There is more than one way to skin a cat…

Muscat is as perfectly wrong to retain Mizzi and Schembri, as he is perfectly right to insist on the inquiry reaching its conclusion. And he is wrong on multiple levels, too. For there has been a gargantuan political price to be paid for ignoring that political convention for two whole years

This may come as an earth-shattering surprise to many people out there – especially those who believe that their own opinions automatically bear the seal of approval of God Almighty in person (i.e., the vast majority of Malta, as far as I can make out) – but there are always at least two ways of looking at any given issue, you know. And that includes the latest ’17 Black’ revelations everyone got so excited about this week.

For the time being I will limit myself to the Prime Minister’s (kind of predictable) reaction. Faced with questions by the press, Joseph Muscat said: “The facts are that there are independent investigations and inquiries, requested by members of the Opposition, on this matter and I will wait for these to take their course, as I said from the start. I will then take the decisions which I have to take."

On one part of that, at least, we can all agree. Joseph Muscat has, in fact, been repeating that same argument ‘from the start’. He said he would await the outcome of inquiries into the original Panama Papers revelations, back in 2016; he said it again in response to accusations that he himself was the owner of the company Egrant; and he said the same thing when the ‘17 Black’ connection was first made public last year.

But like I mentioned earlier: there is more than one way that particular line can be interpreted. I’ll start with the interpretation that will annoy all those calling for instant resignations, left, right and centre (but don’t worry too much for now: I’ll come round to pissing off the other lot in a short while.) But yes, there is a level at which Joseph Muscat is entirely correct. It is true that there are ongoing inquiries – so much so, that the Reuters and Times reports themselves originated from an inquiry leak: and as far as I am aware, inquires have to actually exist, before they can leak any details to the press. But, much more importantly… there is also this widely-misunderstood legal principle, along the lines that people accused of wrongdoing have to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

As it generally falls to the institutionalised justice system to establish ‘innocence’ or ‘guilt’ in this country – and not to the press (still less to Facebook comments, etc.)… the Prime Minister is, in fact, perfectly justified in choosing to wait for those official inquiries to take their course. The norms and customs of jurisprudence argue in his favour, not against him. (You might not agree, of course… but to be brutally frank, that tells me more about your inability to comprehend the basic principles of justice, than about the specific case at hand.)

Expanding this argument slightly further: recent history militates in favour of Muscat’s argument, too. All those people calling for instant resignations on the basis of press reports – while inquiries are still under way – seem to be forgetting that they had also called for Muscat’s resignation when the Egrant allegation first surfaced over a year ago. In all honesty, I shudder to even imagine the possible consequences, had their calls been heeded at the time. The Prime Minister would have resigned, precipitating (at minimum) a Constitutional crisis, and possibly an even earlier election than we ended up having… only for the magisterial inquiry to eventually exculpate him on all charges.

What would have happened, I wonder? And what would have happened in the (with hindsight, highly unlikely) event that the Nationalist Party actually went on to win the 2017 election in those circumstances? I honestly don’t know, but I somehow doubt it would have been a very pretty sight…

Yet here we are, less than a year later, all eagerly tripping up on ourselves in the mad scramble to make the same mistake again. It would almost be comical, if it weren’t so perfectly tragic.

And please note: I’m still at the stage of simply pointing out established legal principles. When we turn to the idiosyncrasies of this particular case… there are reasons to be more (as opposed to less) cautious this time round. I can’t deny that the revelations themselves – i.e., that 17 Black belongs to the CEO of one of the Electrogas consortium shareholders, and that agreements existed for money to be transferred into accounts held by Mizzi and Schembri – do add up to a compelling picture of State corruption. But at this stage, we are still talking about press reports… not about the official conclusions of an inquiry that has reached an actual verdict.

Well, do I even need to ask the question? What if those details turn out to be inaccurate? What if the inquiry reaches different conclusions from the ones reported by Reuters and The Times? Oh, don’t pretend to be so shocked. It was ‘press reports’ that led so many of you to believe that Chris Cardona was cavorting around with Daphne Caruana Galizia’s suspected murderers, on the eve of her assassination. And oh look… those press reports turned out to be wrong.

In this case, the revelations are unlikely to prove as equitably ‘unfounded’ as the Cardona ones before them… even though (let’s face it) ‘evidence’ has been proved to be ‘fake’ before. But we are still talking about leaked snippets of an investigation, without having the full picture before our eyes. And it is doubly strange that so many people seem to think they can suddenly formulate such authoritative convictions on the basis of incomplete information… when just a few weeks ago, they themselves were all complaining that the Egrant inquiry had been published in incomplete form (and therefore, that it couldn’t be taken as a definitive verdict in its own right).

