Prime Minister Robert Abela gave his first one-on-one video interview to The Times of Malta nearly three years after he took power.
They could have saved everyone an hour by posting a picture of a man shrugging.
Abela’s reply to questions about corruption could be summarised with, “It wasn’t me, it was him.”
When asked about the recent Transport Malta driver’s test scandal in which examiners were ordered by the Office of the Prime Minister and ministries to pass politically connected candidates, Abela said the incidents “happened three years ago, when I was not prime minister. I can only answer to what happened from January 2020 onwards.”
Abela was a Labour MP when the tainted tests took place. He was also serving as Joseph Muscat’s legal adviser while raking in hundreds of thousands of euros in public funds through direct orders to his legal firm.
But everything changed that fateful January when the pampered former president’s son inherited the leadership as Muscat’s handpicked ‘continuity’ candidate. That’s when the nation’s blighted institutions suddenly took a turn for the “robust”.
“The people I trusted and appointed since the beginning of my tenure in January 2020 were not involved in similar allegations,” Abela said. “So, I actually created structures to avoid corruption.”
In the convoluted logic circuits of the prime minister’s mind, because the people who got busted were Muscat’s rather than his, it transmutes the incident from yet another sordid smear into a feather in his cap.
“If the institutions were not working,” he said, “there wouldn’t have been arraignments.”
When the journalist pointed out that the incidents shouldn’t have happened in the first place, the prime minister shifted his defence to whataboutisms.
“Back then,” he said, “people would pass their nautical exams without even doing the test. They would also meddle with the driving licence categories during a PN administration.” He was referring to some unspecified period before the Labour Party was in power.
One clear lesson can be drawn from this, and it will be of enormous benefit for future interviewers.
Abela can only speak about:
- Things that happened after he himself took office
- Things that happened before Joseph Muscat took office
On no account should he be asked about his scandal-plagued predecessor’s truncated parliaments or what he intends to do about the laundry list of criminal allegations linked to them.
Most of those cases are safely rotting away in the law enforcement equivalent of a refrigerator’s vegetable drawer, and this confers upon Abela and friends a uniquely Maltese quality known as ‘serenity’.
If there’s corruption — all just an allegation, mind you — it either happened under the PN sometime before Labour’s 10-year rule, or it happened ‘before Abela became prime minister’, his euphemism for the reign of Joseph Muscat.
But what if, despite all this, a fresh scandal is leaked to the press, and some government official is caught with a hand in the cookie jar? Abela still isn’t responsible. In that case, the institutions are working.
It’s a pretty neat trick if you can pull it off.
Abela holds all the Aces, and he holds the Joker. The Joker is the wildcard created by Muscat, which says no one is ever guilty of any wrongdoing unless they’ve been successfully prosecuted.
Such people are shoved into a sort of public Schrödinger’s box where investigations never conclude, and magisterial inquiries never finish inquiring, allowing the accused to remain neither guilty nor innocent as long as no one chooses to lift the lid.
Anyway, I’m glad the prime minister cleared that up.
But there’s also the matter of his own alleged financial shenanigans.
When asked about a suspicious property deal that saw him net a quick and easy €45,000 by exploiting a legal loophole known to be used to avoid tax and to hide irregular payments, Abela cited the letter of the law after having deliberately ignored its intent.
“This was an entirely legal procedure that was declared and due taxes were paid,” he said. “Thousands of Maltese people engage in such a procedure legally every year and it is regulated by law. Rest assured, there is no wrongdoing.”
He made the deal with Christian Borg, a former legal client and self-described friend who stands accused of kidnapping and having links to a criminal network involved in drug smuggling and money laundering.
It’s far from the only personal business transaction that raised questions about the prime minister’s ethics.
When asked about the derelict Zejtun property he rented to two Russian customers of Malta’s cash-for-EU-passports programme so they could demonstrate the required ‘genuine link to Malta’ without actually living there, Abela justified his unscrupulous earnings by saying, “I paid all due taxes, of course.”
I guess this was Keith Schembri’s mistake. The former chief of staff allegedly cashed in on the thoroughly unethical passport scheme too, but unlike Abela, it seems he didn’t stick to the narrow letter of the law while taking his cut.
When pressed, Abela admitted that he earned €1,500 per month from the rental contract, a figure he had attempted to conceal with a vague reference to ‘income from rent’ on his parliamentary declaration of assets.
“I referred to the tax form TA24,” he said.”The information is there. You can see it if your editor files a formal request with the tax commissioner.”
When asked to confirm who he had rented the property to, Abela said, “You know who it is because you already made it public.”
In other words, he got caught. Did he interpret it as proof that the institutions are working?