The Malta Independent 2 March 2021, Tuesday

The Right-Hand Man

Mark A. Sammut Sunday, 20 December 2020, 10:47 Last update: about 3 months ago

The country is obviously not functioning properly. In the sense that in a normal country, a political earthquake of the same magnitude as that of the 2016 Panama Papers scandal would have rocked the political careers of Joseph Muscat and Keith Schembri (and the third wheel). Instead, because of clear narcissism and ego inflation in one half of the duo and the business interests of the other half, they lingered on, as if the country belonged to them and they were the State. The consequences now include a disoriented electorate, a sullied national reputation, and sheer waste of the country's vital energy.

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The country's energy is being siphoned by the aftermath of the scandal. The watchdog of democracy – the Press – is investing huge resources to follow the inquiry and investigations into not only the political scandals themselves but also the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. Don't get me wrong: it is good that there are inquiries and investigations and they should go on until the truth is established; but it's absolute madness for a minuscule country like ours to waste its scarce, and therefore precious resources on processes that could have been avoided had Muscat, Schembri, and the third wheel behaved as politicians in a mature democracy do: by stepping down and putting the interests of the State before their own petty careers, egos and "business empires".

It's not only journalists who, instead of keeping politicians and top civil servants under constant scrutiny, have to succumb to the distraction of following prima-donna performances. There's the State apparatus  too that has fallen prey to these shameful exercises in self-indulgence. Muscat's egotism was so of such gravity that, like a black hole, nothing can escape from it: neither privately-owned media outlets nor the State apparatus.

No wonder Prime Minister Abela's worried by the continuation of the inquiry into whether the State could have prevented Daphne Caruana Galizia's assassination. He's worried – and rightly so – because the State's precious resources are being squandered just to come to grips with the true extent of the implications of his predecessor's reckless governing style. To add insult to injury, the squandering is noted by foreign observers, who see a resource-poor State throwing its limited resources down a capriciously-created bottomless pit. That said, Dr Abela is also worried by the political fallout. The Leader of the Opposition is absolutely right to describe Dr Abela as immature and weak. But what he lacks in prowess, Dr Abela makes up for in fortune he's lucky enough to be receiving sound advice: to be careful as the inquiry is bringing to the fore ugly truths that he'd rather keep out of sight and, thus, out of mind.

Keith Schembri and the Judges

Just consider Keith Schembri's testimony before the Board of Inquiry that's trying to unravel the mess that could explain whether the State could have prevented Daphne Caruana Galizia's assassination. During his hours-long testimony, the former Catalyst of Government Deals gave a public display of his usual wheeler-dealer's casual bravado. Unlike the third wheel, who chose to remain silent, Schembri bared it all (metaphorically speaking, of course).

The public's attention has already been drawn to the fact that the former right-hand man contradicted his former boss: the early election in 2017 wasn't due to the Egrant allegations that were supposedly destabilising the country, but to other considerations; the decision to call an early election was taken at roughly the same time that the assassination was allegedly commissioned. I think these are points that help us understand the responsibility – political and, I would argue, even criminal – of the people involved in Daphne Caruana Galizia's assassination.

The early election shouldn't be the first thing to come to mind when mentioning Keith Schembri. The first thing should be what PN MP Jason Azzopardi claimed in November 2019, namely that Schembri was “one of the criminal masterminds” in Daphne Caruana Galizia's assassination. Some thirteen months ago, Dr Azzopardi posted on Facebook: “I write this out of my responsibility as a Member of Parliament. Keith Schembri is one of the criminal masterminds in the assassination of Daphne. He paid out money for this.” Let's not forget this.

Money is the leitmotif of Keith Schembri's biography as it emerges from his testimony, and my gut feeling is that it's his bosom friend's too. Making money is the life mission of many – we live in capitalism, and the creation of wealth is a cornerstone of the contemporary dominant ideology. Making money illicitly, by misusing one's political office say, is however not acceptable in a liberal democracy, which is the political system engendered by the capitalist socio-economic formation. I argue that Schembri's self-definition is relevant because (i) it seems obvious to me from Schembri's testimony that making money in whichever way was his credo, (ii) Schembri enjoyed Muscat's protection till the very end, and (iii) the current Prime Minister was advising his predecessor from 2017 till the latter's resignation. Bear in mind that Dr Abela has still not disclosed what he was advising Muscat on, despite a highly pertinent PQ addressed to him earlier this year by PN MP David Thake. I again invite Mr Thake to persevere and get us an answer to his question: what did Robert Abela advise Muscat on? Not what the advice was; but what the advice was on.

