Out with the truth, and with the lies

The truth or otherwise of a situation cannot be ascertained by the number of people who attend a mass-meeting. This charade has gone on long enough: the only reply Joseph Muscat needs to give is full disclosure about those secret offshore companies

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

There is a certain consistency in how the Prime Minister reacts to events. In April 2016 – when Panamagate rocked the country with revelations about Energy Minister Konrad Mizzi and OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri – Joseph Muscat had used the annual May 1 Labour rally as a means to bolster party support.

The mass meeting was held against the backdrop of a Cabinet reshuffle, which saw Muscat retain Mizzi (as ‘minister without portfolio’) and Schembri, in spite of their ownership of offshore companies in Panama. More significantly, Mizzi himself was given a hero’s welcome by the crowd and was even seen posing for photographs with the party faithful.

It was a bizarre spectacle, even if the full extent of the Panamagate implications had clearly not yet dawned on the crowds present for that meeting. Either way, implicit in the Prime Minister’s behaviour was the belief that his mammoth popularity at the polls would be enough to allow him to weather the storm. (And In the short term, at least, he was proved right.)

One year later, Daphne Caruana Galizia unleashed the Egrant allegations... which, though unsupported by hard evidence, seemed to resonate with all the circumstantial evidence supplied by the earlier Panama revelations. Once again, however, the full impact could not be appreciated at the time (and up to a point, still can’t to this day). The whistleblower had yet to be given a name and a face; and Muscat himself was buoyed by polls which indicated unprecedented personal trust ratings.

From this angle, and with the hindsight of the election result, it could be argued that the event was mismanaged by the Opposition that sought to capitalise on Egrant to dethrone Muscat... all the same, Muscat’s reaction was to resort to a ‘trial by popular vote’. He called an election a year early in response to those allegations; and it is evident, even from the way he interpreted his landslide victory, that he considered the popular verdict to have absolved him of all potential wrongdoing.  

Another year later, the backdrop scenario remains largely unchanged... save for a few important details. The first is that Caruana Galizia – who first broke the impending Panama story in February 2016 – was murdered last October, precipitating a global outpour of condemnation and suspicion, resulting in Malta being subjected to unprecedented international media scrutiny.

The second game-changing event is that the ‘Daphne Project’ has since uncovered more damning revelations: establishing a link between a mysterious Dubai company called 17 Black and the two Panama companies owned by Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi. In deflecting these revelations, both Mizzi and Schembri seem at various points to contradict each other or their own previous versions. At this stage, it is simply unreasonable to maintain the pretence that everything is proceeding as normal. As long as there was a flicker of reasonable doubt, Muscat could cling to his argument that he ‘would await the conclusions of the ongoing inquiries’. Clearly, however, that argument cannot continue to hold water today.

And yet, Muscat’s response has been almost identical to his reaction to Panamagate two years ago. “The best reply we can give [to the Daphne Project] is on May 1, when the people will unite as one in Valletta to convey our message,” he said on radio last Sunday.

This is problematic on numerous fronts. One possible interpretation is that Muscat intends to use his Mayday speech to give some sort of ‘reply’ to the international press. If so, it is a strange way to communicate his government’s position in such circumstances. For one thing, the mass meeting is a party event... not a government one. Muscat will be speaking in his capacity as PL leader, to an audience composed of party supporters. That is certainly no substitute for official communications by a Head of State to a global audience.

Another, less flattering (and, sadly, more plausible) interpretation is that Muscat intends to present the mass-support he will surely get, as some ‘answer’ in itself. If this is the case, it would be a worrying development. Popular shows of force are unlikely to impress a sceptical international audience that already – perhaps unfairly, thus far – views Muscat as populist and militant. Rallying the troops on Mayday will surely only reinforce this image... which, if Muscat were serious about defending both his own reputation and that of our country, should be the last thing on his agenda.

The biggest problem, however, is that no amount of crowd adulation will have any impact on the underlying questions raised by the recent revelations. The truth or otherwise of a situation cannot be ascertained by the number of people who attend a mass-meeting. This charade has gone on long enough: the only reply Joseph Muscat needs to give is full disclosure about those secret offshore companies. Out with the truth; and out with the liars, too.