Tuesday 07 December 2021

When will MPs start acting honourably?

This column first appeared on Malta Today

I was very busy with other commitments this week so I have not been following current events as much as I usually do. However, on Wednesday it did not take long for my phone to start pinging with messages asking me whether I was watching the live streaming of Konrad Mizzi as he appeared in front of the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee. A quick scan of social media and news sites was enough to give me the general gist that the whole thing seemed to have descended into a shambles.

I eventually watched a few minutes of it and it told me all I needed to know.

Hysterics, shouting, insults, mockery and sneers characterised the proceedings – and this was without members of the PAC even asking a single question, let alone having the chance to grill the former Energy Minister. In fact, the whole 90 minutes were taken up by Mizzi who launched into a long-winded deposition, with Chairman Beppe Fenech Adami and members of the Opposition ending up being embroiled in partisan rhetoric, finger pointing, name-calling, accusations and counter-accusations. It looked like one of those Xarabank episodes where everyone talks at once, the person with the loudest voice and most relentless monologue technique mows everyone down and you can barely understand what is being said.

From where I stand the person who came off looking the worst in the whole thing was Konrad Mizzi himself. He might have thought he was impressing his constituents who probably continue to applaud this brazen, outlandish behaviour (“Go on Konrad, show ‘em you won’t back down!), but in the eyes of the rest of the population, it was a shameful circus. This man, who should have resigned as soon as his name was linked to a secret offshore company in the Panama Papers, has not only remained in the public eye and in public office (albeit now as an Independent MP) but will obstinately not give an inch. By refusing to appear in front of the PAC no less than four times, he simply confirmed his arrogance and that he feels he is not answerable to anyone. Except, of course, the reality is that he is very much answerable to us, the taxpayers who contribute to the nation’s coffers, and the voters who put him there.

When he finally deigned to appear in front of the PAC this week, he continued to demonstrate how completely out of touch he is with the way many people perceive him, by launching into that tirade of one and a half hours. I don’t know if this man is delusional and still believes he really did nothing wrong, or if he thought attack was the best form of defence, or whether he feels that he has so much popular backing that everything will be forgiven and he will eventually be allowed back into the Labour Party. Whatever the possible explanation for his behaviour, the sight of him screaming, shooting from the hip and turning the PAC into a platform to vent his own personal grudge against the Opposition members present was embarrassing to watch. “You think you are royalty,” Mizzi yelled at Beppe Fenech Adami, “because your father was Prime Minister and made himself President”.

What is he, 12 years old?

Having said that, in his role as Chairman, Fenech Adami should also have risen above it all and restrained himself and not resorted to comments such as: “You are toxic, you are tainted, nobody wants to touch you,” which simply added fuel to the fire. Unless of course, it was his intention all along to get Konrad all riled up, pushing his buttons and triggering the outbursts in that old trick lawyers like to use to discredit a witness on the stand. There should also have been a cut off point for this deposition because without any time for questions to be asked, it ended up being a complete waste of time. Apparently, although it was pointed out to him that a January 2019 ruling by Speaker Anġlu Farrugia limited witness statements to a maximum of 10 minutes, Mizzi ploughed on. How can this be allowed to happen? Surely the Chairman was duty-bound to cut off his mike and make sure the grilling actually started? Otherwise what is the point of being the chair? (Again, unless this was a deliberate tactic to let Konrad hang himself with his own rope, so to speak).

In the British tradition, our Members of Parliament are referred to as ‘The Honourable’, but there was nothing remotely honourable in that display. Konrad Mizzi may have been stung by the fact that he had to sit there and be scrutinised by people whom he considers his nemesis, but well, that’s what you get when you do not conduct yourself ethically as a representative of the people. That’s what you get when you are accused of corruption in the handling of one of Malta’s most expensive, nationally significant contracts dealing with the crucial energy sector. If Mizzi was feeling humiliated by being called to appear in front of the PAC maybe he should have thought of that before all his dubious wheeling and dealing as a Politically Exposed Person which got him into this mess in the first place.

Mizzi’s histrionics were completely out of line and have no place in Parliament (or anywhere else for that matter). The Opposition was doing its job, in the same way that Labour did its job when it was in Opposition and sat on the very same committee, scrutinising Government contracts. That is how our Democracy works. Just because he was elected as an MP when Labour swept to power and subsequently given a Cabinet post on the basis of his promises to revolutionise Malta’s energy sector, this does not cloak Mizzi with an invincible mantle, making him an untouchable. If, after all this time, Mizzi has still not grasped that his role in Government opened him up to this type of grilling, because he has to be held accountable for his every action, then he really should have never left the private sector.

It bears repeating time and time again: don’t go into politics if you are of the belief that you can keep behaving the way you did when you were a private citizen when what you did was your own business and no one had the right to interfere in what you do. It simply does not work that way; nor should it.

This is of particular importance when one is referring to undeclared assets, tax and VAT evasion and the even more serious implications of corrupt practices while in office. Secret offshore companies are also a no-no (although I cannot believe this really has to be pointed out). But as always, I keep wondering whether there are sections of the public which think nothing of such unethical behaviour in politics because for them it is par for the course. “Everyone does it” is the cliched phrase; ergo why should we bat an eye if a politician does it? There is a similar reaction when you bring up the issue of politicians putting their supporters on the Government pay roll (the civil service or other public sector jobs) when an election starts looming…to some people this is blatantly wrong, but the majority will reply with, “u ajma, all administrations have done it, since the beginning of time!”

I don’t know if this type of laissez-faire mentality towards what is morally and ethically wrong can ever be fully eradicated, but I also believe that throwing up our hands and giving up is not an option. That is why institutions like the PAC are vital, and why someone like Konrad Mizzi needs to face the music and not be allowed to treat it with disrespect and disdain.

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