In politics, reputation is everything. Anyone who follows politics will have heard this countless times.
Reputation determines credibility. People are judged on their behaviour patterns, which build up a picture. We understand a person’s character through observing their actions over time. Reputation also creates moral authority. You obviously carry less moral authority if your conduct or decisions tend to be dubious or unacceptable, and vice versa.
So far, so good.
The current allegations against the Prime Minister are that his wife Michelle Muscat holds the Panama company Egrant, set up through the services of Nexia BT. And that this is linked to suspect payments originating in Azerbaijan. As we all know, Joseph Muscat has adamantly denied it. He claims that these allegations, as revealed by journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, are a fabrication. He is demanding solid evidence.
But even without the proof he requests, we have reached a point where large numbers of people are not easily ready to believe his word on this. Why not?
1. Because Muscat does not appear to think that setting up secretive Panama companies is very wrong for senior government figures?
If he did, he would surely have dismissed his chief of staff Keith Schembri and Minister Konrad Mizzi by now. As was shown in the Panama Papers scandal, they both set up a similar structure through Mossack Fonseca and the services of Brian Tonna at Nexia BT, soon after coming into power. This is a fact.
Muscat works so closely with these two individuals that it seems likely that he was aware of this from the start, but he certainly knew before the story broke in April 2016. He is also well acquainted with Brian Tonna, who already last year was reported to have ‘a desk at Castille’.
The FIAU wrote a report on the matter, but publication has been withheld. Schembri refused to attend a PANA committee meeting to explain his position, and Muscat let it pass.
Many people therefore concluded long ago, rightly or not, that Muscat was either involved himself or, at the very least, does not consider that setting up such a Panama company is very wrong for high-level government officials.
2. Because Muscat visited Azerbaijan with Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri, and his communications aide?
Details of this visit were picked up from the foreign press. Images speak a thousand words - a photo was circulated of a meeting which certainly looked like it should have included civil servants or diplomats, and which journalists should have been informed about. This set tongues wagging about what Muscat could possibly have been up to. No satisfactory answers were provided at the time.
3. Because Muscat has gained a reputation for secretive deals?
This began right after the election with the power station contract, which also involved Azerbaijan. Many people have long suspected, rightly or wrongly, that this was a pre-electoral deal.
Soon after the election, eyebrows were also raised by other deals such as the Café Premier payout of €4.2 million. Muscat’s justification for this was hard to swallow and the deal was slammed by the National Audit Office. Café Premier is still derelict four years later.
Likewise, the large payment to Gaffarena for half a Valletta property seemed unjustifiable and generated plenty of suspicion of backroom deals.
The hospital privatisation contract has also been dogged by suspicion, with information withheld from the public for too long.
What is the picture?
All this, and many other bits and pieces of behaviour, add up to build an image and a reputation. Had Muscat kept a clear distance from suspect deals and Panama companies over the last few years, the picture might have been better. It was predicted immediately that Panama would be an albatross around his neck if he did not shake it off completely.
And had Muscat been more transparent about some major decisions, such as privatisation in the energy and health sectors, which he has taken on behalf of the country with long-term consequences on all of us, the picture might also have been better.
Whether Muscat owns Egrant or not, his credibility and moral authority have been severely damaged. He has only himself to blame.
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