Owen Bonnici’s latest vapid waffling about ‘the Malta he believes in’ takes on added poignancy on the 16th of the month — the anniversary of the brutal murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, the journalist whose legacy he did so much to eradicate.
The former justice minister bravely opens his column with the claim that, “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”.
Unlike me, he forgot the quotation marks (unintentional plagiarism isn’t a good sign in a former education minister, I know…). It’s the first line of Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Bonnici quickly qualifies that with a “however”, dodging left into Justin Trudeau territory with an attempt to jump on the ‘structural’ issues bandwagon, citing discrimination, the rise of right wing politics and the pandemic as the culprits behind some animals being more equal than others in Malta.
In doing so, he ignores the reeking, hopelessly swollen elephant that’s grown to occupy the entire room. You know, the same one FATF was droning on about. Structural corruption is the most serious issue facing the nation, and Bonnici should know a thing or two about that. He turned a blind eye to and facilitated it as justice minister.
But the most glaring hypocrisy in his weekly bit of keyboard windbaggery was the Minister for Research, Innovation and the Coordination of the Post-COVID-19 Strategy (and now Equality) pontificating about rights.
It takes a lot of gall — or a complete lack of self-awareness — to lecture to the great unwashed Evarist-Bartolo-style about rights when Bonnici, as justice minister, was slammed by the Constitutional Court for breaching the human rights of protestors by ordering the clearing of the makeshift protest memorial to Daphne Caruana Galizia at the foot of the Great Siege Monument.
For a two year period, that simple memorial of photographs, written messages and flowers was the front line battleground between supporters of Bonnici’s governing Labour Party and civil society activists who wanted nothing more than accountability for the people behind the brutal killing of a journalist. Today marks 45 months since her assassination.
That same government did everything it could to resist its obligation under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights to hold a public inquiry into Caruana Galizia’s murder. The family and the protestors won that fight too, and the inquiry has done more to expose the rot at the centre of power than any of the court cases currently plodding their way through the system, according to Council of Europe Special Rapporteur Pieter Omtzigt.
Bonnici has been shuffled to increasingly marginal portfolios away from the centre of power, but the same activists are still fighting the same fight nearly four years later.
The inquiry wrapped up this week and is expected to deliver its findings in a matter of days. Perhaps that’s why the minister took the opportunity to distract his followers — of which there can’t be many — with an attempt at pinkwashing.
He should note that the usual practice of buying votes with cheap gift baskets and non-jobs is a much more effective way of ensuring support no matter what the inquiry’s report reveals.
But enough about Bonnici’s sorry attempt at relevance in a world that’s already passed him by.
I won’t even snipe at the unintentional comedy in his column — like his statement that “prostitution, for instance, is high on the agenda”, something that became increasingly clear to anyone who read Running Commentary during the Muscat years.
Bonnici chose the hill he would fight on during the turbulent Christmas of 2019 when the people finally had enough of Keith Schembri, Konrad Mizzi and Joseph Muscat. He said, “I stand behind Joseph Muscat who is an extraordinary, impeccable person who knows how to lead the country with extremely strong leadership”. And then he added, “the prime minister created wealth and will continue to do so.”
Therein lies the problem: the wealth Muscat created for himself and his cronies at the expense of the citizens.
If the Minister for Research, Innovation and the Coordination of the Post-COVID-19 Strategy truly cared about tolerance, difference, and comprehensive rights, as he claimed in his column, then he would take a stand against SLAPP suits rather than support them.
He would put an end to online hate campaigns that target critics of the Labour Party, rather than defend vacuous windbags like Jason Micallef, the man who did so much to embarrass the nation on its long-awaited Capital of Culture moment on the European stage.
And he would recognise that if he truly wants to foster innovation in a post-COVID Malta, then rewarding merit instead of petty cronyism and building service sectors which don’t rely on shell companies, predatory tax practices and addictions to online gambling would be a more honourable legacy than having defended the indefensible leader who used him as a pliable yes man during his tenure as justice minister.
Bonnici travelled to Strasbourg in April 2019 with then Attorney General Peter Grech to tell the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s (PACE) that a public inquiry into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia could not take place because it would interfere with the criminal case against those charged with her murder.
He shrugged off the public inquiry board’s question about why he hadn’t told Henley & Partners, the architects of Malta’s cash-for-passports scheme, not to launch a crippling SLAPP suit against Caruana Galizia, adding “if he wants to use that route, who am I to tell him not to?”
And he excused his trampling of protestor’s civil rights by ordering the repeated midnight removal of the Valletta protest memorial by saying, “I was trying to do my utmost to prevent trouble”. He was referring to an incident where an enraged 81-year-old man stumbled and fell while taking a swing at a female activist.
But it isn’t too late to change, not even for Owen Bonnici.
If he truly believes in “a tolerant, progressive Malta that embraces and celebrates difference, offers comprehensive access to rights and generates equal opportunity for all – without distinction” then he could start by disassociating himself from those who did so much to make Malta a place where criminals, money launderers, kleptocrats and murderers could operate with impunity, safe in the knowledge that their money would buy influence and immunity at bargain basement prices.