In parliamentary democracies, ministers assume collective responsibility for decisions taken by the cabinet, which means that they much support those decisions in public. If a minister dissents publicly, he or she must resign or expect to be sacked.

The revelations coming out of the public inquiry into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia confirm that over the last few years, cabinet ministers were not particularly troubled by the blatant abuse of power engaged in by the former prime minister’s chief of staff, Keith Schembri.

If some ministers were more perturbed than others, no one stood up publicly to be counted in a bid to curb Schembri’s meddling in the dark corridors of power.

Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo opened a window on the public governance of the last few years, a governance characterised by massive abuse of public funds and indelibly stained by the assassination of a journalist.

Bartolo said Schembri wielded too much power. The minister said he expressed his concern both to the prime minister and to his colleagues in cabinet. He may have acted as the voice of conscience of the government in private but he failed to show the leadership that honest citizens expect of their elected representatives.

When ministers act as uncomfortable spectators subject to the designs of non-elected public officials, the failure of cabinet’s collective responsibility becomes inevitable.

All ministers must now bear some of the responsibility for the high price of corrupt governance that Malta is paying by being labelled a country that tolerates abuse of power and financial crime.

The cost of ministers’ failure to challenge Schembri’s government of the shadows and its nefarious networks may have to be paid by those who lose their jobs if Malta does not succeed in mending its severely damaged reputation.

“We need to examine our conscience, as a nation,” Bartolo told the inquiry.

It is the cabinet members who need to examine their conscience first.

They then need to do far more than that. The present cabinet must now demand that concrete measures be taken to ensure that those who abused their power, or allowed others to do so, are ostracised from the political arena and brought to justice.

A confession is not enough. Without redemptive action, the blot on conscience cannot be wiped clean.

Former prime minister Joseph Muscat still sits on the government’s backbenches.

He argues that his resignation is more than enough to atone for his inability to curb the abuse of his right-hand man. Muscat’s legacy hangs like an albatross around the Labour government’s neck while he is still considered one of the party’s grandees.

Schembri has yet to face criminal charges despite the multiple allegations made against him in inquiry and court hearings.

While the police need to have sufficient evidence that can stand the scrutiny of a court, the new chief of police would do well to heed Bartolo’s advice to investigate “any possible trail” and “carry out a full stocktake”.

Only by doing this does Malta stand a real chance of shaking off its reputation for tolerating corruption and granting impunity to political rogues.

Failing that, its people will pay heavily for the shocking abuses that riddled Muscat and Schembri’s government. Only then will atonement be possible for Bartolo.

Honest people expect at least some of their representatives in parliament to act more like Savonarola, who gave up his life to denounce clerical corruption.  

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