Let's zero in on Keith Schembri's mentality. In his testimony, he insisted that despite occupying high political office, he kept "thinking like a businessman". Schembri dismissed this thinking as "naive"; I call it "despicable". Let's not forget that a Minister is the head of a unit in the Civil Service apparatus (the Executive organ of the State is headed by people directly elected by the population in order to avoid tyranny). A Minister's right-hand man is thus the assistant of the head of a Government Department, with wide-ranging and far-reaching powers. Which explains why the Estacode considers business involvements of high-ranking officials as a breach of ethics. Schembri just couldn't care less about these niceties – he was a businessman, a catalyst for deals, a doer, a wizard who could make life for businessmen easier. It all sounds like a Thesaurus entry for "graft" and "corruption" to me.

But even more telling is the fact that Keith Schembri told the Inquiry Board that he wanted to open a trust with a local bank. Now this in itself should not be controversial. What is controversial (to say the least) is that Schembri was upset that the Nationalists got to know about his opening the trust and how much money he put in it. Not only did he get angry, but he lost confidence in Maltese banks.

This is utter hogwash, to my mind. What is Schembri's source of income? His companies, or am I wrong? If indeed his companies are his source of income, why was he upset that the contents of his trust were known? One can easily find his companies' accounts at the financial services authority, analyse them, and form an opinion on his wealth and worth. The world we live in today simply abhors secrecy. Does Schembri want us to believe he's so naive he's not aware of this?

Schembri's convoluted narrative before the Judges was that he needed a trust (something that is legitimate) but that he wanted a trust abroad because the Opposition knew about the amount of money he put in the Maltese trust – when his income comes from his companies the accounts of which are open to public scrutiny! In other words, everybody can see how much money Schembri was making from his companies: so why get upset that the Opposition knew how much money was in the trust?

Schembri was trying to pull a fast one.

It's now more obvious than it was in 2016 that Schembri needed a multi-layered financial structure abroad in order to hide money the origins of which he could not lawfully explain.

The country needs a new face to get out of this cesspit. A new leader, to help it heal.

My Personal Video Library (8)

Last time, I mentioned the Irish (later American) actor, screenwriter and director Patrick McGoohan (1928-2009), in the context of a Sergio Leone-produced movie. But McGoohan, who played the Prison Director in Clint Eastwood's 1979 Escape from Alcatraz, had been the writer, director and main star of an unusually intelligent series of the late 1960s called The Prisoner, in which a diminutive Maltese actor, Angelo Muscat (1930-1977), played a minor role as a mute butler who served the "Prison"'s top-man.

Though he possessed the physique du role for the James Bond character, McGoohan had declined the offer as he considered that portraying the womanising, trigger-happy, amoral spy would have been in stark contradiction with his Catholic beliefs. The role was eventually taken up by Sean Connery, who passed away only a very short while ago.

But McGoohan's physique was put to good use in the brilliant though bizarre 17-episode-long series The Prisoner, in which, upon resigning from a top-secret job, McGoohan's character finds himself kidnapped and imprisoned in an Italianate village situated in an undisclosed locality. The Village is inhabited by genuine prisoners and guards disguised as prisoners, and all inhabitants are constantly being spied upon by all-seeing electronic eyes. Nobody can escape from the Village and those who try are stopped by a highly efficient killer-bubble that appears out of nowhere. The Director of this Village-Prison wants "information" from the prisoners – what about is never specified.

The series brimmed with symbolism oscillating between the easily understood to the stubbornly cryptic; it ended with an eerie, oneiric, almost-abstract episode in which McGoohan's and Muscat's characters flee from the Village and return to London. The finale disturbed the original viewers of the ’60s who flooded the TV channel with letters of protest.

Fifty-odd years later we can argue that The Prisoner was prescient. McGoohan understood the signs of the times and foresaw that we would end up living in a prison-like society in which high technology would extract information from us. He foresaw that we wouldn't be able to leave this society, and that we would be detained by something that cannot be easily defined, symbolised by a huge bubble that comes out of nowhere. He foresaw that the cry "I am a free man" would become laughable.

I would argue that The Prisoner is a moral descendant of Jeremy Bentham's panopticon.

As my column is bi-weekly, I take the opportunity to wish already from now a Merry Christmas to all readers of this newspaper. May your days be merry and bright. And may you find a couple of moments to help the less fortunate. A little help (not only in Christmas) may mean a lot to those who are really in need.

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