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The beggar swaggers

The Daphne Caruana Galizia inquiry continues to draw testimony that confirms our worst suspicions, so it’s tempting to skim over it too quickly. A mistake, because it’s in the details that the damning evidence emerges.

Last week, the finance ministry’s top civil servant, Alfred Camilleri, was asked about the Electrogas saga. In September 2017, there was a critical moment when the self-described risk-averse Camilleri found himself at breaking point. He had been informed, by Bank of Valletta, that Electrogas had defaulted on a multi-million euro loan facility and was asking for an impossible waiver.

The energy consortium behind Joseph Muscat’s power station project threatened to destabilise the country’s economy. Camilleri was shaken and called an urgent meeting.

What he didn’t know then was that, in the flurry of emails sent back and forth between Electrogas board members, there was one sent by Yorgen Fenech, a leading member of the consortium.

“I think this is a good wake up call for GoM [government of Malta].”

There’s so much to unpack here. Why is the tone so satisfied when it’s being written by a board member of the consortium that should be sheepish about defaulting on a major loan?

Electrogas is the beggar here, hoping it will be bailed out by the Muscat government. But the beggar swaggers, smirking that the government is about to pay attention.

This attitude only makes sense if Fenech knew the problem was never going to be owned by Electrogas. It only makes sense if Muscat already knew of the coming default — having probably received several warnings — but did nothing about it. Why else should Fenech express satisfaction that finally the government was going to come to its senses?

And it only makes sense if Fenech knew for sure that Muscat would come to the rescue. Perhaps what we learned through the Panama Papers and about Fenech’s secret Dubai company, 17 Black, explains why.

But no one with any knowledge of the consortium needed warnings from Fenech about the dodgy financing. Caruana Galizia saw it and said so. She was assassinated five weeks after this financing crisis, and after having received a large cache of Electrogas documents.

And Camilleri now tells us that both he and his minister, Edward Scicluna, were troubled by the initial proposal of a government guarantee for the Electrogas loan.

It went ahead because the Cabinet voted for it. That made it government policy, which it is a civil servant’s duty to implement. That’s Camilleri’s self-defence, and it’s justified.

But what about the ‘kitchen cabinet’ — Muscat, Konrad Mizzi, and Keith Schembri — that really decided the matter, according to Camilleri’s boss, Scicluna?

Camilleri made short shrift of that. As a civil servant, he obeys formal decisions, not those taken unofficially. If the Cabinet hadn’t rubber stamped the decision, then Camilleri wouldn’t have worked to implement it.

Camilleri’s testimony shows up Scicluna’s irresponsibility, even though the latter has denied he bears any.

The ‘kitchen cabinet’ may have wielded the kind of power that puts pressure on ministers and frightens them. It had the power to coerce, including the resources of the State to investigate any recalcitrant minister (in the spirit of Stalin’s secret police chief, Lavrentiy Beria: “Show me the man, and I’ll find you the crime”), and the media resources of the Party to stigmatise principled politicians as traitors.

But the kitchen cabinet did not have the legitimate authority to get the civil service to implement its decisions. Those decisions needed the legitimacy that flows from Cabinet approval.

So it is misleading, if not a lie, to say that the decisions related to Electrogas were taken by the kitchen cabinet and that the official Cabinet had nothing to do with it. The kitchen cabinet pushed a deal that stank, and the Cabinet laundered it.

For a minister to say he was helpless before such a deal only invites questions about what rendered him so helpless to begin with. It’s not enough to say the kitchen cabinet had power. It must have had power over him. Scicluna says he didn’t want to forego his ministerial salary.

A minister who confesses that the Panama gang swept him aside is owning up to being owned. Is that supposed to clear his name?

What a Darwin-defying miracle is Malta. Full of ministers walking tall, and not a single backbone between them.

 

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