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Keeping up appearances

Joseph Muscat
Street artist Twitch. Photo: Daniel Cilia

For decades, cartoonists and street artists have exaggerated the traits of world leaders in line with a particular take on an issue in the news. The satire in their work is a message to politicians, and a tool to keep them in check.

Yet consider the scenario where the electorate feels less empowered to criticise those in high office. This can be done in many ways, including the under-reporting of ‘negative’ stories.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat consistently avoids being the bearer of bad news, while snatching every opportunity to seek the limelight, even if it is inappropriate. Sometimes he even takes to making bombastic claims, like saying he saved the banks.

Recently, Muscat resorted to an interview with Katriel, the brave young man who suffers from a rare form of Lupus. While Katriel’s pain should not be undermined, Muscat’s enthusiasm for these set scenarios where he emerges as the benevolent leader or dishing out funds and benefits is becoming too much to bear.

Think ALS and Muscat with his star minister Konrad Mizzi throwing buckets of ice on each other. Think the €5 million to cancer charity Puttinu Cares.

Charities should get all the support they can get. This is about criticism of a Prime Minister using people’s pain (and money) for political gain when he is cornered.

Compare the show around the €5 million donation from the public purse announced on Friday night live TV by the Prime Minister, with the Church’s donation of a property worth €8 million for a state-of-the-earth hospice palliative care complex a few weeks later that largely went by unnoticed.

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Assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia had quoted Ian Castaldi Paris, the former president of the PN’s college of local councillors who then decided to join Muscat’s ranks who described him as “a father-like figure who really has changed this country”.

Compare these kinds of statements with satirical cartoons. In no self-respecting democracy is such nauseating, arse-kissing tolerated. But it is fair to say that Malta is no self-respecting democracy.

Considering the hypotheses by social scientist Edward Banfield, then Malta is not far from being a society that prefers to be ruled by a strong hand. While a strong leader can be skilled in the art of persuasion, a strongman leader will dictate a narrative and his loyal supporters will willingly fall in line.

Muscat’s cult-like leadership replaces the established doctrine of ministerial responsibility. In the UK, for instance, the higher the public office, the less stable the job. If executive power is granted to suit a greater number of responsibilities, then there should be repercussions for failing to fulfil them.

Keeping bent Ministers because they ‘benefit the nation,’ as Muscat did with Konrad Mizzi after the Panama Papers, is misguided. They were good for the Labour Party, but not for Malta. Muscat’s reluctance to get rid of him and his chief of staff Keith Schembri has cast a harsher light on Malta.

The party-government separation is vital to ensure politicians are held accountable, and within reach of the press and the electorate. This failure has fuelled a new narrative in which the Prime Minister is perceived to be the embodiment of the State.

The repercussions are such that criticism of the Prime Minister is considered treasonous. The blurring of lines between a politician and a paternalistic autocrat betrays the democratic necessity for criticism and accountability. And as long as valid criticism is passed off as an assault on Malta’s name, free speech is inhibited.

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