When a ruling elite is in trouble it can resort to various tactics to save face. Some tactics, such as taking responsibility for one’s actions, are honourable, while others, such as resorting to counter-attack, can say a lot about the real interests of the elite. Joseph Muscat’s government is increasingly opting for the latter.

Indeed, these past weeks, the Labour media machine did its utmost to divert attention from Panamagate in different ways. These included ignoring the issue, vilifying adversaries, and highlighting non-related achievements of the current Labour administration. In certain instances, Labour spokespersons also tried to normalise the Panamagate dealings by arguing that they were nothing out of the ordinary.

I am not so sure that the increasingly reflexive general public is impressed by Labour’s media machine.

And this also includes internal critics and some Labour exponents who are currently conspicuous by their relative absence from the political debate.

In a strange tactical twist, Labour’s media machine has now developed a sudden fixation with villas and swimming pools, particularly if they belong to persons who do not form part of the oligarchy.

Indeed, over the past days the machine went ballistic in ‘exposing’ the villa of the Nationalist Party’s deputy leader, the size of its swimming pool, and so forth. I bet that the first reaction of many people was that even if there was anything irregular in Beppe Fenech Adami’s villa, this cannot be compared to Panamagate, which has potentially serious ramifications on Malta’s governance, handling of public contracts and democracy.

These cynical tactics are not worthy of progressive politics

Really and truly, if Fenech Adami has anything irregular in his property, it is Mepa which should look into it and take action if necessary. The obvious question therefore is: have enforcement officers visited the site? If yes, did they report anything irregular? If not, why did it have to be Labour’s media machine to highlight the issue? Doesn’t the Prime Minister have confidence in public officers employed by Mepa?

And if Labour is so interested in people’s dwellings, why not publish photos and other information on all properties of all ministers and members of Parliament? And taking the argument to its logical conclusion, how about publishing all information regarding financial dealings of ministers and members of Parliament? Oh, but we can never know anything about financial investments in secretive tax havens such as Panama.

The oligarchy’s reaction to Panamagate follows a clear logic. It is trying to normalise scandalous behaviour by trying to show that there is a surplus of this in Malta, that everyone does it, that we needn’t be surprised by ministers involved in shady deals.

The more the scandals, the merrier, and the level of surprise would be annihilated in the process. Consequently, the logic goes, people would just move on with their everyday lives, possibly wanting to have a part of the corrupt cake themselves. And critics would be labelled as being jealous of the ‘winners’.

These cynical tactics are not worthy of progressive politics. Instead of opting for a road of transparency and accountability, the guardians of the realm try to silence and buy people through co-option, vilification or participation in corruption. The elite want corruption to transform itself from an exception to a culture. Best in Europe, my foot.

Yet, society is not simply made up of passive dupes who devour everything they are fed. The ruling elite has an uphill struggle to maintain its legitimacy. And I don’t think that Labour is investing in its future by rewarding those involved in Panamagate.

The plain truth is that no spin will rub away the obvious: Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri should go.

The size of swimming pools and villas, whether they belong to Beppe Fenech Adami, Joseph Muscat or Joe Public will not prejudice the seriousness of Panamagate. And the most serious aspect of all this is that what is transpiring to be the greatest political scandal in Maltese history is being defended by the Prime Minister. Maybe he doesn’t hold so much power after all.

Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.

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