direct connection with the crime itself is largely irrelevant: Joseph Muscat had raised expectations of a cleaner governance, which he has so far failed to live up to. And the eyes of Europe are now firmly fixed on Malta.

The same situation is also giving birth to a movement that is justifiably concerned about the state of law in Malta: one that may not necessarily be linked to any of the two political factions. Even so, we cannot pick apart movements whose thirst for real change might be linked to political factionalism. That one questions the motives of several actors is one thing; but the prime minister has to take note of the shortcomings he his presiding over.

Of these, restoring the people’s faith in the police force has been a problem for the greater part of Muscat’s administration. This is no easy reform, nor is it something that can be achieved from one day to the next. It demands vision, leadership, and investment; and would require a change in the culture of policing, and a strong belief in the autonomy of the police force.

This is, in itself, a corollary of the stranglehold that the Maltese executive has long had on national institutions: where retaining the status quo seems to be more important than ensuring their solid regulatory functions.

In that sense, Muscat’s ‘Second Republic’ was stillborn. And it would not be amiss to say Labour perpetuated a system that has been passed on from one administration to the other, perhaps from Independence onwards.

Organised crime benefits from Malta’s expansionist economy... which was not, in itself, designed by the present government. Economic growth is a national objective... but it is also a pull-factor for criminality. The bigger the country grows, the roomier it gets.

This raises uncomfortable questions that go beyond the present scenario. Where do we lay the blame for the fact that ‘Ndrangheta used Malta’s gaming industry to channel its ill-gotten gains? The regulator at the time of their company set-up, or their fiduciary directors?

For a two-party state that worships its tax avoidance ‘competitiveness’, who do we blame for allowing oligarchs and dictators’ families (like the Gaddafis or the Dos Santoses) to benefit from this legal structure? The fiduciaries, the parties who tell their MEPs to defend the system in Brussels, or the government? And would such phenomena suggest that Malta is a ‘mafia state’ – that the state is directly linked to organised crime, like Russia’s links to gangsters?

Nonetheless, it is the responsibility of the present government to address these shortcomings, however they originated. A visit by MEPs on a fact-finding mission on the rule of law should be welcomed: not because we revel in shaming our country, but because we show self-esteem by taking on criticism and inviting an outsiders’ view on the state of the nation.

However, we must also learn to accept criticism and dissent from within. We are still not reconciled to the effects of the violence that pock-marked our imperfect nationhood since Independence: with Labour voters still ruing the shame of Church-driven interdiction; and the catastrophic thuggery that characterised the late 1970s and 1980s.

This has coloured our own sense of the Maltese State. Scandals that weakened our law enforcement and justice systems were minimalised to avoid political fallout: not just by the parties themselves, but also by a citizenry that has also come to think in purely partisan terms.

Throughout all this, we have discussed ‘reforms’ to wean ourselves off these problems... but reforms often require revolutionary methods which Malta’s two-party system is not keen on endorsing.  

Muscat must now act to salvage his legacy, by implementing a truly meaningful systemic change.