Edward Zammit Lewis was feeling the heat. Visibly angry and stressed he was on the attack: “First of all I am not going to resign.” The reason he gave for retaining his post was side-splitting. Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission President, gave him a certificate, he claimed.
“A certificate of this is what Ursula von der Leyen said one hour ago that I assume you should have followed,” the minister said in an affront to the journalists questioning him. “Our country is being praised by the EU, Labour government is now renowned for the pillar of reforms on the rule of law,” he falsely claimed.
He was referring to von der Leyen’s state of the union address. Did she praise Labour? Did she give Zammit Lewis any certificate? Of course not.
Von der Leyen mentioned Malta only once in the 15-page address. It wasn’t to praise Zammit Lewis or his government. Her exact words: “Protecting the rule of law is also hard work….Our rule of law reports are part of this process, with for example justice reforms in Malta…”
Does anybody read any praise for Malta or Labour or Zammit Lewis in those words? Quite the contrary. She emphasises how hard it was to ensure that the rule of law is protected and specifically mentions Malta in that vein. No praise, no certificates.
She continued, “and from 2022, our rule of law reports will come with specific recommendations”. Translation – in future we will tell you what changes you must make. Hardly a certificate.
That didn’t stop Zammit Lewis from claiming he’d just been given one. “Part of those reforms is to my credit,” he boasted.
He was in bullish mode, haranguing and confronting those journalists who dared question him. He was attacking the opposition, Bernard Grech, even the PN governments from 25 years ago. “Those reforms should have happened 25 years ago,” he insisted.
The government then was too busy trying to provide a reliable source of water, a dependable source of electricity and an airport terminal that was not a potato shed after Labour’s neglect.
“Do you think your position is tenable in view of your friendship with Yorgen Fenech?” he was asked. Now ferocious, he launched into a tirade. “Those asking for my resignation, including Bernard Grech, should look at the links of those sitting next to him with the person you mention.”
That was no answer. When journalists told him so, he shouted, “I answered you”.
Will you recuse yourself from the standards committee? He completely lost it: “I will decide that” (dak narah jien). Almost as an afterthought, he added, “with the parliamentary group”.
“Why did it have to be the standards commissioner for you to maybe take some action?” He launched another hostile attack directed at the journalist: “You spent 25 years in government with lethargy and lack of checks and balances; you lacked the political honesty”.
“You promised zero tolerance on corruption but we hear about one case after another”. His absurd reply: “The previous government, which you worked with, slept on cases which this administration is pursuing because of reforms that I introduced”.
“Where were you hiding all this time?”, the journalists asked. They got more of Zammit Lewis’ insolence. “I haven’t been hiding.. It’s your MPs who like being seen to give the impression that they’re working.”
As he tried to brush off further questions, moving away swiftly, the pack of journalists gave chase. “Don’t keep running after me,” he ordered.
“Don’t you have a conflict of interest in the Rosianne Cutajar standards case?”. That was the last straw. Zammit Lewis exploded. “If I have a conflict of interest, I know what to do, and it’s not going to be you to tell me what to do,” he blasted.
What’s eating Zammit Lewis?
He’d just come out of an announcement about the standards commissioner’s partnership with the European Commission and the OECD to introduce transparency and integrity reforms. As justice minister, Zammit Lewis was forced to attend.
The OECD will help the commissioner improve the process for collecting and verifying MPs and Ministers’ declaration of assets. That means no more of the illegible handwritten nonsense. The OECD is also helping verify conflict of interest declarations. A new code of ethics for MPs and another one for ministers will be drawn up. No wonder Zammit Lewis was so riled.
The grotesquely wacky situation was simply mind-boggling. A justice minister who exchanged hundreds of dodgy messages with the man now accused of complicity to murder his government’s foremost critic, who enjoyed lavish hospitality in Fenech’s Alpine Hilton, who shared dinners with him and who blatantly denied having any relationship with the man was attending the launch of an initiative to improve public standards.
The MP who with the help of his colleague Glenn Bedingfield, had done most to thwart the commissioner’s efforts was making a phoney speech at the standards commissioner’s event.
Zammit Lewis insisted his government was committed to improving integrity. By protecting his fellow MP who the commissioner concluded had collected thousands of euros from the same man he missed so much? He called for an improved culture of accountability and scrutiny. But as soon as he walked out the door he was evading questions, dodging accountability, and intimidating journalists.
The government he said was focusing efforts on strengthening transparency. But that changed to “dak narah jien” (I decide on that) the minute he walked out. The minister representing the government that has done most to refuse freedom of information requests, conceal public contracts, and refuses to list persons of trust is focusing on transparency.
Von der Leyen never praised Malta, Labour, or Zammit Lewis. She praised one Maltese citizen though: “Journalists are under attack for doing their jobs… tragically some like Daphne Caruana Galizia and Jan Kuciak are murdered. Both stood for the right to information and died to protect transparency.” Zammit Lewis must have missed that part of her speech.