The Malta Independent 6 August 2020, Thursday

The rise and the fall

Mark A. Sammut Sunday, 8 December 2019, 10:35 Last update: about 9 months ago

The end is near. He faces the final curtain but he’ll still state his case, of which he’s certain. He has lived a life that’s full, but he still has a few regrets. Then again, they’re too few to mention. He did what he had to do, and saw it through without exemption. He planned each charted course and each careful step. Yes, there were times when he bit off more than he could chew, but through it all, when there was doubt, he ate it up and spit it out; he faced it all and he stood tall. He has loved, laughed and cried, had his fill, his share of losing...

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That’s his worldview, his self-delusion and his perception of the world.

How does the world see him?

His “official” steel-soldier biographer has quickly distanced himself from him, telling him that “he should have resigned immediately”. So it is up to us to draft a first biographical sketch of this man who promised zero tolerance for corruption and delivered the most corrupt government in the country’s history, a vain and conceited man who turned out to be a petty political picaroon.

The Rise

The rise was ignoble, much like the fall would be eleven years later.

In 2008, Labour had been tipped off about an obscene project that would have ruined Mistra Bay, involving a Government backbencher who had been posing as Malta’s number-one paladin of the cause of the environment. He had deceived his own party, as they were completely unaware what he was up to. It seems that Joseph Muscat alerted the backbencher’s party which took immediate remedial action, managing to control the damage and eventually turn the tables.

Muscat’s party lost the election – in my opinion mostly because of the information he smuggled to the other party – but Labour’s loss opened the mouth of the cave where Ali Baba found the treasure.

A seat in the House was sought and pressure was piled on MP Joseph Cuschieri. At the time, In-Nazzjon published an article claiming that Mr Cuschieri was promised a salaried job at the Labour National HQ in return for the sacrifice. Some time later, Mr Cuschieri probably realised that he had got a raw deal and decided he wanted a quid pro quo: Muscat had taken his seat in this parliament, Mr Cuschieri wanted Muscat’s seat in the other parliament. But it seems that Labour’s media were instructed not to be too enthusiastic about the idea. Mr Cuschieri did eventually make it, thanks to the coming into effect of the Treaty provisions which changed the composition of Parliament, but he suffered a lot, even physically, during the wait.

In 2008, I had emailed Muscat asking him whether he didn’t think he was too young for such an ambitious move. He replied that he knew what he was doing.

The Style

It turns out that he only thought he knew what he was doing.

Not only was he too young, but he also had not been through any real defining experience, which could bring out the Man inside him. His only experiences were flitting around Alfred Sant and then betraying his leader-mentor; first resisting Malta’s EU membership and then rushing to become one of Malta’s first MEPs. Neither define a Man.

Compare him with another former MEP – Simon Busuttil, who also had no experience in Malta’s Parliament. Dr Busuttil has demonstrated tenacity, grit, and, most of all, guts. (How Muscat hates his guts!) Dr Busuttil’s steely determination has allowed him to continue his struggle against the rot in the country, and, on a personal level, to forge a political style by striking the hammer of his resolve on the anvil of adversity. These three years of blood, toil, tears and sweat not only earned him a fortune in terms of moral authority but also served to make his potential take shape before our eyes. Simon Busuttil has gone through his own Odyssey and is now on Ithaca.

What was Muscat’s Odyssey? There’s no Odyssey to talk of. There’s no defining moment. He was a charmer, a sweet talker, an eloquent orator, a seducer... but even a sleazy second-hand car-dealer has these attributes. He was a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and... a king. But there was not a single historical moment in which Muscat fought on the side of Good in the great battle against Evil.

The politically illiterate mistook his pig-headed defence of Konrad Mizzi and the other one as his Odyssey. He did everything not to disabuse them of their delusion: he adopted a narrative that depicted him as a Ulysses of sorts. But only the politically illiterate fell for it.

Ultimately, as he himself admitted during an interview held in Japan in July 2018, he was all for “leadership which goes beyond being seen to do something. For me,” he said, “that’s the greatest type of leadership. Leadership where people don’t realise what you’re doing until it’s done”. His words can be understood in so many, many senses. But I think that he managed in that moment of pure, unadulterated narcissism, when he was so deeply in love with his own image in the pool, to put his political style in a nutshell.

There you have it. He thought he would be Ulysses; instead, he was only Narcissus.

The Content

Muscat’s political preparedness was consistently shallow.

Just like when he said that at first he was against same-sex couples adopting children, but then after reading one book, he changed his mind. How can you be a serious politician when you change a (supposedly) deeply-held opinion after reading one book!

You can find Muscat’s PhD thesis online. Read it, and you will ask yourselves, “Is it possible that he wrote this?” There are entire excerpts where I could distinctly hear another voice dictating while a wild-eyed Muscat furiously jots down.

