Muscat cannot wash himself clean of the impunity he has blessed

Even if he does remove Schembri and Mizzi, the political sacrifice will not wash Joseph Muscat clean of the impression of impunity he himself has blessed, when he did not remove them immediately in 2016

Removing Mizzi and Schembri today will not excuse Muscat’s past errors. And once he does, Muscat would be indirectly admitting that he should have taken this step before
Removing Mizzi and Schembri today will not excuse Muscat’s past errors. And once he does, Muscat would be indirectly admitting that he should have taken this step before

It would seem that there has been a significant change in the Prime Minister’s line, with regard to the question of Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri’s political survival, in the last few days.

It would seem that, where before, his support for the two beleaguered government officials was unwavering, since Wednesday Joseph Muscat has been more nuanced in his approach. Asked point blank whether he will sack Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi in light of the latest revelations, Muscat replied that it was “a consideration to be made after all the facts emerge”.

This is apparently the first time the prime minister appeared to be open to the possibility, depending on what further revelations the investigation will bring.

But in reality….

In reality, the situation is even more dire for the Prime Minister than his bite-sized comment about the future of Schembri and Mizzi.

The precise circumstances will not need any repeating in detail. This change of heart occurred after the police arrested ex-Tumas Group chairman Yorgen Fenech in connection with the 2017 murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia. Fenech is the owner of 17 Black, the Dubai company that was listed as a target client of the Panama companies that Schembri and Mizzi set up after the 2013 election. He was also a shareholder in Electrogas, the consortium which won the bid to build the new gas-fired power plant in Delimara.

Whatever their involvement in the murder itself, Schembri and Mizzi had business links with Yorgen Fenech, the businessman now confirmed to being a “person of interest” in the police investigation.

As such there can be no doubt that Mizzi and Schembri have to go. Indeed, they should have been sacked three years ago, when news first surfaced of their secret offshore holdings in the Panama Papers leak.

But from this perspective, any decision taken by Joseph Muscat today will be a case of too little, too late.

Even if he does remove Schembri and Mizzi, the political sacrifice will not wash Joseph Muscat clean of the impression of impunity he himself has blessed, when he did not remove them immediately in 2016. For why did he invest himself so much into defending two people who should have never been retained in power, and at the helm of major decisions affecting the taxpayer?

Even worse, the question that haunts everyone who looked on as the Prime Minister braved the onslaught of Panamagate is: what did Muscat know all along? What comfort did he derive from the knowledge of the dealings that Schembri and Mizzi had set up, possibly with Fenech, that should have allowed him to keep his two men onboard? Did he even challenge these two persons into learning everything about what they were concocting? Why did he not throw their fates to the justice system and allow due process to take place, with proper police investigations resolving both the Panama Papers affairs and the 17 Black mystery?

Muscat may be weighing his options carefully at this point, but he cannot escape the wave of resentment building up over the consequences brought on the country by the shadow of Panamagate and the disastrous, and the murderous aftermath it seemed to have provoked. With Fenech now considered as a person of interest in this investigation, Muscat’s political inaction leaves him with very little room to manoeuvre today.

He faces three basic choices: to either maintain the status quo for as long as possible; to belatedly sack Mizzi and Schembri, or to resign himself.

The first option would only mount further pressure on the prime minister to be seen to be taking action. This in turn will heighten frustrations, leading to possible repeat occurrences of the justified anger and embarrassing fracas witnessed last Wednesday.

At this late stage, it would also mean that Muscat is still wilfully distorting the difference between legal culpability and political responsibility. Legally, his caution may even be warranted. In strictly concrete terms, no evidence has been forthcoming of any direct link between 17 Black and the Daphne Caruana Galizia assassination.

But politically, his continued defence of Mizzi and Schembri has now clearly gone beyond the threshold of acceptability. Even just for political reasons – to safeguard the reputation of the Labour government, and Malta as a whole – resignations would have been in order long before this pass.

By procrastinating on the inevitable, Muscat is only weakening his own legacy as prime minister.

For reasons already outlined, removing Mizzi and Schembri today will not excuse Muscat’s past errors. And once he does, Muscat would be indirectly admitting that he should have taken this step before. That in itself amounts to a serious political blunder, that will almost certainly result in further calls for his own resignation.

As for the question of his own resignation: Muscat has made it abundantly clear that he will not step down of his own accord. And politically, this is likely to strengthen his position rather than weaken  it.

The Prime Minister knows full well that his legacy will be sealed by the investigation of Caruana Galizia’s murder. Therefore, it is in his interest that the case is resolved while he is still at the helm of the Labour Party.  

Moreover, calls from Repubblika and Simon Busuttil for him to resign from Prime Minister may have the effect of strengthening him internally, forcing internal critics to close ranks despite their reservations on Schembri and Mizzi. For while civil society has every right to protest, the tactic of depicting Joseph Muscat as politically embroiled in the murder – while more understandable, in the case of Mizzi and Schembri – is unlikely to convince the wider electorate that still supports the government in spite of any misgivings.

Muscat can argue that it is in the national interest for him to live up to his responsibilities as prime minister, and avoid any circumstance that may lead to instability.

One other available is to call an early election: for the second time in his brief career. The temptation will no doubt be strong, given that recent polls continue to suggest a wide Labour lead.

But an election will not resolve the core issue at stake: which is, was and always has been justice for Daphne Caruana Galizia.

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