As Joe Cassar resigns, pressure mounts on Michael Falzon

Former MPs like Tony Abela and also Edwin Vassallo favourites to fill in vacant seat on the seventh electoral district

Out with the old: former ministers Joe Cassar and Giovanna Debono resigned from the PN group because of allegations of unethicality. Opposition leader Simon Busuttil expects no less from Michael Falzon over allegations of impropriety in the Lands Department
Out with the old: former ministers Joe Cassar and Giovanna Debono resigned from the PN group because of allegations of unethicality. Opposition leader Simon Busuttil expects no less from Michael Falzon over allegations of impropriety in the Lands Department

Shockwaves reverberated throughout the political landscape yesterday when Nationalist MP Joe Cassar submitted his resignation from parliament, in the wake of accusations that he had accepted gifts from businessman Joe Gaffarena. 

Turning the tables on the Labour government, Opposition leader Simon Busuttil said he expected Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to call for the resignation of lands parliamentary secretary Michael Falzon, on whose watch Gaffarena’s son, Marco, was granted a controversial €1.65 million expropriation for a Valletta property, now under investigation by the National Audit Office. 

Cassar’s exit, a unique rarity in Maltese politics, not only presented Busuttil with an opportunity to stand by his promise to offer a brand of “honest politics” but the Opposition leader can now inject new blood in his worn-out parliamentary group. 

It could prove difficult as Cassar’s seat could be filled by any one of former MPs, including former army minister Tony Abela, who once likened migration to the threat of a “tsunami”.

Cassar’s resignation follows that of former Gozo minister Giovanna Debono, who resigned from the PN parliamentary group in the wake of MaltaToday’s reports on the alleged misappropriation of public funds by her husband Tony. She retained her seat in the House.

Cassar tendered his resignation in letters to PN leader Simon Busuttil and Speaker Anglu Farrugia, with both letters being released to the media. 

Although it was proven that works in 2011 on the former health minister’s Dingli house had been paid by property entrepreneur Joe Gaffarena, and should have been probably declared, the former health minister insisted that he was the victim of “character assassination”.

“If politics has been reduced to these levels, I’m not ready to be part of it. I entered politics to help others, not to let others assassinate my character,” Cassar, a psychiatrist by profession, said. 

Cassar also denied having done anything wrong when MaltaToday broke the news on Sunday that as minister he had not declared over €8,000 in house works paid for by donor Joe Gaffarena in 2011. 

“I categorically deny having committed anything wrong or illegal, but I am taking this step so that I am not used as an excuse for any damage made to you or the PN,” he told Busuttil. “I respect you and the party too much to allow this to happen.” 

Cassar thanked Busuttil for “believing in [his] integrity” during these days. 

He went on to say that although he would be departing the world of politics, he would continue to defend his name against any accusations, using legal means if necessary. He also asked that his privacy and that of his family be respected going forward. 

On Monday, Opposition leader Simon Busuttil insisted that there was no reason Cassar should resign from the Nationalist Party, despite revelations that the former minister had failed to declare over €8,000 in house works paid for by Joe Gaffarena – a property entrepreneur associated with MPs on both sides of the House. 

“After meeting with Cassar yesterday, I came to the conclusion that his position as culture spokesperson was no longer tenable,” Busuttil said. “However, I didn’t think that the case merited asking him to resign from the party or from parliament.” 

Busuttil drew comparisons with the way Manuel Mallia was forced to resign as home affairs minister in 2014 but retained his parliamentary seat on the government benches. “If [planning  parliamentary secretary] Michael Falzon resigns from his Cabinet role, I  wouldn’t also expect him to resign from parliament or the Labour Party,” he said, equating the Opposition’s shadow cabinet to the government’s Cabinet of ministers. 

“Cassar didn’t do anything illegal and was not involved in misuse of public funds,” he said, adding that he would not shy away from taking harsher action against the former health minister “if new developments come to light”. 

The embattled Cassar on Sunday announced he would no longer occupy the role of Opposition spokesperson for culture, after MaltaToday broke the story about works in his house being paid for by Gaffarena.

Former MPs could fill in vacant seat

Once the dust settles attention will turn to who will fill in Joe Cassar’s parliamentary seat on the seventh electoral district. Cassar’s resignation could be a blessing in disguise for Simon Busuttil, who has inherited a Parliamentary group with a fair share of baggage and skeletons in the closet.

Busuttil’s drive to clean up the party could be aided by Cassar’s exit but casual elections are a Pandora’s box and the substitute could further embarrass the opposition.

One of Cassar’s possible substitutes is former parliamentary secretary Tony Abela, who was considered as the Lawrence Gonzi government’s PR nightmare when he served as parliamentary secretary in charge of defence between 2003 and 2008.

Abela had also submitted his nomination for the casual election held to fill in Gonzi’s seat in 2013 after the former Prime Minister resigned in the wake of the calamitous electoral defeat. 

However, Gonzi’s seat was taken by the PN former financial controller, Antoine Borg, who beat off the competition of six other candidates despite only getting 197 first count votes in the election itself. 

Abela was the last candidate to be eliminated in the 2013 casual election and together with former MP Peter Micallef is favourite to fill in the seat vacated on the district which includes Rabat, Zebbug and Dingli. 

A notary by profession, Abela is the son of former Nationalist MP Sammy Abela. Notorious for turning up at PN telethons waving wads of cash given by undeclared donors, the Rabat notary was strongly reprimanded for inciting xenophobia when he kept talking of “a tsunami of immigrants” reaching Malta’s shores in 2005.

He was also caught misleading parliament, when he alleged that immigrants had refused the AFM’s assistance as they were passing through Maltese waters in November 2005.

MaltaToday had published the AFM log book clearly showing that far from refusing assistance, the immigrants were never asked by the AFM rescuers in the first place. Hours later, 29 of them drowned off the coast of Sicily.

Other potential candidates are conservative Mosta mayor and former MP Edwin Vassallo, former Rabat mayor Rudolph Grima, architect and former MP Philip Mifsud and Dingli local councillor David Vassallo. 

In the unpredictable casual elections, candidates must achieve 50% of the quota established in the general election. The quota of the seventh district in 2008 was 4,075, meaning that in order to get elected a candidate must garner 2,038 votes to snatch the seat. 

In the unlikely eventuality that nobody reaches the quota or nobody submits a nomination, the PN would co-opt somebody to fill in Cassar’s seat. The last MP to be co-opted was Prime Minister Joseph Muscat who took up the seat voluntarily vacated by Joseph Cuschieri in 2008.

Political party reactions 

In a statement, Alternattiva Demokratika chairman Arnold Cassola, said Cassar had taken the only possible honourable way out.

“He did well to stop trying to justify himself in what was definitely totally unacceptable behaviour when he accepted payment by others for works in his house which amount to nearly €8,000. 

“We are often getting stories about Maltese politicians from both parties in Parliament who were or are still involved in deals with certain big business people whose philosophy is ‘make hay while the sun shines’ and who, in fact, are ending up influencing political decisions, even of national importance. The time has come for a real clean up in Maltese politics.” 

On its part, Labour accused Simon Busuttil of being “weak” for not taking the decision to sack Cassar. 

“Busuttil first said that Cassar was a person of integrity, then toyed around with a ridiculous resignation from spokesperson, and on Monday said there was nothing and that Cassar had no need of resigning.”