Monday 01 March 2021

No one is above the law

This column first appeared in Malta Today

I have a guessing game for you…who do you think issued the following tweet way back in April 2017?

I agree with @presidentMt statement that institutions must be respected and allowed to do their job. Nobody is above the law.

Yes, that’s right, it was no other than the Prime Minister at the time himself, Joseph Muscat. 

And yet, this week, it seems Muscat no longer embraces the philosophy behind this tweet, and is quite happy with the recent ruling by the Speaker that, since he is now a private citizen, he cannot be summoned by the Parliamentary Standards Committee and no action can be taken against him. A report by Standards Commissioner George Hyzler found that Muscat abused his power when appointing ex-minister Konrad Mizzi as an MTA consultant in December 2019.

How very convenient all this is, and how very undemocratic 

It is all very well for Muscat to appear on TV as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth, but unless he mans up and answers for his many dubious decisions while in power, he will simply be adding more fuel to the suspicions which continue to swirl around him. If he has nothing to hide and if he believes he acted properly, then why not appear in front of the Committee and face the music?  The PN has done well to contest this ruling, because if it is allowed to stand that means everyone who has ever held office can use this as a precedent by simply resigning and claiming, “You can’t touch me,  I’m a private citizen now!” If that happens, no one will ever be accountable for their actions ever again which is the anthesis of political responsibility and ethics.  It’s bad enough that these concepts seem to be anathema for many who aspire to hold office, but if we are going to allow this to slide, then no amount of posturing and wounded looks by Muscat the next time he is on TV are going to work on those who already regard him with a hefty dose of skepticism  as it is.  

As if the Speaker’s ruling was not worrying enough, this week we had two other incidents which point to a disturbing trend in the Abela administration.

First was the removal of Dr Kenneth Grech, the co-ordinator of the Covid-19 response team after he reportedly sent an email of his own accord advising independent and Church schools to opt for online teaching for the first two days (which went against the decision of the Education Ministry). When state schools were not allowed to go online, the issue escalated even further, and the MUT ordered a strike overnight. There were denials that the two things were linked but now that he has been reinstated (after doctors threatened to strike) it seems to me that all of this could have been avoided had those in authority not dug their heels in so stubbornly.  A national health crisis is not a time for egos and stamping of feet but of dialogue and consensus, and the ones taking the lead on this should be the ones in charge.  While it is true that Dr Grech is part of a team and ideally needs to be on the same page, it is also true that health care professionals have a right (and a duty) to disagree and say so without the fear of being transferred to another department as payback. 

During this pandemic, there have been too many instances when there has been a breakdown in communication where public health decisions are concerned, as well as an unwillingness to compromise, which has also been reflected in the way important information is almost grudgingly relayed to the public.  Even being told something as basic as how many vaccinations are being administered daily is like pulling teeth – three weeks after the inoculation programme began with so much fanfare, Prof Gauci has now confirmed that these stats will start being published as from next week.  Phew, at last…but I still do not understand why there had to be all this mystery and why obtaining this information needs to be such an ordeal. If you keep people accurately informed and in the loop there is less room for speculation and conjecture which, in the circumstances, is the very last thing we need.  

The second event is of even graver importance and even more disconcerting.  With the resignation of Edward Scicluna from Parliament, his vacant seat was contested in a casual election between those on the same district who had failed to be elected. Their votes were counted and the winner was Gavin Gulia. Here is where things became bizarre, because he was sworn in – and then promptly resigned.  It is safe to say that the whole island did a double take at that headline with everyone reading it collectively exclaiming, “what the…?” 

Gulia’s resignation meant that now the Government was free to co-opt whoever it wishes to Parliament, even someone who did not contest the election in the first place.  The significance of this was not lost on anyone –  the other two contenders in the casual election were Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando and Charles Azzopardi who, because he fell out with Labour, would probably have ended up being an independent MP had he won the seat.  It really didn’t need to be spelled out that this manoeuvring was done deliberately so that Labour would have the person it wants in that seat, and this has not gone down well at all with Labour supporters who are rightly indignant that their votes and voices do not seem to count.  

Gavin Gulia has not come out looking well in this at all, as he is reported to be going back to his post as MTA Chairman on the pretext that he is needed there. Most of all however, the actions of the Prime Minister are raising red flags after just one year in office. He is being accused of putting people into Parliament of his own choosing through co-options thereby circumventing the democratic process of elections.  The only consolation in all this is that the person being named to fill the vacated seat is a good choice, namely Oliver Scicluna, a leading activist in the disability sector.  And yet, this does not dispel the misgivings many are feeling about the high-handed way Robert Abela is doing things.  Maybe he should go back and read Muscat’s tweet about respecting our institutions.    

Sorry seems to be the hardest word 

Dealing with politicians these days is like dealing with children, where you have to remind them, in your sternest voice, that their actions have consequences. Take Ian Borg, the gift that keeps on giving.

He was speaking agitatedly on a TV programme and an often used colloquial profanity slipped out, as sometimes happens when people use swear words as a matter of course and don’t even realise they are doing it. If he had a modicum of emotional intelligence, or if he had media savvy people around him who are capable of advising him about these things, his best course of action would have been to apologise gracefully and move on.  He needed to apologise not because anyone was going to faint at hearing the Maltese equivalent of “God damn it”; after all, some people use it all time, but when you are an elected representative of the people you cannot speak like that in public, let alone on TV.  Standards for politicians are and must be different, and we should know that by now unless we want to go down the disastrous US route of the last four years. 

But our Ian decided to handle it another way; he took to social media to insist that what he used was another expression  (which does not even exist in Maltese) and kept holding his ground on this point long after Facebook burst into raucous laughter and meme creators rubbed their hands in glee at this golden opportunity which had just fallen into their lap.  Swearing is one thing, but trying to convince the whole country that they had heard wrongly is on another dimension and is veering into Orwellian territory.  I know the Minister’s favourite hobby is digging up trees, but the hole he dug for himself was so deep I doubt he will ever climb out of it.

It is also significant that he seemed to get more upset about the accusation that he had uttered a swear word, rather than the fact that he has often been accused (very justifiably) of ruining Malta’s environment in his stubborn determination to widen roads and now build unnecessary flyovers, at the expense of agricultural land.  The whole furore over the swearing and his refusal to apologise or even admit that he said it, once again proves the man’s arrogance. Not that we needed further proof.  

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