Next Saturday, readers will be in the polling booth, curtain drawn, alone with the list of candidates. In the meantime, they may want to contemplate some of the facts surrounding this unusually early election. They bear repeating. They are incontrovertible.

First, there is serious evidence that the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Keith Schembri, is a money launderer. This is either in relation to kickbacks from passport sales or the gas tanker operation, or through payments made to Allied Newspapers’ former mana­ging director. That evidence cannot be dismissed: it comes from the government’s own anti-money laundering agency, the FIAU, no less.

Second fact: The Prime Minister has dismissed this evidence as inconsequential. For reasons yet unclear, he defends Schembri at every turn. And that means he tolerates corruption, even if corrupt practices have not yet been proven in a court of law.

Further confirmation of this comes from our damning interview today with Philip Rizzo, the former CEO of the Foundation for Tomorrow’s Schools, who resigned after his whistleblowing efforts went unheeded.

More shocking still is a third fact: The police have failed to investigate the FIAU suspicions. It is beyond scandalous that under this government the Prime Minister’s right-hand man is above the law; democracy and the rule of law are being trampled underfoot.

Fact number four: There is a real concern in the financial services industry that all this is causing damage to Malta’s reputation as a serious jurisdiction and that this could cause a flight of investors and prospective investors. That should have every voter worried, because should these fears materialise, the impact on the wider economy would be devastating.

Another sure fact arises from the last: The chief of staff and his Prime Minister are in no position to repair Malta’s reputation abroad, because it is their action and inaction, respectively, that are contributing to sullying the country’s image. The two men are drowning in sleaze allegations. They cannot possibly come to the rescue.

More facts: Labour’s pre-electoral pledge of transparency has gone to the dogs, as demonstrated by the blacked-out contracts, myriad unanswered press questions and Muscat’s own failure to give interviews to the independent media.

Meritocracy, another solemn promise, bit the dust quite early on: among Muscat’s first actions as PM was the super fast-tracked promotion of his friend to army commander and the decimation of permanent secretaries, followed by the appointment of a legion of persons of trust in government ministries.

While Labour may have set an economic ‘miracle’ in train, it will take a Nationalist government, with its record of serious regu­lation and forward-looking economic management, to keep it on track.

The fabled Malta Tag─žna Lkoll has turned out to be just that – a myth. It was a siren call that seduced a well-meaning electorate into the arms of someone who, it turned out, is not just a salesman but also a con man.

The voter will weigh all these facts against the Labour government’s good record on the economy and public finances: healthy GDP growth, record low unemployment, a reduction in the number of people living in poverty, more women joining the workforce, a newly achieved budgetary surplus and consistently good reports from credit rating agencies. The economy is currently in feel-good territory, no doubt.

At the same time, a lot of voters can’t help feeling bad about a lot of things. Muscat has insulted honest taxpayers by failing to lift a finger against Schembri and Konrad Mizzi who set up secret offshore companies into whose bank accounts, according to Panama Papers, they planned to stash vast amounts of money. He has betrayed those who voted for him on the promise of good governance. His refusal to acknowledge the need to take action on corruption is an affront to those who believe honesty should be among the fundamental values that guide our leaders.

Instead, Muscat and Schembri – for the two appear joined at the hip – are attempting to buy the electorate’s loyalty with the promise of more good economic times to come, just as they have secured the allegiance of so many individuals by appointing them to lucrative positions on government boards or rewarding them with direct orders. This is nothing short of a national bribe. Voters should see through it.

So when they enter the polling booth on Saturday, the choice before them is not so much which party they want to see in charge of this country. Much more fundamentally, it is what kind of country they want to live in.

They must ask themselves: do they want a country where the predominant mentality is ‘let’s make hay while the sun shines’, with little regard for building the solid economic foundations of future growth as the PN has done in past administrations? Do they want Malta to be the focus of corruption stories in the international press because the police force cannot protect them from this scourge? Do they want a country where incompetence rules because it is more important to be Labour than good at what you do to get a government post or promotion? A country where tolerance of sleaze at the top risks infecting all strata of society?

Above all, do they want to live in a country where democratic principles and institutions are being systematically undermined? Inevitably, this will mean too much power residing in the hands of those who abuse it.

When faced with facts and questions like these, voters’ immediate personal interest must take a back seat, party allegiance put aside and pride swallowed in favour of the common good and the country’s future. Many had good reasons for voting Labour in 2013. Those same reasons and more exist today to vote for another change.

While Labour may have set an economic ‘miracle’ in train, it will take a Nationalist government, with its record of serious regu­lation and forward-looking economic management, to keep it on track.

At the end of the day though, when voters enter that voting booth, their decision must above all be a moral one. On that basis, the PN-PD coalition ought to win their vote.

Keith Schembri replies

In a statement to counter various points in the editorial, Mr Schembri insisted there was no 'serious evidence that Keith Schembri is a money-launderer’.

The Times had written hundreds of stories about him, he said, but they lacked a single concrete piece of evidence in any of them.

It was not true, he said, that  ‘Joseph Muscat dismissed this “evidence” as inconsequential…’

"In response to the initial wave of media stories, he established a magisterial enquiry to ascertain whether there was any substance to them. An unprecedented step in accountability for a sitting Maltese Prime Minister."

Mr Schembri described as 'utter nonsense‘ the claim that the police had failed to investigate and that ' Keith Schembri is above-the-law’.

"The independent inquiry is proceeding normally. That’s how the law works; along with the fundamental principle that we are all presumed innocent unless proven guilty – no matter who we are, or where we work," he said. 

Editorial note

Mr Schembri is the subject of three reports from the Financial Intelligence Analysis Unit, two of them revealed by The Sunday Times of Malta.

Both of these state that there was "sufficient evidence to conclude a reasonable suspicion of money laundering and/or proceeds of crime", the first in relation to alleged kickbacks from the passport scheme and the second to the transfer of 650,000 euros to the then managing director of the Allied Group, Adrian Hillman.

The Malta Independent has reported on a third FIAU report which revealed the transfer of money from a company belonging to the owners of the LNG tanker to a Dubai-based company "for the purpose of transferring kickbacks" to Mr Schembri and the then energy minister Konrad Mizzi.

The magisterial inquiry mentioned by Mr Schembri, which he says the Prime Minister established, was not in relation to these reports but to a report on Daphne Caruana Galizia's blog alleging that the Panama company by the name of Egrant was owned by Joseph Muscat's wife Michelle.

Mr Schembri is the subject of two magisterial inquiries, in relation to the alleged passport scheme kickbacks and transfer of money to Adrian Hillman, both of which were set in motion when the Leader of the Opposition, Simon Busuttil, presented evidence to the Egrant inquiring magistrate, Aaron Bugeja.

The Sunday Times of Malta has also reported that the police, despite being aware of the contents of first two FIAU reports for a year, never took action to investigate Mr Schembri.

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