Good governance, Russian meddling dominate BA press conference

The tourism minister said he was convinced that Egrant allegations were and orchestrated attack on the Prime Minister and the Labour Party

Tourism Minister Edward Zammit Lewis
Tourism Minister Edward Zammit Lewis

Tourism minister Edward Zammit Lewis faced a raft of questions at a Broadcasting Authority press conference on Wednesday evening regarding the present administration’s track-record on good governance, as well as allegations of Russian influence in the country’s present political crisis.  

The minister was answering questions put to him by The Malta Independent news editor Rachel Attard, NET TV journalist Mario Frendo, Darren Carabott from il-Mument, Josianne Camilleri from Newsbook and PBS Head of News Reno Bugeja.

From the start, Zammit Lewis faced criticism over the fact that, unlike the Nationalist Party, the Labour Party had opted not to send the party leader, sending the tourism minister instead.

Carabott referred to a press conference held on Wednesday morning, where Prime Minister Joseph Muscat was asked by journalists about a report on a foreign website which claimed that there was Russian meddling in Maltese politics. Muscat responded by saying he was aware of the possibility of Russian interference from foreign intelligence services.  

“All I know is that we were told to expect retribution for our role in hastening the visa waiver programme for Ukraine and after we stopped the refuelling of a Russian warship on the way to Syria,” Muscat told journalists.

Carabott however pointed out that the incident with the Russian warship had taken place in October 2016, while the whistleblower had testified and said he came to Malta in December 2015.

Zammit Lewis pushed back against the claim that the Prime Minister had said that the whistleblower had been sent by the Russians, adding that he had not even made the remarks himself but was simply replying to a question.

“This is classified information and goes beyond partisan politics,” said Zammit Lewis. “The Prime Minister was informed by allies of our country. If you are not believing the Prime Minister of a country, who is saying that he was informed by allies’ intelligence agencies, that is up to you.”

He said once again said that the situation needed to be treated with caution and should not be turned into a political issue.

On Egrant, Zammit Lewis said the Prime Minister had testified before the magistrate and had said that institutions should be allowed to work in peace and that he would be willing to take political responsibility once the inquiry is concluded.  

He said that despite the allegations, Busuttil had not published a single document to back up his claims, adding that he did believe which that the allegations were indeed part of an orchestrated attack on the Prime Minister.

Good governance

In her question, Attard said that in the concluding remarks of the CapitalOne Inquiry, it was stated that a minister is responsible for the actions of those chosen by him, and should resign if they do not act in an appropriate manner. She said that while Manuel Mallia had been removed from his position as minister following a shooting involving a member of his security detail, the same did not happen in the case of Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi.

The minister said that those holding office should always be held accountable, and insisted that while Schembri had not been elected by the people, Mizzi had been removed from his post as minister and had also resigned as deputy leader of the Labour Party.

He said that ultimately, the Prime Minister had made a decision, and while one could disagree with his decision, he had nonetheless taken action.

On the other hand, he said Simon Busuttil had chosen not to remove Beppe Fenech Adami over the CapitalOne case, nor had Toni Bezzina resigned when it was revealed that he had applied for a permit to build a home on Outside Development Zone land.

Turning to Muscat’s ability to defend Malta’s reputation and that of the country’s financial services sector, Zammirt Lewis pointed out that when the Nationalist Party had set up the sector, it had found a Labour Party that had supported the initiative.

When asked whether the Attorney General and the Police Commissioner should resign, if it were to transpire that they had sat on a number of FIAU reports about questionable practices on the part of the those closest to the Prime Minister, Zammit Lewis defended both the Attorney General and the Police Commissioner, saying that attacks on the country’s institutions would set a dangerous precedent.

He said that both the Commissioner and Attorney General had explained their position and insisted that Simon Busuttil had “crossed a line” that in politics should not be crossed.

Moreover, he said that he had not read the FIAU reports, but reiterated his faith in the country’s institutions.

Air Malta

Zammit Lewis also said he could guarantee that the government would retain the controlling shareholding in Air Malta, reiterating that the airline is both a touristic asset and a social one that should be saved at all costs.

Responding to the accusation that Air Malta had continued to crumble and was the government’s biggest failure, the minister said that after 15 years of bad management and wasted resources, the PN could hardly accuse the Labour Party on Air Malta.

“The 2011 financial year ended in closed with a loss of €78 million and the financial year 2016 closed with a loss of €4 million,” said Zammit Lewis. “Are you saying we destroyed Air Malta simply because we had the guts to say that we need a strategic party?”