Leave or be shown the door

There is a big difference between the rules that govern how a court of law works, and the affect these have on all actors involved therein, and the rules that govern the political realm

In defending the actions of OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri in court this week, the Prime Minister overlooks a crucial detail.

Schembri chose to drop a defamation suit he himself had filed against former PN leader Simon Busuttil, in order to avoid being questioned about the 17 Black Dubai company.

17 Black was named as a target company of the offshore companies owned by Schembri and Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi, exposed in the 2016 Panama Papers leak.

Nonetheless, Muscat reiterated Scembri’s own line of defence, that he could not answer questions that were subject to an ongoing magisterial inquiry.

But that is at best a legalistic excuse to similarly avoid the question. For – and this is the part Muscat overlooks - there is a big difference between the rules that govern how a court of law works, and the affect these have on all actors involved therein, and the rules that govern the political realm.

In a court of law, proof of guilt has to be without any reasonable doubt. This stands to reason, because in a democratic system one cannot risk condemning a person who is innocent.

This argument was made by MaltaToday when the Panama papers first revealed the presence of Maltese PEPs.

Despite his public position, Schembri is no exception to this rule. He may be and is probably a hard working and crucial workhorse in the Muscat administration but this alone cannot absolve him of his political responsibility.  While his refusal to testify is certainly suspicious, in the eyes of the law it does not quite add up to an ‘admission of guilt’ – as Simon Busuttil understandably argued in Parliament.

But these are matters for the court to decide. The rules of politics are different.

Politicians have to be beyond reproach – and appear to be beyond reproach - because their public function is based on trust. It is that unwritten contract of trust between voter and politician that must be protected in a healthy democracy.

Once that trust is breached, it is time for any politician to step down.

Charles Mangion did this between 1996 and 1998, when an administrative fumble, not of his doing, led him to recommend a pardon for a convicted drug trafficker. Mangion realised that he had breached the trust of voters who had supported the Labour Party, which back then had declared war on drug barons.

Mangion stepped down from his ministerial position even though he had only been serving as minister for a few months.

Similarly, between 2008 and 2013, Chris Said stepped down from his ministerial position when he was taken to court over a case he was involved in as a lawyer to a client.

Said understood that the government of the day could not have a minister facing charges that could potentially lead to imprisonment, and resigned his post to spare his government any further reputational damage.

He was eventually cleared by the courts.

These two instances in recent political history show that the rules of politics are a different ballgame from the laws of the land. They dictate that politicians should resign, move aside, be reprimanded, or kicked out, on far less grounds than a court of law would require to establish guilt.

Joseph Muscat knows this full well. He is not supporting his beleaguered Chief of Staff out of ignorance or naivety.  He also probably believes that the second landslide victory he attained in 2017 not without Schembri’s campaigning expertise allows him to look the other way.

The Prime Minister has himself asked politicians on his side of the fence to leave over misdeeds, some of a very minor nature – Anġlu Farrugia’s sacking from deputy leader, for criticising a magistrate, being a case in point.

Likewise, Manuel Mallia had to vacate the Home Affairs Ministry, following news that his security driver had opened fire on a car in Gżira.
So, now that his own chief of staff, Keith Schembri, has decided to play the silent game in a libel case he himself instituted, Muscat has no excuse not to act.

Indeed, he did not have that excuse even before the court proceedings began. The simple fact that Schembri opened a company in Panama after the general election of 2013 is a strong enough argument to warrant his resignation. It has only got worse with the discovery that 17 Black allegedly belongs to an investor of the power station.

MaltaToday had in fact called for Schembri’s resignation immediately after the Panama scandal.  This leader reiterates that appeal today. Schembri had every right to refuse to answer questions about 17 Black in court on Monday to safeguard his rights, but he cannot have his cake and eat it, too.

If Schembri wants to defend his interest in the best way possible, he cannot expect to do so while still occupying a top political post in the Office of the Prime Minister. He should have immediately stepped down, even if three years too late.

And now, by refusing to answer questions in his own libel case, Schembri is simply perpetuating the idea that he has something to hide.

The rules of politics demanded a resignation long ago; but with Schembri refusing to go, the onus is on the Prime Minister to ask his trusted friend to leave.

If Schembri does not leave, Muscat must make him go. The country deserves better.

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