Never ceases to amaze me, how people can simply subvert their own entire line of reasoning from one moment to the next… just because the political perspective has shifted slightly in the meantime. (But then again, there are two ways of looking at everything, remember?)

Which, naturally, brings me to the second way of interpreting Joseph Muscat’s line of defence. Just as there is a level at which he is perfectly correct to await the outcome of the inquiry… there is also a level at which none of this actually even matters. OK, here we are no longer in the realm of ‘established legal principles’… here, we are in the realm of politics, which follows its own ‘rules’ and ‘conventions’ (or at least, is supposed to). And in politics, there is – and has always been – such a thing as ‘resigning to clear your name’.

Indeed, failure to distinguish between these two types of resignation has been a recurring problem underpinning this case from the very start. In politics, resignation doesn’t always have to be an admission of guilt. There was the example of Chris Said a few years back, who temporarily stepped down to clear his name of accusations that had been made in his regard… and when those allegations were eventually disproved: hey presto! He simply stepped back into his former role, no questions asked.

Going further back, there was even the (somewhat less ‘voluntary’) resignation of John Dalli from Gonzi’s cabinet, after his own prime minister had declared that ‘he couldn’t have a minister under investigation’. (And oh look: John Dalli was later appointed European Commissioner for Health, by the same prime minister. Odd, huh?)

So it’s not as though the convention ‘doesn’t exist in Malta’. Clearly, it does… and, equally clearly, it is simply not being applied in this particular case.

It is on this level that Joseph Muscat is as perfectly wrong to retain Mizzi and Schembri, as he is perfectly right to insist on the inquiry reaching its conclusion. And he is wrong on multiple levels, too. For there has been an enormous – nay, gargantuan – political price to be paid for ignoring that political convention for two whole years. All the suspicions levelled at Muscat’s government over that time period (in connection with this issue, at any rate) could very easily have been sidestepped altogether, had Joseph Muscat simply sacked Konrad Mizzi and Konrad Schembri on the spot, when the scandal first broke in April 2016. And trust me, that’s a lot of hassle he could have spared himself. I can’t exactly claim to know what goes on in his mind… but my guess is that he has regretted not taking that decision every single minute of every single day since.

Even here, however, the political cost goes beyond a little bad press in Europe and elsewhere. By defending those two public officials, Muscat has also given his detractors an endless supply of ammunition to be used against himself, time and time again. He has fuelled speculation that he retained Mizzi and Schembri, not because he wanted to… but because he had no option, being (as the popular suspicion goes) up to his own eyeballs in the same mess. It was this very perception that made it so easy for so many people to believe the Egrant allegations in the first place. It also explains why so much scepticism still exists at European level today – to the extent of scuttling any hope Joseph Muscat may once have had of securing that future ‘European top job’ he so visibly aspired to.

Perhaps the most galling part of it all is that now – so late in the day – it has become politically impossible for him to do what he should really have done two years ago. Oh, sure: he can still apply the ‘resign to clear your name’ convention today… but let’s face it: who the hell would ever believe that it’s his real reason for sacking Mizzi and Schembri? Some people might have believed that two years ago – and that must surely be his biggest regret – but now? Not a chance...

Paradoxically, this also explains why Joseph Muscat clings so doggedly to that tiresome, repetitive line. Yes, of course he is going to ‘await the outcome of the ongoing inquiries’ into 17 Black (and all the others, too). He has no choice.  Oh, and another thing he doesn’t have (which he may well have had, in the case of Egrant) is the ‘certainty’ that those inquiry will exculpate his government on all charges. By definition, that is a certainty that is beyond his reach…. depending, as it does, on the truth or otherwise of allegations concerning people other himself.

So, in the end, Joseph Muscat is left with no choice but to wait for an inquiry that may well prove to be his own downfall.

But then, that’s a certainty that his detractors don’t have, either. So even if it’s for all the wrong reasons, the only course of action that remains open – not just to Joseph Muscat, but to everyone else, at this stage - is, in fact, to await the outcome of those inquiries… and then base one’s judgment on the established facts.

And besides: in case everyone’s forgotten… our own, very recent collective experience strongly suggests it might not be such a bad idea after all.

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