[ANALYSIS] When cornered… how did they react?

Before Panamagate, Joseph Muscat excelled in the art of pulling out before it was too late while Simon Busuttil was often overtaken by events. But has the PM run out of options after a year of scandals and is Busuttil now anticipating him?

Prime Minister and Labour Party leader Joseph Muscat and Nationalist Party leader Simon Busuttil
Prime Minister and Labour Party leader Joseph Muscat and Nationalist Party leader Simon Busuttil

  • Joseph Muscat

The pushback card

Just months after being elected to power and facing the first signs of disappointment on appointments betraying the Malta Taghna lkoll pledge, Joseph Muscat rallied public support by inviting Europe to “smell the coffee” and rounding up 45 migrants for deportation to Libya. 

The pushback was aborted after the European Court of Human Rights issued an interim order to block the planned pushback. In this way Muscat managed to satisfy expectations he fuelled before the election when he adopted a tougher line on immigration than Lawrence Gonzi, going as far as not excluding the pushback option when asked directly in a debate before the general election.

But Muscat was aware of the wedge he had driven between his party and liberal opinion makers and his socialist partners in the European Parliament. His pushback move stirred support from the far-right and a wave of insults against EU commissioner Cecilia Malmström, which made Muscat uncomfortable inside the Union.

Luckily for Muscat he found in Italy interlocutors like Enrico Letta and Matteo Renzi (unlike Gonzi, whose interlocutors in Italy included hard-line minister Roberto Maroni) and who willingly took over Malta’s migration burden. Not surprisingly, in March 2015 Muscat admitted that the pushback was a mistake. Subsequently Muscat’s government walked on a tight-rope between advocating integration and periodic demonstrations of bigotry, like the detention of Malians rounded up for deportation – only to be released after three months. Luckily for Muscat the opposition rarely played the populist card on this issue as he had done when Gonzi was Prime Minister.

Cyrus Engerer: soldier of steel

Muscat had no qualms on removing Cyrus Engerer from his list of candidates for the European Parliament after he was condemned to a two-year jail term, suspended for two years, for disseminating compromising pictures on the internet of a former boyfriend. Engerer was ordered not to communicate with his victim or the victim’s family for one year. But just 24 hours after Engerer was found guilty of the criminal offence, he was given a hero’s welcome by the party, with Prime Minister Joseph Muscat calling him the PL’s new “soldier of steel”. Subsequently Engerer was given an envoy’s role as the Prime Minister’s Sherpa at the European Council. This showed Muscat’s remarkable ability to walk on a tight-rope between decisive action against abuse, while still rewarding those involved.

Citizenship salesman

Muscat’s out-of-the-box idea to offer Maltese citizenship to anyone paying €650,000 was initially intended to keep their names secret, something shot down by the European Parliament and again exposing a rift with European socialists, who were shocked by this blatant commercialisation of citizenship. Muscat tamed the original proposal after reaching an agreement with the European Commission, removing the secrecy clause and tying the monetary purchase of citizenship with investment in property and stocks. Yet the scheme continued to cause embarrassment to the government after it was revealed that Muscat was contractually bound to Henley and Partners to promote the IIP scheme abroad, something that was seen as undignified for a Prime Minister.

The hunting quandary

For Muscat the hunting referendum represented a tricky situation. First of all the referendum was the result of a citizen initiative which defied his control over political events. Moreover it also drove a wedge between the liberal middle class which Muscat courted before the election and the hunting lobby with which Labour had signed a pre-electoral agreement. Ultimately Muscat managed to defy the odds by securing a wafer-thin Yes victory without investing too much political capital on the issue.

Muscat was then quick to announce the closure of the hunting season, three days before the due date when a bird was shot twice and crashed bleeding into the yard of St Edward’s College in Cottonera while the children were on their school break. Underlining his highly personalised style of government, Muscat announced this decision in a tweet.

Ultimately it was up to Muscat to determine what constituted “flagrant abuse” warranting a stop to the season.

Zonqor: the clash with civil society

Muscat’s decision to allocate ODZ land in Zonqor to a Jordanian construction company with the aim of developing a university campus was met with the largest civil society protest in the past decade. In this case Muscat clearly underestimated the popular anger at his government’s lack of environmental credentials. Muscat’s reaction was to partially withdraw from his original stance, bowing to pressure by decreasing the ODZ land takeup from 90,000 sq.m to 18,000 sq.m by relocating part of the campus to Dock Number 1 in Bormla.

Decisive action against some…

Before the election Muscat underlined his decisiveness by asking his deputy leader, Anglu Farrugia, to resign after he criticised the decision of a magistrate. After the election Muscat honoured his pledge to take decisive action when faced with blunders committed by Home Affairs Minister Manuel Mallia and parliamentary secretary Michael Falzon. In December 2014 Mallia was forced to resign a month after his personal driver shot at a motorist in a hit-and-run incident, following an inquiry that exonerated Mallia from involvement in an attempted cover-up, but censured him.

In January 2016 Muscat accepted the resignation of parliamentary Secretary Michael Falzon following the Auditor General’s report in the Gaffarena property expropriation. “Michael Falzon is shouldering responsibility even if what is being said about him contains contradictions. Dr Falzon is an upright person who cares about his country,” Muscat said at a press conference. 

The Panama shocker

Of all the difficulties he faced it was Panamagate which found Muscat completely unprepared.

