Inglourious Custards

Courage is one virtue you can’t fake. That’s why senior public figures, who were afraid to stand up to the disgraced Joseph Muscat, hide their cowardice behind other virtues.

Evarist ‘Galileo’ Bartolo hides behind prudence and smears the rest of us by saying we all need to examine our conscience. Peter Grech, the outgoing Attorney General, claimed fidelity to the law didn’t permit him to uphold it. Watch that space.

We have yet to discover what plum of wisdom the former deputy Prime Minister, Louis Grech, will offer us – if he deigns to explain how he stood by when senior ministers are now admitting that the stench of systemic corruption was obvious to them. In 2013, he had promised us a Labour government would ensure a ‘leap in quality’. Silly us. We neglected to ask if the leap was up or down.

Meanwhile, we can ponder the implications of Edward Scicluna’s testimony at the public inquiry into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. His strategy was to affect self-righteousness. He took umbrage at the thought that, having sacrificed the creature comforts of a Brussels salary to serve as government minister, we had the temerity to expect him to live up to his responsibilities.

He tried to distance himself from Muscat, Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi. Unlike Kurt Farrugia, he didn’t bother trying to conjure up any distance between Muscat and the other two. Scicluna attributed all the key decisions, concerning every suspect project, to all of them.

The three were so tight-knit that Scicluna says he didn’t have the required intimacy with Muscat to broach some of his concerns about corruption.

He assured the inquiry’s judges that their concerns about criminal intent at the heart of government were also his concerns. Are they really?

Scicluna says corruption was the elephant in the room. But he didn’t merely stay silent about it. Publicly, he denied it existed. He dismissed questions as mere allegations.

He did worse. He smeared some of those who spoke up about it. He said David Casa was working against Maltese interests. Today he tells us the Vitals Global Healthcare deal didn’t pass his sniff test but, last year, he joined forces with Mizzi to try to block a magisterial inquiry into it. His lawyers trashed Caroline Muscat’s investigations as merely the product of an anti-Labour animus.

There’s yet more inconsistency. Scicluna (together with Mizzi and the former economy minister, Chris Cardona) told a judge that the deal was the responsibility of the entire Cabinet. Now he says that it was the decision only of the ‘kitchen cabinet’.

Scicluna was never distant from the swill. When Muscat seemed invulnerable, in July 2017, he entered the race to become Labour deputy leader and, consequently, deputy Prime Minister. Is that keeping one’s distance?

He was a pliant tool. Take his extraordinary attempt to define the finance minister’s job as restricted to guaranteeing finances. That’s too narrow a definition even for the chief accountant at a major company, let alone of a State. The position’s responsibilities involve risk management: where the numbers are pointing and the strategic questions they raise.

Systemic corruption on a grand scale makes all the difference to the Maltese economy, as we are discovering now. Reputational risk goes hand in hand with vulnerability to organised crime. Scicluna did too little when he should have known much more was needed.

Scicluna protests it’s unfair for us to insist that he should have resigned because of someone else’s wrongdoing. Unfair? Resignation was not punishment. It was doing the right thing: the last card he had, as minister, to protect our financial institutions.

What is striking about Bartolo’s and Scicluna’s testimony is the indication that they feared Muscat. Duty to the State was put aside as though they had no faith in the State’s institutions – the Attorney General’s office, say – to defend them.

Indeed, the senior ministers troubled by Panamagate – we know they included Leo Brincat and,  probably, George Vella – seem not to have trusted each other. Between them, if they really felt strongly about Panamagate, they could have made a pact to resign collectively. That threat, made credibly, surely would have forced Muscat’s hand. But it seems he knew them all well enough.

Meanwhile, Scicluna’s position as finance minister has become untenable. With his admission to the inquiry – that he too had reasonable suspicions about flagship projects but decided to mind his own business – Scicluna has done further damage to Malta’s reputation.

As long as he’s minister, who will believe Malta has the financial institutions ready to do the right thing, when the man politically responsible for them talks as though he doesn’t know what the right thing is?


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