The choreography at the Egrant news conference in Castille last Sunday was striking (this is a government of renown in the arts of spin and hyperbole). Even the seatings of MPs appeared choreographed.
The symmetry that was achieved in the seating arrangement, with Joseph Muscat positioned well ahead in the middle (singularly at the forefront, his flock set some way behind him – hence appearing out of focus in pictures and footage), as well as the soft lighting, were all choreographed.
Muscat’s delivery matched the sombre occasion and news. Then we got an emotional denouement: tears welling in the eyes, hand rubbing the eyes, composure-regaining pause.
I am not saying the tears were contrived. If we accept that the Muscats were falsely accused, then Muscat’s agony is palpable and the tears genuine. I am merely making a different discernment: my thinking is that someone of Muscat’s political stoicism would, if stricken with emotion, fight back the tears and we would have just noticed the eyes glistening and wonder afterwards if it had been tears at all. The slumped head, the hand to eyes, the pause – in theatre studies the pause is a technique of dramatic suspense – there was theatrics in that, at least in part.
I would have done the same if I were a politician. For the inquiry’s most poignant findings – the probably-forged document linking Michelle Muscat to Egrant, the non-discovery of relevant bank accounts, the inconsistent depositions of the two main protagonists who brought us the story – offered political ammunition, and Muscat effectively deployed it to cause the political opposition’s rout. That’s why it was spun into an attack on Simon Busuttil.
Delia, as Muscat may have calculated, played along and impetuously stripped Busuttil of his good governance portfolio, relegating the ex-leader to the backbench and additionally inanely asking for his voluntary suspension from the PN’s parliamentary group. Then, when Busuttil didn’t buckle, Delia convened the party’s core in a bid to oust him.
A deconstruction of Delia’s haste tells us more about the division within the PN and Delia’s leadership than Busuttil’s political culpability or intransigence. Delia’s leadership has yet to be embraced by an influential faction within the party and grassroots, and the appointment of Busuttil as spokesperson on good governance might have been an attempt to seek accommodation and quiescence with that faction.
But that appointment was a strategic mistake because this government’s manifest lapses makes governance issues the obvious battle cry of any opposition, and the battle cry ought to be the preserve of the party leader. Placing this portfolio in the hands of Busuttil has raised his profile, making him appear more eminent than the party leader at times, a lopsidedness that has contributed to the lingering doubts on Delia’s leadership. (Moreover, many in the commentariat believe that Busuttil puts up a better performance than Delia, and recent party-support surveys make sobering reading to Delia.)
Labour has been exploiting these dynamics by passing snide remarks designed to inflame lingering enmities. For example, in a recent parliamentary debate – about the canopy on minister Carmelo Abela’s roof, whether the employee from his ministry at the time constructed it during work hours or not and whether he was paid privately or not – Busuttil persistently asked questions and minister Abela quipped, at least on one occasion, that he was about to mistakenly refer to Busuttil as the leader of opposition.
And last Sunday Delia’s haste might have been motivated at least in part by a desire to take back some of the control that he had himself ceded. It was a naïve move that speaks of the limitations of political outsiders of the ilk of Delia, inexperienced in the art of political canniness and stratagems. The attempt to purge Busuttil and end the mutterings among the old guard who accept him on sufferance has instead brought the enmities into the open. It caused Delia to haemorrhage support from almost every limb of the PN’s body of support.
After all, Busuttil was rather restrained in making assertions that Egrant belonged to Michelle Muscat in the last election campaign. He made a lot of noise about the proven Panama companies of Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi, and triggered magisterial inquiries into Schembri’s alleged passport-sales kickback as well as alleged bribery of Allied Newspaper’s former director Adrian Hillman. But his charges on Egrant were mostly oblique (he only made direct assertions on a handful of occasions, which are just blips in the widespread flashes of an electoral campaign).
Now Delia is left presiding over internecine warfare that has allowed Labour to gain the initiative
Now Delia is left presiding over internecine warfare that has allowed Labour to gain the initiative. Yet Labour has also overplayed its hand, and its attempt to turn this into a propaganda scoop is being seen as cynical.
And in these disorientating political battles the sense of scepticism has intensified, not diminished. People still don’t know what to believe or whom to believe.
The preponderance of evidence now strongly indicates that the story of Mrs Muscat’s ownership of Egrant was a hoax. But was it a deliberate or accidental hoax, or a prank gotten out of hand? It is precisely at this point that the plot becomes convoluted. It’s hard to imagine that someone in politics would treacherously and recklessly forge a document and then contrive it as a ‘leak’ to Daphne Caruana Galizia. (Unless this was committed in a sense of mischief and grandeur that we sometimes see in hackers.)
Into the mix we then had Daphne Caruana Galizia and Maria Efimova, both of whom brought alchemy for different reasons – Caruana Galizia because of her anti-Labour prejudice and possibly her moral conviction that Egrant belonged to Muscat, Efimova because of her grievance towards Pilatus and the authorities – and their conflicting testimonies give rise to many possibilities on who of these two lied to the magistrate, if not both, and the reasons why. We get a glimpse of the intrigue, and the main protagonists are not around to answer – Caruana Galizia was killed, Efimova absconded.
In this void of unanswered questions the magistrate’s inquiry has neither allayed suspicions nor settled the debate. And the Prime Minister’s defence of Schembri and Mizzi continues to raise vexing questions. It’s undisputable that these two had secret Panama companies and, irrespective of whether the provenance of the funds destined for those accounts were legitimate or not, the mere holding of those companies justifies resignations of top officials.
After all, Muscat’s unwillingness to take a tough line against these two or dismiss them is what created the fertile ground in which the Egrant story could flourish. And now the Prime Minister remains party to the legal manoueverings that have stalled a magisterial inquiry into the Panama accounts of Mizzi and Schembri in which other individuals, including the PM, were invoked. Court appeals have stymied the commencement of the inquiry in the first place. Why did Muscat proactively deploy his lawyers to ask for an investigation into the Egrant story but then eventually oppose a separate investigation into the Panama accounts of officials close to him?
The favourable inquiry into Egrant now offers Muscat a chance to rethink and seize the moment. In seizing the moment he could withdraw his challenge to the magisterial inquiry that hasn’t begun yet and instruct everyone in his team, politicians and officials, that he expects – that the country expects even – full cooperation with investigations.
Now is also the time to redouble the effort put into the investigation of Caruana Galizia’s slaying. Identifying the person or persons who commissioned Daphne’s murder, and establishing motive, and completing the other investigations would serve to dispel nagging suspicions and put all contentions to rest. Only then can closure be achieved in this saga that has badly tainted the Prime Minister and our country’s reputation.
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