Not only did Muscat fail to assess the gravity of the situation of having a chief of staff (Keith Schembri) and one of his most powerful ministers (Energy and Health Minister Konrad Mizzi) and prospective deputy leader exposed for having a secret company in Panama; but when faced by details exposed in the Panama leaks that both had unsuccessfully tried to open bank accounts to deposit monies from the secret companies, he failed to sack them.

While Schembri was retained as chief of staff, Mizzi was retained as a minister without portfolio in the Office of the Prime Minister. Subsequently Mizzi was even chosen to chair the EU’s energy council during the presidency. The reshuffle prompted by the ICIJ leaks led to the return of Manuel Mallia to the cabinet. Clearly Muscat could not afford to punish Mallia further while retaining a minister who had caused even more embarrassment to his government.

The case exposed an institutional paralysis, with the police failing to commence investigation despite an FIAU report which flagged possible abuses.

An election to rebut a scandal

Ultimately Muscat’s greatest gamble is his final decision to call an election a year ahead of schedule in the wake of further allegations linking his wife to the Panama company Egrant, and his chief of staff to alleged kickbacks in a payment from an offshore company owned by Nexia BT’s managing partner Brian Tonna. Instead of waiting for the results of two separate inquiries, Muscat chose to seek popular legitimacy from the polls, in what could be seen as an attempt by Muscat to take back control of the timing of events which were now being dictated by the Opposition and the media. 

  • Simon Busuttil

The civil unions fiasco

The first serious leadership test for Busuttil was the vote which introduced civil unions and gay adoptions. Instead of showing decisive leadership to heal the rift with liberals who deserted the party after the divorce referendum, Busuttil along with the rest of his parliamentary group decided to abstain, thus gaining the opprobrium of the LGBT community on what they hailed as a historic day. But despite the harm done Busuttil realised his mistake and henceforth silenced his party’s conservative wing, supporting the introduction of gay marriage and reluctantly accepting the scientific verdict on the introduction of the morning-after pill. 

Losses in MEP elections

Under his leadership, the PN received a drubbing in the MEP elections in 2014 which saw the party lose by 32,000 votes. The only silver lining for Busuttil was that of achieving his declared aim of electing three MEPs. But the election was a blessing in disguise for Busuttil, as it gave him a free hand to assert his leadership in the party and abandon the ‘team PN’ concept which had clearly failed in the new presidential context brought about by Muscat’s election. 

The hunting dilemma

The Spring hunting referendum posed a dilemma for Busuttil.  While the majority of PN voters were clearly against Spring Hunting, voters in strategic localities like Gozo and western Malta were clearly in favour of retaining the derogation.  Furthermore Busuttil was bound by promises made to the hunting lobby before the EU membership referendum that Spring hunting would be retained.  In view of this Busuttil opted for the status quo, joining Joseph Muscat in calling for a Yes vote.  In this way Busuttil opted for political consistency instead of boldness, at the cost of appearing bland and losing a golden opportunity to lure green voters, even if it is doubtful whether his intervention would have been helpful to anti hunting campaigners. Ultimately by opting for the status quo, Busuttil saved his party from being tainted with another defeat which would have alienated it from a segment of rural voters which are decisive for any party to win.  But the referendum itself pushed turnout in PN leaning areas, helping the party recover lost ground in local elections held on the same day.  Busuttil's major shortcoming was reacting to the result through a clincial pre recorded video message, which contrasted with Muscat's attempt to reach out to anti hunting voters after securing a victory for the hunting lobby.  It was the subsequent controversy on Zonqor that gave Busuttil an opportunity to show leadership on environmental issues.

Sacking them gently

Simon Busuttil was firm in expelling former PN Ministers Ninu Zammit and Michael Falzon when their names surfaced in the Swissleaks scandal. Busuttil was also quick to expel Nationalist MPs Giovanna Debono after the police started investigating her husband’s role in the works-for-votes scandal and in persuading Joe Cassar to resign from parliament after MaltaToday revealed he had received gifts from Joe Gaffarena when he was a minister.

Busuttil also convinced PN deputy Toni Bezzina to withdraw a controversial ODZ application in Rabat. These cases showed that Busuttil means business when faced with abuse. But Busuttil also stood firm in his defence of deputy leader Beppe Fenech Adami when it emerged that a police investigation on a company in which he was director was not followed on during the 2013 electoral campaign.

The professional business of his other deputy leader, Mario de Marco, also created problems for Busuttil. De Marco had to renounce his legal services to the db group which was the target of the opposition for getting the ITS site for a sheer €15 million.

The db Group blow

One of Busuttil’s worst moments was the way he was outplayed by the db Group, which revealed its donations to the PN’s commercial companies in retaliation to Busuttil’s instinctive reaction to an SMS asking the party to return past donations. 

Busuttil’s public reaction to the SMS, in which he attacked the company for threatening him with withholding donations, came across as an ill thought-out act of bravado which ended up exposing his party’s financial dependence on big developers, taking away the spotlight from the government’s decision to sell land cheaply to db Group.

The Panama gamble

Busuttil has constantly upped the stakes on Panamagate, banking on popular support for his moral crusade against what he depicted as a corrupt clique. Busuttil has managed to portray himself as an honest politician facing a government which includes owners of secret companies.

But by immediately jumping on the cart of allegations that Muscat’s wife was the owner of Egrant and only later coming up with his own evidence against Keith Schembri, Busuttil risked giving Muscat an escape route if the most sensational allegation on the PM’s wife is not proved.

But Busuttil has managed to give his party a battle cry and to create a popular movement around it which transcends his party’s boundaries. Busuttil’s readiness to include PD candidates in the PN’s list also shows a willingness to promote a more European brand of politics. 

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