On the island of gods and animals

Joseph Muscat has a track record of disposing of political liabilities but stubbornly refuses to dismiss Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri. JAMES DEBONO looks at the different fortunes of disgraced politicians before and after Panamagate

Eminence grise: Keith Schembri is the architect of Labour's electoral success and enjoys the Prime Minister's trust
Eminence grise: Keith Schembri is the architect of Labour's electoral success and enjoys the Prime Minister's trust

Joseph Muscat has built his entire reputation in Opposition as a decisive leader with no qualms in ditching liabilities sometimes by putting them to new use. But this changed after 2009.

2009 • Jason Micallef – post abolished

Micallef was one of Muscat’s foremost backers in the leadership campaign, but was unceremoniously ditched after the secretary-general post was abolished in 2009 just a year after party delegates confirmed Micallef in his post in August 2008. Micallef was persuaded not to contest the 2013 election but was deployed as a highly effective head of party media and later he was appointed as V18 chairman.

2012 • Anglu Farrugia forced out

Anglu Farrugia was elected by delegates in 2008 as deputy leader for parliamentary affairs but was dumped and replaced as with the middle-class friendly Louis Grech just weeks before the general election. Muscat took the unprecedented step of asking his party’s deputy leader, Anglu Farrugia, to step down, ostensibly for comments he passed insinuating that a decision by Magistrate Audrey Demicoli on corrupt practices during the 2008 general elections, could have been politically motivated. Muscat’s call was made in the wake not only of those comments, but also of a dismal performance by Farrugia during a TV debate with his opposite number in the Nationalist Party, Simon Busuttil, who had just been elected deputy leader and had outgunned Farrugia.

This was spun by the Labour organ Maltastar as “a lesson in accountability for GonziPN”, describing “this resignation as a sharp contrast to the way GonziPN has dealt with blunders by government ministers”. Despite earning Farrugia’s resentment, with the latter speaking out in the middle of the campaign about the influence of ‘fourth floor’ big contractors on Labour, Muscat was magnanimous in appointing him speaker after his electoral victory.

2014 • Godfrey Farrugia resigns after offered transfer

In March 2014 newly appointed minister Godfrey Farrugia resigned from the Cabinet after the PM had offered him the social policy ministry, to pave the way for Konrad Mizzi’s appointment as health minister. The move came a few days after the PM had publicly disowned Farrugia for erecting a tent next to Mater Dei hospital to serve as a reception area in the case of an influx of influenza patients. Farrugia was later appointed Labour parliamentary whip, only to resign before the 2017 general election which saw him elected to parliament in a joint PD-PN ticket. As health minister Mizzi played a vital role in the sale of public hospitals to Vitals, a company which was unable to honour its obligations and which was lately replaced by Stewarts Healthcare.

2014 • Manuel Mallia – sacked and reappointed

Mallia, one of the party’s star candidates in 2013, was sacked from home affairs minister after the publication of an inquiry report into the shooting incident involving his driver. A Board of Inquiry found that although Mallia was not part of an attempted cover-up, it had been his duty to ensure that an official statement about the incident was accurate, or that it was immediately corrected. Yet his dismissal became untenable after the Panamagate revelations. This was underlined by his reappointment as competitiveness minister in the 2016 reshuffle that demoted Mizzi to minister without portfolio.

2016 • Michael Falzon – accepted resignation

In January 2016 the Prime Minister accepted the resignation of parliamentary secretary Michael Falzon following the Auditor General’s report in the Gaffarena property expropriation scandal. Falzon continued to protest his innocence but was not reappointed in a reshuffle which saw the re-entry of Mauwel Mallia in the Cabinet. He was reappointed minister after the general election.

2016 • Konrad Mizzi – retained and reappointed

Nearly three months after being outed as the owner of a company in Panama, Mizzi was replaced by Chris Fearne as Health Minister but retained his place in the Cabinet as a minister without portfolio in the office of the Prime Minister. He was also removed from party deputy leader but he remained a crucial peg in the energy sector to the extent that he was chosen to chair the EU’s energy council during the EU Presidency in 2017. He was appointed Tourism Minister after the 2017 election. He also retained responsibility for private public partnerships.

2016 • Keith Schembri – retained

Chief of staff Keith Schembri was retained in office and confirmed in his role after the 2017 election despite pending magisterial investigations over alleged kickbacks from the IIP scheme. Muscat always emphasised that his Chief of Staff was involved in business before he entered politics and before the Labour Party was in government. He also insisted that he was directly accountable to him and was not an elected official.

Before the election the PM declared that unless Schembri is under a criminal investigation, he should keep his position. Faced with the latest revelations, a spokesperson for the PM replied “if any wrongdoing is found, the persons involved would shoulder their responsibility.”

2017 • Evarist Bartolo – no questions asked

Education minister Evarist Bartolo, one of the few voices in Cabinet calling for Mizzi’s resignation who had lamented the “laws for gods and laws for animals” during Panamagate, found himself in the eye of the storm after the arraignment of a former canvasser with accusations of corruption, bribery and fraud while acting as an official of a government agency under Bartolo’s wing. While arguable whether the actions of an underling who was ultimately prosecuted deserved the maximum censure, Muscat’s silence on the case underlined his weakness in censoring the actions of Cabinet members after Panamagate. One singular exception was his decision not to appoint Gozo Minister Anton Refalo after the 2017 general election.