The Montenegro revelations shocked the nation. 17 Black, the company set up to channel funds into Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri’s companies, made millions in profit overnight in a deal that reeks of corruption and insider dealing.
The opposition, independent media and civil society have literally shouted themselves hoarse over the past years calling for the resignation of Mizzi.
Yet, Labour inexplicably stood by their man in the wake of the Panama Papers, Vitals and Electrogas scandals.
Backed by his Labour colleagues, Mizzi stayed on despite damning evidence and in defiance of all political logic and high standards in public life… until Times of Malta and Reuters published the Montenegro story. Then suddenly Mizzi became too toxic even for Labour. And he was asked to leave. When he did not, he was ungraciously booted out.
The question is: why now? Why cut him loose now, after backing him to the hilt for years? Sadly, it is not because Labour turned a new leaf. It is not because Labour is finally going to wage a war against corruption. The truth is that Labour is doing what it always does best, protecting its own interests.
In a space of a few months, the Labour Party lost Joseph Muscat, arguably one of their most powerful and enigmatic leaders. They lost a deputy leader. They lost two of their most influential stooges in the police force. Every week, new stories emerge that link the party and its officials to criminal activities of the highest order.
Edward Scicluna failed miserably over the past seven years at his job to protect taxpayers’ money- Mario De Marco
The ramifications of these stories are such that international organisations are sounding the alarm bells on Malta.
We stand the risk of being considered as pariahs by the international community. We are on the verge of becoming economic outcasts. Our business leaders, our financial services community, rightly so, are up in arms.
Labour is finding itself increasingly cornered with pressure from the media, business community, the opposition, the international community and civil society. The gall that came with the unassailable political strength it had up to a few months ago has disappeared.
We are seeing a Labour government firefighting, reacting to an endless stream of damning evidence. Instead of focussing on a recovery plan for the economy, instead of thinking of how to take Malta forward, they are concentrating on how to stop the rot that has engulfed them. In this context, dropping Mizzi, always a pawn in the bigger scheme of things, was easy. Give up Konrad and retain control until they work out the next move. As simple as that.
The problem for Labour is that they do not know what the next move is going to be. In my last article, I wrote that there is no evidence linking Muscat directly to any wrongdoing. That is no longer the case. His office spearheaded the Montenegro deal. Robert Abela will do anything in his power to avoid confronting Muscat who is still very much the king in the political chess game.
But Abela now has no more pawns to give up. One of the options available is to forfeit the game and call for a rematch: an early election giving Muscat a clean exit from politics.
But an election now will only serve to increase political and economic uncertainty at the worst possible time. It could be the death knell for businesses which are struggling from a worsening recession.
Abela has another problem: Edward Scicluna. The minister for finance failed miserably over the past seven years at his job to protect taxpayers’ money. Scicluna cannot feign ignorance.
He knew exactly what was going on in the Vitals hospitals’ deal just as he knew what was going on in the Electrogas deal. His claim now that government is the victim in the Montenegro deal is an insult to all victims of crime. The government is one of the perpetrators.
If we want to be kind to Scicluna we can say that he was the guard who fell asleep while the heist was carried out.
His role as guardian of public finances makes him guilty if not by commission then by omission in the Montenegro deal. The problems for Scicluna, however, do not stop there.
He is the subject of two magisterial inquiries: one concerning the Vitals deal and another one on misuse of public funds.
He is protesting his innocence too much but it seems that the more he speaks the bigger the hole he is sitting on becomes. Scicluna has many talents. Fighting battles is not one of them and he is appearing increasingly weary. This is bad news for Malta at a time when we need a strong finance minister to help steer the country from greylisting by the Financial Action Task Force.
Scicluna has to divide his time between defending himself and defending our country from the Moneyval mess he brought it into. The country deserves better.
The seven years of plenty came to an abrupt end for Labour. They dined and partied at the country’s expense, they looted and made hay while the country’s reputation suffered. But the time of reckoning has come for Labour.
Their only get-out-of-jail card at the moment is that they still enjoy a lead in the polls even if that lead is dropping. Which puts the onus on us, the opposition, to regain the people’s trust.
The Nationalist Party, civil society and all those who truly want Malta to turn this ghastly page must come together and take away this last refuge from Labour. If not, just like Scicluna, we will be guilty, by omission or commission, of letting our country down.
Mario De Marco is Nationalist Party spokesperson on finance.
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