‘Normality’ can sometimes be abnormal

To doggedly retain Mizzi and Schembri even now, in the light of the latest revelations would be to extend Malta’s abnormality too far... even by Malta’s standards of abnormality

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea.
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea.

Whatever one’s own interpretation of current affairs, it is safe to say that the slogan ‘this is not a normal country’ resonates with a certain truth of its own.

‘Normality’ – whatever that word ultimately means – should really imply a peaceful state of progress for any democracy.

Malta’s imperfect state is by now almost proverbial in the national consciousness – drummed into us over the decades by other slogans such as ‘Only in Malta’ or ‘Mickey Mouse country’, etc. The reality, however, is that Malta has its own political demons to deal with, just like any other liberal democracy in the world.

They are, however, troublesome demons. Our institutions always seem to grind to a halt, when it comes to holding high power to account. Perhaps our most conspicuously ‘abnormal’ national trait is the high incidence of what is loosely defined as ‘amoral familyism’: the tendency to replace State institutions with extended family (or, in our case, party-political) networks.

To a lesser or greater extent, this has been demonstrably true about Malta ever since Independence. But there can be no denying that the perception has greatly increased of late. Irrespective of how voters feel about the Muscat project, Malta’s apparent disregard for due process on the Panama Papers affair is once again being felt... with detrimental effects on our international standing.

Even if voters remain emotionally linked to the Labour’s government’s success on the economy and far-reaching reforms, Malta’s major root of concern will remain the extraordinary lack of action on Panamagate, and the corresponding criminal investigation that has yet to be kick-started once the magisterial inquiry comes to a conclusive end.

Last week, a new piece of evidence was leaked to the international press from an FIAU report that is, according to the anti-money laundering agency, “not yet concluded”. It confirms an important link between Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri’s Panama companies, and a Dubai company called Black 17. The email from financial advisors Nexia BT describing a suspected shell company as a “target client” of the Panama companies while in formation, suggests that any one of the concerned actors here knows what this mysterious company serves for.

A clue lies in the fact that two separate companies, one an Azerbaijani-owned firm in the Seychelles, the other the Malta agent of the LNG tanker, have deposited large sums of money in this company.

We may speculate that the cash is parked there, maybe paid out to other beneficiaries, or that its political beneficiaries failed to set up bank accounts to have any such cash wired to the Panama companies’ respective accounts. Such theories remain within the remit of the inquiring magistrates to fully investigate.

Whatever the eventual outcome, these are troubling findings that place Mizzi and Schembri in politically untenable positions. Schembri is already facing other magisterial inquiries over allegations of offshore transactions he realised through the purchase of international bonds, and always using the services of Pilatus Bank. And yet his fate is inextricably linked with that of Muscat’s: for Joseph Muscat’s decision not to sack either of his trusted allies is also part of the Prime Minister’s political legacy. With an expiry date already set back in 2017, it is unlikely that Muscat will address the justified consternation of voters at these revelations. He may ride the wave, because he retains a legitimate and convincing democratic mandate to do so. But he cannot hope to maintain the pretence that all the speculation is baseless.

This, however, changes nothing from the extremely worrisome state of events in Malta, where political ‘abnormality’ coexists with the ordinary pace of living in economically comfortable times, seemingly not bothered by the international noise being aired by major news outlets. Are the Labour Party’s respectable MPs truly satisfied that their government’s legacy remains untainted by the offshore dealings of Schembri and Mizzi? Could they be inured to the perception that in the absence of a proper criminal investigation, or sufficient judicial interest in this case, morality in politics has become just another commodity of electoral convenience, and that their constituents can only look as if nothing wrong is happening?

If there is anger in the streets that is not being heard from the political tannoy, let no politician attempt to discredit this ire if it originates from Nationalist-friendly quarters and apologists. Let also no propagandist or party apparatchik ignore the political ‘filibustering’ that the PN capitalised on by not kick-starting the Panama magisterial inquiry in 2016 when it could have done so: the bipartisan consensus has always been to capitalise on the failings of one’s enemy, even if it means short-changing your country in the process.

As always, the buck stops with Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, whose own tribulations on the Egrant affair – a Caruana Galizia story that has been denied time and time again – remain unresolved. That matter remains in the hands of a magistrate to bring to its ‘conclusion’. It is far too late in the day to atone for all past failures, and one questions whether Muscat is even in time to salvage at least some of his future legacy. To doggedly retain Mizzi and Schembri even now, in the light of the latest revelations would be to extend Malta’s abnormality too far... even by Malta’s standards of abnormality.