The Secretaries

In Chapter 22 of The Prince, Machiavelli tells us, “The choice of servants is of no little importance to a prince... the first opinion which one forms of a prince, and of his understanding, is by observing the men he has around him; and when they are capable and faithful he may always be considered wise, because he has known how to recognise the capable and keep them faithful. But when they are otherwise, one cannot form a good opinion of him, for the prime error which he made was in choosing them.”

Take all of Muscat’s predecessors and compare their secretaries with his secretaries.

(Let me just quote here what Evarist Saliba wrote, in 2016, about my father, who had been a secretary to a Prime Minister. Mr Saliba was referring to many years before that: “I knew [Frans Sammut] also when I was the acting secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. One day, I was instructed to call him to persuade him to come back to work at the Ministry. ... His response was that I had disturbed him from his work in his garden. He made it clear that his standards did not permit him to work any longer at the Ministry.” Such standards I’m sure were shared by others who were secretaries to the Prime Minister before the Muscat Administration.)

Muscat surrounded himself with wheeler-dealers and fixers rather than intellectually-endowed people. He seemed attracted to people with faulty characters; honest people repelled him.

He has had to admit that he felt betrayed by Keith Schembri. I cannot agree with his assessment. If his top secretary was a venomous snake, he has only himself to blame when the snake finally bit him. It’s in the snake’s nature to bite.

The Allies

Muscat thought he could count on his mercenary allies.

He thought he could depend on Saviour Balzan, say. But when the end was nigh, Mr Balzan reiterated with supersonic speed that the Prime Minister must resign on the spot. Muscat was unable to see through Mr Balzan’s mercenary nature.

Had he been wise, he would have understood Mr Balzan. He could have read what Mr Balzan wrote in his rag when I published my book on the Panama Papers scandal: “I have not read the book, but will do everything humanly possible not to touch a copy”. Mr Balzan either has the IQ of an orang-utan and couldn’t extrapolate where the Panama companies would eventually land Muscat, or else he’s an opportunist who milks people in power up till the moment they start their descent into the hell of political oblivion.

Muscat was quickly abandoned by other allies too. I already mentioned his “official” steel-soldier biographer. Then there’s the Book Council Chairman, who enjoyed Muscat’s complete backing when he jousted with Education Minister Evarist Bartolo. Now that Muscat’s destiny seems to be the rubbish heap of history, Mark Camilleri, in Flash-like fashion, put a huge distance between himself and his former, but now-disgraced patron.

For Minister Owen Bonnici, certainly not the sharpest knife in the drawer, Muscat is like a messiah: such leaders are born once every 25 years. As I said, not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

But to my mind, the most important ally of all was Michelle Muscat. Her role throughout the great pageant that the Muscat Years have been, was to follow the Eva Perón script. You might remember Tomás Eloy Martínez’s The Perón Novel and Santa Evita, in which Evita had to symbolise the people, so that as she loved President Juan Perón, so would the people love him. Do you remember, in the happy days of the 2008 Messianic revolution, when Muscat told his followers, “Ħobbuwha għax hi tħobbkom!” (diphthong included on purpose to reflect faithfully his strong village accent)? The message there was inverted. “Love her because she loves you” was in reality an inverted imperative: “You love me because she loves me, and she’s one of you”: the Evita-Perón-People triangle. Yes, this had been brilliant.

The Fall

Muscat has fallen. Invictus has been defeated. By his own hand.

He has lost all credibility. The MEPs who were here this week said it clearly: Muscat has been discredited in European circles. They also added – another voice in an ever-growing univocal chorus – that he should leave immediately. For, they argued, how can he function properly in the European bodies and how can he guarantee he won’t tamper with all there is to tamper with?

He made many mistakes. But his greatest was to choose a shady figure like Schembri to be his right-hand man and (if we want to be generous here) to be unable to see through him.

Epilogue

My mother has drawn my attention to something I’d like to share.

While staring at the chaotic scenes of Muscat’s prolonged fall on television like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes he stared at the Pacific, she told me, “You know, I’m sorry for those two innocent girls.”

At first, my mother’s words had no effect on me. But then, upon further reflection, I realised that she was right, and I shared her pity and sympathy for those two innocent girls who, out of no fault of their own, are probably going through a lot.

It is never fair – never ever – that children have to pay for the misdeeds of their parents.

My Personal Library (78)

“There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.”

Thus says Sherlock Holmes to his friend and chronicler Dr Watson in a speech on the nature of his work as consultant-detective, delivered in A Study in Scarlet, an 1887 detective novel by Scottish author Arthur Conan Doyle that marks the first appearance of the most famous detective duo in popular fiction.

The story is about kidnapping, murder, and enslavement, and deals with an organisation which pretends to be made up of saints but is in reality made up of despicable criminals.


 

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