How to wax about standards

Any messiah can turn water into wine, but it takes a Minister of Justice, Equality and Governance to turn wine into water.

You’d think Yorgen Fenech showed up at Joseph Muscat’s birthday party last year with three bottles of Acqua dell’Imperatore and not fine claret costing some €6,000 — at least from the way in which Edward Zammit Lewis assured parliament’s Standards Committee that Muscat committed no grave wrong in accepting it.

Zammit Lewis was aghast at the idea that his disgraced former boss should be required to offer a formal apology to the House. He wanted no part in a ‘public lynching’.

If an apology amounts to a lynching, what was Labour’s frequent targeting of Daphne Caruana Galizia in her lifetime? What does the justice minister make of the routine intimidation of government critics by Labour’s online secret armies?

The real story here is not how Labour protected Muscat. It’s how it was done, and with whose witting and unwitting assistance.

Remember, the Standards Committee was meeting not just to decide what to make of the Standards Commissioner’s report that Muscat was guilty of a serious breach of ethics. The meeting in itself was meant to mark the reinforcement of a high standard of behaviour from all MPs.

Instead, the Labour committee members — Zammit Lewis and Byron Camilleri — shamelessly ignored the international standard. A few years ago, a premier of New South Wales was obliged to resign in a very similar case.

Zammit Lewis said Muscat had already made reparations by giving up the wine to the State. If that’s the punishment, what incentive is there to refuse such gifts? You accept and, if found out, give them up. With luck, you get to keep them.

The Opposition committee members warned of the dangers of setting a precedent. It seems the Opposition forgot there already was a precedent, and it had been set by Labour itself.

Almost five years ago, Labour opened all its guns on Joseph Cassar, then a backbench PN MP and formerly minister of health. He was accused of receiving some €9,000 in gifts and services from a businessman, Joseph Gaffarena. Cassar denied all accusations, and indeed said he had been framed. But his family, including his daughter, was dragged into the mess. He resigned from parliament — which is what Labour demanded.

There were no concerns about public lynchings in his case — even though Cassar was the target of press conferences and media campaigns. No Solonic judgements that his was no grave matter. There was no evidence of trading of favours. (Indeed, the amount involved is greatly dwarfed by the value of the wrist watches received by Muscat from Fenech.)

It would have been fascinating to see Zammit Lewis explain why the two cases were vastly different. The Opposition let him off lightly.

But the real assistance came from the very authorities with a vested interest in establishing a high standard. Strangely, the Standards Commissioner, George Hyzler, could not think of sanctions to suggest.

What, not even an apology? It would be purely symbolic but at least force the recognition of the violation of the standard. By not offering a remedy, Hyzler enabled Muscat and Labour to argue that none was needed.

Anglu Farrugia, Speaker of the House and chairman of the committee, did his bit, too. He could have voted for the Opposition’s proposal that an apology be offered to the full House. Instead, he proposed that Muscat’s letter to the committee be accepted as an apology.

It was no such thing. Muscat rejected the findings of the Commissioner. The headlines described him as unrepentant. Farrugia let Muscat off the hook, allowing him to deny he’d ever admitted that what he did was wrong.

Labour even asserted that the necessary symbolic gesture was made by its endorsement of the Commissioner’s report. Ah, what standards: accepting the undeniable truth is an act of graciousness; the rogue action by one disgraced MP can be redeemed by a gesture of his parliamentary group.

All this happened this month. We had fine words about establishing parliamentary standards, but the bar was shamelessly set much lower than the international standard, and a double standard was ignored. Instead, a helping hand was given by the authorities meant to safeguard standards.

In short, a farce.

Justice, equality and good governance were undermined by the very minister in charge of upholding them. The apparatus meant to improve the standards ended up used to cement the lowest ones.


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