Energy Minister Konrad Mizzi’s inclusion in a global list of politicians (many of them authoritarian leaders) holding secret offshore finances has strengthened the widely held view that his position is completely untenable. It is something the Opposition and much of the media have long insisted upon ever since this affair first surfaced.
The massive, historic exposé coordinated by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists – the so-called Panama Papers – has added weight to the revelations made by blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia on the ownership of Panama companies by Dr Mizzi and Keith Schembri, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff.
It also disclosed new information extremely damaging to these two individuals.
According to the Panama Papers, attempts were made to have bank accounts opened for both Dr Mizzi and Mr Schembri in Dubai and Panama but these were refused on the grounds that both individuals were politically exposed persons. This alone can be seen as reason enough for their dismissal by the Prime Minister.
The leaked documents also reveal that Dr Mizzi had wanted to use his shell company in Panama as a brokerage firm. It is tempting to put an exclamation mark behind that sentence. As if there were not already enough suspicions surrounding his dealings, this is, to put it mildly, incompatible with his position as a government minister.
The scandal has caused turmoil within the Labour Party and the Cabinet, with a number of senior figures reportedly very unhappy about the situation. The pressure on Dr Mizzi and Dr Schembri to resign comes from within too, while Finance Minister Edward Scicluna and former deputy leader Toni Abela have both publicly called for “tough decisions” to be taken.
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat would do well to listen to his colleagues – the polls show a sharp swing away from Labour as the public feeling turns increasingly antagonistic at his inaction.
Malta can ill-afford to have its reputation damaged in international circles. We portray ourselves (rightly so) as a reputable financial jurisdiction and we are fighting against tax harmonisation in the EU. We therefore need as many friends as possible within the bloc. Yet, embarrassingly for Malta, Dr Mizzi is the only minister from an EU member state to be named in the Panama Papers, which will surely not go down well in the corridors of Brussels.
With Dr Mizzi refusing to go, Dr Muscat has dragged his feet for too long, causing uncertainly in the financial services sector, giving Malta a bad name and leading to speculation about his own possible involvement in the scandal. He should have sacked Dr Mizzi and Mr Schembri when the facts about their secret New Zealand trusts and Panama companies first emerged. Waiting for investigations to be carried out by Malta’s Financial Intelligence Analysis Unit and the Commissioner for Inland Revenue is just not credible. Everyone can see that.
Last Thursday, in something of a climb-down, Dr Muscat did not rule out dismissing the pair based on facts and “public sentiment”. And Dr Mizzi told Labour Party delegates on the same day that he was “ready to accept any decision the Prime Minister may take”.
This has been interpreted as paving the way for his dismissal. The country waits with bated breath. But the sacking of both should have taken place weeks ago. If the Prime Minister, who has strongly defended his two close colleagues throughout the scandal, finally has a change of heart, it will be seen as stemming from a fear of losing votes and not from principle.
Dr Muscat’s image has been irredeemably tarnished. But Malta’s reputation is at stake too. The energy minister and chief of staff must be asked to go before irreversible damage is done to our country as well.