This column first appeared in Malta Today
It is difficult to watch Joseph Muscat being interviewed on television these days without the same thoughts racing through my mind.
Here is a man who had everything going for him, who had reached the pinnacle of political ambition and nationwide popularity, but who was forced to resign under a black cloud of the worst possible accusations and allegations; a departure which he has now described as being premature and even ‘heartbreaking’ for him. If it was heartbreaking for him, tell that to the thousands who believed he would be the best choice for Malta and ended up being woefully disappointed and disillusioned by many of his decisions (or lack of them).
Was his downfall due to his very success and egomania which made him think he was untouchable, or was it (like some still insist), the fact that he chose to entrust his closest advisor with too much power?
The answer to this question obviously depends on which side of the Muscat fence you are on. If you absolutely detest the man then it’s a no brainer, but if you are still his fan, your willingness to give him the benefit of the doubt remains intact. The former Prime Minister’s resignation from Parliament this week left his most ardent supporters in a state of flux. While still singing his praises and thanking him for all the ġid (prosperity) he brought to Malta, they remain perplexed as to why he had to resign for “what others did”. Political and ethical accountability is not in their vocabulary. His critics on the other hand were writing, “good riddance to bad rubbish” and “he belongs in jail” all over social media within two seconds flat, and those were just some of the milder comments.
The two extreme emotions which this man instils in people is symptomatic of his whole term in office, and ironically have ended up mimicking his own idol, Dom Mintoff who to this day can make people either wax lyrical or else swear profusely. Whatever economic gains or civil rights Muscat managed to achieve for the country, they will forever be overshadowed by the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia which happened during his administration. This has always been the nagging thought at the back of my mind whenever the possibility of his complicity has been mentioned: why would any PM want something so unthinkable and horrific as the assassination of a journalist to happen under his watch? And wouldn’t it be obvious that the first finger to be pointed would be at him, seeing that he was the person she verbally skewered the most? Especially since he had just won a second term with an even increased majority; it just does not add up.
Until the full truth is established, we will never have closure. His legacy will always be tarnished as people continue to speculate about how much he knew, or indeed, whether he actually had a hand in the obstruction of justice. This is apart from the corruption allegations which continue to haunt him even though an inquiry cleared him and his wife from the accusation that they owned the Panama offshore company Egrant. To this day, a large swathe of people simply do not believe he is innocent; they look at him on TV and what they see is a smooth-talking, pathological liar. If that is the case, then just hand the man an Oscar right now. Others see a politician whose career was unfairly ruined, and a betrayed man who was wrongly accused because he misguidedly stood by his closest friend and Chief of Staff.
Aside from Daphne’s murder and the corruption allegations, which are bad enough on their own, there is another aspect to the assessment of Muscat’s six years in office which divides people. There are those who grovel at his feet because the economic boom he created was their idea of a dream come true. Many made a lot of serious money between the citizenship scheme, the free-for-all in the construction industry and the way economic migrants were encouraged to come work here on minimum wage, boosting the population, the rental market and, as a result, the amount of people with spending power. On the other hand, I was one of those people who always looked at the frenzied pace which had gripped the island with deep scepticism: it was too much, too fast, too uncontrolled, too good to last. There was too much of everything and when Covid hit, it was inevitable that only the most financially stable businesses would survive. While it pains me to see shops closed up with To Let signs on the door, because each shop represents people who have lost their jobs, it was something which unfortunately was bound to happen.
I am not a person who is impressed by flashy lifestyles and too much excess, but the Malta which was encouraged by Muscat had become exactly that. Too loud, too superficial and too obsessed with what money can buy. He thought everyone could be bought – and so many were – but it was precisely the greed for more wealth and riches which turned out to be the Achilles’ heel of All the Prime Minister’s Men. So maybe it is a kind of poetic justice that we were stopped abruptly in our tracks by something which money just cannot buy – our health.
A word about the interviews (in bold)
An interview with a politician which starts with a gushing endorsement by the presenter always makes me squirm in embarrassment on their behalf. Interviewers who act like this are not doing themselves, the politician nor the public any favours. I forced myself to sit through Karl Stagno Navarra’s interview with Muscat, even as my skin crawled with each lavish word of praise. I know this was on One TV, but please, have some self-respect. At one point, even Muscat started to look uncomfortable with all the adulation, which is saying something since he obviously misses the limelight.
Of course, Karl’s interview was going to be a puff piece, considering which station it was on, but I doubt Muscat came across well to anyone except those who love him anyway. In fact, because he was being treated with kid gloves he got away with saying things like, “if you protested against the Central Link then do not use it when it’s ready”. He pointed out that he does not go to the open air theatre (former Opera House) on principle because he never agreed with its design. This was a completely puerile comparison which does not wash, and an insult to the intelligence of those who sat through that interview. Not frequenting a venue is hardly the same as not using an arterial road, especially if you need it to get to work, and Muscat knows this.
When I watched Muscat being interviewed on PBS by Mark Laurence Zammit, he too began with a lot of superfluous adjectives and I groaned inwardly. Mercifully, the tone then changed and on the whole, the questions which followed were good. It could have been more hard-hitting but at least there was no further attempts to idolise him. Muscat has always been savvy about how to handle the media, and perhaps a more experienced journalist would not have let him get off the hook so easily with some of his replies. Too much bragging is never a pretty sight in a politician and the former PM has a way of turning a question into an opportunity to sing his own praises.
For me, there were two telling things which came out of this interview. One was that Muscat revealed just how much power Keith Schembri had when he said, “people would go to him for everything from getting a TV programme to all sorts of other favours”. Now ask yourself why the Chief of Staff of the PM should bother himself with something as frivolous as a TV programme, and why would people think he could arrange it for them? I agree with Muscat that these things have always happened with previous administrations, which is one of the many flaws in our political system. There is always someone close to the seat of power (but not elected) who is the go to person for every favour under the sun, especially in Malta where people in power are only a phone call away because you grew up with them or went to the same school. But surely, Muscat should have been asked why he did not dissuade this from happening, since he clearly knew about it?
Secondly, this is the first time (to my knowledge) that Muscat admitted it was a mistake not to take action against Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri immediately, because he had believed their explanations about their Panama companies. What I did not hear him say, however, and this is where to me he has failed to ‘get it’, is that he was sorry. Has he ever apologised to the public and especially to those who gave him their vote, for letting them down? If he does give another interview, what I want to see is some semblance of humility and acknowledgement that, after leading the Labour Party out of the wilderness and making it electable, he squandered an incredible opportunity to lead a Government which puts social justice into practice…and instead ended up being a Government for the rich and unscrupulous.