It is two years almost to the month that Evarist Bartolo had his remarkable interview with Tim Sebastian. It was not a happy one. Bartolo found himself facing a fire-breathing dragon who left him charred, begging for understanding, and admitting that yes, perhaps he should have resigned from Cabinet back in 2016, once Daphne Caruana Galizia broke the Panamagate story.
Bartolo was carried off that battlefield on a stretcher and buried under hoots of laughter. But last week he was back, resurrected, giving an interview to The Sunday Times of Malta. What a difference two years make.
This time Bartolo was composed, masterly, smiling gently and patiently expounding, to the interviewer sitting at his feet, the Way of the Warrior.
Bartolo no longer thinks that he should have resigned in 2016. No, he’d do it all over again. His slow, patient strategy worked. Joseph Muscat and Konrad Mizzi are now gone.
All it took was three and a half years, an assassination, a corrupt hospital deal costing a fortune, Malta’s embroilment in a scandal in Montenegro, a shattered national reputation, greylisting and tarring protesters as traitors and partisan shills.
It turns out Bartolo is a master Zen Warrior — you know, those who face their adversary without moving a muscle, doing nothing, waiting for the first move, before moving with lightning speed to strike the lethal blow.
Bartolo reminds us that he spoke up in public. Who can forget those Facebook Zen riddles and sensitive haikus?
Lejber plum blossoms —
One law for the animals,
Another for gods.
Yes, of course, he spoke to Joseph Muscat as soon as Panamagate broke. And look what happened: Muscat listened!
Bartolo even spoke up in front of Mizzi and Keith Schembri. To their faces! They were not pleased — but that’s the way of the warrior.
The achievement: Muscat said Mizzi would eventually go. Three and a half years later, “eventually” had yet to run its course. Even though the evidence coming to light about the assassination was making Bartolo feel “uncomfortable”.
What “concessions” were wrested about Schembri? Ah, our warrior concedes, that was “more difficult”. Zilch — not even the pretence of conceding an inch.
It’s easy to dismiss Bartolo. Many readers already have, calling him out for hypocrisy and reminding him of the circumstantial evidence concerning his own compromised position when Panamagate broke.
But that lets Bartolo off too easily. It also passes up on an opportunity to have an honest conversation about what happened between 2016 and 2019, so that those of us who were outside the Labour citadel can understand the dilemmas of those Labourites who were aghast at their betrayal by Muscat.
Even in a soft-pedalling interview, Bartolo conceded things that bear more probing. He explains his parliamentary vote of confidence in Muscat, on 25 November 2019, as “strategy”. His vote wouldn’t have decided matters. It was better to live another day to fight from within.
What that implies, however, is his utter failure. In over three and a half years, he hadn’t cobbled together enough MPs to back his view, let alone enable a smooth transition of power.
Bartolo says he didn’t know who else was telling Muscat that Mizzi and Schembri had to go. Really?
So the master strategist hadn’t independently canvassed opinion. We are expected to believe he was serious about changing things when he also tells us he didn’t even explore the possibility of an alliance, let alone mounting a credible threat of a collective resignation by a significant minority of ministers.
Bartolo told Sebastian that he proceeded quietly because he didn’t want to be a Savonarola, burned at the stake.
Fear is evident even now when Bartolo flaunts his bravery. With Muscat, he tiptoed around the real issues. He told Muscat that it was unacceptable for Mizzi and Schembri to avoid taxes and have money abroad.
No word about money laundering – the real, explicit reason why Malta’s name became mud. A loyal minister, eager to give honest, experienced advice to a young prince, would have surely underlined money laundering as the key problem.
Why then did Bartolo not say a word? We must assume he didn’t think Muscat needed to be told. In which case, he must have thought Muscat was in on it, and that Muscat knew Bartolo knew.
This was no battle between samurai. It was kabuki theatre. Bartolo was offering Muscat a way out — how to get rid of Mizzi and Schembri plausibly, without arrest. Muscat pretended to listen to give Bartolo the hope, or alibi, that he was getting somewhere, and need not take more drastic action.
In other words, it was a negotiation — just as Mark Camilleri has claimed. And Bartolo got nothing, until the 2019 protests gave him overwhelming leverage.
To say he got nothing is being too kind. Arguably, Bartolo made things worse.
He rejects the conclusions of the Caruana Galizia public inquiry that ascribed blame to Cabinet ministers for remaining silent. He insists he spoke up — in cryptic utterances “but everyone understood what I meant”.
What everyone understood was this. If the obvious truth needs to be uttered in metaphor and code, then the enemy must truly be dangerous.
If you publicise your objections to non-resignations, as though signalling action to come, and then do nothing, people who are ready to join you will also retreat. They will reasonably think that if you have failed, then all resistance is hopeless.
If you go along with a sustained orchestrated campaign to depict protesters as traitors, and Caruana Galizia as a ripe target, then you’re not leading the resistance. You’re a key collaborator. The public inquiry got this right.
Bartolo says that when key evidence about the assassination began to surface, he told his colleagues that they had to do something about good governance. So he himself saw the link between maladministration and the culture of impunity. And maladministration was a feature of the whole Cabinet. The public inquiry got this right too.
No doubt, there’s a fuller Labour story to be told, one that will better convey how it felt to be seduced by Muscat’s lies and have one’s weaknesses and hopes so skilfully exploited. Hearing that story will help to reconcile a nation divided by corruption and an assassination.
But Bartolo hasn’t given us that story. He’s given us a self-satisfied account that is as ludicrous as his interview with Sebastian was humiliating.